Why would anyone want to travel 17 hours to use their own vacation time, and on their own dime, to practice their profession for the week? And why would they want to go back again and again? For nearly 20 years, a dedicated group of medical professionals and others have trekked down to the small village of Chantilly, Jamaica, as part of a cultural exchange and medical mission.
For the countless number of people who have braved the mission trip from St. Paul’s in Concord, the answer is simple: It’s a connection that lasts a lifetime.
Rev. David Jones, who was part of the first group of 27 to make the trip, looks at the beginning in awe – even though a third of the group was sick for the entire week.
“Nothing thrills me more than to think a seed that was planted 20 years ago through a relationship between faith communities still goes on today,” Jones said.
What Jones saw and felt about the residents of the tiny mountain village in the middle of Jamaica is still fresh in his mind: “I’ve never met people who have more joy in their faith – and more abject poverty in their lives.”
Even those unconnected to the Concord church are moved to action out of their desire to help others.
Nurse Erin Pike of Weare, who worked with Dr. Mark Carney for 10 years and has gone on multiple trips, goes for the people she meets and for the chance to work with Carney again.
“He cares so much for the patients,” Pike said. “It’s the little things he remembers about their families, and he spends time with them. He considers them family. He’s just one of kind. They trust him. He’s built a bond with the community.”
And Carney warned Pike on her first trip about what she was going to encounter.
“You need to keep things in perspective here,” Carney told her. “You can’t fix everything, but you can’t be discouraged by that.”
In part, Carney was referring to people suffering from afflictions that would be treatable if not for the lack of health care resources.
Jan Greer-Carney, director of Nutrition Services at Concord Hospital, has her own way of gaining perspective.
“Rather than looking at all the heartbreaking things around me,” she said, “I try to look at some of the heartwarming things, like seeing a mother hearing her unborn child’s heartbeat for the first time.”
For others, it’s about experiencing a different kind of existence far from home.
Physician assistant Joanne Gutt of Concord sees the trip as an opportunity to live without the comforts people become accustomed to, like hot showers.
“You can’t be living your life in total comfort and isolation of the problems of the world,” she said. “You have to be able to extend yourself and give to those who don’t have. And you go through the discomfort and fear and worry, and just do it.”
The one-on-one contact with patients tells her she’s making a difference.
“The women just want a checkup and to feel cared for,” she said. “It’s so empowering for me to just sit there and hear their stories and give them a clean bill of health, that they are strong. Just your presence makes them feel wanted and valued as a person, that someone cares about them.”
Gutt feels their appreciation: “You are a dignitary as far as they are concerned.”
Elizabeth DeNauw, a physician assistant who made her first trip this past year, wanted to push herself to help.
“When you hit it head-on and really see what it’s like, you come to understand that we really are all God’s people and even the least amount we can do, it comes down to God’s work.”
For Dr. Carney, the annual trip is not about what he gives to the residents of Chantilly: “I get more out of it than they get out of me.”
“My purpose is to give back to people who don’t have anything,” he said. “Listen, I’ve had an easy life. I’m incredibly lucky with parents who let me explore good opportunities when I was young. I have been given a whole lot, been given so much I want to give back.
“Having been raised in the South, I’ve always been ‘churchy,’ and the presence of God is definitely involved in all of this. I’m always looking for Jesus and I don’t know where he is, but maybe he’s out in that crowd, you know?
“I love watching the kids and seeing them grow up. But mostly I do it because I adore Rue and Daphne. They are so supportive with rooms and food. They have given so much to this community. I just always love seeing them.”
St. Paul’s Rector Kate Atkinson, who hopes to go with her daughter someday soon, always feels the energy in the church when the group returns.
“The people of Chantilly go wild with joy whenever a team arrives from St. Paul’s, and they are always sad to see them go,” she said. “There is no doubt that our Jamaica mission touches lives in remarkable ways. But what is even more remarkable is the way the people of Chantilly touch the lives of our parishioners here in Concord.
“Whenever a team returns, bringing their stories, photographs, and notes and cards from the people they cared for, it has an exhilarating effect on the entire congregation. The team members themselves have had a life-changing experience and it inspires us all to seek new ways of living out our faith in meaningful ways.
“The Jamaica mission is a powerful reminder that we share this world with countless brothers and sisters – many of whom we will never meet. We all need one another, and we all enrich one another’s life experience. It is one of the greatest blessings God gives us.”
The next group of eight led by the Carneys leaves for Chantilly, Jamaica, on April 23.
(Geoff Forester is the Monitor’s photo editor.)