This was my second time travelling to Kingston, Jamaica with a group from my parish in Guelph. Holy Rosary Parish in Guelph is a partner parish with St. Anne’s Parish in Kingston, Jamaica (or St. Annie’s as it is affectionately known in Kingston). Like Holy Rosary in Guelph, St. Annie’s is run by Jesuits. One of the reasons it was picked as our partner parish is that St. Annie’s is located in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in West Kingston.
In 2009, there were 14 of us who travelled to St. Annie’s – and we spent the majority of our time as assistants in classrooms in St. Anne’s primary school (grades 1 to 6), or Marcus Garvey, a “basic” school for children ages 3 to 6. That was an enlightening experience for all of us – even those with considerable experience in Ontario classrooms. We loved the way the children enthusiastically greeted us and checked out our fair hair and skin. We were also inspired when we walked with Sister Beverly and others visiting shut-ins in the area. It was humbling to see people with so little, having so much gratitude for all God had done in their lives. We left humbled, inspired and touched by the many new friendships we had made.
This year, eight of us travelled together – six from Holy Rosary in Guelph and two from St. John’s the Evangelist in Arthur, Ontario. Three of us were part of the original group of 14 that had travelled in 2009. My prayer was to deepen relationships and gain a better understanding of the culture – and this came true in many ways.
The third day of our visit, the eight of us, in various locations and endeavours, found ourselves in a situation we could never have imagined. At mid-day, about 1:10 pm on a Monday afternoon, rapid gunfire rang out. Although this itself is not an entirely uncommon experience in West Kingston, the fact that it would persist for nearly two hours, and involve large numbers of police, armed guards, and a military armed tank was. The police had come for a murderer and rather than arrest him, they were shooting to kill. They knew of course, that the gunman they were after would rally his supporters and the result was the largest gun battle in the area since 2001. All of this was happening within a block of both St. Annie’s church and school. For me the experience was quite surreal. I could hear the shots but because of metal shutters on the doors and windows I did not see a thing. After a few minutes of the teacher trying to pretend that all was “normal”, the principal came into the classroom and quickly told all of us to get under desks for cover should any gunfire happen to come through the windows or doors. The classroom was chaotic, children were either terrified or trying to pretend it was a joke. As I prayed with a young boy for the safety of friends and/or family members, the terrible reality that these children faced dawned on me. I could leave at the end of the day and never return, but for these children, this was their life. The little boy I was with told me “I am used to this” – and later said “The gunmen usually wait until later when all the children are home from school.” This was supported by others who said that indeed many of the gunmen’s nieces and nephews attend the school – and they don’t want them in harm's way. Apparently, the police who initiated this battle, care less about that. I worried for the safety of other members of my group, and wondered where they were when the fighting broke out. Later I would learn that some who were returning to the church from various errands, actually had to try to duck under cover of 4 foot high cement wall as they made their way from the church parking area to the rectory. Later, I also learned that Sr. Beverly, who picked myself and another up from the school and drove us to safety, had a nearly tragic encounter as she found herself in the midst of cross fire – being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The experience was alarming, for sure. But we were all safe – and no one was hurt. The next day, the children all returned to school. Life in West Kingston went on pretty much as before.
I asked several from the area what they saw as the root of the situation and all said pretty much the same thing – individualism. What’s in this for me? What am I going to get out of this? A lack of caring for neighbours and extended family is not something that characterized West Kingston even a generation ago or so, but now has become commonplace. Somewhat shocking for me, was the reaction others had when I shared that information with them. Their response was to suggest that our culture was not that far behind. With increasing divorce rates, and individualism rooted in materialism, where do children in our society learn to care for others? What should we try to learn from what we see in West Kingston?
For me, it was pure grace that we happened to be in West Kingston the day of the worst gun violence in nearly a decade. We wanted to better understand life for those in our partner parish, and most certainly this experience was helping us to do so. With a worsening economy, producing worsening violence – one cannot help but ask ... what is the future for these people? How do children raised with this violence, not become violent? How do adults sustain their hope?
During the remainder of our week, we again met many delightful children and many inspiring faith filled people. We were pleased to bring a tiny ray of God’s love and hope into their lives – and were indeed blessed with much of the same in return. I recall something Fr. Tom the pastor of St. Annie’s saying during our visit last year “where there is much sin, there is much grace.” One of our group members said “I've been to Rome, I've been to the Holy Land, but I've never found Christ like I have here in Kingston, Jamaica.” For all of us, Christ was very present among those we met on our visit to St. Annie's, West Kingston.