Fr Gregory Ramkissoon: “The basis for development is care”

Fr Gregory Ramkissoon, founder and head of Jamaica’s Mustard Seed Communities, on his philosophy of caring and the true meaning of development

Fr Gregory Ramkissoon. Photograph courtesy CMB CreativeFr Ramkissoon with one of the Mustard Seed Children. Photograph by Varun Baker

I was born in Trinidad, in San Fernando — Trinidadian by birth, Jamaican by boat. My family is from a staunch Hindu background, and I went to a Muslim [primary] school. I passed Common Entrance while I was a Hindu. I went to Presentation College. Learning the Catholic faith, I asked to be baptised and confirmed — I was about fourteen or fifteen.

Then I left for Barbados, did a year there, finishing “O”-levels. And then I went to Ireland and did my novitiate there — spiritual training, into the faith — and finished my “A”-levels in England. Then I came back to the Caribbean. This was in 1970-sometime. Jamaica in those days was doing Third World economics — a hot-bed of cutting-edge thinking, on development and the plantation economy. We had some of the best minds in the Caribbean there [at the University of the West Indies]. I went there to do my first degree.

I went back to do graduate work — I really started off in international relations — then rural and physical planning. I taught a little bit in Jamaica at the university, went to Boston and did graduate work in philosophy and theology. Then UWI invited me to come back and lecture in 1982, and supervise their graduate theses, in the department of geosciences, they called it then. I discovered my vocation to the priesthood after graduating from university, when I was 25 or 26. But I didn’t act on it immediately. I had already started Mustard Seed in 1978. I became a priest way down in ’84, so we started it before I became a priest.

When I was doing graduate work in Jamaica, a question always came to mind. We were training some of the best minds in the Caribbean, and there was quite a bit of brain-drain. So there is the government paying for your education, your parents are paying for you — as a graduate, bam, you gone somewhere else. In the meantime, the poor were around us. There was no meeting between town and gown. I got the students to think: right around Mona there was a huge squatting settlement. The idea was, we should be using our talents to help these squatters. We went to the squatting community outside UWI — called Mona Common — and we thought probably the simplest way to help and still be teaching is to start a basic school for the children.

So we borrowed $600 from a friend and built a little school. We had to design it so it could be moved quickly, in case the government bulldozed the place. We used cement blocks as desks, and blocks as chairs. It was very small, for thirty kids. And by doing that, you attract the parents. When you attract the parents, you can form a core of development agents, I call them, in their own community.

But in those days, UWI wouldn’t give credits for students getting involved in that kind of stuff. Come back and take your class! So I got fed up with them. And I kind of got in trouble.

The Bible says if you have a little faith — it doesn’t say if you have a little money, it says faith — then you can move mountains. What struck me most about Mustard Seed was that we could do it without having resources to start. The only resource we needed was ourselves. I realised over the years that our presence in other people’s lives — engagement, inter-relationship, almost a quantum interpretation of relationship — is most important, before even money.

That is the genesis of the philosophy behind Mustard Seed. The idea is, we are not to have huge projects. One huge project is not important. Many small ones are important. So the mustard seed became a kind of paradigm, a model from which we do our work.

 

At that time [the late 1970s], people were talking a lot about development, growth in GDP, growth in every “P”. And they wanted to start from an economic base. But my feeling was, the economics should be based on care. The basis for development, for me, is care, which gives rise to economics, which then gives rise to development. And who you care for? Those who are most needing it. And in those days — and still now — those most needing it are children with severe disabilities, who are abandoned totally.

We didn’t want to be naïve. We thought we needed to have three prongs to Mustard Seed. One was the caring. Two was training — you have to train people to care. But also you have to train people to help themselves — training in income-generating. And then the third prong was outreach — reaching out to those who are not really under our care, but who need help. So we got into a radio station, Internet cafés, low-cost housing — that kind of programme. That is the model we use as a Mustard Seed unit in different countries.

To me, if we could succeed in helping one of those abandoned, dejected people, in whatever community, it’s a marvellous sign of man’s humanity to man. In fact, by doing that we become more human. And by me becoming more human, I become more divine.

If “catholic” means universal, Mustard Seed is absolutely Catholic. If “catholic” means only people of the Catholic faith are part of it, the answer is no. We have a very strong spiritual base. Every one of our staff has access to two hours of meditation a day, in half-hour bits, so they can refresh and revive themselves. Two hours out of eight hours — you could almost say we pay them to pray. Caribbean people must develop a sense of quietness. A sense of meditation. And that kind of thing is not necessarily Catholic. But it’s certainly spiritual.

I think Caribbean society has an extremely high notion of care. I think our caring capital is actually higher than our social capital. But in the same vein, we have neglected it. Governments have neglected to put it into their development plans. As far as a government plan goes, the old and the young who can’t look after themselves are of no use — they are not economic units.

I have seen the Jamaican ghetto person give money from their pocket to help our children to buy tablets, when they themselves are not getting. It’s one of the reasons we locate almost all of our communities in ghetto areas. In Jamaica, they are the most violent areas — there’s all kinds of excitement going on, but we locate in the middle. And if the people weren’t caring, they’d have us for lunch. I live there — I feel more comfortable there than I would uptown. Because the people, even the men, when they see children in such a terrible situation, they ramp up their caring instinct rather than their violent instinct. That’s why I think we have a great caring capacity. The people, left to themselves, they do the caring.