President David Granger: Bishop Francis Alleyne; Mr. Joel Freeman, Coordinator of the Catholic Men’s Ministry; members of the Diplomatic Corps; members of the Catholic Men’s Ministry; distinguished guests; members of the media; my Christian brothers and sisters, friends:
I’m glad to be here, although some of the things which I’m about to speak about I hadn’t actually given thought before I received this invitation so I had to put together seventy-two years of my life; I’m not sure what year I got to but I’m getting close to the seventy-two.
I’m an Anglican. I was baptised, confirmed and married as an Anglican at Christ Church and now good fortune has placed me about two hundred metres away from my church. My grandparents and parents were and my children and grandchildren are all Anglicans. I shall die an Anglican and Anglicanism is at the core of my spiritualism if I can call it that or spirituality.
Anglicanism, of course, has its intellectual roots in the Protestant Reformation and this year we will celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the start of the reformation. Martin Luther on the 31st October, 1517 nailed his theses on the power of efficacy of indulgences on the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Saxony- what is now modern Germany. Martin Luther, of course, was a Catholic monk and what seemed at first to be a simple act of dissidence engendered the most significant change in the Christian doctrine and perhaps the most significant event in my view, since the resurrection of Christ. You may not agree with me, but the Reformation triggered an upheaval mainly in Europe of course and many of the northern countries turned to Protestantism; many of the southern countries remained with the Roman Catholic Church, but of course the reformation literally opened Pandora’s Box. It created hundreds of branches of Christianity of which Anglicanism is only one.
Why was it so? Partly because the Reformation occurred soon after the invention of printing; before that most of the writing was done by hand. But particularly in Germany, where printing is said to have been invented, but of course it was actually invented in China, but as far as the western world is concerned this helped to produce Bibles in mass quantities. And it put the Bibles in the hands of ordinary people for the first time. It actually moved Bibles from the exclusive control of the Clergy and put it in the hands of the laity. So for the first time in Christiandom, people could read and understand for themselves without instruction, without interpretation of their priest and bishops; and this is what Protestantism means to me. No one has to tell me what to believe and how to think. I read and work things out for myself and I think this is what happens in scores of churches whether you regard them as being formal or informal.
My Anglican faith was forged from my infancy; I was born in Ruimveldt in Georgetown but I grew up in Bartica. I don’t know anything about the place where I was born, I know where I was born now, but I wasn’t conscious, I went to Bartica as a baby. I attended St. John the Baptist Anglican School and worshiped at St. John the Baptist Anglican Church, so all my childhood memories are about that pretty town. I was the seventh of my mother’s eight children and by the time I was born, she had given up her nursing profession to become a harder working housewife.
Ours was a happy home and my biblical name David is a badge of honour and from time to time I recall David’s trials and triumphs. Bartica introduced me to Guyana’s rich multi-cultural and multi-religious character. The town during my infancy during the 1940’s was already an integrated multi-ethnic community with a large Indian, African and Amerindian population and with many Chinese and Portuguese residents; and of course when you bring six races together there is a large mixed population.
Bartica was always known as the gateway to the hinterland; of course, the gold mining districts were accessible largely by river- by boat and of course when the aircraft did come, the aircraft were obliged to land in the river; German aircraft, a seaplane, but essentially Bartica was the gateway to what we knew as the hinterland. It is a place that attracted miners, loggers and, of course, Inland Revenue. Whenever you see people earning money you’re sure Revenue is going to come along to collect some of it and of course public servants, doctors, teachers, technicians, traders and of course the ladies of the night and other people in that trade. So my Bartica experience exposed me early to a culturally diverse, racially diverse, but socially cohesive community.
I have a clear recollection of Hindus mourning the death of Mahatma Gandhi chanting in the streets, all dressed in white. So you know how long ago that was, but there was never any friction; there was never any conflict among the various groups. The town, of course, located at the confluence of the dark wide waters of the Essequibo, the Cuyuni and Mazaruni was always well laid out. It opened for me a window to the beauty and the vastness of Guyana’s environment, especially its great rivers, its forests and its fresh air. Bartica helped to shape my worldview and even now when I’m under stress, I just sit back and think of Bartica- that expanse of water.
My family then moved to the Whim Village on the Corentyne, what is now called East Berbice-Corentyne Region, where the East Indians comprised the majority of the population. Many of them were fishermen and paddy farmers, but the shift from the laid back setting of Bartica to Corentyne was a completely different demographic environment. It was a new experience really. There I attended a Presbyterian School called the Auchlyne Church of Scotland School but my family worshipped at the St. Joseph Anglican Church, Port Mourant. When I came to Georgetown I was enrolled in Comenius Moravian Primary School in Queenstown; so that was my third Protestant experience from Anglican to The Church of Scotland to Moravian by age ten and, as typical in those days, church and school were in co-located in the same compounds.
If you’re in the church you could see the school, if you’re in the school you could look out the window and see the church. Sometimes I feel that the separation might not have been such a good idea but that’s another story. It was only after leaving Comenius Moravian that I came into contact with Roman Catholicism. I went to the Sacred Heart R. C. School on Main Street; that was a very significant encounter for me because I was unaccustomed to the candles and the statues and the entire appearance. It was a sort of cultural shock to me; not an unpleasant shock but it was just that I had never gone into a church like that.
Now where did my ideas come from? You may say, “Here is the President; surely he thinks about something, what he is going to do today; this year, during the five-year tenure?” – at least my first term in office – “What’s he gonna do?” So to understand me, you have to understand my ideas and where those ideas came from. They obviously come from my beliefs, but they also come from historical experience and they also come from my social interaction with people.
The interactions, the historical experience – all have combined to generate certain ideas in my life and I see those ideas as being instruments for change. At the time of my birth, seventy-two years ago, the situation in British Guiana was far different from what it is now; of course, the circumstances under which my own family lived – my father was a policeman; my mother was a nurse – made me from the start, sympathetic towards poor people. The international situation and the intellectual currents of the day convinced me of the injustice of colonialism and attracted me towards social justice, social cohesion and socialism as it was understood then. The denial of opportunity to the lower classes was evident at the global, regional and local levels and this had an impact on my thoughts.
My father was a policeman and at the time I was born every single police officer, without exception, was white. There was not a single coloured police officer and in almost every area of life in Guyana, the gulf, the discrimination, the prejudice was evident. Sugar plantations, we knew who was up; we knew who was down; the bauxite industry; even the ministries of the government made it clear that society was very unfair. There were many places where people of colour couldn’t go; even in the 1940’s and 50’s. My own uncle was an air force officer- Royal Air Force Officer. He went away during the war; he came back and was in his Air Force uniform and could not get a glass of lemonade in the Park Hotel; they wouldn’t serve him – that is what society was like; and people of my generation growing up developed intolerance to the sort of evident discrimination and the fact that certain people seemed destined to be kept at the bottom layers of society in perpetuity.
So my own ideas about society by the time I became an adolescent had started to crystallise around a vision of a better life for Guyanese people because of my experiences in Bartica and Whim and in Georgetown. I conceived of an ideal, socially cohesive society, a community in which people were free and equal; were safe; a community in which people could improve themselves- improved the quality of life for their families and for their children; a community in which people could trust each other and people wouldn’t be marginalised on the basis of their beliefs or the colour of their skin.
My brothers, Guyana in the pre-independence period was not a happy place for poor people. For the masses, educational facilities were meagre; of course you know there was no university. University of Guyana was opened in 1963. I first went to University in 1965, two years after it was opened, and at that time it was just across the way, so I left Queen’s College sixth form one year and the next year I was in the same classroom as a university undergraduate.
But educational facilities were scant; living conditions were depressed even in Georgetown; even in Kingston you still had many yards with one standpipe and of course the girls would have to bathe before the sun rose because the houses did not have running water inside, even in Georgetown; you can imagine what was happening in the countryside. There was a standpipe and people had to fetch water even into the mid 1960’s. The economy essentially was under the control of foreign multinationals; housing in both town and country was congested and unwholesome. Unemployment was widespread, social security was non-existent, wages were low and the public services were run by expatriates. Those of you who remember even in the mid 1960’s, a civil servant worked for about seventy-two dollars a month and you could go to the market with coins; people hardly saw currency notes those days.
Most of their business was conducted with coins- cents, gill, six cents, eight cents, bit, bit and a half; eight cents was a bit; bit and a half was twelve cents, a shilling; you had a Florin, forty-eight cents, and a half-crown was sixty cents; a crown was one-twenty. But you could actually be born and die without actually holding currency notes; now you could be born and die without actually holding coins- progress.
Unfortunately, as bad as conditions were, things got worse as we got closer to independence. As you know, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica got their independence in 1962 and from about that time we had a spate of very bad disturbances which took a racial character in Guyana. In 1964 alone, about a hundred and seventy-six people were murdered or at least they found about a hundred and seventy-six bodies but a lot more disappeared. A lot of houses were burnt and there was a huge internal refugee problem as people were forced to move from one village to the next. In the evenings, in the nights you could look into the sky and see the sky glowed red because something is burning, somebody is being killed, particularly on the sugar estates, a very dark period. A period which I hope will never recur.
I entered Queen’s College after writing Common Entrance at Sacred Heart in 1956, sixty-one years ago. QC at that time was a boy’s school but I never regarded it as an elite institution. People came there as a result of competitive exams, some paid, but people came from all races, all backgrounds; the rich and the poor, urban and rural. Some of them were exceptionally gifted. QC was secular; again coming from the religious schools this was again surprising to me but it was so secular that religious knowledge was never taught and the students were not allowed to write religious knowledge examinations. So there was a fairly rigid adherence to that secular frame of mind, that secular disposition, but it had a very rich culture and of course esprit de corps. It had very a powerful school song, “Reginae Collegium”, which is only sung in Latin and up to this day when there is a funeral ex-students rise and sing “Reginae Collegium”.
It had ten very competitive Houses and I think up to now students probably remember the name of the House more than anything else. When they meet they say, “Which House do you come from?” It published a termly newspaper, The Lictor, annual magazine and it had a variety of clubs: art club, music, beekeeping, cadets, co-ops, debating, drama, geographical society, history, philately, scouts and of course even sporting teams. So there was always something to do; there was always some extracurricular activity to go to.
It was while I was at Queen’s that I started working on the College paper called The Lictor. Again, the Roman influence is there – Lictor and I think that infatuation stayed with me throughout my life up to the present time. When I left school I actually started working as a subeditor at a newspaper and when I was separated from my profession I resorted to publishing a magazine, the Guyana Review. It’s still in existence in some form, coming out of the Stabroek News every quarter or thereabouts.
My military education began after I left school. I joined the Defence Force in 1965 and that opened a completely new phase of my life as an officer in the GDF. I was trained in Britain, in Aldershot; but when I came back I encountered a large number of young Guyanese, many of them from the rural areas and I was able to travel to the four corners of this country and that experience enriched the childhood experiences of growing up in Bartica.
Again, this is something I hope that other people would experience, being able to go to all of the regions, to go bathe under the waterfalls, to swim in the rivers, to see the animals and the vegetation. I think that experience would enrich people. Living on the coastland in little house lots, sometimes I think it’s a gross disadvantage. It doesn’t help you to see the bigger picture and I think just by going to the hinterland we would realise just how beautiful, how bountiful a country we have and I think it will encourage a change in attitude to one another and to the environment.
So I started to feel that way fifty-one years ago when I had to go into the interior and live among the people and work among the people who live there; and my experience meeting young men like myself (I was twenty, twenty-one years old) coming from the villages, Hindus, Muslims, Christians. Again, that was almost you could call it a cultural melting pot, and it showed you the futility of social conflict and the necessity for us in Guyana to hammer out some social compact which will assure us of a more cohesive set of relationships.
Unfortunately after 1992 I was separated from the profession I loved, involuntarily, and I started a new career as a publisher and I stayed there until I became bankrupt, which is likely to happen if you try to publish your own magazine in a country like Guyana and you don’t get a single government advertisement in fifteen years; but, as Bob Marley says, “when one door is closed many more is open” and I was able to embark on a new chapter of my life as an academic. I became an adjunct professor at the National Defence University in Washington DC; of course the paradox of politics in Guyana I was able to become an adjunct professor in a University in Washington; I couldn’t get a job as a lecturer at the University of Guyana – remarkable.
So it was coming after that I would call my third career as an academic that I went into the politics at this level. I think most of my life I was politically conscious. In the early days of the … while we were under British rule, you were not allowed to be a public servant and an active politician so they couldn’t hold back my ideas but I never actually held political office until 2010 when I was invited to compete to become the presidential candidate for the People’s National Congress for the elections which were expected in 2011.
So, I’ve been campaigning for the last seven years. Now, what does this have to do with the reason why you are assembled here today, in this congregation? I’ve traced the four phases of my life: particularly the professional phases, my military service, my, if you want to call it, my entrepreneurial service, my academic service and of course this brought me up to my present political office. In all of those phases naturally, I encountered problems, I encountered pain and what has kept me going forward is my quest for what I call the Kingdom of God, the search for the Kingdom of God. I think that was probably my most important discovery in my private life and in my public life. At the heart of Jesus’s teaching is the Kingdom of God. In the Lord’s Prayer alone it mentions kingdom twice in the Lord’s Prayer- thy kingdom come. What’s he talking about? In the gospels, the expression Kingdom of God appears some sixty-one times and I feel that there’s a reason for this and maybe people have different ideas of what the kingdom is. Is it a place where you go to when you die? Is there a kingdom right here on earth? So throughout my doubts and my disbelief I did ask myself what and where is this kingdom and how you get to it. And even in my moments of doubt, I turned to the four gospels and of course for counsel and for comfort I turned to the Psalms, the Psalms of David of course.
My quest, I think, has convinced me that the fundamental struggle of every Christian actually comes down to two issues: one is the service to God and second is living in harmony with your neighbour. Love of God and love of your neighbour are inseparable; if you’re seeking the kingdom of God. Jesus himself linked the love of God to the love of your neighbour. It is written in Matthew: when asked which is the great commandment in law, Jesus said:
Love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Who would put it better than Jesus himself? Two commandments: to serve God and to love your neighbour and if you just obey those two commandments you wouldn’t kill, you wouldn’t murder and some other things too.
So in seeking the Kingdom of God, we need to live in accordance with God’s commandments as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and live in harmony with humanity as revealed in the Gospel of Christ. Jesus himself made the Kingdom of God central to his teaching. The gospel or the gospels mention the term Kingdom of God maybe over a hundred times, a hundred and twenty-two times but when he was asked about the kingdom of which he spoke we read in the book, and I quote, “When he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the Kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! For, behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.”
So in my testimony to you today, this is my simple message that as you go through life, if you seek to serve God and you seek to love humanity we can have that cohesive society, a society without conflict, without the disturbances which we went through in Guyana, without the troubles which we went through a few years ago, the murders, the phantom squads, the executions. So as Christians we are constrained to practise human values of compassion, of sacrifice, and of service and it is our Christian duty to manifest these values in thought, in word and deed. Christianity has made and has a lot more to contribute to social cohesion in Guyana, making Guyana a safer place for our girl children and for the future generations.
A couple weeks ago I was at the New Opportunity Corps at Onderneeming and about 80% of the girls there are in for wandering. You’re all adults, you’re all over eighteen; you know what wandering means in Guyana. No twelve or thirteen year old girl goes on the streets of her own volition. Something is happening in that household that pushes her out or there is some bad guy outside pulling her but that damages the lives of our young generation. And as I mentioned, one young girl there is a mother. She is in the New Opportunity Corps, she has a young baby, she’s crying all the time because she wants to see her baby but if we were living in a more compassionate society, a kinder society we would be more conscious of the plight of the poor and the plight of these people who sometimes are punished for these crimes.
Every year I release women, mostly women, from jail. I say go home and be with your child. “Go your way and sin no more”. The lawyers don’t like it because they work hard to get them in there in the first place but every Christmas, I say, “Go home; spend time with the baby”. Some of them say thanks. Jesus had the same problem: cure somebody of your blindness and some of them would be very happily on their way but one or two of them would come back and say thanks; but my idea is not to sanction crime, it’s not to tolerate criminality but to give people that second chance and that is what God did for humanity by sending Jesus to redeem, to allow people to repent and not to suffer some of the harsh punishments we read about in Leviticus and elsewhere.
So we have a common objective, a common mission to create that Kingdom of God, one that is based again on those two lengths, serving God and serving our neighbour and if, as President of this country, I could help my fellow countrymen to understand that the Kingdom of God is here within us, I would have fulfilled my mission in life.