On Saturday, July 1st the Bahamas buried one of its great sons, Archdeacon William Thompson, Rector of the St Agnes Parish Church in Nassau. Archdeacon Thompson was a Caribbean bred theologian with a deep understanding of Bahamian and Caribbean history. He was proud of being a graduate of Codrington College in Barbados. He was a Bahamian that was in no doubt about the fact that he was a Caribbean person. He loved cricket and often came to watch Test Cricket here in Jamaica or in Barbados. Indeed, the last time he came to Jamaica, to watch test cricket, was on that infamous occasion when the Sabina pitch was declared unfit and the match abandoned after little more than an hour of play.
He was adamant in his view that Black Anglican priests in the Caribbean, the epitome of the Black Englishman, were an important and critical factor in the movement against white supremacy. By mastering the high culture of England at the highest level of its ritual and symbolic expression these sons of African ancestry-matched the master at every step and established that they were equals. Although I am not one given to a lot of formality in worship, the service at St Agnes on a Sunday morning, especially when the Bishop was in attendance, had all the bells, smells, genuflections and chants that left you with a sense of awe and an appreciation for the majesty of the Most High.
Archdeacon Thompson met his death in a manner totally out of character with his life. He was gunned down at around 3.00 am one morning by a young man who broke into the Rectory, woke up Father Thompson and his wife and demanded that he open the safe. He did not give Archdeacon a chance, he shot him several times. In the shock, Mrs. Thompson was unable to open the safe and neither could the robber. So he left without getting the money he sought. While Archdeacon Thompson did not die immediately despite the work of his doctors they could not save his life. Archdeacon Thompson had retired. He and his wife were in the process of moving out of the Rectory. There can be no doubt that the assailant knew who Archdeacon Thompson was.
The entire Bahamas has been in shock over his death. After the shock has come the feeling of vengeance. This has come not only in the aftermath of Archdeacon’s death but also in response to the spate of gun violence that has been occurring in New Providence. In a previous column I had pointed out that up to March this year, per capita, the Bahamas had a higher murder rate than Jamaica. Gunning down an icon of Christian grace and charity in the Rectory in which he lived was just the last straw.
Archdeacon Thompson was a friend of mine. He took more than a passing interest in my research and writing about male marginalisation. Whenever I went to Nassau he would invariably organise a session with friends who had an interest in history, sociology, and theology and we would have a really good discussion on a wide range of issues related to this topic. He shared papers he wrote that he thought would be of help to me. He read some of my work and gave me invaluable feedback. We had long sessions in which we spoke about almost every issue under the sun.
What has struck me more than anything else about Archdeacon Thompson’s death is that on the numerous occasions that we had discuss anger and violence among young males he was always so optimistic and positive. It is as if he was blind to the evil side of this phenomenon. In his work in his Parish and Nassau he went out of his way to help the drug addicts, the unemployed and others who seem to be falling between the cracks. He would be the last person that you would think that one of these young men would kill.
It is quite popular in Jamaica, when discussing violence and young males, to put it all down to poverty and the state of the economy. The assumption here is that once we correct the economic problems everything else will fall into place. The situation in the Bahamas and the United States clearly indicate that this is not the case. The Bahamas has a per capita income of over US$20,000 much is many times more than that of Jamaica. Unemployment is low and pay is good. In the United States the economy is booming and unemployment is at the lowest in several decades. That has not stopped the shootings, which are not only in the inner city but also in the suburbs.
The problem confronting societies in many parts of the world is not just one of economics that can be solved by appropriate government policy. We are dealing with a social, cultural and moral crisis as well. Archdeacon Thompson death, as did the death of Madam Rose Leon, underscores that no one and no place is safe. This problem did not arise overnight neither will it be resolved tomorrow. The evidence before us is that some good people, including some who are boldly attempting to do something about it, will die.
If I am to go beyond grieving for the death of a really good friend I must point out the fact that if the Bahamas and Jamaica are to go beyond the quick fix of a military solution by imposing draconian measures it is necessary to face up to ugly realities of our societies with the courage to undertake the long-term transformations that are needed. Then and only then, will death of Archdeacon Thompson, and others like him, not be in vain.
One of Willie’s memorable points to me was that wise men and intellectuals are usually cynics because they have seen it or heard it all. Prophets inspire but they also assault and harangue people for transgressions. Priests are optimists because they believe in their rituals and God’s transforming power through them. Who knows if in pronouncing ashes to ashes and dust to dust, and the scattering of the same at the funeral of this priest, some transforming movement will arise in the Bahamas?
July 3, 2000