Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fr Jim Webb - God's intrepid activist

Monday, June 16, 2008
Jamaica Observer

He has braved threats, worked from inner city to deep rural Jamaica, and protected the ballot. But Jim Webb is no Indiana Jones, pursuing adventure for adventure's sake - he is a Canadian Jesuit priest, motivated by a strong sense of Christian social justice. His legendary efforts as a young activist priest in Canada and later in Jamaica have now earned him the top post of Jesuit Superior for English-speaking Canada.
Father Jim recalls how he and his Jesuit fellows from Canada got called to Jamaica in 1986. There were only American Jesuits here, several of them expelled in 1968 from Iraq in a "cleansing" led by an up-and-coming officer named Saddam Hussein. In the 70s, the late Archbishop Carter and Jesuit Superior Father Ken Hughes thought Jamaica would be well served to have Jesuits from another country.

Jim Webb would be the last person to tell you of his key roles in social activism, education and rural agricultural development in Jamaica over the past 22 years. However, St Peter Claver principal Margaret Bolt and the farmers in the St Mary Rural Development Project are always singing his praise. And so do I, having been a part of those first meetings he convened at the Roman Catholic Chancery, to discuss a citizens' initiative to monitor national elections - thus was born CAFFE, Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections

It was Father Jim who recruited the inspiring young Margaret Bolt to be principal of St Peter Claver at Waltham Park in 1986, moving the school's pass rate in Common Entrance/GSAT from three per cent to 70 per cent. The school was able to involve the parents, proving that regardless of the income level or environment, people are willing to go the extra mile to ensure their children's success.

Father Jim's interest in fair elections was sparked by the repugnant practices he had witnessed whenever St Peter Claver was used as a location for polling stations. When he arrived to cast his vote in the 1989 general elections, he was told, "Sorry Father, you vote already." For the 1993 elections, he placed eight volunteers at vantage points to count the comings and goings of voters. They counted 620 voters but the number of votes "cast" was 1,485.
Father Jim ensured that CAFFE was in place for the 1997 elections. That year, the Carter Centre sent a delegation headed by President Jimmy Carter to monitor the general elections. They worked closely with CAFFE and gave the elections their stamp of approval.

But even CAFFE was easy compared to the next challenge that Father Jim took on. With an offer to expand his mission in Jamaica, he conducted a survey to ask whether he should stay urban or go rural. Twenty-four out of 25 voted rural. With Catholic Deacon Peter Espeut, they researched various communities and decided on Annotto Bay, St Mary.

With the help of CIDA and the Jesuits, the St Mary Rural Development Programme was founded in 1990 with up to 300 farmers in the early years. "The demographics have changed," noted Father Jim. "The land being farmed by the older people was located on hillsides - their predecessors had been granted hard-to-farm land after emancipation. Only machetes and hoes could be used so it was sheer drudgery - they couldn't compete."

The programme was able to negotiate the lease of flatlands and Father Jim has witnessed a sea change in the lives of the farmers who have been able to build better homes and buy vans. He is particularly proud of three-time National Young Champion Farmer, 26-year-old Leighton Davis.

His struggle to obtain better land for the farmers has been fraught with danger. Father Jim received a death threat in 2001 and two weeks later his fellow priest Father Martin Royackers was shot dead on the grounds of the Annotto Bay Church. It has never been proved conclusively if this was linked to the threat or if it was a case of robbery.

Born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, of a devout Catholic family, Father Jim was ordained in 1973 and posted in a poor neighbourhood in Toronto where he threw himself into social justice projects. In the 70s, he chaired the Task Force of Churches for Corporate Responsibility and would attend bank shareholders' meetings to protest against loans to South Africa still under apartheid. In 1979, a South African banker arrived in Canada to meet with the group, protesting that his request of a Canadian banking partner had been turned down "because of the power of the churches". "It was then that we realised that we had won!" exulted Father Jim.

Father Jim also worked to expose the plight of women working in the Freezone in the 1980s. "We saw hard-working women begging for money to buy milk for their babies," said Father Jim. "They had a take-home pay of $60, and a tin of milk cost $16 at the time. We surveyed 100 women and Dr Patricia Anderson wrote a paper which was the basis for our input in an inquiry into the employment practices of the Freezone," he recalls. "The factory owners were furious."

Father Jim has also been chairman of Jamaica's premier high school, Campion College, for the past 10 years. "In 1998, 95 per cent of our students came from private prep schools and only five per cent from public primary," he recalls. "Now we have 32 per cent from the public school system, a better reflection of the Jamaican society."

He is happy that during a two-day review in 2005, the school's board and management tried to determine "how Campion fits in with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount". Out of that discussion, the school's mission emerged: "To build the Kingdom of God - a world characterised by social justice, love and respect for the dignity of every person." He added, "It was because of our mission that Grace Baston took up the offer to become our outstanding principal."

One of Father Jim's heroes is the late Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who said, "We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. it is a beginning, a step along the way." As an advocate for vocations, Father Jim has recruited five young Jamaicans to study for the priesthood. We hope they will follow in his footsteps, taking forward God's magnificent enterprise.


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