The Ghetto Priest: 'Candles in the Dark' Chapter five

Published: Sunday | December 8, 2013 Comments 0

Father Ho Lung's advocacy of another aspect of subsidiarity was evident during a concert tour of Trinidad and Tobago in January 1978, when he told a journalist that he wished to preserve the local indigenous cultures of the Caribbean: "He stresses that, though in the Caribbean we have many things in common, we must not tend to standardise our culture because standardisation destroys the differences which manifest the genius of our Caribbean peoples."

In seeking to champion and preserve the beautiful diversity of the various Caribbean cultures in the face of globalist standardisation, the Jamaican priest was echoing the words of the great English writer, G. K. Chesterton, who warned that "the coming peril" to all cultures was "vulgarity" or "the danger of standardisation by a low standard".

On Christmas Day 1977, a few days before their departure for the tour of Trinidad and Tobago, Father Ho Lung and Friends reached by far their largest and widest audience when the BBC broadcast their performance, via satellite, to seven countries around the world, reaching a potential audience of one billion people. It was all a far cry from the ghetto and yet, for the ghetto priest, the music was always at the service of the poor.

Father Ho Lung's fight for the poor continued as he opened the eyes of the public to the deplorable conditions at the Eventide Home, a public almshouse at which more rats were in residence than people. Conditions were unspeakably horrific. Residents were living in their own faeces and urine, some were dying of malnutrition, and others were literally being eaten alive by the rats.

"In my part-time voluntary work at Eventide, I met the poorest of people anyone could find on the face of the earth," recalls Fr Ho Lung. "It was here that I saw a little boy, David, tied with cloth improvised as ropes to an iron chair. He was about seven years old. He lived in this almshouse where 700 people were literally dumped rather than cared for by the Government. The poor little boy had been in the hot blazing summer sun since 6 that morning. It was 1 p.m. at the time of my visit.

"David had on just a brief. He was sweating and was dazed in the heat. Flies had pitched on the faeces that he had passed and which was scattered on the ground about him. I approached David with the intention of untying him and cleaning him. But his tiny bowl of rice had fallen into his mess and he was picking out the rice grains and eating it. I was angry, and confronted the workers. They explained that he was a troublesome child who grabbed everything, including other's food, and created confusion. They said they could not bother with him. The workers laughed when I loosened the cloth that bound his hands and took him to a bathing pan."

life-changing visit

Two young men, Hayden Augustine and Brian Kerr, who shared Father Ho Lung's vision of giving themselves freely in service to the poor, accompanied Father Ho Lung on this horrific visit to Eventide. Ho Lung described the heinous scene when the three men returned the next day to visit David.

"In the night, we heard he was attacked by rats, his lips and ear lobes were bitten and he seemed to have died of a heart attack. We went to the dormitory and uncovered the bed sheet from the body and simply wept when we saw him. Old ladies and old men had also been bitten by rats; women's breasts, men's and women's lips, ears, and necks. The entire place was a garbage dump of wasted and rejected humanity. This is where Christ would have gone if He visited Jamaica today. These would be His people and He would be their God. He would not be out just giving talks about poverty. We left the grounds of Eventide and went home to pray. All night I wrestled with the Lord, tormented by His calling, besieged by His presence."

In this agony in the garden of his own soul, Father Ho Lung battled with the enormity of the problem of poverty. Surely, it was simply impossible to do anything to help. He felt the dreadfulness of the situation and fought with his own feelings of futility. The huge problem of poverty seemed insoluble. How could he, a simple priest, take care of the poor? He had nothing but his two master's degrees and his doctorate. The Lord seemed to be saying that he had to give everything up, even the Jesuit community, and walk in the footsteps of Jesus, His Beloved Son. "I was in torture. I wept and I prayed all night. Next day, I felt washed and purified by the struggle with my God. I capitulated. 'Whatever You will, my Lord,' I said."

Father Ho Lung shared his mystical experience with Hayden and Brian. They reflected on the situation and understood that the only way to begin work with the poor was to be with them in their most dreadful suffering. They must embrace the suffering of the poorest of their brothers and sisters.

A few months later, on May 20, 1980, tragedy struck the residents of Eventide when a fire swept through one of the wards, engulfing the old and dilapidated wooden building. It was razed to the ground, leaving only zinc sheets, ashes and the charred remains of most of the ward's residents. More than 150 elderly women died, making it the deadliest fire in Jamaican history.

Father Ho Lung, adopting the local dialect, recalls how one of the few survivors described the nightmare in which she found herself: "It was the blackest of nights when the fire circled the bottom floor and rose up in a high blaze to trap and swallow up all the people. Nobody knows what was going on. It was sudden. Then the screams. If you ever see how people ran like mad ants, and we fall on each other. I jump out of bed and cough till I nearly dead."

The Government was forced to eat humble pie, and the prime minister, Michael Manley, declared a national day of mourning on the day that the victims were laid to rest in a mass grave.

The unprecedented disaster prompted two reggae artistes, Yellowman and General Echo, to record songs about the tragedy, both of which were hits, but Father Ho Lung was moving beyond the protest song and the pulpit-preaching to a practical and loving engagement with his nation's poor.

I felt that everything that I had done up until that time had been somehow hypocritical. I was preaching the word of God but not really living it. I was aware of the degradation of the poor in my own island community. I knew I was not as serious about the poor as I should be, and that meant that I was not as serious about Christ as I should be.

falling short

Certainly, I was destined only to condemnation. Revelations 3:16 haunted me, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. Supposedly, as a priest and a Christian, I had sacrificed my life for Jesus totally. But I was a hypocrite. No self-sacrificing priest was I, though I stood daily at the Altar of Sacrifice and presided over the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus in identification with Him. He had given His Life to me. Daily, I experienced His love, such warm consolation, such lovely intimacy, and a wonderful call to be united with Him and the Heavenly Father. But I did not love Him enough, not His Cross, which every adult must embrace fully, if we truly love Christ.

Father Ho Lung had reached a defining moment in his life, a moment that would radically change the way that he lived and the way that he loved. Henceforth, the ghetto priest would live the life of the Cross in brotherhood with the poor. A life of joyful service with Christ on the Cross was beginning.

This week, we will continue a series of excerpts from Father Ho Lung's bio, written by Joseph Pearce

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