Saturday, October 27, 2007

Theological Education in the Bahamas, Part III

This is the third of a five part series that previously appeared in News from Daniel and Estela Schweissing between February and August 2006. A more in-depth theological treatment of this topic can be found in the upcoming edition of the American Baptist Quarterly.


Most of our students who come to study with us at Atlantic College are tired of business as usual in the church. Or more precisely, they’re tired of the church as business. Saturated by the “name it and claim it” teachings of prosperity theology from the United States, many Bahamian churches have become platforms for self-seeking pastors and church leaders to get rich at the expense of their congregations while ignoring the rampant poverty, social ills, and spiritual decay of the communities they serve. Patrick Johnstone reports in Operation World that “Materialism stimulated by tourism and drug money has deeply affected every level of society. Nearly all Bahamians claim to be Christian, but nominalism is widespread. A 55% illegitimacy rate, widespread drug addiction and family breakdown are symptoms of spiritual need.” To this, we might add that the Bahamas has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. And in spite of significant economic advances during the latter half of the twentieth century, a large underclass of black Bahamians continues to face grinding poverty. At the same time, a seemingly endless flow of Haitian immigrants are joining poor Bahamians in the urban slums as well as constructing shantytowns on the outskirts of major towns and cities.

Even when churches have not succumbed to the teachings of prosperity theology, they are frequently characterized by their indifference to the social and spiritual needs of the communities where they are located. By the time of Bahamian independence from Britain in 1973, the results of economic development from the post-World War II tourist boom coupled with the new opportunities available to black Bahamians in politics, civil service, and commerce resulted in the creation of a sizeable black middle class that lives in relative prosperity compared to its Caribbean neighbors. As middle class families began migrating from Nassau’s ghettos to newly constructed suburban neighborhoods, historic inner-city churches gradually became middle class outposts whose members and pastoral leadership commute from the suburbs several times a week for worship and fellowship. While some churches have developed a handful of ministries to meet the needs of their poverty stricken neighbors, such efforts are often peripheral to the main priority of serving their middle class members. When a heavy emphasis on prosperity theology is added to the equation, it becomes easy to see why so many Bahamians are dissatisfied with business as usual in the church.

While most Bahamians consider themselves to be Christians, an increasingly large number are no longer regular church goers. Many who were once attracted to the church in hopes of bettering their economic situation have given up on God when it became apparent that he was not delivering on the “blessings” that the pastor promised that they would get. Others have become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of pastors and church leaders that seem to be more interested in their own personal economic advancement rather than the spiritual and physical welfare of their congregations. These same frustrations could easily have driven most of our students away from the church as well. Instead, their commitment to serving God has led them to seek answers through theological study at Atlantic College. Even though few of our students are able to articulate the precise nature of the problems in the church when they begin their studies, they intuitively understand that something is wrong with the prevailing model of ministry and their hope is that they will someday be able to provide a different kind of leadership. Put differently, our students are looking for alternatives to business as usual in the church.

One such student is Maria Bowe—now an Atlantic College alumna. Maria was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and received all of her formal education through Catholic schools. As a young adult, her involvement in her church’s soup kitchen ministry led her to discover her vocation for serving the poor. Though energized by her involvement in social outreach, she began to question many of the church doctrines and practices that she had grown up with. As Maria’s doubts about her faith increased, her participation in church activities gradually dwindled until one day—about nine years ago—she walked out of the church during mass and never returned. By this time, Maria was a housewife, the mother of two small children, and a psychology student at St. Benedict’s College in Nassau. Shortly after leaving the Catholic Church, she began attending a Pentecostal/Charismatic congregation and transferred to the theology program at Atlantic College.

Maria’s coursework at Atlantic College reinforced her commitment to serving the poor and also sparked a passion for evangelism, which eventually led her to pursue an internship in evangelism through one of Nassau’s inner-city churches. As one of our brightest students, Maria’s contributions to our classroom discussions of business as usual in the Bahamian church frequently illuminated me as well as her fellow students. This January—just a little over two years after graduating as her class salutatorian—Maria started her own ministry in a storefront on Bernard Road in Nassau, an inner-city neighborhood that has been largely neglected by both the church and social services. Named Zoar—after the village where Lot and his family took refuge when fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:23)—this ministry emphasizes evangelism, discipleship, mentoring at-risk youth, and counseling victims of sexual abuse.

In the future, I hope to be more intentional about preparing students like Maria to experiment with new models of ministry. During my first term of service, much of my effort in the classroom was directed at helping students to critique the prevailing prosperity theology model of ministry. While that task was important, it failed to provide my students with alternative approaches to doing ministry. With no alternatives, I found that our critique of prosperity theology was insufficient to prevent students from reverting back to business as usual upon their graduation from our program. But what alternatives were available? Through a process of trial and error, I eventually stumbled across the writings of John Perkins.

Perkins, an African-American with a third-grade education, grew up in a sharecropping family in rural Mississippi during the Jim Crow era. Following the murder of his older brother, he escaped from the South by migrating to California where he married, started a family, and became a successful businessman. He also began searching for spiritual meaning in his life—a journey that eventually led him to Jesus Christ. After several years of active ministry as a lay leader, Perkins sensed God’s calling to pursue a new ministry in his hometown of Mendenhall, Mississippi. So during the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement, Perkins relocated his family from the relative safety and economic security of California to the poverty-stricken and racially-charged atmosphere of the rural South. There, he ministered to the spiritual and physical needs of his former friends and neighbors, eventually developing a model for ministry that is now known as Christian community development (CCD). Today, Perkins’ model has been widely replicated in dozens of locations throughout the United States—primarily in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods.

So what is Christian community development? CCD is a holistic approach to ministry—emphasizing both evangelism and social action—that is rooted in the biblical principles of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. Because CCD is based on broad theological principles rather than a rigid methodology, it has been successfully replicated in both rural and urban settings as well as in a diversity of racial and ethnic communities.

RELOCATION – Jesus Christ did not commute back and forth from heaven to conduct his ministry here on earth. Rather, he chose to relocate to earth so he could live and minister amongst us for the duration of his ministry (Jn 1:14). Likewise, practitioners of CCD recognize that their ministries are most effective when they choose to reside in the poor communities they hope to reach instead of commuting from the suburbs. It is only by living side-by-side, in solidarity with the poor, that one can truly understand the problems faced by poor communities and, ultimately, the solutions that are needed.

RECONCILIATION – The essence of the gospel is summed up in two commandments: we are to love God and love our neighbor. While a person is reconciled to God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, scripture teaches that we cannot truly be reconciled to God until we are reconciled to our neighbors (I Jn 4:19-21). Most impoverished communities are fragmented by racial, ethnic, language, and class barriers. Hence, a major focus of CCD is demonstrating the love of Christ in ways that bring about genuine reconciliation between people of diverse backgrounds.

REDISTRIBUTION – Poor communities typically lack things such as economic resources, education, health care, and jobs that are needed to develop a healthy community. CCD seeks to redress these inequities through training of indigenous leadership and economic develop projects (2 Cor 8:13-14). More than just charity, it also attempts to apply biblical principles (e.g., Lev 25) to transform the social and economic structures that keep people impoverished.

During my last semester at Atlantic College, I introduced my students to CCD by requiring them to read Perkins’ autobiography. Not surprisingly, Perkins’ story resonated with the experience of my students and our lively class discussions seemed to suggest that CCD may very well be a viable ministry model for the Bahamian church. That being said, I have not forgotten about the dangers of utilizing imported U.S. ministry models that often prove to be irrelevant to the reality of Bahamian culture. Yet, there are sufficient continuities between the urban experience of African-Americans and black Bahamians to convince me that CCD can be successfully adapted to Nassau’s own unique urban culture. Likewise, CCD already has a proven track record of being replicated in a variety of racial and ethnic contexts. While that doesn’t guarantee that CCD will succeed in the Bahamas, it does provide me with a reasonable basis to begin providing students with more training in the theology and methods of CCD upon our return to Nassau. In a country that holds the dubious distinction of having both the highest per capita of drug addiction and the highest per capita of church buildings in the world, we are hopeful that CCD will provide our students with a practical alternative to business as usual in the church.

COMING NEXT: This newsletter has examined how CCD provides a model for pastoral response to the spiritual and social concerns faced by the residents of Nassau’s inner-city neighborhoods. But more than just a pastoral response is needed. A political response that challenges the social and economic structures that keep Bahamians impoverished is needed as well. Next, Part IV of our series will show how theological education addresses the political question in “Recovering the Tradition of Black Radicalism in Bahamian Religion.”

Part I: Why is Bahamian theological education important?
Part II: Bahamianization of the Theological Curriculum

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