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a journey of faith

By Father Tony Palazzolo | Photography by Susie Nguyen

A religious pilgrimage is a long journey or search of great moral significance. It is a journey to a shrine or a place of importance, which strengthens the faith of an individual. It is, in fact, a journey of faith.

Last fall, 19 men and women set out on a pilgrimage to Jamaica. It was a journey of the heart that became a life-changing experience for them. It began at the Food for the Poor headquarters in Coconut Creek, Fla. They came from nine states including Jacksonville, to learn more about Food for the Poor and their mission to help the poor.

The pilgrims were not sure what they would experience in Jamaica and none of them were fully prepared to witness the daily life in one of the poorest countries of the world. Very few of them had been on a pilgrimage before and many had never been to a foreign country.

We were met with a tropical storm as we arrived in Kingston. The pilgrims quickly boarded a bus for a two-and-a-half-hour trip to Mandeville, our home base for the first four days of our trip. The group stayed at St. John Bosco Home for Boys - a residence for about 150 boys ranging in age from four to 18. The street-smart boys have been brought here by various government agencies to be cared for.

Education for the boys is provided on site. In addition, they learn a variety of useful job skills by caring for 600 hogs in a state-of-the-art piggery, 10,000 chickens, a hydroponics greenhouse with 800 fully-fruited tomato plants, a butchery where all the chicken and pork is processed and sold throughout Jamaica, and a professional catering facility that serves private parties in the community.

After Sunday Mass, the volunteers shared craft projects with the boys. Later, they reflected on their first afternoon with the young men. They shared: “When I worked one-on-one with the boys it was very rewarding.” Another commented, “Many of these boys have been through things that I never have been through. Some were angry, some were passionate, some were scared and some were brilliant.”

Noticing that many of the boys had bulges in the front of their t-shirts, Donna of our group shared, “It broke my heart. They hide their things in their shirts because they are afraid to have them taken away or stolen from them. It was like their whole world was inside their shirt.”

The time spent with the boys gave the group a stark awakening to the reality of poverty in Jamaica. Ninety percent of the children in Jamaica are born out of wedlock and most live with their mothers, aunts or grandmothers. It is a very matriarchal society. The women hold the community together - there is little male presence in homes.

A challenging aspect of the trip was building houses for the poor. One evening one of the ladies turned to me and said, “We’re not really here to build houses are we?” I replied, “You all have a reason why you’re here. Simply be open, have no expectations, open your hearts, your minds and your souls to the Holy Spirit and in time it will be revealed to you why you are here.”

On Monday we drove 45 minutes to the south coast of Jamaica to Treasure Beach where a concrete slab and a truck with all the building materials was ready to go. A building team from Food for the Poor taught the group how to build a house. Every single person on the pilgrimage was assigned a job. When finished, the home consisted of a 24-foot-by-18-foot concrete slab with three rooms, wood walls and a tin roof. No plumbing or electricity. The cost of the homes is about $3,500.

The truth is, this skilled crew from Food for the Poor could build these houses much faster if we weren’t helping them. However, the workers enjoyed the communication and the interaction with the pilgrims who come with huge hearts ready to build a home for a family that currently lives in a shack or hut, sometimes made of plywood, cardboard and cloth.

We painted homes on Tuesday and finally turned over the keys to the families. The first home was given to Linnette Richards and her family of five. Her husband died last year and at the age of 50 she is unable to work due to illness. Their home was destroyed by Hurricane Dean. The second house went to Julian Russell who works in a clothing and shoe store. She will be living in her new home with six other people. They too lost their home to Hurricane Dean. After receiving the keys to her new home, Julian cried, “I feel like I have reached Heaven.”

Marcia, a tour group leader with Food for the Poor, explained that getting one of these homes means a new life, a new start, a new beginning for these families..

The feeling of joy and accomplishment among the pilgrims is impossible to describe. By the time we finished building the two houses you would think that the pilgrims, the house-building team, and the families who received the homes had been friends for years.

Sarah from Jacksonville said, “Many times I felt ministered to by the people that I was there to help.The people have far less materially than most and yet they exhibit a joy and peace they have found in God.”

The poor of Jamaica, who have very little materially have this sense of joy because God is first in their life, and when God is all you’ve got then you realize that God is all you need. “This concept was very difficult for me and for all of us to grasp until we were in the midst of these holy people,” said Andrea from Jacksonville.

We spent Wednesday afternoon at Jerusalem, a residence for children and young adults who are severely mentally and physically challenged. Andrea recounts her one-on-one visit with Claude, a 34-year-old with cerebral palsy abandoned by his family - his body contorted from his disease. “I spent two hours with him with the intention of ministering to him. However, he ministered to me,” said Andrea. When she asked him how he could be so cheerful, quoting Bible verses and singing hymns he said, “Despite my circumstances, I am filled with Jesus.”

You can see Jesus in these physically and mentally challenged children in a way you can’t see him in anyone else. There is no ego blocking the flow of love from God through them to others. The Holy Spirit permeates the environment, the ambiance of this place, which would otherwise be filled with heartache.

On Thursday morning our group fed breakfast to the homeless at a shelter called Poor Relief. The homeless are able to spend the night, take showers, dress in new clothes and eat breakfast before heading back to the streets. Poor Relief, like Jerusalem and other ministries in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, is supported by Food for the Poor.

In the afternoon we visited Golden Age, a home for the elderly and physically handicapped children and adults. Resident Miss Mary is 106 and one of the most holy, spirit-filled people I have ever met. When I ask her how she is she always says, “Oh Father, I am so blessed. The Lord has blessed me richly. All of my life I have been blessed by him.” Miss Mary is blind and everything she owns you could put in a bag. She exudes a sense of joy and peace that is beyond description. She has a Bible with a missing cover that is ragged and she will not go to sleep unless that Bible is under her pillow.

We visited Glen Hope, a home for about 150 young girls from 10 to 18 years of age who are wards of the court. These are girls who have been picked up off the streets because they have been abused, come from abusive homes or abusive situations and placed here for their safety until they can find a suitable home for them.

The last day of the pilgrimage we spent time at Bull Bay fishing village. Through generous donors, Food for the Poor supplied boats, motors and nets to an impoverished village on the southern coast of Jamaica near Kingston. With the boats and supplies, the fishermen are able to go out deeper into the Caribbean and better support the community with bigger and more profitable fishing. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds are reserved for maintenance, 25 percent for the community, 25 percent for the fishermen, and the balance is divided up for improvement in the community.

The 19 people who made this pilgrimage have now become like brothers and sisters. They will continue to experience enlightenment by the Holy Spirit as to their real purpose for this trip. They were physically and emotionally exhausted but spiritually enhanced beyond anything they could have expected. One of the most profound observations was made by Joann from California. She said, “After visiting all of the different places and meeting all the different people I forgot they were poor because they were so rich with joy.” The real lesson learned on this journey of faith is when God is first in your life you will experience a sense of joy that is unaffected by circumstances, that sense of joy that says, “I know no matter what happens in my life, God will bring some good out of it.”

Father Tony Palazzolo serves in the Diocese of Saint Augustine through the Family Life Office and promotes Food for the Poor in parishes on the weekends.

Food for the Poor Outreach

Founded 25 years ago as an outreach to the very poor of Jamaica, Food for the Poor has grown to become the foremost supplier of aid to the Caribbean and Latin America. Ranked by the Chronicle of Philanthropy as the second largest international charity in the United States, Food for the Poor has consistently been named by Forbes Magazine for its exemplary charitable commitment and fundraising efficiency ratios. Under the leadership of Robin Mahfood, the organization has experienced explosive growth while maintaining an operating expense ratio under 4%.

The major organizations that monitor non-profit agencies such as the Charity Navigator, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Ministry Watch and The Non-Profit Times have all given Food for the Poor their highest rating.

Housing has been a major priority for the organization with more than 25,000 families in Jamaica receiving a new home at no charge. In addition, Food for the Poor now builds more than 7,000 homes a year for the poorest of the poor in the Caribbean. And, with the Caribbean vulnerable to the ravages of hurricanes, Food for the Poor has been at the forefront of emergency relief efforts. Today Food for the Poor does so much more than feed millions of the hungry; they provide emergency relief assistance, clean water, medicines, educational materials, homes, support for orphans and the aged, skills training and micro-enterprise development assistance.

To learn more about Food for the Poor visit or call (954) 427-2222.