He stood on the edge of East Road, in Trench Town, Kingston, Jamaica, scanning the plot of land before him, his mind was in another place, a place of big plans, high hopes and higher ideals. Barely out of adolescence, he had returned to Jamaica with a vision; Basketball. To use this sport as a way of reaching disenfranchised youth in inner-city Trench Town, strengthening them spiritually, psychological and physically to face the challenges of their everyday existence, preparing them for adulthood; an alternative adulthood… one without guns, crime and violence.
His eyes were scanning the open land opposite; a perfect location for a basketball court. He started across to take a closer look when suddenly he felt an urgent tug on his hand pulling him back. Looking down a small hand was grasping his and small eyes pleaded earnestly, “Sir, don’t go over there. They will have an open shot.”
This was my husbands first introduction to Trench Town. It was 1999, and he was 23. What he had failed to understand, which the small boy knew only too well, was that this land, perfect for his dream of a basketball court, was the borderline between the PNP and JLP strongholds (the two main political parties in Jamaica). On one side of that piece of land was a church that had been burned down in the fighting between politically connected gangs years before, on the other side sat a three story primary school which had sat vacant for twenty years due to the violence. This perfect place for a basketball court was actually the no-mans land of a battle field, the vacuum between two trenches, the fault line between polarised communities, in a decades old war.
Violence has a long history and a short fuse in inner city Jamaica, and this violence rises and falls like passing weather pressure systems bringing the warmth of peace in some seasons or the storms of war in others.
Despite a population of just 2.9 million people, Jamaica has one of the highest (per capita) homicide rates in the world. In 2015 alone there were 1,205 murders (more than three each day), 1069 shootings, 589 aggravated assaults, 577 rapes, 1,904 robberies and 1,777 break-ins. In 2013 there were ten thousand cases of reported child abuse.
Since that tug on his hand many years ago my husband has been caught in crossfire twice (once with an armoured vehicle) held up at gunpoint twice, lost friends to violence, spoken at the funerals of the youth he was working with, carried victims of abduction and rape to counsellors and counselled gunmen against retaliation in heated situations.
Trench Town, where David has worked for the last fifteen years is an inner city community of Kingston with 64.1% unemployment.
What does peace on earth look like? You might be surprised to hear that it is this community, Trench Town that has given both David and I our first real glimpse of this, and the belief that peace is possible, anywhere.
It was in 2005. I was engaged to David but we would be married a year later.
A hurricane had been raging within Rema (a section of Trench Town) for over seven months. The ‘Don’ or area leader had been killed and the vacuum of his absence left a wake of warring splinter groups.
My husband and a nervous team were about to walk into the eye of this storm, armed only with face paints, bubble wands and hoolah hoops. Was he mad? It does sound crazy but it is a strategy the charity we work with has been using for decades in many places around the world, a strategy to build social capital and bring communities together for connection, healing and hope.
Rema needed hope, everyone knew this. Members of the community had approached my husband asking for help. So a date had been set for the community connection festival. They ran a volunteer training night with forty people from local churches saying they would turn up to help. It was encouraging, being surrounded with willing support, it made it all look possible.
But Goliath’s are never faced by armies, they are faced by the unexpected, by the meek with nothing but a sling and five small stones. In the weeks leading up to the community festival six people in Trench town were gunned down in the violence. After this, most volunteers pulled out. Who wants to get caught in a hurricane after all?
There were just 12 people left. These volunteers were from Rema itself, teachers, church goers or teenagers from the youth club David ran. I guess those who want peace the most will risk the most to create it, standing in the eye of a hurricane.
The site designated for the festival was the border line between the rival gang territories, a small ‘no mans land’ strip of road. When my husband and his team showed up the two gangs were sitting opposite each other glaring across the border line between them, guns visible, fingers on triggers. The air was thick with tension.
My husband spoke to both sides, one and then the other. He was familiar with most of the young men. Then he and the team started setting out the games, the face paints, the bubble wands. Five small stones.
A few curious children wandered over cautiously beginning to engage with the activities.
Suddenly, one of the gunmen who hadn’t been there earlier arrived waving his weapon yelling that he had been fired on earlier, “Mi ready fi deal with this t’ing now”. One of the gunmen from the other side, pistol in hand, waved him down imploring “Let the children have their fun day”. The first gunman glared across the road menacingly but calmed down.
“Alright, Alright” he said, holding his weapon loosely and waving the other young men across the borderline to stand down, “Make di pikney have dem day, we deal with this t’ing later”.
Relief fell cautiously over the little team. They resumed the activities.
One by one little faces started to peak around corners, come out of the shadows and emerge from behind closed doors. Little by little more children ventured out. Laughter called to laughter and soon more children appeared, flocking to the activities, defying the tension in the air and the fear in the pit of their stomachs. Gradually over the hours others came out of their houses, coaxed by the laughter, drawn by curiosity. The atmosphere began to relax and soon parents and older teenagers joined in with the festival, walking on stilts, joining in the hoola-hoop competition and just enjoying the fun together. There were not enough volunteers for all the activities so many of the community members began to help. The festival continued positively and smoothly and as it did, the community ‘breathed out’ a sigh of relief. People connected with people, eyes met in conversation, hearts met in laughter, lives met in life.
As the day drew towards its end the final game was a ‘tug of peace’ where the children challenged the adults on either side of a well worn rope. The tenacity and sheer numbers of the children won against the tiredness and caution of age and shrieks of youthful delight filled the air.
Finally the the sun turned from bright to golden and the volunteers began to pack away the equipment. It was over.
As he was packing things away David turned in surprise to find one of the gunmen from that morning standing beside him, but the look in his eyes was a world away from the glare that had been there that morning.
“Some of de lickle pikney-dem nuh get dem face paint-up yet”. He was concerned that some of the children hadn’t had a chance to have their face painted yet. He was asking if he could borrow some of the paints.
As David left the community that day this gunman who in the morning had had his finger on the trigger of a gun was now sitting on a wall surrounded by little children painting their faces.
Before the festival there had been violence in Rema for over seven months with many fatalities, six killed in the week before the festival. In the five months following the festival there was no gang related violence at all.
I wish I could say it finished then and there, but it didn’t. After five months the violence did return. In September 2006, again at the request of the community, we repeated the festival in Rema. Some of the teenage young men who are part of Fusion’s Youth Basketball club in the community volunteered to help (one had a few months previously been shot in the belly in the resumed gang wars). Seeing these young men given the opportunity to take responsibility for making their community a better place, and seeing them carry the responsibility so well, was such a contrast to the label most inner-city youth have thrust upon them. They had glimpsed an alternative and they were beginning to live it.
At the end of this second festival the community came together, held hands in a big circle and prayed for ongoing peace in their community.
Today there is still sporadic violence in Trench town and the surrounding inner city communities, but if you ask anyone in the community they will tell you it is better than it has been for a long time.
Peace after violence does not come to any community by chance. Violence usually begets more violence in the endless cycle of retaliation. Peace comes only with five smooth stones, hard work and the courage to stand outside in the storm.
I can see the irony of using the metaphor of David and Goliath in talking about peace and nonviolence. David faced and killed Goliath in war. But this is not the point of that story. The point is that a small boy faced a battle-hardened warrior and won. Peace is made by the meek with nothing but five small stones, by the courage of a few who are willing to be vulnerable. David and Goliath is not just a story of war. It is a story of courage against all odds. It is the story of the civil rights movement, the Indian revolution, the Filipino people power revolution and the dismantling of the Berlin wall. It is the story of vulnerable human beings doing whatever it takes to stand in the eye of a storm, draw a line and say no to violence retaliation and fear.
Ghandi said ‘The path of true non-violence requires much more courage than violence. Non-violence is a power which can be wielded equally by all– children, young men and women or grown-up people, provided they have a living faith in the God of Love and have therefore equal love for all mankind’
A study by Lederman, Loayza, and Menéndez in 2000 of 39 developed and developing world countries found that the presence of mutual trust within a community significantly reduces the incidence of violent crimes within that community.
This research connects nonviolence with trust, but trust cannot be built in a vacuum; Relationship builds trust. Trust is only born in the intimacy of respectful relationship. That is the real reason why the festival in Rema was effective in contributing to the ensuing peace of the following months. Relationship is the forging fire of peace.
Albert Einstein said ‘Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding’ . Understanding can only be achieved through respectful relationship, listening and human connection.
The closer I am to you, the more difficult it is for me to see you as a category or an enemy. When we laugh together we discover that we are not as different as we thought. When our guards drop down, we discover that essentially we are the same; We are human.
Sometimes the goliath we need to fight first is the goliath of our own prejudices, we need to dismantle our own hostility in order to disarm the hostility of others. Peace begins early, before we face each other across a fault-line, facing each other across a cup of tea, challenging each other to break down our prejudices and see the human being behind the stereotype. In this light, we, everyone of us are called to be peacemakers. To break down the barriers that keep us all isolated from each other, to prevent the fault lines from forming, to prevent the hurricanes from brewing, by listening, hearing, understanding and trusting.
As I write this young men from the West are travelling across the world to join ISIS. I wonder how many of them would not be in the mental place they are if there had been a human moment somewhere in their lives, where someone stopped, made space and listened? I guess we’ll never know
The challenge we all face is that relationship is personal. It requires us to let go of our right answers, our ideological ammunition and be humble, be vulnerable. It challenges us to be open to other ways of seeing.
The reality is that war is also personal, it is not just out there with ‘them’, it is on our own door steps, in our living rooms and even in our beds. There are times when the fault line runs between I and the man I love most in the world, when he just cant see how wrong he is and if only he could understand… the ground beneath us tremors and my unwillingness to listen or bend wrenches the earth wide between us. The wound smarts long, as long as my pride persists.
And the fault line runs between you and me; In the distance across the fault line I am an expert on your faults and you are barely human, and worthy only of the hate I avalanche upon you in your absence. And to you I am as small as an ant and the cause of all your troubles.
This is how we do it, we Homo Sapiens, this is how we do the dance of hate; the dance of war. We know all the steps by heart. But do we know the steps to peace?
That day in 2005 could have ended differently. David and his team were taking a risk. They were gambling on humanity, and lets face it, the odds aren’t always good. They were weak. But as Einstein pointed out, might doesn’t produce peace, peace cannot be achieved by force.
Jesus of Nazareth said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’ He doesn’t say blessed are the peace keepers, the peaceful, the peace lovers. Peace must be made before it can be kept, and the making of peace needs to come early, before violence and the retaliation cycle get a foot in the door. Peace on earth will not come through clever negotiations and well written treaties, through threatening armouries promising the threat of retaliation.
Peace will come though relationship and human connection which produces understanding and trust.
Peace will come through a very human moment over a cup of tea and a game of chess. Peace will come through human beings face to face meeting eyes and meeting hearts. Peace will come through the dramatic realisation that despite our differences we are all God’s children, and in being God’s children we must look to him for answers. Not with prayers saying… ‘how can we win this war?’, ‘how can we beat the enemy?’, ‘how can we show them how right we are and how wrong they are?’…
… but with listening prayers; Prayers like ‘Father of us all… what next?’.
These prayers have already been answered; Answered with the opposite of human answers, answered with the five small stones of ‘love your enemy. Do good to those who hurt you. Turn the other cheek’. Throughout human history when men and women have stopped to listen to the voice of God (beyond prejudice, rhetoric, idealism and religious jargon) peace has come; Not without sacrifice, not without struggle, but in meekness and strength it has come to stay.
Peace on earth is possible, but only with five smooth stones. That is all it takes; That and the courage to stand outside in the storm…
…And those five small stones are in your pocket as well as mine.