By Dexter Van Zile
In a classroom at Marcus Garvey School in West Kingston, Jamaica, three-year-old children play quietly with the caps of plastic soda bottles. They cheerfully greet Jesuit Father Rohan Tulloch as he steps into the room and speaks for a moment with their teachers.
The school operates under the jurisdiction of St. Anne’s Church, a Jesuit-staffed parish located in nearby Hannah Town. In addition to overseeing a number of schools, the parish also supports the work of two pastoral workers who bring food, medicine, and the Eucharist to the sick and elderly in the parish.
St. Anne’s and the schools it oversees are located in rough neighborhoods. Cement pillars surrounding St. Anne’s are marked with bullet holes. “I have three bullet holes above my bed,” Fr. Tulloch says.
Marcus Garvey is an oasis compared to many of the other schools in Jamaica, where students lack the notebooks and pens they need to do their work.
Schools that are able to obtain the basic materials needed to educate their children—like Marcus Garvey—are oftentimes ransacked and robbed by gangs living in nearby neighborhoods. To fend off theft and vandalism, the perimeter of Marcus Garvey is surrounded by a 10-foot wall topped by steel spikes and coils of barbed wire.
Images of a jet plane, a train, a bicycle, a station wagon and a space shuttle on the walls communicate to the children the world of possibility that is open to them if they learn to read. Also displayed is a picture of a black-skinned Madonna and baby Jesus.
“We want to show the children they are God’s beloved,” he says. “We want to show them what they have inside themselves, who they are and Whose they are.”
Later, Fr. Tulloch drives back to St. Anne’s, passing by an open field that used to be a city block of homes before it was destroyed by violence in 2010.
This is the ground where Fr. Tulloch struggles to bring an experience of God’s blessing into the lives of Jamaica’s poor.
“I’ve given my life to God so that others might have life in Him,” Fr. Tulloch says. “So my own vocation is one of liberation. I’ve encountered Christ and have been animated by that encounter to encourage others to have that encounter with God. Whatever I’m involved in, there has to be some rootedness in the Gospel and a movement from where one is to where one wants to be—a movement of the spirit. I can’t change people’s situation, but I can expose them to the spiritual tools that allow them to see God in that situation.”
Fr. Tulloch became pastor at St. Anne’s on June 21, 2011, after serving a year as associate pastor at the parish. It was his first assignment as a Jesuit priest. He is the first Jamaican-born pastor to serve at St. Anne’s in its 119-year history. Serving as the father of his parish is a demanding role in Jamaica because fathers are often absent in the lives of their children.
Fr. Tulloch’s own father died when he was young, but his mother was able to find another man to serve as his surrogate father who watched over him and provided him with guidance as a young man. He entered the Jesuit novitiate in Kingston, Jamaica in 2000. The seeds for this decision, he says, were planted while attending a Catholic high school and participating in a Christian service program.
“I wanted to live my life in service of the Gospel message, to set the world on fire with the love of God,” he says.
As a Jesuit in Jamaica, Fr. Tulloch is part of the New England Province. He reports to the local superior and meets with the provincial of the New England Province who makes annual visitations to the country. Jesuits from the New England province have been serving in the Jamaica Region since the province was founded in 1926.
Fr. Tulloch struggles against the chaos surrounding him, one conversation at a time, encouraging, for example, young couples who come to his parish to get married and raise their children together. In the past four years, he has celebrated over 10 marriages as a priest, and has baptized over 100 children, most of them from single-parent homes.
He has also presided over funeral Masses for gang members who have died in gunfights. These funerals represent an opportunity for Fr. Tulloch to emphasize the presence of God’s love amidst the ruins of their surroundings.
There is cause for hope. Some of the young people he has counseled have stood their ground in Jamaica, found work in their home country and have stayed close to their family. It’s a tough choice, but one that Christ calls them to make.
“Ignatian spirituality gives us the strength to lean into the suffering of our neighbors,” Fr. Tulloch says.
Adapted from JESUITS magazine, Summer 2014. To read the full magazine online, click here.