"BUILD a cathedral. You must build a cathedral."
I have been challenged in interesting ways before, but this was new, unexpected and extraordinarily powerful and inspiring.
A cathedral is a Christian church, but not just any church. It is typically associated with the Roman Catholic tradition and refers to structures that are grand, imposing and costly. Most are built east to west, I found, so worshippers face the rising sun and symbolically, the Risen Lord. The ground plans are typically in the shape of a cross, allowing for convenient divisions while at the same time symbolising how Christ died.
Among the world's most famous cathedrals are Canterbury in England; Chartres, France; Our Lady of Peace, Côte d'Ivoire; St Basil the Blessed, Russia; St David's, Wales; St Peter's, Italy; Washington National and St Patrick's, USA; and Cologne, Germany.
The challenge came a week ago in Washington in conversation with an iconic Jamaican I had long admired but never had a chance to interact with at more than a superficial level. He confirmed the best thoughts I had of him as an extraordinary professional and a gracious and humble human being.
We talked about Jamaica — about her travails and triumphs, her unparalleled natural beauty, the strength that is at her core, the wounds she inflicts on herself, her increasing sense of disappointment in herself as she grows older, her predisposition to see life as a race for sprinters alone, and her glorious potential yet to be realised in so many ways.
He offered wonderful insights, talking about decolonisation, for example, and demonstrating in very personal ways how steeped key individuals and institutions remain in plantation thinking - thinking that supports an insulting and unproductive class/caste system. He pointed out, too, how such backwardness and the interconnectedness of relationships complicate issues of governance and stymie even practical and urgent decisions.
Although we are united in our desire for better governance and social justice, therefore, principles for which he fights every day, he takes a longer-range view of problems that I think should be fixed "with all due haste".
"I was in Germany a few years ago and I visited the Cologne Cathedral," he said. "It took about four centuries from the time it began to the time it was completed. The people who started it knew they would not live to see its completion but they were invested in something bigger than themselves... They knew that what they were doing would mean something of great importance to others far down the road."
"You must begin to build a cathedral," he said thoughtfully. "We must build cathedrals."
Cologne today is a monument to Catholicism in Germany and to Gothic architecture. A World Heritage Site and the country's most famous landmark, it attracts approximately 20,000 visitors a day.
On Saturday, I went downtown again for a concert at the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts. From the red-carpeted grand foyer with its 16 hand-blown crystal chandeliers to the Concert Hall, it is a gracious space and America's best known home of the arts. It is named, of course, for John F Kennedy, America's 35th president, assassinated in 1963, after only three years in office.
From my seat at the end of a row in the second tier, I had to look past the giant chandeliers to see the stage. It isn't a cathedral but it is grand enough and once again, I heard my friend's challenge: "Build a cathedral. We must build cathedrals."
It isn't edifices that Jamaica needs, though, nor was my friend suggesting that. We are prone, anyway, to constructing edifices and not quite knowing what to do with them. The lovely Ward Theatre, our equivalent of the Kennedy Centre, for example, is falling into deep disrepair even though our endeavours in the arts are among our finest. Unlike Washington, DC, our capital city, Kingston, is not regarded as a tourist destination despite its rich heritage and culture. The city therefore does not benefit from the industry from which we get most of our foreign exchange, leaving edifices like the Ward chronically underutilised and underfunded.
What my friend was actually suggesting, partly in response to a proposal I asked him to review, incidentally, is the need to identify and build those core institutions, guided by those enduring values that will ultimately make our country grow into greatness.
As esoteric as it may sound, we need a philosophical framework on which to build our country. The cathedral metaphor works for me because of the strength and grandeur that such structures represent, physically and ideologically, the commitment to humanity, social justice, morality and ethics. No, they don't assure any of these things, but as a framework it is profoundly worthy.
Among those enduring values to which we must commit is the recognition of the dignity of the individual regardless of age, gender, race, class, creed or ability. In this day and age, for example, skin colour should not be regarded as a high-value currency for some people and a lack of same for others — the majority, in our case.
Such commitment should also ensure that an effort, at least, is being made not to contribute to the animalisation of our country through selfish, depraved and degenerate behaviour. Vicious dogs, likely in the country illegally, for example, should not be allowed to kill our children and if perchance they do, we ought not to defend the dogs, instead of a child's right to her life and her safety.
These, too, are issues of governance and morality. We must commit to solving problems of this nature while they are still manageable before they become a rolling sea.
John F Kennedy's "New Frontier" plan provided more federal money for education, aid for rural areas, medical care for the needy, and serious effort to end discrimination against blacks. He also created the Peace Corps, which sends thousands of American volunteers around the world to help the needy.
The Kennedy Centre and other monuments named for him are in honour of his accomplishments. In other words, he is not recognised because of the edifices he built; the edifices celebrate the values for which he stood and his contribution to America's progress. This is the sensible and preferred order of things.
To this end, and in the spirit of the season, may the Light of the World illuminate our hearts and minds and may the new year bring us architects and as many helpers as we need to build our cathedrals.