Monday was National Heroes Day in Jamaica, and about three weeks before a true hero, and my good friend Bobby Wilmot, passed away suddenly due to illness (he had been struggling with kidney health for a couple of years). Bobby leaves a remarkable legacy of lives who had been touched by his selfless serving of others, his overcoming attitude, and his irrepressible joy. So, in honour of Bobby, I wanted to tell a small part of his story.
“So dis is the Englishman I have been speaking with on the phone! Beloved, it is great to meet you at last!” Bobby greeted me with a big smile, an enthusiastic handshake, and a firm hug. I couldn’t help but warm to him immediately.
It was February 1999 and I had returned to Jamaica a few days before, with plans to use basketball to reach out to young people in the community. Bobby and I had spoken on the phone, and he was excited about these plans and happy to assist in any way he could, but this was the first time I had actually met him. He was then in his early 40’s, a man of relatively dark complexion, with an almost permanent grin that revealed his very white teeth. He had a small pendant around his neck, painted with the words “Destined to Win”, an address book in his shirt pocket filled with contact numbers for friends all over Jamaica and the world, and a belt with three mobile phones arranged on his sides like pistols in an old Western Cowboy film. (I later learned that this was deliberate, because he had loved watching Cowboy films as a child).
“Well, let’s take you to Trench Town!” He said, beckoning me to sit in the passenger seat of his white Lada car. We chatted as he wove through the streets of Kingston, which got progressively less well-maintained as we drove towards our destination. As we arrived in Trench Town, Bobby was proud to welcome me to his adopted community … with every fibre of his being He believed that this was a place God wanted to see transformed. He told me the story of the violence in the community from the 70’s onwards, and some of the history behind the many challenges that the community still struggled with.
Due to the spiralling violence and unrest at that time, many business and schools had closed down, and those residents who could afford to leave also moved away, so Trench Town gradually slid into a more and more complex cycle of poverty. Then in 1988, in the midst of it all, a small group of Christians walked right into the heart of Trench Town, carrying a 9ft wooden cross. They stopped on the political borderline (an area no one in the community could cross because of the warring between politically affiliated gangs) and prayed, declaring hope for this community … a handful of them, led by Bobby, stayed for the long haul.
To begin with they met under a Mango Tree because they had no building, but Bobby described how a vision of a restored community had gripped him from that time. He began referring to the community as “Joy Town” instead of Trench Town, as a symbol of hope for transformation. This hope led him to practical action, initially through listening to the community and learning about some of the needs. When they learned that several of the schools had closed down because of fear, and that many of the children did not have access to education, Bobby and his wife, supported by his church, managed to acquire an old YMCA building and started a basic school there which they and the church have kept running ever since. They used the same building to begin a small local church on Sunday mornings. Bobby had also been instrumental in connecting with Lorna Stanley, a Jamaican lady who had a career in PR in Florida, and helping her see the need for education in Trench Town. Lorna gave up her career in the US and returned to Jamaica in 1994 to found Operation Restoration, a remedial high school for young people who had dropped out (or been kicked out) of the regular school system. This school continues to provide education, and a positive influence to vulnerable young people, to this day.
On that first day in Trench Town with Bobby I was struck by the number of people along the streets who “hailed him up” (greeted him) as he walked around. This was someone who was known for his commitment to others, particularly his commitment to this community.
I spent a lot of time with Bobby over the coming months, and one of the forums we worked in together was the Trench Town Pastors Fraternal. These brothers planned a series of events in the streets of the community, which Bobby described as “an assault on the Kingdom of darkness”. Different churches working in unity to bring warring communities together, and share the hope of the gospel message with them. One night we were gathering on another borderline between two gang territories, where there had been an ongoing gun war with almost nightly shooting incidents for several weeks.
Trench Town has a drainage gully running down the middle of it’s main road, and I had arrived early to help set up, so was carrying a speaker across the road … when the shooting started. Some men had appeared, and ran, crouching low, across the road, immediately after which the gunshots began. Everyone around me “got flat”; ducking for cover behind one of the walls, to have some protection from any stray bullets, so I followed their lead. The only cover near to me was a wall running along the side of the gully, which came up only about two feet from the ground, , so I lay as low as I could on my back. I waited for the next few minutes, with the sound of bullets zinging through the air above me, because there were very few breaks in the shooting. After a few minutes the shooting died down to an occasional burst, so I got up and ran across the road to a gateway into a small yard where a little cluster of guys from the different churches were crouched down. The cover was better there, which was reassuring because the shooting continued on and off for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile across the street, Bobby had taken cover with a few other church leaders. One of whom (a man named Pastor Morgan, from a church on Maxfield Avenue) shared with Bobby that he had been shot before, so the gunfire was making him very nervous and he wanted to leave. In Bobby’s own words, he “took the assignment” of fetching his friend’s car so that he could get away to safety. So he took his car keys and snuck up the road, keeping low while the gunshots were still firing. He brought his car right to the place where Pastor Morgan was sheltering, opened the door, and even walked with his friend to the car to shield him, before taking cover again as the car drove away.
As the gunshots subsided, the first thing the leaders did was gather together for prayer. They were bold prayers for God to bring his promised peace and restoration on earth as it is in heaven, and it was inspiring to see the courage and faith of these men. They had a quick conversation afterwards, and the obvious question was; what should we do now? Bobby spoke up; “We’re not leaving. This is when the community needs God’s people more than ever.” There was unanimous agreement that this was the right time to be in the community, and not the time to pack up and leave. So we got right back to setting up for the event, and it went ahead.
The street filled up throughout the evening, the music was lively and helped people relax again. When Pastor Morgan got safely out of the community he called the man who was due to share his testimony at the meeting that night, Roger Weller, and warned him not to go. Pastor Weller responded; “No man! I am going down there to stand with the brethren.” He was an ex-gunman from a gang, so when he told his story that night the community was fully attentive. At the end around 300 people came forwards and prayed with the preacher to receive Christ, and the atmosphere in the community had changed dramatically in a short space of time, from one of fear to one of celebration and hope.
Talking with Bobby afterwards, gave me further insights into his convictions. He had seen many street meetings, many people say a prayer, and he knew that it only occasionally resulted in profound individual transformation. What he saw was the significance of that night in the long term process of restoration in the community itself. It was a celebration of what Bobby had been convicted by over all those years; that God cared about Trench Town and was committed to the community. What had communicated that conviction to the people, louder than any words could have done, was the fact that the people who believed it didn’t leave when they came face to face with the darkness and danger in the community.
Another thing Bobby celebrated with enthusiasm was that when people asked “What church is this?” they had been able to respond “This, it isn’t any particular church, it is just the church.” Each time this answer was given it was met with a surprised but very positive response. Bobby later said that it showed that there is power in unity, and quoted Jesus’ prayer in John 17: “I pray that they may be one, even as we are one.”
The church grew in respect in the community that night, and through that season of working in unity. I spoke with Bobby recently about that night back in 1999, and he commented that back then there was almost no traffic in Trench Town because people were so afraid of the community, whereas now the streets are busy. He even joked that he had to be careful crossing the road because there is so much traffic.
Through many other tests, Bobby lived till his last breath from this deep conviction that God hadn’t given up on this community, and he was a source of encouragement and support to many who have served there. While tirelessly serving Covenant Community Church, keeping the school running, serving Operation Restoration and the Joy Town Community Development Foundation, Bobby was constantly running errands to help people, whether it was submitting forms so that elderly ladies got their pensions on time, or making sure that children got their school fees paid, or helping people have their paperwork in order to apply for a job, Bobby was an uncle, friend and father figure to many, many people. He will be greatly missed until we meet again (as he often would say) in the New Jerusalem. In the meantime he leaves the legacy of a life well-lived.
I hope this gives you a glimpse of Bobby, a remarkable soul, and a true Jamaican hero.