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Founding Father

Sunday, June 17, 2018

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Speaking with SO the monsignor noted: “In many ways, fatherhood has shown me the joys and hurdles that we carry as parents all the time - from womb to tomb! And yes, I do feel totally responsible for our children because, in many ways, they see me as their father.”

Each year on the third Sunday in June, families across certain regions of the world, including the Caribbean, North America, the UK, South Africa and Canada, celebrate the fathers in their lives. Cards are given, gifts are unwrapped and meals are shared. Like other holidays, Father's Day can be tough for those who don't have a 'reason' to celebrate.

The orphans at Mustard Seed Community (MSC) don't see themselves as being motherless and fatherless, because they have the monsignor and his ecumenical community. “Fatherhood has given me meaning in my priesthood, and a great amount of satisfaction in the simple things in life. I have learnt to put others first in these circumstances and to remember that I am here because of the children. They are not here because of me!”

Mustard Seed Communities began in 1978 as a response to a local epidemic of families abandoning children in empty lots and garbage cans. A popular belief that “God has cursed the family because a deformed child was born” was common then, said the monsignor. He also mentioned that the inability to hold a steady job and understand the issues that come with caring for children with special needs coupled with a lack of social services pushed parents to the brink. While recounting these acts that can easily be deemed as heartless, he gently reminds that “we cannot judge”.

When asked why he chose a life of true service versus diocesan position, Ramkissoon answered, “Becoming a priest meant solely to find ways to look after these abandoned ones and to make sure that, once in our care, they are not abandoned twice.”

The community also runs the Little Angels Learning Centre — a school for nearly 200 children from the surrounding communities between the ages of three and six. It should be highlighted that the Ministry of Education oversees the centre's curricula development. This free school gives underprivileged children the ABCs of educational, cultural and spiritual development through lessons, field trips and the observation of mass.

Never more present is the adage “God helps those who help themselves” than at Mustard Seed. At the Jerusalem community in St Catherine, residents are trained in animal husbandry and sustainable agriculture. There are currently two fish ponds, 3,000 layer chickens, a vegetable garden, and a small flock of sheep. At Jacob's Ladder in St Ann, they have pigs, several greenhouses; a block-making facility and an efficient water collection and distribution system that ensures a long-term source for the community. At My Father's House in Kingston, there's a pottery studio supervised by potter Patrick Hall, who was inspired by the late Cecil Baugh.

These projects offer therapy for a number of residents, assist them in developing a sense of responsibility and in some cases the opportunity to earn an income. But overall the projects offer the residents the opportunity to be a part of a loving family.

When asked about his aspirations for MSC's future, Monsignor Ramkissoon said, “My hope is that we will be able to help other kids who are in the worst of situations in any country in the world. There is such a great need — we know we can't help every needy child but we can teach and help others in their respective countries to do whatever they can, to alleviate the intense suffering of children.”

Since its inception, MSC has cared for orphans with special needs, children living with HIV and AIDS, people with mental and physical disabilities, pregnant teens and the destitute. In 2006, the monsignor was awarded the inaugural Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence for his outstanding work in caring for the nation's most vulnerable. “It was a (significant) honour not so much for myself but for our organisation that has gone through so many transitions and challenges; for example, we had two major fires.” Ramkissoon was touched that, on behalf of MSC, he was “worthy to be named as part of the good citizenry of the Caribbean”.

Due to this good citizenry, Mustard Seed has been invited by both the church and state to operate communities in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Malawi and Zimbabwe. “Over the years we have been invited to work in some 17 countries — from the Philippines to Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and other shores. Each place has its dire needs — but we have to be careful about spreading ourselves too thin,” said Ramkissoon. Though mindful of overextension, MSC also runs Christ In The Garbage Ministries – where “we work with children living in garbage dumps in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe”.

Plato said, “He whom love touches not walks in darkness.” Never more is the light of love apparent than in the smiles of MSC residents who have seen the darkest of days. Whether it's the 6,000 people within Kingston's inner cities who get fed on Christmas Day, the 400 children and adults in 13 homes across Jamaica or the 245 students enrolled at Little Angels, each person has been touched with the torch of love carried by the monsignor and his 350 local workers.

When asked what his Father's Day message is, Ramkissoon replied, “Very simple treat children in the best way possible. Not only those who are biologically ours, but those who we may see around us and even those whom we have ever met!”

And one never knows where one will meet the products of Mustard Seed Communities. Recently, at an awards function in the United States, an attendee was checking into his hotel and mentioned that he was attending a Mustard Seed event. “The manager of this big hotel in Miami smiled at him and said, 'Sir, I was a Mustard Seed child!'. Can you believe that? She is now happy, successful and a loving mother,” said Ramkissoon. He continued, “My children, you can be anything you want, it just takes some work and belief. Belief in yourself and belief in the power of the Almighty to show you the way.”

Father's Day has undeniably American roots (the earliest celebration dates back to 1908 in Fairmont, West Virginia) and is replete with unavoidable ad campaigns prodding the celebration of dad with a tie, tools or a watch. However, when one encounters selfless fathers like the monsignor what becomes apparent is that — there is no earthly gift that will be sufficient. But as Matthew 25:40 reminds us, “... Whatever you did for one of my brothers or sisters, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did for me.”

Monsignor Gregory Ramkissoon wants neither glory nor celebrity, just health and God's grace so that Mustard Seed Communities can continue to “rescue the perishing”. Ministry is so often thankless and quiet, but it is within this quietness that grace radiates.

**Cheers to you on Father's Day, Monsignor **

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