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July 7, 2020
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Response calls for authentic development

Q: Archbishop J, what is the response of the Church to the protests of June 30?

Taking a life is always a grave matter. When the life is taken by police it is always a reason to pause and ask the difficult questions. Was this justified? Did they follow the protocol? Did they use every means to contain the situation before using the gun? Was the victim given every opportunity before it escalated? These are hard but necessary questions.

When violence escalates to the extent it has in Trinidad, we need to use all means necessary to push back and reduce the violence. On the other hand, with the proliferation of guns on the street, it makes policing very difficult. The police have to always assume they are going into a dangerous situation where the person they are dealing with is more than likely to have a gun. At first glance the events of June 30 were a response to the killing of three men by the police three days earlier.


Events of June 30

The country looked on in horror as it saw mayhem break out in community after community that Tuesday morning. It was like something out of a movie. As soon as one place erupted there was a police response. The protesters were blocked and pushed back. Then another community erupted. It looked like things were unravelling quickly and the situation could become a tipping point for our society.

Looking back now, we know there was a reconciliation between Rasta City and the Muslim gangs. It seems too there was coordination between communities in the events of June 30 and the protests were staged and managed.

In all this, fundamental questions remain: If there was coordination, who did it? If this was an orchestrated plan to destabilise who was behind it? Who has the most to benefit in this? Who did the work of reconciliation between Rasta City and the Muslims?

Things aren’t always as they appear. If the plan was orchestrated, then the situation becomes potentially very dangerous. We are dealing with a tinderbox and people are playing with matches. We saw this happen before in 1990. Agitation, rhetoric about just cause, and uprising. We must learn from history in understanding and responding to this new challenge.


Vulnerability of society

I have said on many occasions that the single greatest challenge we face as a young nation, is the underdevelopment of the black urban community. This systemic underdevelopment is challenging the peace and stability of our communities. Children born into these communities have little opportunity for true development and flourishing.

These pockets of poverty are where the gangs are strongest, where the murder rate is high, where the schools are at their worst and children fall through the cracks on a daily basis. This is where the Church needs to make a huge investment. We need to offer hope to our children if we desire a different outcome.

When you add three months with no wages (COVID-19) to the systemic poverty, you have a lethal cocktail. This is why as Church we began giving out food very early in the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, we were giving just over 4,000 hampers a month. It then rose to 10,000 in this period, then to 16,000 and then to 22,000 hampers a month. This was possible because of committed coperate sponsors and the food grant from the Government. Living Water Community on their own were giving another 4,000 to 6,000 per month during the lockdown. We are still giving out food.


A deeper response

In 1970 as a response to the Black Power riots, Fr Gerry Pantin CSSp left St Mary’s College and went into the hills of Laventille to ask a simple question—What do you want? This evolved into SERVOL. This is a developmental response to systemic underdevelopment. SERVOL has made a major contribution to the development of Trinidad and Tobago.

In 2003 when gang warfare was beginning to escalate, Archbishop Edward Gilbert CSsR appointed Fr Roger Paponette and myself to the Holy Rosary and Gonzales parishes. Our time there opened a new way of parish engagement with a troubled community. Fr Clyde Harvey succeeded us there and contributed immensely to the development of the area.

For the last four years Eternal Light Community has been working in Sea Lots, walking the streets, working with members of the community for their personal development and that of the area, giving out food hampers, helping to rebuild homes destroyed by fire.

Their desire has been to take this to the next stage—with a permanent project in the community to offer a path to authentic development.

Through Republic Bank’s ‘Power to Make a Difference’ programme we are able to purchase three warehouses on a compound in Sea Lots. These will be transformed into a music recording studio, an auto mechanic garage, a school for hairdressing and a range of other skills to give young people the technical know-how for sustainable livelihoods.

The compound will also house a centre for the development of Sea Lots and a church to gather people and offer a way to Christ.

On Sunday, July 5, we met in Sea Lots (Section 1) with 394 residents. All COVID-19 protocols were observed. They came from the three parts, Sections 1, 2 & 3, and it was an incredible event.

They had given us pointers about the school and what they wanted. On Sunday, we took that to next level and had them sit in groups to speak about the skills and trades and opportunities the community wanted.

We also asked the community to dream—to dream about the Sea Lots they were willing to work for. Out of their prayer and dream came key words that led to this first draft of an aspiration: We live in love for God and each other, work for peace and harmony, show respect and discipline in our families, and gratitude in our actions. We are a community under God.

As Church we need to look at all our schools in underdeveloped communities and ensure they are contributing significantly to development. We also need to look at our parishes and ensure they are contributing to national development.


Key Message:

Authentic development is the vocation of the Church. We are called to respond not only to the immediate needs but to sustainable development.

Action Step:

Reflect on what you are doing to contribute to the most marginalised in Trinidad and Tobago.

Scripture Reading:

Micah 6:6–8