Famous Jamaican musician Bob Marley wrote the song “No woman, no cry.” This song took on new meaning for me when I worked in St Anne’s Parish in Western Kingston, an inner city community. At the end of a gun battle, I would listen for the cries of women to ascertain if anyone was shot, and tragically, it was not uncommon to hear the screams and the wailing of women as they mourned the loss of loved ones.
Violence is real. Violence is sinful. It robs people of their dignity and creates an atmosphere of fear. For residents of Jamaica’s inner city communities, violence is all around them.
Having ministered for five-and-a-half years at St Anne’s Church, I watched as people who are already poor fell further into dire poverty. There is a strong link between poverty and violence in Jamaica. Many young people become involved in crime because they lack family support systems and the basic means of survival. They join gangs knowing full well the real possibility of being arrested or being killed in a shoot-out. They do not see an alternative.
What is the response of the Society of Jesus in Jamaica in light of the reality of violence and lack of opportunities? Our approach is one of listening to the people for what they think is best for them. For example, in 2010, we re-opened a kindergarten school as the result of town hall meetings with the community. At first we had only 16 students, but now in 2017 the school is at capacity with 75 students.
Numerous projects like this have arisen from dialogue in various forms with the community. We have partnered with other organizations to run parenting workshops. We employ social workers to work with women and children. We dialogue with gangs to identify alternative sources of income. We try to ensure that once a young person is accepted into university, we find the resources to enable him or her to attend. And recently, through our newly constructed Parenting Opportunity Centre, we hope to provide parents with a variety of opportunities to hone their parenting skills. We have come to the realization that a stable family is the best support system for a child in the inner city.
While projects like these are important, nothing beats witnessing to the Gospel by simply being present. We do this by walking the streets and creating a space so that people can be social and engage in conversation. We strive to bring out the goodness in the people, even when that goodness is deeply hidden or when they are no longer able to see that goodness in themselves.
We have no control over outcomes ultimately, but we can continue to plant the seeds of love. While as Jesuits and Christians we aim for structural change to reduce poverty and inequality that breed violence, we also try to effect change one life at a time. As we continue to strive to be with the people, we hope to create an atmosphere for young people to dream and to see themselves as important.
This article first appeared in the 2017 Spring & Summer issue of Mission News.