Frontline Riverton City, Kingston: Jamaica loves ghetto priest

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The Independent Online
WHEN MONSIGNOR Richard Albert drives through the drug-ridden, gang-infested ghettos in and around the Jamaican capital, Kingston, the barriers come down, literally. "Good morning, pinkhead, good morning, father," yell men, women and children as they haul aside telephone poles, tree trunks or other wreckage that keeps out police or rival gangs.

"Pinkhead" is the affectionate nickname given to the American-born Catholic clergyman because he is white, bald and sunburnt from plodding hatless and in sandals through some of the western hemisphere's worst shanty towns.

Once a year, he trades Jamaica's slums for St Peter's Square. "As the Vatican's Caribbean representative on the Pontifical Mission for the Propagation of the Faith," he told me, "I get to go to Rome every May to meet the Big Guy."

Mgr Albert, 52, originally from the Bronx in New York, is a man who is making a difference on this island where hunger and poverty recently sparked violent street protests. He founded and runs the St Patrick's Foundation, a donation-driven organisation aimed at improving the lot of Jamaica's inner-city residents and, more recently, trying to encourage the rich to help to feed the poor. He believes passionately that Jamaica's government is not doing enough to narrow the wealth gap.

He is also known by both the authorities and drug lords as "The Negotiator", the man who liaises between the police and the "area dons" who control Kingston's neighbourhoods and are often involved in drug trafficking. The police rarely venture into these zones. If they do, it's with the dons' approval.

There's an awful lot of anarchy in Jamaica that the tourists never see. When police tried to arrest Donald "Zeeks" Phipps, the undisputed don of central Kingston last year, riots shut the entire area for three days. Phipps had been accused of at-tempted murder, assault and illegal possession of a firearm, allegedly for imposing his own law and order.

It surprised no one that downtown Kingston escaped unharmed from the riots against price increases earlier this month. The dons' firepower is usually superior to that of the police and few would attempt to loot stores protected by them. "Tony Moscow, the don in this part of town, was shot dead by the police right outside my home," Mgr Albert told me as we toured "Moscow", an inner-city neighbourhood named after the man who used to rule supreme.

"They cut him to pieces with machine-guns," he said, before continuing his incessant whistling. We stopped to admire a huge mural in Tony Moscow's memory. Covering an entire factory wall, it showed him wearing a baseball hat sideways and bore the inscription: "1962-1991".

"That was painted by a kid called Jonesey." Mgr Albertsaid. "He's brilliant. He's doing religious icons for my churches and help-centres now, mostly of Christ as a black man with dreadlocks."

Mgr Albert's foundation runs five separate centres to educate and feed the poorest of the poor in the inner cities, as well as a home for lepers who are taught basic skills such as sewing or woodwork.

Although he visits his slum centres daily, the monsignor moved to the wealthy Upper St Andrew's area of Kingston two years ago in an attempt to urge the haves to help the have-nots. In those two years, the congregation at his Stella Maris church has tripled, and the weekly collection has increased six-fold. The poor from the nearby slums of Grant's Pen flock to the church on Sundays to receive bags of food - condensed milk, sardines, flour and rice - bought and handed out by volunteers from Mgr Albert's better-off congregation.

Before the hand-out began, he asked both rich and poor to join him in prayer: "Dear God, my Father ... help me to heal my nation and to bring people together." At his later Sunday mass, with BMWs and Mercedes jamming the car park, he told his congregation: "If Jesus Christ were alive today, would he head for the hills? Would he sit on his verandah sipping a cool drink?"

"The `survival of the fittest' mentality cannot work anymore in Third World countries," he told me later. "In the Fifties and Sixties, there was hope and national pride. When the borrowing started in the Seventies, that's what started setting us back. We need a reality check. If the foreign debt isn't forgiven, we're going to face a social crisis that will make the recent riots seem like a holiday."