By: Tony Best
Jamaica, a nation celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence may have made significant strides in education and boosting the life spans of its people, but it is facing a litany of social and economic ills, headed by crime and violence, corruption at various levels, and abuse of children.
That golden jubilee report card, if you will, was delivered to thousands of Jamaicans by the country’s Anglican Bishop, the Rt. Rev Howard Gregory, who used the independence church service to paint a not too flattering picture of a country that had made dramatic strides in education --- substantially improving adult literacy from 47 per cent in 1962 to 83 per cent last year while almost doubling the number of people with a tertiary level education, going from 9.5 per cent at independence time to 33 per cent in 2011 – but was now bedeviled by rampant crime and violence, corruption, human trafficking, a lottery scam, human trafficking and by a gulf between the haves and the have-nots.
In a sermon delivered to thousands of nationals of the Caribbean country who flocked to the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, almost filling every pew, Bishop Gregory cited figures presented in a lecture to the Jamaica Anglican Church’s Synod in April by a University of the West Indies expert which showed that 32,764 murders had been recorded in the country since independence. In 1962, the Bishop told the overflow congregation who later gave him a standing ovation that, there were 64 homicides in the Caribbean nation in 1962 but in “2010 the number had skyrocketed to 1,420” killings.
“My brothers and sisters there has been progress in many areas but that dimension called crime and violence, which is inseparable from the moral and social pulse of the nation, has reached crisis proportions,” Bishop Gregory complained. “As we turn 50, there are social challenges we must confront.”
Then, there was the specter of racial prejudice, which he charged was affecting affected Blacks in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean. He traced it to centuries of slavery and mentioned a recent study by the Inter-American Commission on Human rights which claimed that “racial discrimination was more persistent in the Caribbean compared to other parts of the Americas.” What was particularly troubling, according to the study, was that racism was not only persistent in the region but it was “also most subtle.” And as evidence of its pernicious nature, he said that another study had found that Black entrepreneurs in Barbados “had greater difficulty securing business loans than their white counterparts” a problem which placed Blacks there at a “disadvantage from the outset,” he said.
That wasn’t all. He referred to the undisciplined behavior of many Jamaicans at home which was making their birthplace almost ungovernable.
But the headaches he listed didn’t simply focus on crime.
“There are also serious economic problems before us,” he went on. And at the head of the list were the onerous financial “conditionalities” being imposed by the International Monetary Fund.
The economic fortunes, Bishop Gregory asserted, were characterized by a “widening gulf” among Jamaicans.
He charged that as the economic fortunes of many Jamaicans improved some of them had “secured themselves behind gated communities to be safe and to protect their symbols of success while others are relegated to a life of poverty.”
Even a cabinet minister, the cleric noted, was in the news recently “for statements he made about the extent to which (the government’s) “new tax package has failed to make provision for the protection of the poor.”
Broadening his assessment of Jamaica as this time of celebrations, the Bishop chided the country for the absence of “equality for all before the law” and missing “access to opportunities” created by the country’s resources.
“Additionally,” he went on, “we must be concerned about the pervasive abuse of our children, human trafficking, poverty, unemployment, crime and violence, social injustice, the protracted delays in the delivery of justice through the courts …. corruption, the neglect of the environment and the challenges within the educational system.”
As if those problems weren’t enough, the Bishop who is also responsible for the Anglican churches in the Cayman Islands hit out at “political tribalism which continued to plague the country” and which was demonstrated by “our political leaders at every opportunity.” It was a situation, the Rt. Rev Gregory charged, that showed a “pre-occupation with the tangential which gets us nowhere.”
As evidence of that malady, the Anglican Diocesan leader pinpointed a recent debate in parliament over the independence celebrations and emphasis on the color and cover of the program. It resulted, he went on “in a disgraceful brawl between both sides of the House” of Representatives.
“All of this taking place in a context in which there is no vision for the nation around which we can unite as a people,” he complained.
The Bishop wondered where Jamaica was heading at this time as it repeatedly changed at “every general election.”
As he saw it, something was happening with the “very heart and soul of the nation” which could best be characterized as a loss of moral sensitivity and decency.
“We live in a society that is permeated at every level by drugs and corruption,” he charged. To support his contention he cited the lotto scam which was in wide circulation within the economy but was greeted by culture of silence but reinforced by “a culture of intimidation.”
“Sadly, and with a sense of shame I admit that one area of hope comes from the authorities in this country (U.S.) who keep the pressure up necessitating corrective action from time to time,” he said.
The Bishop was critical of nationals back home who looked at the Diaspora as nothing more than a “kind of money tree,” whose fruits should be used for their personal benefit.
He described religion and the role of church as essential foundations on which to build Jamaica’s future.
“Fellow Jamaicans who share a vision of the Christian faith, I invite your support in the rejection of any notion that the life of our society is to be structured on the premise of a secular society,” he urged.
The three-hour service which was hosted by the Rev. Robert Coleman, Riverside Church’s chief program minister, was planned by a committee headed by Herman G. LaMont, Jamaica’s Consul-General in New York. Its officiant was Episcopal Canon Calvin C. McIntyre and it was characterized by special prayers, religious hymns and songs sung by the Independence Choir led by Lloyd Chung at the organ, by dance performed by the Kaphar Dance Company, and by the reading of a special message from the Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller. It was read by the Consul-General and in it, Simpson-Miller spoke of the country’s remarkable journey, asserting that the anniversary celebrations offered Jamaicans a “time for renewal.” As she saw it, Jamaica had “accomplished much” but there was “more to be done.”