Chad Bryan, Gleaner Writer
Blind musicians Robert Lawson and his friend Lenworth Duffus have found themselves among the group of lay preachers now banned from using the state-owned Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) system to spread the gospel.
The two gentlemen who used to ply the Half-Way Tree to Downtown route as well as the Half-Way Tree to Portmore, Portmore to Downtown and Three Miles routes, among others, could oftentimes be spotted with guitars in hand engaging passengers and singing to various spiritual songs.
"Most of the times, drivers would say they don't want to hear the noise. We may not take that bus but take another one along the same route. At other times, they tolerate us. But generally we respect the driver's wishes as the noise sometimes affects the driver's level of concentration," Lawson said.
Lawson, speaking on behalf of the duo, emphasised that they do not preach but rather sing, and traced the origin of their ministry back to 2007.
"We do not really preach, we sing. We started around 2007. My friend (Duffus) used to work with another musician, but he went abroad. A friend asked me to fill in and we sometimes alternated. We decided to work on the buses to earn a little more income. We don't ask, but people normally contribute out of their own hearts. We don't ask for money, we just sing," explained Lawson.
He noted that it was difficult to find employment and that, whatever people had given them, they would have accepted. He also stated that the public generally gave them a good reception, even to the point of some people chasing them to give an extra contribution. "People run us down when we come off the bus, willing to give us more".
"We always get a good response from the public. I am a professional musician. I was part of a band, but it disbanded. I also know people from the Unique Vision Band, so our music is of a high standard," he said.
Competition when two or more lay preachers took the same bus came to characterise some bus journeys. However the duo tended to avoid confrontation.
"Sometimes when we hear other preachers, we stop singing and give them the stage. We're not in competition with anyone. We're not in any confrontation," Lawson said.
Reginald Allen, corporate communications manager at the JUTC, told Automotives that passengers complained about preaching on the buses. The largest number of complaints came from the longer routes, such as Spanish Town to Kingston.
"Passengers express that there is a complete disregard for them on the buses. The vast majority of preachers may just start preaching, and any commuter who rejects the sermon is anti this or anti that. Some do not even greet the driver or passengers," Allen said.
Allen is also mindful of the competition that occurred. "Sometimes competition often exists and there can be two separate sermons, and it can be comedic and chaotic and things become unpleasant," he said.
Allen also spoke of instances where individuals genuinely came on to JUTC buses to preach, paying their fare, but the sermon could have been heard six times over or more by a driver, which could cause a problem. Other instances, noted Allen, existed when preachers came on to the bus who were economically driven and persons on the bus became the subject of the sermon.
Garvin Grandison, a JUTC commuter, is ambivalent towards preaching on the bus. "I have mixed feelings about it. I think the preaching on the bus shows the extent of our religious freedom. Sometimes the sermons can be quite refreshing too. On the flip side, we need to respect others' personal space. It can become annoying and I sometimes question the sincerity of some of the preachers," Grandison said.
Andrew McKinley offered a different view. "They are doing what the Lord leads them to. Sometimes I find it very inspiring. I was going downtown and a man was preaching and he told of a story of how he used to be a murderer and how God had rescued him," McKinley said.