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The Church has failed in its stewardship of church lands


Wednesday, November 07, 2018

A recent media report revealed the lamentation of a group of Jamaican churches over the loss of land due to squatting. Almost every denomination with large tracts of land has been affected by this phenomenon. It is not anything new, and in a country like Jamaica — where close to a million people are squatters — it is bound to continue.

On the one hand, this is a commentary on the failure of the church to account for the land in its possession. Collectively, churches in Jamaica are the second-largest owners of land next to the Government. Indeed, many churches do not know what they own. I know, for example, that the Anglican Church, with which I am more familiar, has for years conducted mapping projects to ascertain precisely what it owns. There has been some success in this regard, but it is an ongoing exercise and one can reasonably deduce that there are parcels yet to be identified. There is doubt whether the churches will ever know what they really own.

It must not be assumed that it is an easy exercise to identify these lands. In many respects it is a painstaking exercise. The Anglican Church, for example, has been a beneficiary of significant parcels of land and other property because of the nexus between the church and Jamaica's colonial relationship with Britain. Some of these lands were never titled and so real ownership has never been established. Such lands have suffered the fate of many such parcels throughout Jamaica. By the time parcels are discovered, which could be hundreds of acres, they are already being squatted on. The church now has to face the unenviable task of dealing with them in a humane way. Then pastoral theology comes into direct conflict with the social obligation to help the needy. It would be a public relations nightmare for any church to chase squatters off their land and, worse, bulldoze their dwellings and cast families into the streets. It is a difficult problem which ought to be anticipated before it happens.

But even when the church has registered ownership of the land there is often no alacrity on its part to put these lands into productive use. They are left idle and thus become easy targets for squatters. In a place like Jamaica, where the landless population is very high and available land very expensive to those on the lower ends of the economic ladder, any idle piece of real estate is fair game for squatting.

If the churches are willing to admit it, they will acknowledge that, by and large, they have proven to be poor stewards of the lands in their possession. Squatting is just one indication of this poor stewardship. So also is the apparent neglect that attends a great deal of the lands it owns. The Government, through the National Housing Trust (NHT), is presently on a drive to build thousands of houses to ease the chronic shortage in the country. This is particularly related to low-income housing which should more than titillate the interest of the churches. How many of the churches have consulted with the NHT to put up parcels of land which could be developed to meet this need? The churches have the land, and the NHT is bursting at the seams with cash. There should be no difficulty for the enterprising church to work hand in hand with such an entity to help solve a grievous problem. This is a win-win for both parties, as low-income people could be housed and the financial health of churches bolstered by this exercise. Then some churches, being capitalised, could end the iniquitous practice of assessments to poor congregations in order to meet recurring expenses.

But there is chronic inertia on the part of churches to move in this direction. Churches will lament squatters on their property, but they will not lament their own lethargy in attending to the stewardship of “God's property”, which should be their remit. In churches with centralised authority, the bureaucracy does not make for efficacious decision-making. Decisions are often tied up in unending meetings and processes which debilitate sensible and urgent action to move the business along. Such decision-making should not endure the theological narcissism or imprimatur of any church leader.

The Government is beginning to look at large tracts of land across the country that are idle and which could be used to bolster the country's economic output. Church lands will definitely come within its radar. The Government will not wish to confiscate or otherwise seek to acquire church lands. But it should not be outside of its remit to tax church property that remains idle. Acreages of a certain size that are not being used can be targeted for taxation. It cannot be that lands remain idle when the country needs to use these lands productively.

As the Government is on this, it should reconsider the whole matter of adverse possession. Once there is a registered title in a person's or entity's name, that ownership should be protected by law. It should never be that any person who has intruded on that land without molestation for 12 years should have possession of that land. The first day they moved on that land they trespassed and broke the law. Such trespass should not now be aided and abetted by Government with the intention that the person can now own the land, whether he is there for two or 15 years. You may talk about productive use of the land and come up with regulations that govern its use, but that registered parcel should not revert to someone who illegally takes up residence on it. This is a matter which the Government must deal with urgently.


Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or