KINGSTON, Jamaica – On 20 May, 1980, a horrific fire razed the Eventide Home at Slipe Road in Kingston, killing 144 elderly women.
The incident shocked Jamaicans, including Richard Ho Lung, a priest and lecturer in literature at the University of the West Indies.
“I asked myself, ‘Where would Christ be if he were in Jamaica right now? Would he end up just preaching or would he be attending to the blind, the deaf, the cripple, the hungry, the forgotten ones?’ The answer to me was very obvious,” the diminutive Ho Lung recalled.
The following year, the Roman Catholic priest, whose passion for Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and Derek Walcott was surpassed only by his commitment to the Christian faith, opened the Faith Centre on crime-ridden Laws Street in central Kingston.
First of six
It was the first of six hostels run by Ho Lung’s Missionaries of the Poor organisation, which provides comfort for the aged, destitute and abandoned.
This tireless effort on behalf of the downtrodden has earned the balding 67-year-old priest the Order of Jamaica, the country’s third highest civic honour.
Recently the management of The Gleaner Company Ltd hosted a special luncheon in honour of Fr Ho Lung to recognise his national honour and his years of service to the nation’s less fortunate. One of the homes operated by the Missionaries of the Poor is located next door the newspaper’s corporate offices on North Street, downtown Kingston.
On Wednesday, at the Missionaries of the Poor’s monastery on Hanover Street, downtown Kingston, Ho Lung spoke about his latest award with typical humility.
Work for society’s poorest
“It’s easy for you to get caught up in these things (awards), but you know, it really says something for all the brothers and the work they have done for society’s poorest,” he said.
The ‘brothers’ Ho Lung speaks about are approximately 170 missionaries who help operate the six hostels which are home to over 550 persons. Five of these hostels are located in central Kingston and another in Golden Spring, St Andrew.
They come from 15 countries, some as far away as The Philippines and India in Asia, and Kenya in east Africa. Part of their disciplined lifestyle requires daily four-hour prayer sessions, simple dress of white robe and sandals, and excludes the carrying of money and watching television.
The home Richard Ho Lung grew up in was built on similar principles, albeit different religious beliefs. Born in Richmond, St Mary, but raised in Kingston, he is the second of four children born to Buddhist parents, both born in China.
“They ran the Carib Grocery on Old Hope Road,” he said, laughing. “We used to sell paradise plums, tamarind balls, half-pint kerosene oil. Those were good times!”
Ho Lung said he was strongly influenced by the Jesuit culture at his alma mater, St Georges College. He was ordained a priest in 1971 but worked mainly as a teacher at the UWI’s Mona campus.
After nine years at UWI, he quit his secular job for good.
“I kept on saying, ‘How could I be Christian and not walk in the footsteps of Christ and do what he did’,” he said of his decision to work full-time with the poor.
Today, Missionaries of the Poor counsels persons suffering from HIV, neglected infants, mentally challenged and the homeless. Funding for the centres, Ho Lung disclosed, comes mainly from private donors in Jamaica and the United States.
Twenty-seven years after one of the most tragic incidents in the history of independent Jamaica changed his life, Father Richard Ho Lung believes not enough is being done by the Church to help the poor.
“Christianity needs to walk out of the doors of the Church, move into the streets and realise that the faith we adopted from Christ is not just about words,” he said. “There is a way of living and a way of serving that becomes an obligation for being Christian.”