Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Haitian Protestantism in the Bahamas

I've just learned that Bertin M. Louis, Jr., a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, is finishing up a dissertation on Haitian Protestant religion in Nassau.

Here's the abstract:

Title: “My Body is in Nassau but My Spirit is in Haiti”: Transnational Migration, Religious Identity and Long-Distance Nationalism Among Protestant Haitians in Nassau, Bahamas

Haitians have been migrating to the Bahamas for the past two centuries and have grown into a community that ranges from 30,000 to 60,000 people. Many Haitians in the Bahamas are undocumented and lead isolated and segregated lives subject to Bahamian discrimination and exploitation. In this environment religion serves an important role for Haitians, and Catholic and Protestant churches are the primary institutions that address their economic, social and spiritual needs. In Nassau, Haitian transmigrants attend Protestant churches more than Catholic churches indicating a religious shift away from the religions practiced by Haitians traditionally (Catholicism and Vodou).

But ethnographic research, conducted in 2005 within Nassau’s Protestant Haitian community, shows the development of a form of religious and social identification that differs from traditional forms of religious and social identification among Protestants in Haiti. Specifically, Protestant Haitians in Nassau who behave and dress in ways considered inappropriate to other Protestant Haitians cause social friction within churches and, by extension, the larger Protestant Haitian community. Within the community these offenders are labeled Pwotestan (Protestant). Community members with proper comportment and appearance demonstrate the acceptance of a new way of life, reflect inner transformation (conversion) and express true faith in God based on any difficulty encountered. They are considered to be Kretyen (Christian).

To be Kretyen reflects the character and social identity that Protestant Haitians within a transnational social field deem necessary to remedy the economic, political and social ills that plague Haiti. To be Kretyen is also important to the progeny of Protestant Haitians in the Bahamas, other Protestants from Haiti, and its diaspora who visit Nassau periodically. Practiced properly among Haitians within a transnational social field, Protestant Christianity then becomes a form of long-distance nationalism that has as its goal the total transformation of Haiti into an economically, politically and socially stable nation-state.
Prior to this effort, Haitian religion in the Bahamas has been largely neglected by academic researchers. Hopefully, the completion of this work will generate interest and open the doors to further research on the subject. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to reading the completed dissertation once it becomes available.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Bahamas Human Rights Network Meeting

The next Bahamas Human Rights Network meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, March 7 at 6:30 PM. It will be held at the Eugene Dupuch Law School Legal Aid Clinic, which is at the VB Munnings building, next to Kentucky Fried Chicken and opposite the College of the Bahamas.

Please feel free to invite others who might be interested in participating.


Independence Day Reflections

On this date in 1844, the Dominican Republic obtained its independence from Haiti. So today our neighbors in the D.R. are celebrating their 163rd anniversary.

Because antihaitianismo in Dominican culture traces its roots back to the Haitian occupation of the D.R. (1821-1844), this holiday is a mixed legacy for the estimated 630,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent.

In his book, Race and Politics in the Dominican Republic, political scientist Ernesto Sagás defines antihaitianismo as:
a set of racist and xenophobic attitudes prevalent today in the Dominican Republic that broadly portray Dominican people as white Catholics, while Haitians are viewed as spirit-worshipping black Africans. More than just a ploy to generate patriotism and rally against a neighboring country, the ideology also is used by Dominican leaders to divide their own lower classes.
Of course, antihaitianismo is not limited to the Dominican Republic. Haitians living in the United States and the Bahamas also face similar racist and xenophobic attitudes that are expressed both as individual prejudices as well as public policy. While the particular details of these expressions may differ from place to place, the underlying issues of racism and ethnocentrism are the same.

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade

This year the Bahamas is observing two very important milestones in its history: (1) the bicentennial of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade (1807) and (2) the fortieth anniversary of the achievement of Black Majority Rule (1967). With this weekend's release of the new movie Amazing Grace, the former has been getting a great deal of attention.

In the United States and Great Britain, for example, many well-meaning Christians are using the bicentennial of abolition to raise awareness of and generate support for campaigns against modern day forms of slavery such as child labor, prostitution, and human trafficking. While I applaud these important efforts, I am concerned that they have largely obscured the legacy of slavery that still persists for Bahamian and Caribbean descendants of the liberated Africans and slaves who originally benefited from abolition.

While ending the slave trade in 1807 was an important first step towards the liberation of peoples of African descent in the British Caribbean, emancipation was not declared until 1834 and was not fully implemented until after a four-year period of apprenticeship ended in 1838. Even then, the truck system and other discriminatory economic practices served to keep black Bahamians socially, politically, and economically subservient to their white counterparts until the achievement of Black Majority Rule in 1967. While Black Majority Rule succeeded in creating a sizeable black middle class that allowed many Bahamians to escape from generations of poverty, an even larger black underclass still remains today. And the achievement of Bahamian independence in 1973--partly as the result of political momentum gained from Black Majority Rule six years earlier--was largely symbolic. The departure of the British left a void that was quickly filled by the economic, cultural, and occasional political influence of the Bahamas' gargantuan next door neighbor--the United States.

So what's my point? First of all, injustice is multifaceted and expresses itself in many forms such as slavery, colonialism, racism, classism, and neocolonialism--to name a few. Secondly, the elimination of one form of injustice while allowing others to persist does not result in true freedom. Today, many Bahamians are much better off socially and economically then they were just one or two generations ago. Thus, we have developed a false sense of freedom that allows us to ignore the many injustices that continue to remain with us as a result of the legacy of slavery and colonialism. But persist they do, whether we are willing to acknowledge them or not. So as we observe this important milestone in our history, I hope that we will not only reflect on its significance for us today. But that we will also recommit ourselves to the struggle for full emancipation.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, February 23, 2007

New Perspectives on Lent

As a Baptist, I don't normally give much thought to the liturgical calendar of the church, let alone the observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent. But my friend Michael Westmoreland-White has just posted Lent: One Baptist's Perspective on his blog that has challenged me to reconsider.

Michael explains the reasons that the early church adopted lent:
When the emperor Constantine made Christianity legal (and Theodosian made it the official religion of the Empire), suddenly there were far more Christians--with far lower levels of commitment than when Christians were persecuted. Suddenly, it was hard to tell Christians from everyone else. Lent--the 40 days prior to Easter--was instituted to help Christians remember that they were disciples of Jesus and needed to be different. The practice of fasting (later just giving up eating meat or some other food item or giving up something cherished) was to instill spiritual discipline and guide the believer's focus on Jesus journey to the cross. Lent is to help us lead cruciform lives.
Here in the Bahamas, we find ourselves in similiar circumstances to those of Christians under Constantinian Rome. Like them, we too live under the domination of Empire. First the Spanish, then the British and, currently, the neocolonialism of Pax Americana. Christianity is the prevalent religion in the Bahamas, claiming 92% of the population, and most Bahamians believe that we live in a "Christian Nation."

For most of us, being a Christian is clearly an important part of our family heritage and national identity and, likewise, frequently translates into some sort of committment to participate in the worship and activities of a local church. But for the most part, we are cultural Christians--meaning that our faith often has little impact on our lives outside the narrow confines of our church activities and national ceremonies. Put differently, our Christianity does little to address the spiritual and social crises facing our country.

But as followers of Jesus Christ, we have been called both to be different and to make a difference in the world. Observing Ash Wednesday and Lent, then, is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to this most important task.

So next year, just maybe, I'll make it a point to find and attend an Ash Wednesday service. In the meantime, I'll be thinking long and hard about what I can do--as a follower of Jesus Christ--to make a difference in the world.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Review of The Prophet and Power

Bob Corbett has recently written a very lengthy and detailed review of Alex Dupuy's new book on Jean-Bertrand Aristide, titled The Prophet and Power (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006).

Basically, the book is a survey of Aristide's influence on Haiti and Haitian politics, beginning with his early days as a liberation theology priest in the 1980s until he was ousted from in his most recent presidency in early 2004.

Unlike most of what has been written about Aristide in the English language press during the past twenty years, Corbett argues that Dupuy's analysis tends to avoid an either/or dichotomy, providing a more nuanced interpretation of Aristide's legacy:

Alex Dupuy’s over-arching thesis is quite different. He makes a strong case that this story lacks any blameless good folks. Whether it is Aristide’s person and personality, the activities of his party and supporters, or any one or group of his Haitian opposition or the U.S.-led international community, each and everyone comes in for severe and intelligent criticism. There just isn’t, on Dupuy’s account, a “right” or “good” side in this story for the country of Haiti. It is a terrible tragedy of the repeated history of the fall of one failed state, being replaced by an equally failed state.

During Aristide's tenure as a parish priest, Corbett explains:

The first Aristide is, on Dupuy’s account, an appealing figure, but with a radical contradiction in his person and views. I am impressed and persuaded by Dupuy’s analysis that THIS early Aristide is best understood as a man of contradictory tendencies (italics mine): a reformer with a true passion to bring about reforms consistent with the liberation theology concept of “the preferential option of the poor,” yet as a personal revolutionary and one who sees himself as not only a prophet, but as a leader not responsible to others.
Later upon being elected to the presidency of Haiti, these contradictions in Aristide's personality coupled with Haiti's volatile internal situation proved to be his undoing:

He preached democracy and revved up a great deal of support for this notion, yet he had an almost impossible time acting democratically within Lavalas or as president. He seemed deeply committed to his own vision and one was either with him or against him. The clash was devastating.

More importantly, he preached democracy, seems to have wanted a rule by law, but faced enormous forces against him, many of which were using physical force. Thus the more revolutionary, prophetic Aristide turned to the non-democratic “power of the people” to protect him.

Perhaps what got Aristide in the greatest mess was his advocacy of and refusal to deny the use of Pere Lebrun (fiery necklacing of people with tires). Not only was this a terrifying threat to government officials and opposition people in the bourgeoisie. It was a frightening inconsistency – at times Aristide seemed to be agreeable to working with the opposition and compromising here and there, and at other times he would be talking of how wonderful this tool was. It created strong doubt in the minds of many of the reliability of any alliance with Aristide.

I have long argued that Aristide had a brilliant career as a liberation theology priest who helped to bring about the demise of Haiti's corrupt Duvalier regime, but that he failed dismally as Haiti's first freely elected president. Dupuy's book helps us to understand why. Clearly, The Prophet and Power is a must-read book for anyone interested in understanding the legacy of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as well as the broader issues of why Haiti remains stubbornly ungovernable.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It's All Greek to Me!

It's all Greek to me . . . Really!

It was the Annual Greek Festival here in Nassau, held last weekend at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. Estela and I stopped by briefly on Saturday evening and then I went back for a bit longer on Sunday afternoon. We ate chicken pitas, enjoyed the Greek music, visited the exhibit booths, and even learned about the work that Greek Orthodox missionaries are doing around the world.

On Sunday afternoon, I was able to tour the sanctuary and talk with the newly installed priest Father Ted Bita, who just arrived in Nassau five months ago to replace the late Father Theophanis Kolyvas (1916 - 2006) who had served the congregation since 1953. Father Ted is a Romanian who comes to the Bahamas following twenty years of ministry in the United States. He explained how the Greek Orthodox Church is part of the broader tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy which separated from the Roman Catholic Church, in part, as a result of the Great Schism of 1054. (Actually, the story behind the East-West Schism is a whole lot more complicated than that, but I'll refrain from going into detail here.)

Greek sponge fishermen began arriving in the Bahamas in the 1880s and, by the 1920s, they controlled the buying, packing, and exporting of Bahamian sponges as well. Additionally, they had branched out into other business ventures that included restuarants, bakeries, fruit and vegatable retailing, and real estate. Though still a small minority, the Bahamian Greek community was large enough by 1932 to build their own church and even pay the salary of a priest brought in from Greece. Located on West Street, just north of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, the church has about seventy local families that attend regularly.

Another person who I had a chance to talk to is Eleni Maillis, a Greek American from Tennessee, who is currently working with her father-in-law Pericles Maillis to prepare a written history of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. Needless to say, I am very much looking forward to the completion of this project. Undoubtedly, some of the information from that research will eventually find its way into my lecture notes for the course that I teach on Bahamian religious history.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Celebrity Fatigue

I was living in the Dominican Republic when the Lísten Diario scooped the U.S. media on Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley’s secret wedding, performed at the home of a Dominican judge near La Vega during the summer of 1994. At the time, neighboring Haiti was suffering an economic embargo, causing floods of refugees to pour over the border into the D.R. or set sail for Florida on rickety yolas. The U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba was filled to overflowing with both Haitian and Cuban refugees. And far away on the other side of the globe, the Rwandan genocide was in full swing. Given those realities, the scandal surrounding the Jackson-Presley wedding seemed a bit trivial.

So trivial, in fact, that I had totally forgotten about it.

Until the saga of the late Anna Nicole Smith and Bahamian immigration minister Shane Gibson.

This past six months has been a bad case of déjà vu as the media has spared no efforts to keep us fully abreast of every sordid detail of the developing scandal.

So I was pleased to see that Pastor Jim Evans' column on the cult of celebrity put words to much of my thoughts on this matter.

Amongst other things, Pastor Jim argues that "this celebrity obsessed voyeurism serves as a terrible distraction from what is really real going on around us. We are distracted from a terrible war, and endangered environment. We are distracted from an economy that constantly generates new levels of poverty, all while the rich get richer."

He goes on to suggest that "Perhaps it's time to turn the television off and begin the process of building a real life. Maybe visit a sick friend, or do a kindness for a neighbor. Strengthen a relationship, or go out and make a new one. Do something other than wallowing in the misery of make-believe people. Go out and get a life that really means something. The celebs will be just fine without us watching."

Preach it, brother!


Monday, February 19, 2007

Why this blog?

Given that there are so many blogs, listserves, message boards, and websites that have proliferated the web, I think that I should offer an explanation of why I feel compelled to launch yet another blog in the midst of the electronic quagmire we know as the blogosphere. As the name of this blog implies, my goal is to Do Theology from the Caribbean. But what precisely do I mean by that?

As a theological educator working in the Bahamas, one of my objectives is to help my students think theologically from within the context of their own unique culture. Put differently, I do not attempt to teach theology to my students in the same way that it was taught to me as a student in the United States. Whereas I studied at a theological seminary that primarily sought to prepare pastors and church leaders to work within the context of U.S. culture, my students are seeking to become equipped for ministry right here in the Bahamas. With that in mind, how do I immerse myself in the Afro-Bahamian worldview of my students so that I can teach theology in a manner that is consistent with the reality of Bahamian culture rather than my own culture?

Although I have spent most of my adult life in the Caribbean and, hopefully, have become somewhat sensitive to the cultural realities of this region of the world, the bottom line is that I was still born and raised as a middle-class white American male and my worldview still very much reflects that. Yet at the same time, my worldview has been significantly altered by my years of living cross-culturally. I no longer see or experience the world—either here or at home—as a typical American from my background sees and experiences it.

So on one hand, Doing Theology from the Caribbean—as defined for the purposes of this blog—simply means trying to reflect theologically from within the cultural context in which I presently live and work. Much of what I have to share along those lines will be a continuation of the kinds of questions my students and I wrestle with in the classroom. On the other hand, Doing Theology from the Caribbean also means trying to understand my birth culture anew in light of my own cross-cultural experience. To that end, many of my blog entries will reflect the questions I struggle with as I seek to understand what it means to be an expatriate American, what it means to be a human being—albeit with a social identity—made in the image of God, or more personally, what it means to be me.

First and foremost, this blog is written with a Bahamian audience in mind. I hope that my students, colleagues, and others will find this blog to be insightful and will freely post comments and questions that will contribute to an ongoing dialogue about theology and Bahamian culture. Second, I anticipate that non-Bahamians—those who are interested in questions of theology and culture—will participate, share, and learn from those of us who seek to do theology within the Bahamian context, in particular, and the Caribbean context, in general. And finally, for any Americans who might happen to be reading this blog, I hope that this will expand your understanding of what it means to live in our increasingly multicultural world, both at home and abroad.

[DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed herein are solely my own and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or viewpoints of my denomination, my mission board or its national partners, or any other organization with which I might be affiliated.]