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The contribution of the Shouter Baptist community to nation building

By Dr Sharon Syriac

In this school we come together Students of every creed and race (Holy Faith Convent, Couva, School Song) The Sisters of the Holy Faith pursue with apostolic zeal, the development of an ecumenical spirit which nurtures respect and celebrates our unity in diversity. This religious congregation continues to demonstrate their commitment to interfaith, interracial, and humanitarian efforts through the ongoing Let’s Talk Nation Building Series.

Unsurprisingly then, on Sunday, April 3, moderator Sr Theresa Vialva CHF, Principal of Holy Faith Convent, Couva, welcomed to their Zoom platform, Rev Dr Hazel Ann Gibbs de Peza, a practising Spiritual Baptist Minister and Principal of the Herman Parris Spiritual Baptist Southland School of Theology, and Fr Martin Sirju, Vicar General to discuss ‘The Role of Race & Religion in Nation Building’. Spiritual Baptist/Shouter Liberation Day was Wednesday, March 30.

Cognition and Re-cognition Rev Dr Hazel Ann Gibbs de Peza revealed that despite the impact of the Ordinance from 1917–1951, by which the colonial government banned Spiritual Baptist members from practising their faith, varying repercussions emerged from cognition of the Spiritual Baptist faith and its re-cognition. Dr de Peza defined cognition as mere knowledge about the faith but re-cognition, a far more complex process, facilitates a re-visitation of that knowledge, to bring awareness and consciousness, an act which ought to result in acknowledgement and recognition. She asserts that the latter has only been partially achieved.

History from below Rev Dr de Peza showed that historically, many non-Baptists expressed positive views on the contributions of Spiritual Baptists to nation building. Included here were Curtis Jacob’s appreciation for their diversity and collective traditions, Eric Williams’ acknowledgement of their hard work which transformed our multicultural landscape, and J M Hackshaw, who noted their resilience forced missionary pioneers like the 1800s Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in England to accommodate their indigenous practices and beliefs. Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler and Albert Gomes alluded to their spiritual enlightenment, while Melville Herskovits asserted that the simple language in which they articulated their beliefs and their easy engagement with cultural practices, accounted for their growth and increasing sense of security and dignity, prior to Prohibition.

In a lilting voice, Dr de Peza captured their resilience and the impact of the 1917 Prohibition through her dramatic reading of Earl Lovelace’s The Wine of Astonishment. The rough music of her dialect, etched with conviction, drummed upon our virtual reality, the colour of a crumpled sunset. Transforming our ‘Rainbow Nation’ When Rev Dr de Peza explained how the Spiritual Baptist community saw itself affecting national development, she focused on their transformation of the physical, educational, social and cultural landscape to embellish the fabric of our national community.

Spiritual Baptists have altered the physical landscape by changing their mud churches into contemporary places of worship and developing the educational landscape by establishing several early childhood centres, a government-assisted secondary school and offering scholarships. They have enhanced the social landscape creating Homes for the Aged, youth groups, a prison ministry, and an active agricultural reforestation ministry.

Most notably, our cultural landscape is imbued with the drama, literature, songs, and rhythms of the Spiritual Baptist community, exemplified by David Rudder’s Calypso Music which resonated through cyberspace. Resisting tribalism Conversely, Fr Martin Sirju linked “nation building” to a broader understanding of Jesus’ “Kingdom,” and examined Matthew’s word, “church,” used thrice in the Judgement scene (Mt 25) to suggest that we will be judged, not by our adherence to dogma but in the way we treat people, a treatment that must resist religious and ethnic tribalism. St Augustine, he claimed, had declared that many inside the Church are not in the Kingdom and several persons outside the Church are in the Kingdom.

Fr Sirju asserted that the ‘reign of God’ is not just a spiritual metaphor that attempts to divide the secular from the sacred. Instead, God’s reign encompasses a more thorough developmental metaphor that includes all of life — ecology, economics, medical science, culture, arts, and politics to assist in the integral development of each person and the whole person, beyond one’s tribe.

The Catholic Church has attempted to do this through education, but he argued that although in Trinidad and Tobago we have equality in education, we do not yet have equity. Challenges of human development Fr Sirju noted that the Spiritual Baptist community encountered obstacles in their attempt to achieve integral human development but showed that two responses are possible — capitulation or resistance. Fr Sirju suggested that more resistance is necessary to make our nation a better place, keen to seek human development for all. Thus, ‘shouting’, as performed by the prophets and the Spiritual ‘Shouter’ Baptists can become a tool of resistance.

However, we often only shout for our own groups and remain indifferent about shouting against the injustice and discrimination suffered by others. We keep them shackled, denying them liberation as individuals and groups. Aware that the price of facilitating integral human development in the secular or religious sphere entails suffering, which is sometimes lethal, Fr Sirju reminded his audience that Jesus Himself was killed when His non-discriminatory approach to others, threatened the social norms and those in power.

Fr Sirju challenged his audience to ponder their seriousness about creating a better nation through their willingness to suffer for those beyond their own religious tribe, space, and voice but instead ‘shout’ for the collective and all groups that suffer discrimination there. Invitation Shamshad Ali, keynote speaker for the upcoming Let’s Talk Nation Building discussion on May 1, 2022 will focus on ‘The Role of Muslims in Nation Building’. Should you wish to attend, call 468-0488 or 780-5820 for further details.

The Let’s Talk Nation Building Series was conceptualised in August 2021 as a means to reflect on the positive role and impact that people, who are steeped in their religion and confident in their ethnic identity, can play in addressing issues which contribute to nation building. To date there have been six sessions:

1. August 31, 2021: ‘The Role of Race and Religion in Nation Building: In celebration of Independence Day’

2. September 24, 2021: ‘The Role of Race and Religion in Nation Building: In celebration of Republic Day’

3. October 10, 2021: ‘The Role of Race and Religion in Nation Building: In celebration of the contribution of the First People’

4. October 31, 2021: ‘The Role of Race and Religion in Nation Building: In celebration of Divali’

5. December 12, 2021:‘Let’s Talk Nation Building Through Food – The Christmas Edition’

6. April 3, 2022: ‘Let’s Talk Nation Building: The contribution of the Shouter Baptist Community’