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When Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Caribbean

Taken from Jamaican Times – on Thursday, 28 February 2013

When Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Caribbean – thinking he was in India – in the late 15th Century, it was not long before the Catholic Church followed.

Indeed, historian Devon Dick informs us that Columbus’ crew included a chaplain of the Order of Mercy.  Since then Christianity has been an integral part of Caribbean life. Over the years every conceivable brand of the faith has found adherents in the Caribbean: Adventist, Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Congregational, Methodist, Moravian, various brands of Pentecostals, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, mission societies and many more. Nowhere is this Christian pervasiveness more evident than in Jamaica where it is now folklore that there are more churches per square mile than in any other country in the world!

The rhythm of life in the Caribbean has been largely influenced by Christianity. Christian festivals such as Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and Harvest for example are key moments in the life cycle of Jamaican culture. And whilst we most probably don’t think much about it, the weekend, with Saturday for some and Sunday for the majority as focal point days of worship, is essentially a Christian invention too, as the Archbishop of Canterbury reminded a recent London diocesan conference.

But as Dick also reminds us, the contribution of Christianity is not solely positive. It is too often submissive to the wishes of the state! It sometimes connived with and/or was used by colonial and imperialist powers as a tool of control, oppression and exploitation.  Christian individuals and organisations owned slaves and plantations.  Conversely, it was the Christian Church that gave birth to key liberators and National Heroes like Paul Bogle and Samuel Sharpe.

Delroy Reid-Salmon in a recent book celebrating the liberation work of Sharpe,  shows that it was his Christian values that drove him to rebel against the oppression of the people of Jamaica by evil forces.

Reid-Salmon quotes Sharpe saying, ‘My brethren, let us be men! If we do not stand up boldly for ourselves and take freedom, then buckra will put us to the muzzles of their guns, and shoot us like pigeons’ (p71 Burning for Freedom).  The Christian core belief that all humans are made in the image and likeness of Almighty God and are therefore of equal worth, was central to Sharpe’s and the other freedom fighters’ self-understanding. And to this day it is dangerous to disrespect a Jamaican!

As we know the majority-Jamaican Caribbean migrants of the Windrush era brought to Britain their strong and liberative faith.  And so the Caribbean British community has continued to be a largely Christian people. Earlier this year Richard Reddie provided us with the history of one of the oldest Black Pentecostal churches in Britain, the New Testament Assembly, as it celebrated its 60th anniversary.  In Reddie’s ‘From an Acorn to an Oak Tree’ we learn of the struggles and joys of establishing the Black Church Movement in Britain which has been a cornerstone of the Black community; some say its most cohesive component part.

For good or ill, and I argue mostly good, Christianity has provided the cultural and moral basis of Jamaican and wider Caribbean life. In this Black History Month we will do well to remind ourselves of those who have established and sustained the Christian Faith we have, remembering that it is on their powerful shoulders that we stand, it is the freedom for which they fought, sometimes at the cost of their lives, that we enjoy.  May we be as willing to dedicate our lives to build a better future for our children and grand children.

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