Friday, November 5, 2010

Prof. Barry Chevannes - Jamaica's Beloved Peacemaker

Professor Barry Chevannes - Rest in Peace

Barry Chevannes’ message to the gunman: 'You can choose not to kill'

Jean Lowrie-Chin | Jamaica Observer | Monday, January 31, 2005

If you know a gunman, if you know a don man, could you give him Barry's message? Mister gunman, Mister don man, Barry Chevannes wants you to know that you're human, not an animal. He knows you have the power of choice. You are not a fly that must breed in garbage, you can remove yourself from the garbage. Just as you chose to kill, you can choose NOT to kill. You have a human will - you are not programmed to kill.

If anybody feels your pain, it is Barry Chevannes. Sure, he has the handle of "Professor", but that journey took him to St George's College from Glengoffe, St Catherine, every day with no breakfast in his belly. "The priests noticed I was listless and arranged with a lady to serve me breakfast, but after a while I stopped going. I was self-conscious, embarrassed."

St George's was a caring institution, he recalls, and remembers the good times shared with lifelong friend and teacher Horace Levy, classmates Norman Wright, Trevor Appleton, Walter Campbell, Tony Wong and Peter Judah. He was also a contemporary of Trevor Munroe and Ronnie Thwaites. "The Jesuits instilled in us a sense of calling," he says. "They told us that God had a design and we were to find it."

They nurtured the ideals of this brilliant boy, who decided to serve his people by entering the priesthood. He studied in Massachusetts from 1959 to 1966 in the fine ferment of the Black Civil Rights Movement. Fate thrust him in the vanguard of a march down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, sharing the frontline with none other than Martin Luther King Jr as he strode into history. "I kept looking across, watching his face. I was so moved by his passion for his people that I wanted to work with blacks in the south."

But Barry's homeland had plans for him. He was away when Jamaica became independent, but joyfully received her anthem and learned it by heart. "When the plane touched down in Kingston in 1966, I found myself singing the anthem, glad to be home."

Barry Chevannes taught Latin at Campion College while teaching himself how to play the guitar. Then he joined Father Schecher in a two-roomed house in Rose Town, as they decided that church was too far from the people and began to share more deeply in their lives. I remember the long-robed scholastic Mr Chevannes earnestly teaching the rudiments of philosophy to our joint Alpha-George's sixth-form class. Best of all, I remember the "Spirit of the Laad" in his hymns about Pentecost, the Birth of Christ, Ruth and Naomi.

After receiving permission from his superiors to enrol at the UWI to study sociology, he finally decided that a celibate life was not for him. His thesis on the Rastafarians earned him his degree in social anthropology, and he continued at Columbia University with an even more in-depth study on them.

But the teachings of his practical mother, his kindly father and the caring Jesuits at St George's remained with him, as he mentored his students and used his findings to make important initiatives. He was also influenced by sociologist C Wright Mills who believed that sociology should be solution-oriented. He founded Fathers Inc, the organisers of the Model Father Competition, in 1991, and Partners for Peace in 1997. The Centre for Studies in Public Safety and Justice established a few weeks ago, and headed by Dr Anthony Harriott, is a direct outcome of this movement.

A Study on Urban Poverty and Violence was a joint project of Horace Levy and Barry Chevannes. The title of the final publication was "They Cry Respect", as their findings showed the alienation and disrespect suffered by Jamaica's poor. "Unemployment and poverty are not causes, but the conditions that breed crime," Barry believes.

The passing decades have added an edge of urgency to his earnestness. The gun has now become part of the accoutrements of manhood among our poor youth, he observes. "These factors will not be solved overnight. This is a mind-set that will now have to be unset with re-education and transformation. I believe job creation is key to this transformation."

"We need to approach the gunman through his friends, and help him unravel this knot of discontent that sends bullets to a man's heart," Barry believes.

Barry and his wife Pauletta have seen too much good come out of their efforts to ever give up on their country. Pauletta was principal of Charlie Smith High School for many years and Barry remembers her commitment to her students - mentoring, feeding the football team in training. Barry has seen the Partnership for Peace help to transform several individuals, including Sandra Sewell of August Town, who became a powerful force for peace. "It was a terrible blow when she was murdered last year," he says painfully.

It could not be a coincidence that Barry attended a meeting called by the US visionary Robert Roskind last year, to discuss plans for a peace concert to mark Bob Marley's 60th birthday. "I thought, why not make it a violence-free day? Robert and Colin Leslie embraced the idea, and Dimario McDowell's inspired graphics have given it impact. It is heartening to see the support from our entertainment personalities, the Ministry of Health Violence Prevention Programme, Jamaica National Building Society, CVM, JIS, TVJ, Worldtron, Hands Across Jamaica. Both the PNP and the JLP have endorsed our project. Miss Lindsay from Devon House called to ask how she could help, and now has a sign outside Devon House supporting our cause."

Barry wants February 6, No-Violence Day, to be the beginning of our movement for peace. "I am not so naïve to believe this will be easy," he says. "We have to change the conditions to sustain the peace. But you have to start. If you sit and contemplate how far the journey is, instead of taking the first step, you will never start."

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