‘Blame the politicians’
Pastor Rennard White wants today’s political leaders to break the chain of gun violence entrenched by their predecessors
The prime minister is the member of parliament for his beloved Olympic Gardens community, yet Pastor Rennard White holds little regard for Andrew Holness and those who sit with him in Gordon House. They and their predecessors are at the root of Jamaica’s woes, he believes.
He does, however, respect their offices, which in a democracy brings structure, leadership, and hope. But the head of the Tower Hill Missionary Church in West Central St Andrew says that until politicians come to terms with their follies, Jamaica can expect none of the above.
At 75, his silver hair and slow gait betray his wealth of service to Jamaica. Pastor White has been a leader of the youth fellowship of the Eastern District of Missionary Church and served its various committees and leadership. He has also served as president of the Jamaica Evangelic Association and chairman of the now-defunct Peace Management Initiative (PMI).
But as his decades-long tenure as head of the church draws to a close, Pastor White reflected on his cherished Olympic Way community in an interview with The Sunday Gleaner last week, visibly hurt by the oppressive violence that continues.
He strongly believes that unless something drastic is done, political tribalism and institutionalised violence will forever hold the community and its environs hostage. Even a 50-year-old Andrew Holness may be too young to fully grasp the magnitude of this predicament, what caused it and how to change it, he posited.
“I have lived here since 1955. We were in one of the new sets of houses in the community,” Pastor White shared, his head reclined with eyes closed in reflection as he spoke with The Sunday Gleaner.
“By the time it got to the late ‘70s and ‘80s, largely under Norman Manley’s and Edward Seaga’s governments, they institutionalised violence in the interest of the political parties,” he fumed, as he cast blame for the gun and gang violence that still plagues Olympic Gardens today.
“So when the prime minister says he wants to take out the guns out of the community I say ‘hey, isn’t it you the politicians who brought them in?’ The political system, the guys in Parliament with their jackets and ties, they were the ones who weaponised this community,” Pastor White charged, listing several other similarly troubled areas islandwide.
“I don’t respect them; only their offices. They are to be blamed because of those seeds that they planted. You have to understand that the Bible says ‘whatever a man soweth that shall he also reap’, and you reap what you sow, later than you sow it and much more than you sow. So this gun and murder thing in Jamaica won’t stop any time soon.”
Out-of-control crime monster
Today, the Tower Hill Missionary Church and its neighbouring basic school are surrounded by perimeter fences with padlocks that remain locked throughout the day.
Pastor White recalls days of sheltering Sunday school students as armed men trekked across the churchyard into enemy territories. The same occurs today, as schools such as nearby Balcombe Drive Primary often have to close their doors due to gun violence that continues to wreak havoc in the area.
Twenty years ago, arson for political support was common and illegal guns were a rite of passage for gangsters into political circles.
Today, while the guns may not be directly supplied by politicians, the destructive mindset and gun culture prevail. Pastor White shares the view posited by sociologists that Jamaica is now gripped in the chokehold of crime because it cultivated a generation who developed a love affair with the gun, which became the legacy passed on to subsequent generations.
The genesis of garrison politics decades ago created the crime monster that has become out of control today, terrorising every corner of the nation, leading to 409 murders and 336 shootings so far this year. The St Andrew Central police division accounts for 14 of those murders and 17 of those shootings.
Sadly, many of the gangsters killed in the ongoing gang warfare end up having their funerals at Pastor White’s church for free, as their loved ones cannot afford to pay for it.
Some are sent to prison, ironically sometimes by the descendants of the politicians for whom their parents were enforcers.
It’s a disgrace, he argued, noting that the current debate over Jamaica becoming a republic is only a distraction. There are far more important things to focus on that will lead to the betterment of Jamaica, he said.
“A lot of the setbacks of the former years have not been sorted,” Pastor White declared.
‘There is a lot of hurt’
Pastor White believes the Government’s recently announced hefty salary increase among its ranks is another round of manipulation. There is no other way to look at it, he reasoned, noting that the pronouncement followed the government strong-arming teachers, police, nurses, and other civil servants into signing the new wage deal. In some cases, it was akin to threats, he said.
“Then afterward someone comes up and says ‘Here is some money that we found and we are going to dole out this within the political ranks’. That is wrong!” the churchman charged.
“There is a lot of hurt, there is a lot of anger, and people are suffering across the island. Some people have it very rough. I don’t think a lot of us understand how rough it is for them.”
Today, Tower Hill Missionary feeds droves of people from Olympic Gardens and provides weekly bus fare and lunch money for dozens of students, from primary school to the tertiary level, in the community. Some 15 per cent of the church’s budget, about $9 million annually, goes directly into feeding impoverished children, Pastor White shared.
The church operates on the mantra that no child must miss a day of school in spite of resource challenges, Pastor White said, and in a community teeming with informal settlements and unemployment, that is most welcomed news to many parents.
The man of the cloth is calling for more investment in the youths of inner-city communities, many of whom are often “written off” by the pen of violence.
The love of family
Pastor White is a father to two sons, Omar and Andrew, and to a beloved daughter, Renae, who now teaches at the church’s infant school. All were the products of a loving marriage between him and his wife, Blossom, for more than 40 years.
He and Blossom now have five grandchildren, and these days the clergyman spends much of his days attending to them or checking on the dozens of children at the early childhood institution.
Outside of these obligations, there is never a shortage of incidents in which the church must intervene.
White is a graduate of the Jamaica Theological Seminary and became pastor of the Tower Hill Missionary Church in 1981. He also serves as chaplain at the Olympic Gardens Police Station, where he gives counsel to officers, some of whom he said are holding on despite serious life predicaments.
Today, after performing missionary duties in 23 countries and many years of service to Jamaica, Pastor White is prepared to serve even more, whenever and wherever he is called. But he believes much effort needs to be placed on repairing Jamaican families from the social devastation they have faced, primarily at the hands of politics over the years.
To this end, he has taken a special interest in couples and premarital counselling, which he believes is also a main tool in fixing Jamaica’s social issues.
“It is very important that as couples your spiritual life and commitment are intact. You must also seek to be a good example. Young people are looking up to you, and you must maintain your family life. If you are one person at church, you must remain the same person at home. Your children mustn’t see any difference,” Pastor White noted.
“Daddy must not be at home roughing up Mommy. Daddy is a Christian man at home and everywhere.”