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Mutterings of an unholy preacher

Howard Gregory

Sunday, December 02, 2012    

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The actions of the managing director of the JUTC, Admiral Hardley Lewin, in announcing a ban on preaching on the buses, has sparked a debate which has many members of the religious community all riled up and engaged in public discourse in ways that few other subjects of national concern have been able to engage their attention.

At one extreme, the only thing left for some religious persons to do is to label him the "anti-Christ". On the other hand, there are those who see this as an opportunity to rein in some of the religious activities within the society as they give expression to their questioning of the value of religion itself.

Religion is such a very sensitive issue which is likely to evoke emotive rather than rational responses. This has led some persons to keep their views to themselves or to be confused as to the nature of the issues involved. Nevettheless, fully conscious of the hornet's nest which any pronouncement from a leader within the Christian community may evoke, I would like to enter into a public discussion of the matter.

From the very outset I would like to indicate my affirmation of the position taken by Admiral Lewin. The Christian community has a mandate for mission, which involves preaching, though not confined to the same, and which is encapsulated in Matthew 28:18-20:

"Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.' (19) 'Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20) and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'."

The question becomes, how does the church fulfil that mission?

Unfortunately, there have been many instances in history when the church has understood this to mean the coercion and mandatory conversion of persons to the faith. These are sad chapters in the life of the church and to which the church in this age should not lend its support. This kind of approach to the exercise of the mission of the church is inconsistent with the way in which Jesus exercised His ministry and the early church of the New Testament exercised its mission as recorded in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. There was never any attempt to corral an audience and then present the gospel to them, but rather, a recognition that the appeal of the gospel is voluntary and must not be presented to people in ways that are boorish and an imposition.

Unfortunately, there has developed in this country a religious culture which is informed more by the values of the society than that of the gospel. It has become necessary for legislation to be passed governing the noises that can emanate from sound systems, governing the volume at which these activities can be carried out, the permissible range of such sounds, and the hours within which they are permitted. Indeed, it is perhaps opportune that a revisiting of this legislation and its application is currently being undertaken.

Yet, there are Christian communities who believe that what emanates from the sound systems constitutes "secular" noise, but that what comes from their own amplifiers constitutes "sacred sounds" blasting entire residential communities "in the name of Jesus". So residents who have bought their homes or simply live in the community have no option or right in these matters, because it is the good news of the gospel which is being bellowed at them.

Similarly, there is a spiralling level of invasiveness taking place in hospitals across the country. Hospitals have always been a setting within which ministry is offered by representatives of the church who are deemed to be part of the holistic treatment of the sick, as well as the staff who work under conditions and with situations which benefit from the spiritual and emotional support which religious caregivers can offer. To that extent, hospital chaplains are part of the institutional establishment across the world and here in Jamaica.

What has now developed in the public hospitals are self-appointed preachers and untrained representatives of some religious congregations who are now entering into hospitals to introduce their own culture of noise-making by undertaking evangelistic services on the wards, contradicting the medical prescriptions of the medical staff, and attempting to induce religious experiences and responses in patients which are most inappropriate. I am aware of situations in which such persons attempt to take very sick patients out of hospital beds in order to get them baptised by immersion. The situation has become unbearable.

Those who are interested in what is going on can speak to members of the medical team in hospitals and the clergy of many denominations who, as a result, are finding it more difficult to carry out legitimate visits with their members because of controls which have had to be put in place by the administration.

The point is that there is a legitimate time and place for the church or any of her members to engage in the mission of the church, and there must be limits to the ways in which this is undertaken, which should not require external enforcement, but should be seen as inherent in the very gospel which is being proclaimed. We currently function with a notion of public space and the rights of citizens in such context which is receiving increasing definition and focus. Accordingly, citizens are being protected from secondary smoke from cigarette users in public spaces.

There are many things underlying such laws, but clearly the matter of choice and the balancing of the rights of one with that of the other citizen in such contexts is what is at stake. Not only do I understand public transportation to be of the nature of public space, but it is public space which one has paid to occupy. Fortunately or unfortunately, such a transaction does not involve a ticket to an evangelistic experience.

In many parts of the world, and indeed in this country, it is permissible for anyone to take on the role of preacher at any street corner or public park, and citizens are then free to decide whether they want to stop and listen, heckle the preacher, make an act of contrition and conversion, or simply continue on their journey. It is a totally different matter when it comes to public transportation for which one has paid and from which one cannot choose whether to participate. I cannot see how any preacher can have a right to carry out his/her preaching on public transportation which transcends or supersedes the rights of the citizen to a peaceful ride on the bus.

I have not had much occasion in recent time to use public transportation, but I recall my days on the trains of Jamaica, and the line-up of preachers along the stations from Kingston to Montego Bay. These were all self-appointed preachers who were more a source of annoyance and entertainment in a context that was inappropriate and intrusive. I cannot but wonder how this whole discourse concerning preachers on public transportation would flow if these preachers were to make their appearance on the Knutsford Express coaches to Montego Bay or the Southern Express coaches to Negril.

It is now commonplace for many Jamaicans to travel by plane. Most of us know that when we get on a flight, we can be anxious about flying, tired from a long day or early rising, and just need to have a rest. The worst thing that can happen to a passenger in such a situation is to have a neighbouring passenger who wants to talk all the way, one who wants others to hear the music from their iPod, or the passengers a row behind who need everyone in the neighbourhood to hear their conversation.

Indeed, there are passengers who would want to take on the role of the preacher in the most offensive way while sitting beside you, by telling you why the church to which you belong is the wrong church. Left to some Jamaicans, and given developing trends, it won't be long before some decide to try the aisles as a platform for preaching. Thankfully, as an option, many airports have a chapel and available chaplaincy service for those who would seek religious ministrations as they travel.

It is here that I believe that there may be a way forward for accommodating the current preachers on JUTC buses. It may be that bus parks could be a setting for preachers to offer their services in designated places. Commuters would then be free to make use of such religious services as they deem appropriate, but once they have paid their money and boarded public transportation they should be free to enjoy their journey without imposition of one kind or another.

If the preachers of the Christian faith have such rights which override the rights of the passengers, what shall be the right of the people of other faiths, or political activists who see public transportation as the platform for a captive audience?

As a preacher of perhaps dubious holiness in the sight of some, I am fully aware of those who see preaching as the avenue to a quick buck, and it does not take Oliver Samuels and 'Blacka' Ellis to drive home that point in theatrical farce. It is a reality with which we have to deal. It is argued these days that everyone must be free to "make a bread", and preaching has always been the source of the bread for many, but whether it should be by negating the rights of others who are not so persuaded or desirous of such a service while on public transportation is another matter.

Finally, I am fully aware that in most organisations and institutions, when someone uses their facilities to ply their trade, they must pay for such a facility. I am also fully aware that the preachers on public transportation all climax their activities with an appeal for monetary contributions. May I therefore, ask if the JUTC is currently the recipient of such income, given their precarious financial condition, or whether this matter will be on the table if such a concession is granted in the future in response to public pressure?

— Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

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