Living aboard a tiny sloop and cruising the islands, Janet Groene learned that to be truly a part of Caribbean culture she needed to know their churches.
As we approached the ramshackle church in a remote village in the Bahamas, we could hear hymns already floating out of the glass–less windows. We slipped into a back pew to the notice of nobody including the dog asleep under one of the crude, wooden benches. It was the start of a practice that has enriched my travel life more than almost any other. Whatever the denomination, I respectfully attend the nearest church and find a new window into Caribbean culture.
At that humble church unaccompanied hymns were sung by heart. Parishioners soldiered tediously and tunelessly through as many as eight verses. We picked up a tattered hymnal, noting it was published by a Baptist group in Britain, and tried to follow along. Later I learned that this was to "drone" hymns and it was supposed to sound like that.
When he stepped up to the pulpit, Preacher Ishmael spotted our white faces in a sea of black and began building an impromptu sermon around Jonah and the Whale. Soon it wasn't Jonah at all, but Mister and Mistress Gordon. His voice rose to a righteous roar as he arranged in no uncertain terms that the Good Lord would look out for us at sea, just as He had looked after Jonah. It must have worked. We've never failed to make safe harbor.
My doubts about being an intruder evaporated. We were not only welcomed, but honored. In time I learned ways to show respect no matter what the congregation. The Caribbean has mainline denominations but also places where outsiders shouldn't venture without invitation or instruction: voodoo, obeah, xango, certain Mormon rites, Rastafarian gatherings (they do not hold services as such but smoking marijuana is part of the culture), and Muslim services where women are not welcome.
Observing carefully, I caught on to dress codes (conservative), hats (nice to have but no longer required for women in Catholic or Protestant churches; both men and women cover their heads in synagogues), and I also learned not to empty my wallet the first time the plate is passed. Several collections are usually taken for general and specific uses.
Visiting an island in the Dutch Antilles I asked at the hotel desk where I'd find the nearest church. I was immediately invited to "come with me". Although she was Hindu, my new friend attended a Pentecostal Christian church and suddenly I was surrounded by thrumming rhythms, clapping palms, flailing arms and jubilant worship. It took half an hour for my sedate WASP limbs to loosen up and join in. These folks interpreted the Biblical "joyful noise" as a rafters–ringing racket involving hands, feet and everything in between.
My host sat with the choir, so I was sitting alone as members took turns at the lectern, each reading a Bible verse or speaking a homily in the local language, Papiamento. Soon I was recognized as an outsider and a woman slipped in silently beside me. Without missing a beat she began murmuring a simultaneous translation in my ear. The service ended with warm hugs of welcome.
The Virgin Islands belonged first to Denmark, so there's a lingering Lutheran presence there. The service I attended at the old church in Christiansted proved to be one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life. I'd stumbled into an extra– long service that included communion, a baptism and a procession in which we were all asked to gather an armload of hymnals and march to another building. It was their way of enlisting free manpower to move a ton of heavy books before the renovation of the old sanctuary. How satisfying it was to be part of the effort!
The service began with plenty of hymns––music is always a staple in Caribbean worship. My first surprise came when they launched into the familiar musical version of the Lord's Prayer. It's rarely sung in American churches except as a solo because it's beyond the vocal range of the average parishioner. However these folks tackled it at the top of their lungs. I hadn't known that local practice called for the congregation to join hands during this hymn until a black hand stole out from each side and firmly grasped mine. Then the organ came to the rising crescendo ending in "power and glory forever and EVER" and everyone suddenly stood. I felt myself swept to my feet and my arms raised to the heavens. It took my breath away.
Then came the baptism, which in many Caribbean congregations means a complete dunking in the ever–present sea. Lutherans, however, christen infants with a sprinkle in the presence of godparents who are charged with shepherding them along the Christian path. I'd never before seen what happened next.
The pastor must have been almost seven feet tall, a formidable figure in flowing robes. He gathered that tiny bundle of white ribbons and lace in black hands as big as hams and swooped it high over his head so it could be seen even in the back pews, introducing it by its full, Christian name as the newest member of the church. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Weddings are a huge business now in Caribbean resorts, but they're usually in a gazebo or on the beach. Chapels are rarely found at resorts but at Sandals Montego Bay, Jamaica, a lovely church was built by a former resident of the property. Local pastors take turns offering weekly worship services, often bringing their own choir, musicians or dance group. Everyone is welcome and, if visitors think the service will be like anything they have seen at home they are in for a surprise. Even within the same denomination, Caribbean services draw on African, English, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese roots to become unique to each island.
My favorite Caribbean church story involves a rabbi in St. Thomas who was active in interfaith efforts. With his help the Muslims of St. Thomas were provided space in the local synagogue while they formed a congregation and raised funds to build a mosque. Now that's ecumenical cooperation. Safe Harbour Community Church on Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, is also an interfaith project. During the week it's a community center. On Sunday, says Pastor Ken Lieber, it's a worship center where all are welcome.
The Caribbean is truly a place where Bob Marley's words ring true, "One love! One heart! Let's get together and feel all right." The next time you're in the islands, go to church–– any church–– to see a side of the locals you won't find at the Saturday night jump–up or the wet tee shirt contest in the chickee bar.
You have never felt so welcome, so much a part of the local scene or so totally clued in to local life and culture.
Janet Groene and her husband Gordon lived on their sailboat for ten years, cruising the islands. Groene books include Personal Paradise: Caribbean, Open Road Caribbean Guide and Living Aboard. Contact her at janetgroene(at)yahoo.com
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