By Robert Lalah
The disquiet caused by the Jamaica Urban Transit Company's decision to ban preaching on its buses is surprising. Who knew so many would have come out in support of the bus-riding preachers? I wouldn't have guessed it, given all the jokes made about them over the years.
Back in the day, if you found yourself competing for the affections of a young lady, your best bet would have been to start a rumour that her other suitor preached on buses for spare change. This strategy (which I insist cannot be traced back to me personally) might now require revision.
Lots of people have been voicing displeasure with the move to muzzle the lay preachers. Freedom of speech is being infringed upon, they say. God's people are being persecuted for their beliefs, others suggest. Some more impassioned supporters have declared this the final nail in the coffin of an ungodly Jamaica. If this decision isn't reversed, they warn, certain doom shall befall the nation.
An unsettling thought this is. But I wonder if it isn't a stretch. It's rather unlikely, after all, that God would have left the fate of the country in the hands of our public transportation administrators. Even we deserve more mercy than that.
Before we start panicking, let's remember what's happening here. Drivers of state-owned public passenger buses have been told to 'politely' inform lay preachers that, in the interest of passenger comfort and in light of complaints received, they will no longer be allowed to deliver sermons on buses, to passengers who never asked to be preached to in the first place.
What's all the fuss about?
I'm sure that some of these lay preachers are good at what they do. There's a chance, too, that someone somewhere found religion in the back seat of an overcrowded bus during one of these 'services'. But even those who enjoy the preaching must admit that forcing the entire busload of passengers to sit through it, whether or not they want to, can't be right.
Some say it's the word of God that's being spread and so it should not be restricted. But what about those who have different beliefs? Or do they not count, since their beliefs differ from ours? What if Muslim clerics, Rastafari elders and Scientologists decided to get in on the action? Shouldn't they be using the highways and byways to get their message out as well?
This isn't an attack on Christianity. It's simply a move to enable passengers to choose for themselves how to spend their time on the bus. One person shouldn't be allowed to make that decision for everyone else.
It appears that the preachers and their supporters have convinced themselves that they're on the side of good and their opponents on the side of evil. Any move against them is a move against God. This is the illusion they'll first have to overcome if they're going to get through this episode.
We're too quick to cry victimisation even when we're the ones victimising others. When police move vendors from sidewalks, the sellers often claim that they're being unjustly targeted. But no thought is given to the children, the elderly and the disabled who have to walk on the roadway when the sidewalk becomes a showroom.
There had been, before now, some reluctance to speak out about the bus preaching, and I imagine this is part of the reason it was allowed to continue for so long. Now that it's out in the open, hopefully it can be brought to closure without much more fuss.
For the lay preachers who now find themselves with some spare time, how about taking your mission into communities? You can knock on gates and actually ask those inside if they'd like to hear your reading of God's Word. Sure, this requires some more effort on your part, but isn't it worth it?
For those still feeling bitter, take heart. Late last week, head of traffic, Senior Superintendent Radcliffe Lewis, gave an interview saying what the bus preachers were doing was illegal and that they should be shown no mercy. If they're lucky, Lewis will be put in charge of enforcing the new preaching ban.
If some of the good officer's most recent efforts are anything to go by, this means there'll be a lot of huffing and puffing, a few dramatic road operations, certainly lots of media interviews, but in the end the preachers will be back spreading the good news on the buses in no time.
Robert Lalah is assistant editor - features, and author of the popular 'Roving with Lalah'. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com