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Religious and Economic Issues in Caribbean Religions Research Paper

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The history of the Christian churches in the Caribbean dates from the beginning of the Conquista and the times of slave trade and slavery. This combination makes the position of the Christian churches in the region remarkable. They were connected with the colonial powers and the masters of other human beings, with the inheritance of the discord and rivalry among the Christian churches of Europe (Williams, 1996).

The Caribbean is defined by the history of slavery. For the colonial powers of Europe, the region is known as the West Indies. Sometimes scholars also include parts of Venezuela and Central America and parts of the Southern United States of America in the extended beaches of the Caribbean sea. Mostly the region consists of areas with Spanish, English, French and Dutch relics, but in the American Virgin Islands, the people spoke, apart from negro-Dutch, also negro-Danish. The region has become a melting pot of cultures, especially since cargoes of indentured laborers from the East came to work on the plantations after the abolition of slavery (England 1834, France 1848, The Netherlands 1863, and Cuba 1880). (Williams, 1996)

The region is a mosaic of small islands and countries, peoples of mixed races in the shadow of and related to the United States of America, and even more to the early colonial powers of Europe and so without doubt part of the Western hemisphere. Considerable parts of the population migrated to the big cities. We must realize that the contact between the various parts of the region is far from what it should be because of the language barriers and the costs of transportation. However, e-mail and the internet open new possibilities in this respect (International Review of Mission, 1971).

Discord and rivalry was the basic characteristic of the relations between the Christian churches and institutions in the region. There were moments of cooperation; for example, the mutual help on the occasion’s baptism was necessary during the absence of ministers. In 1825 the Dutch government combined the Calvinist and Lutheran churches of Curacao in one United Protestant Church. In 1942 the Reformed, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Moravian churches in Suriname formed the Comite Christelijke Kerken (Committee of Christian Churches, CCK) to promote Christian, social and ethical values in the time of war and the years of change (Sankeralli, 1995).

The predecessor of the CCC was the Caribbean Consultation of the International Missionary Council in 1957 in Puerto Rico, which made a survey of the Christian ministry in Latin America and the Caribbean. On that occasion, the participants recognized the importance of a process of ecumenism in the region. The countries with a dominant Catholic population (Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Martinique, Guadeloupe) were not interested in ecumenism. The World Council of Churches continued to promote the ecumenical process in the region (Sankeralli, 1995).

In 1959 the Caribbean Committee on Joint Christian Action was established to make the churches conscious of the importance of being involved in acts of development within the framework of the discussion on development and underdevelopment. Later on, groups in the Caribbean started the Ecumenical Committee on Mission in the Caribbean-South with the South Caribbean Ecumenical Consultations on Mission in 1963 and 1967.

The Second Vatican Council was the promoter for renewal in the Catholic Church with a radical change, namely the regional structural reorganization. The Antilles Episcopal Conference (AEC) was established, consisting of the dioceses of the English and Dutch and later on also of the French-speaking countries. The AEC is a member of the Latin American Episcopal Conference. The AEC participated in the General Assemblies of Medellin (1968), Puebla (1979), and Santo Domingo (1992) with concern about the institutional violence in the region, options for the poor, the importance of basic communities, and renewal of the church.

Similar institutions which cover different parts of the region were established, like the Moravian East-West Indies province, the Caribbean Assembly of Reformed Churches, the Methodist Conference of the Caribbean and the Americas, the Anglican Province of the West Indies, and the Salvation Army Territorial Headquarters.

During this time, the anti-colonial fight and the quest for independence arose in the Caribbean. Fidel Castro of Cuba led a successful revolution in 1959. Jamacia became a self-governing country in 1962, like Trinidad. Many countries followed. But still, some parts of the region remain colonies (Virgin Islands, Aruba, and the Dutch Antilles) or Departments d’Outre Mer (Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guyana). It was the period of development programs and the division between the North (the industrialized, rich countries) and the South (the poor countries, like the Caribbean). In the region, the ideas of negritude and solitude came up within the movement for life and identity. The Black Power movement had a deep resonance in some countries in the Caribbean. One of the bright spots was the rise of the Steelband, reggae music, and the Rastafarian movement as moments of real Caribbean life and culture (Caribbean Conference of Churches, 1973).

The Caribbean Ecumenical Consultation for Development in 1971 at Chaguaramas (Trinidad) was a result of this new dynamic. Members of the preparatory committee were the Roman Catholic archbishop of Kingston (Jamaica), Samuel Carter, Juan Montalvo and Edmundo Desueza of the Dominican Republic, David Chaplin of the WCC, Idris Hamid, lecturer of St. Andrew’s Theological College of Trinidad (Presbyterian) and Robert Cuthbert of CADEC (Christian Action for Development in the Eastern Caribbean). Sodepax, the joint Roman Catholic/WCC Society for Development and Peace, was the sponsor of the meeting.

The main issues in Chaguaramas were: justice, liberation, and the meaning of the Christian Gospel for the peoples of the Caribbean. But the search for identity, the place of women in society, the care for the youth, and especially the need for renewal in the different churches was also important. In Chaguaramas, it was decided to prepare for a conference of churches, not a council like the WCC. Chaguaramas wanted to emphasize the character of the meeting, celebration, reflection. It wanted to avoid a slow and unwieldy bureaucracy.

The participation of the Roman Catholic Church was clear and extensive, and the AEC was a real constituent with other smaller churches and congregations. The Vatican Secretariat for Unity showed some reservations about the step of the AEC. But the context of Christianity in the ex-colonial territories asked for the contribution of the AEC. (Caribbean Conference of Churches, 1973)

The stated objectives for the formation of the CCC were:

  • to witness to the will and the determination of the churches to carry their share of the responsibility for participating in the process of human fulfillment and social and economic development;
  • to study under the direction of experts in various fields (theology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and politics) the problems and possibilities of development of one Caribbean people; (Lampe, 1997)
  • to define ways of expressing Caribbean participation in and commitment to the development of the Caribbean in terms of human freedom and justice;
  • to plan strategies of ecumenical action for these ends in co-operation with national programs, international agencies, and institutions.

The mandate for the CCC became, after discussions and deliberations: “Promoting ecumenism and social action in obedience to Jesus Christ and in solidarity with the poor.” The basis for membership was: “The CCC is a fellowship of Christian churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scripture’s common call to the Glory of the One Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The further formulated objectives were:

  • to serve the churches of the Caribbean in the cause of unity, renewal, and joint action;
  • to assist national and local Christian councils in the Caribbean to promote action among them;
  • to provide and stimulate programs of study, research, and experimentation so as to help churches understand the decisive action of God in Christ in terms of their culture, experience and needs;
  • to provide a service to enable information and insights to be shared by member churches and national and local Christian councils;
  • without prejudice to its autonomy to promote collaboration and coordination with agencies of the WCC of the RCC and of other bodies in such ways as may be mutually agreed. (Ramcharan, 1995)

The Antilles Episcopal Conference (17 dioceses covering 29 islands and countries) became a member, but also the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church, the Moravians, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the Iglesia Cristiana Pentecostal of Cuba, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Jamaica, the Disciples of Christ of Jamaica, the Jamaica Baptist Union, the United Protestant Church of Curacao and the Dutch Antilles, the Iglesia Evangelica of the Dominican Republic and the Iglesia Episcopal of Puerto Rico, the Church of God Eben Ezer of Haiti. During the first decades, the number increased from 15 in 1973 to 29 in 1981 and until 33 Christian churches or ecumenical institutions in 34 countries in 1996 (Ramcharan, 1995).

The CCC started in three subregions, in the East in Antigua, in the South in Trinidad, and in the North in Jamaica. Bridgetown (Barbados) hosted the headquarters. Its basic structure was: the general assembly (once in four, later five years); three presidents; a continuation committee, appointed by the general assembly; staff executives (general secretary, two associates, and the financial controller).

Within the structure, there was a place for representatives of the different member churches and countries. That formed a real challenge because the CCC had an English signature from its beginning with a neglect of the three French, Spanish, and Dutch-speaking member groups.

The CCC, as an umbrella organization for the Caribbean, started with programs for theological reflection and conscientization, development projects, and communications (Christian Action, Newsletter of the CCC, 1993).

The establishment of the CCC was heartily welcomed and received a lot of sympathy from churches in Europe and the United States of America. Agencies from abroad supported the CCC, and in some years, the CCC had more than 100 employees. Very few of them knew to speak more than one language (English). The theme anthem of the CCC was The Right Hand of God, the theme of the first assembly in 1973 (Christian Action, Newsletter of the CCC, 1993).

The CCC was very interested in a new Caribbean theology with good attention for the culture of the peoples of the region, poverty and violence of human rights, ecumenism, and later on, the dialogue between the religions within the Caribbean.

In line with the then ruling custom all over the world, the CCC started development projects in the subregions for agriculture, small industries, training, literacy, women’s work, youth. Other areas of interest included relief help (the region is subject to hurricanes), human rights, environmental issues, and tourism. CADEC became Christian Action for Development in the Caribbean (Hamid, 1971).

The CCC started a monthly regional newspaper Caribbean Contact and radio programs. The CCC produced audiovisual material and built a library on issues of development, new technology, and culture. During some years, the Cedar Press published books with theological and catechetical material.

In 1973 the proclamation of the Caricom, the Common Market, and the Caribbean Community took place with the Treaty of Chuagaramas, as the beginning of a long process of integration of all parts of the Caribbean (foremost the English speaking group or the ex-English countries), another sign of growing unity (Mitchell, 1973).

For many, the most obvious problem of the nineties was the financial situation. The contributions from the members were not sufficient. The dependence on agencies abroad was too extensive (more than 90% of the budget in the early 1990s). One of the possible solutions was to cut down the number of employees, traveling, and projects. Carribean Contact came to an end in 1993. The production of audiovisual material stopped (Mitchell, 1973).

Structurally the CCC failed to make the CCC a multilingual institution. The English language, English-speaking people, and ex-English countries were predominantly represented in the CCC. This was an enormous disadvantage and obviously a shame, a relic of the sickness of islands (Mitchell, 1973).

A serious problem for the member churches was the contact between the headquarters (Barbados) and the local Christian councils or members. An evaluation in 1994 found the situation a disaster for the growth of ecumenism. Many members were not very interested in the work of the CCC and also not in ecumenis. (Sankeralli, 1995).

To take an example from my own experience: Surinam was a remote place for the CCC. CCC staff seldom visited Surinam, and there were few projects in this country, where the churches during the good times before the period of the military regime could get ample funds via their government from the Dutch government, which gave Suriname at the moment of independence in 1975 a generous dowry for social, medical and educational projects. Until 1982 the churches did not need the money, the projects, and expertise of the CCC. The churches of Surinam and, of course, of other countries were not really interested in the Caribbean region but continued to look to the relations established during the colonial period. ‘Regionalisation’ is still in its early phase. The process of changing positions and minds is still going on (Williams, 1996).

The CCC and the churches had the experience that many members were going to the newer (Christian) religious movements. Signs of secularization sprouted and became clear. The new generation became interested in a dialogue between religions. The monopoly of the churches in the fields of values and norms, attitudes, and orientation on life disappeared. Most of all, the crisis in the CCC was that it had not succeeded in renewing theology, especially ecclesiology in the region (Bessil-Watson, 1982).

From the beginning on, the CCC had a section for theological reflection and conscientization (ARC, Action for Renewal of the Churches). The CCC organized meetings for theologians and church people from the whole region. It published, for example, Troubling of the Waters (1973) and Out of the Depth (1976). The main issues were the indigenization or acculturation of theology in the context of the Caribbean but also themes as liberation theology (the option for the poor). Then, a decade long during the 1980s, the CCC organized very few activities in the field of the renewal of ecclesiology. In 1993 the CCC called together people of different religions in Georgetown (Guyana) for a meeting about the possibilities for a dialogue between religions. In 1994 the CCC organized in Surinam a seminar about folk religion in the Caribbean with representatives from Cuba, Venezuela, Trinidad, Suriname, and some smaller islands: “At the Crossroads.” During this period, the member churches developed their own strategies and mostly concentrated on their own activities while there was no remarkable growth of experiments within ecumenism as such (Butselaar, 1996).

The Catholic priests from the regional seminary and the pastoral center of St. Lucia tried to find a new way of theology and brought people from different parts (English and Dutch speaking) together for reflection and research (Perspectives I).

A new group, more or less in opposition to the CCC, came into existence, namely the Collaboration for Ecumenical Planning and Action in the Caribbean (CEPAC, Trinidad) and is trying to find a new way, the grassroots way, the way from beneath and with the poor, marginalized people. They have found some support in Surinam too. A prominent member of this new group is Michael Ramcharan, who leads CEPAC’s search for a way towards a Caribbean theology. The ultimate goal of the CEPAC is “a search for identity, an encounter between faith and reality and pursuit of a wholesome Caribbean civilization through the appropriation of our covenants; affirmation of our identity and amelioration of our society” (Ramcharan, 1995).

In the English (and to a lesser degree in Dutch) speaking the Caribbean, there are some initiatives to reformulate faith, religion, and the interpretation of the Gospel, eventually with people of other religions and with exponents of the folk religion. But until now, the effort only has started and is not yet mature in quality or quantity. In Cuba and Puerto Rico, theologians are also busy working on this subject.

We can distinguish different stages and phases, but until now, they had not yet a great impact on the umbrella organization, the CCC. The upcoming studies about Hinduism and Islam in the Caribbean can help to find a way of dialogue and understanding (Proposal for the Restructuring of the CCC, 1996).

Works Cited

Bessil-Watson, L. 1982 Handbook of Churches in the Caribbean, Bridgetown: CCC

Brathwaite, J. (ed.) 1973 Handbook of Churches in the Caribbean, Bridgetown: CCC

Butselaar, Jan van 1996 Goed Nieuws onder de zon. De zending van de kerk in het Caribisch Gebied, Amsterdam: Nederlandse Zendingsraad

Caldecott, A. 1898 The Church in The West Indies, Reprint London: Frank Cass 1970

Caribbean Conference of Churches 1973 Called to Be. Caribbean Ecumenical Consultation for Development, Bridgetown: CCC

Caribbean Conference of Churches n.d. Facts about CCC, Bridgetown: CCC 1977 Human Rights and Institutional Change. An Affirmative Programme of the CCC, Bridgetown: CCC

Christian Action, Newsletter of the CCC, Bridgetown CEPAC: Collaboration for Ecumenical Planning and Action in the Caribbean 1993 Annual Report, also of 1994

Goodridge, S. 1977 The Church amidst Politics and Revolution, Bridgetown: CCC

Gordon, Jason 1997 ‘Globalisatie. Neo-kolonialisme of verdere bewustwording?’ in: Wereld en Zending vol. 26:70-75

Hamid. Idris (Ed.) 1977 Out of the Depths. A collection of papers presented at four Missiology Conferences held in Antigua, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad in 1975, San Fernando

Hamid. Idris 1971 In Search of New Perspectives, Bridgetown: CCC

International Review of Mission 1971 ‘Latin America and the Caribbean’ Vol LX no.238

Lampe, Armando 1997 Breve Historia del Cristianismo en el Caribe, Universidad de Quintana Roo: Cehila

Mitchell, D. (ed.) 1973 With Eyes wide open, Bridgetown: CCC

Mitchell, Mozella G.. Crucial Issues in Caribbean Religions. New York: Peter Lang Pub. Co., 2006

New Ladoc Keyhole Series no 5 1986 The Churches in the Caribbean, Lima

Ramcharan, Michael (ed.) 1995 Into the Deep. Towards a Caribbean Theology, San Fernando 1996 On the Road Together. Towards a Caribbean Theology, San Fernando

Sankeralli, B. (ed.) 1995 At The Crossroads. African Caribbean Religion and Christianity, St. James (Trinidad and Tobago: Caribbean Conference of Churches Scopes, W. (ed.)

Theology in the Caribbean Today I. Perspectives, Proceedings 1994. Saint Lucia Vemooij, Joop

West Indian Commssion 1991 Towards a Vision of the Future. Progress Report on the work of the Independent West Indian Commission, no ref.

Williams, L. 1996 The Caribbean. Enculturation, Acculturation and the Role of the Churches. Geneva: WCC

1962 The Christian Ministry in Latin America and the Caribbean. New York: WCC.

1978 ‘De Tweede Assemblee van de Caribische Kerken Conferentie’ in: Wereld en Zending vol. 7:252-258

1981 ‘The Christian Churches of Surinam’ in: Exchange no. 29. 1981: 16-31

1982 ‘De derde algemene vergadering van de Caribische Conferentie van Kerken’ in: Wereld en Zending vol. 11:353-358

1984 ‘De kerken en de Grenada-invasie’ in: Wereld en Zending vol. 13: 238244

1991 Resolutions approved by the fifth General Assembly. Port of Spain

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1993 Report of the Consultation on Interfaith Dialogue in the Caribbean, Bridgetown: CCC

1994a CCC Internal Evaluation. Staff Position Paper, Bridgetown: CCC

1994b Final Report of the Evaluation of the Caribbean Conference of Churches 1982-1994, Bridgetown: CCC

1994c Renewing our Call to Ecumenism: What Can we Do? Bridgetown: CCC

1995 Report Church Leaders’Consultation Southern Sub-Region, 1994, Bridgetown: CCC

1996 Proposal for the Restructuring of the CCC 1966-1997, Bridgetown: CCC

1997 ‘Ecumenical Relations in Surinam’ in: Exchange vol.26:61-76

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