There are relatively few occasions in anyone’s life that can truly be called life-changing. It is rare indeed that something happens to us which is so startling, so seismic in its impact, that we are never the same again.

One such moment happened to me when I first visited the Missionaries of the Poor in their home among the homeless in the middle of the ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica. In truth, it must be confessed, I was a reluctant visitor, a resentful pilgrim to this shrine to the suffering Christ. I had been asked to write a biography of Father Richard Ho Lung, the MOP’s charismatic founder, and had accepted only after praying that this burden might pass from me. Having had my prayers answered in a way that contradicted my desires, I embraced the task of writing the book as an act of Lenten penance, taking it up as a cross that I was not too willing to carry.

It was thus that I first visited the Brothers in Jamaica. I did not know what I was letting myself in for, and, having arrived, I did not know what had hit me.

I recall my first visit to Bethlehem, the Brothers’ home for seriously sick and disabled children. The stench of urine, feces and sweat hit me as I crossed the threshold, stopping me in my tracks as surely as if I’d hit a brick wall. In front of me was a menagerie of deformed humanity. I was repelled – and guilty as hell at my own repulsion and the heart of stone from which it sprang.

It was then that I saw the face of Christ. I saw it in the face of a paralyzed young girl, supine in a cot. She caught my eye and her face beamed into the broadest grin I’d ever seen. Transfixed by this transfiguration, I walked forward and picked her up. I then carried her with me as I walked from cot to cot, from bed to bed, from the bedridden to the bedridden, babies, toddlers and older children, all being cared for by the white-robed Brothers. It had changed my life. I had plunged into depths that I didn’t know existed and had emerged, as if baptized, from the shallows of myself into something deeper.

Having had this experience, I understood Father Ho Lung when he told me that he welcomed visitors from the affluent world, from the world of excess, not because he and the Brothers needed their help but because the visitors needed to experience joyful suffering with Christ on his Cross, which is the very spirit and the motto of the Missionaries of the Poor. Those who have this experience are forever changed for the better. What a gift!

Needless to say, I embarked upon the writing of my book with a newfound enthusiasm, lifting the cross and finding that the burden was light indeed. And light in both senses of the word, which is why I called my book Candles in the Dark. Those who read it are not likely to have a life-changing experience – we need to get our hands dirty and our hearts clean by visiting the Brothers in their native home for that to happen – but they will get a priceless glimpse of the Missionaries of the Poor who are changing lives with the joy of their own suffering, which has its life-giving source in the suffering of the Crucified Lord.