"The only way to survive here is to become a drug dealer. The lucky ones drive cabs and don't have to," Donovan explained to me.
He is groundskeeper at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. I thought of Donovan as the first American pope greeted millions in Rio for World Youth Day.
There is a "selfishness that prevails in our society," the pope said. He spoke of "dealers of death" who "follow the logic of power and money at any cost," and a "scourge of drug-trafficking, that favors violence and sows the seeds of suffering and death."
To solve this problem requires a societal act of courage.
He dismissed "liberalization of drug use" efforts, insisting that "it is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs, by promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future."
He went on to challenge and encourage us to make that confrontation: "We must hold the hand of the one in need, of the one who has fallen into the darkness of dependency perhaps without even knowing how, and we must say to him or her: You can get up, you can stand up. It is difficult, but it is possible if you want to."
It was hard not to be moved by the scenes this past week of the pope visiting the favelas -- slums -- of Varginha.
Beautiful children, delighted mothers, beaming fathers -- they all held out their hands, hoping for a word and a prayer.
Pope Francis talked about our common humanity to these people.
No one should remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world. Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able help put an end to social injustice. A "culture of solidarity," he said, "seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters" is what "builds up and leads to a more habitable world."
There are moral guideposts being celebrated and highlighted in Rio that can enrich our civic lives and help civil society flourish.
Donovan in Jamaica has gotten the message that the pope seeks to deliver to the world. Just before Thanksgiving, when I ran into him, still cleaning up from Hurricane Sandy, he was expectant. That coming weekend, he would be receiving Communion for the first time. "When I am at a celebration of the Eucharist, I delight in the Eucharist. I know God is here. I feel his presence," Donovan told me, standing in the small prayer hall adjacent to the church.
The declaration came in the midst of grinding poverty of the kind that could breed envy, as tourists from luxury cruise liners come through town day after day. And yet there is a hope on some faces.
"I know my life has purpose. I don't know what God's will for me is, but I know he made me with a purpose. I know he loves me. And I just try to share what I know of him. Sometimes God's purpose for us is in small things. Sometimes it is a smile to someone who is having a bad day -- we all have bad days. We all have worries and troubles, sometimes our purpose is to show a little love."
In Rio, Pope Francis talked about his desire to knock on every door in Brazil. Obviously, he can't do that. But the Church he leads is one in which every single member has a missionary mandate. At the heart of that mandate is a hope that is more powerful than politics and can never be fully seen on TV. Whatever you believe, perhaps we can at least all start with respect for our common human dignity, which no culture, no form of politics, no addiction should rob us of. And thank God for that.
© 2013 Universal