Jamaican churches deal with violence tourists never see

Published October 1, 2003

Kingston, Jamaica
There were 1,045 murders last year across this island nation of 2.6 million – one of the world’s highest murder rates per capita.

The grim statistic may mean nothing to the tourists in the secured resort areas of Jamaica’s north coast. Most of the killings take place in the impoverished, violence-prone areas of Kingston where violent death is a common occurrence and where tourists never venture.

While domestic violence accounts for many of the killings, most are blamed on gang-related reprisal attacks and bloody feuds between ruthless and well-armed rival drug gangs. And, as Canon Ernle Gordon, of St. Mary the Virgin Anglican church in West Kingston, says, the violence in some Kingston communities has been ongoing for almost 50 years.

Mr. Gordon says the violence resulting from the bloody rivalry between Jamaica’s two main political parties has largely abated. However, the former political gangs are now the well-financed drug gangs that virtually control some inner-city areas under the protection of the local “don,” as the area leader is euphemistically known.

“ Churches working together are at the forefront in assisting to solve this whole violence and crime problem,” says Mr. Gordon, chairman of the Jamaican Council of Churches’ church and society commission. He notes that the government-appointed political ombud is a clergyman.

“ We have what are known as ‘ministers fraternal’ in the violence-prone areas who assist in violence mediation. We move in there not only for prayer meetings and services but also to meet the people who are frustrated. We speak to them and give them some hope.

“ Sometimes we contact government agencies to fix the roads and to move the garbage because in many instances the amenities are rundown or non-existent.”

And sometimes it’s a matter of approaching the local don, as Mr. Gordon learned when he wanted to “step up the pace” in a mission he operates in one of Kingston’s poorest neighbourhoods. The don, who was raised as an Anglican, agreed to allow all the area children, including five of his many children, to attend Sunday school.

As a result, Mr. Gordon says the area has started to change from a menacing environment to where one can walk without harassment even at night. “We played dominoes and games there last week until 12:30 in the morning,” he says.

Although the death penalty remains on the books, there have been no hangings in Jamaica since 1988. However, the escalating violence has prompted calls for the re-introduction of hanging with polls showing most Jamaicans favor a return of the noose.

“ The Jamaican psyche is very Old Testament oriented,” says Mr. Gordon. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. And a life for a life. “But we have to find a way to move from retributive justice to restorative justice so people can understand that we have to redeem people.” While some Jamaican churches are part of a lobby opposing capital punishment, other churches, especially the more evangelical sects, favour a return to hanging for capital crimes, Mr. Gordon says.

Anglicanism formally came to Jamaica in 1661 when the English government charged the first governor to establish the Church of England on the colonized island. At the time of Jamaican independence in 1962, about 20 per cent of the island’s population was Anglican. Today the figure stands at about six per cent.

Mr. Gordon says the 1960s saw the start of the black power movement, the Rastafarian movement and a shift in focus to indigenous music and culture.

“ It’s inevitable that a church which is a potted plant implanted in Jamaica from a foreign soil will begin to lose members the moment a society takes on an indigenous character,” he says.

Mr. Gordon says that despite 40 years of Jamaican independence, many Anglicans still suffer an identity crisis. The church, he says must do more to rid itself of the “remnants of a planter mentality.” It must connect with the people.

“ We have got to know the people’s culture, “ he says. “We have got to go back to our drums, to our indigenous music. We have to rewrite the liturgy, use old words to new beats. We have to use a liturgy the people understand.”

It will mean, Mr. Gordon says, a re-examination of the “whole idea of Christology and identity. Who Jesus is and how he is understood in different cultures.”


Michael McAteer is a Toronto writer.




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