Spreading the spirit
The late 1950s may be identified as the awakening period for many Afro-Barbadians to the realisation of an African perspective to Christianity. The new dawn, as it were, came with the return from Trinidad and Tobago of His Grace Arch Bishop Granville Williams who established the Sons of God Apostolic Spiritual Baptist Church, which celebrates its 41st anniversary in October 1998.
The achievement of this milestone was a testimony of the determined High Priest whose vision it was to re-orient Christianity to suit the large Afro-Barbadian population, and to give to his people a worship which was reflective of their African persona.
Arch Bishop Williams looked back at those 41 years with a deep sense of achievement: "It is a dream materialised, Another crossing from Egypt into Canan, another victory for mankind who has journeyed from darkness into marvelous light.
"This Church has given to Afro-Barbadians the eminence in divinity which they never have been able to embrace with joy. One visit to our Churches and everyone becomes a full participant in worship. The feeling of brotherhood is immediately transmitted to all visitors, regardless of sex, class or race… The cord of love binds all hearts in Christian love. We express a fellowship that is visible throughout our service, brother embracing brother, sister embracing sister. We now have spiritual joy."
It was not surprising therefore that the church embraced the views of Pan-Africanism in its call for African independence, among them Patrice Lumumba, the first President of Congo; Kwame Nkruma, the first President of Ghana; Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress (ANC); and Sam Nujomo of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO).
In addition, special services are held to commemorate Black Civilisations’ Day, the first Sunday in January; African Liberation Day on May 25th; and for the liberation of Southern Africa.
Preaching during the devotion held in 1984 to memorialise the 150th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire, Arch Bishop Williams then Bishop Williams stated: "We salute the brave African sons in the Caribbean who worked for the upliftment of the downtrodden Blacks, and I now salute the bold sons and daughters who are working for the complete liberation of the Africans"
Perhaps it is a significant coincidence that that year marked the 100th anniversary of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the great Pan-Africanist
Arch Bishop Williams, speaking at a function which commemorated his 1oth year as Bishop said: "Marcus Garvey is one of the greatest black men that ever lived. He was a great fighter for his people and had accomplished much during his time."
The Spiritual Baptists are unrepentant in its philosophical position regarding the African but is equally adamant against racism of any form.
It was not a rare occasion that whites, Indian and Chinese, as well as Africans from the continent, have been baptised into the Spiritual Baptist faith; and that mixed couples have been married by Arch Bishop Williams, many of whom returned to worship whenever they come to Barbados.
The churches, the Zion Apostolic Temple in Richmond Gap, St. Michael; Beulah Temple in Bishops Ten, St. Lucy; Jerusalem Apostolic Cathedral in Ealing Grove Christ Church all in the island of Barbados; the Pillar of Fire Apostolic Temple in Boston and Bethlehem Temple in Harlem NY both of the USA; Mount Morriah Spiritual Baptist temple in Tobago – provide the meeting places for the large congregation.
A major differentiating factor of this Afro-Barbadian church is its mysticism: the form of worship and the symbols used. Members dress in robes, of various colours, but mostly white and tie their waists with coloured cords, which represent their respective "spiritual degrees". Some wear sashes. The women and some men tie their heads during services, a custom which has made them identifiable as the "Tie Heads", and members worship with their whole bodies.
Members do not enter the "courts" (temple) wearing shoes. They bow, spin and whirl before the altar. Very often prayers are said in singsong, wailing and wheeping form. Sometimes, the whole church "go down in Pentecostal prayers" (praying aloud together).
From the front entrance to the sanctuary, from the beginning of the service to the end, white candles are burned at various sections of the church, particularly at the altar. Sweet meditative incenses burn throughout the service as well.
At given points in the worship bells are taken from the altar and rung feverishly several times, a conch shell is blown and a dong is banged. Members "go off in the spirit", stamp their feet, make strong gutteral sounds or "adoptions" and talk in other languages. The four corners of the church are surveyed by a member of members with lota (a brass vase with flowers, water and a lit candle in the centre).
"It is no mistake that we leave the earth during our worship and that we invoke and can feel the presence of God, the Holy Ghost, angels and the saints. If you have eyes to see you will see, if you have ears to hear you will hear. We see beyond the flesh, into the plane of soul and experience those sweet perfumes which are picked up by refined senses, ", Arch Bishop Williams said.
It might be for these reasons that some Barbadians view the church with mixed feelings. But the increasing number of young people joining its ranks is a statement about the revelance of the church’s message and doctrine to comtemporary society.
The Spiritual Baptist have worked their ways into the Barbadian social mainstream in more than one way, participating widely in cultural festivals and other
Perhaps, it is through these festivals that the Spiritual Baptists have magnified themselves more as a community-based Organisation the other Evangelical or established churches. Crop-Over Festival is one such celebration in which the Baptists share.
Explained Arch Bishop Williams: "We see it as a Biblical festival. Foe we ask God to bless the land and the crop to be fruitful in great abundance. We are bound to give thanks. In the book of Ruth, Boaz gave thanks with much merriment and enjoyment as was always practised in Isreal… It was found that at these festivals (King) David danced in the city barefooted. Everyone was given a loaf of bread, a piece of meat and some wine." (2 Samuel 6, 14-19)
The Spiritual Baptist became involved in Crop-over soon after the festival was revived in 1973. They introduced the now standard Cou-Cou Village canteen from which they served cou-cou and flying fish, the national dish. The latter was a first for the event. They were invited also to open the festival by performing the blessings at the Ceremonial Delivery Of The Last Canes (sugar cane), and to close the celebrations with divine service. To this end the church is a fixture in the scheme of things.
Similarly, the church has responded readily to invitations from community groups to open their street fairs in and outside of Crop-Over, seeing this as part of its responsibility to ensure that God is also present in merriment.
The increasing demand for the appearances of the Spiritual Baptists led to the formation of its folk group, which not only performed extensively at dinners, concerts and village fairs, but also won a bronze award in 1986 National Independence Festival of Creative Arts (NIFCA). Consistent with the church’s outlook, the group sings Afro-Caribbean and African songs
Significantly, the church’s biggest break through on the cultural front was in1981 when it formed part of the official programme at the opening of the Caribbean Festival of Creative Arts (CARIFESTA) at the National Stadium.
The outward showing of the Sons of God Apostolic Spiritual Baptist Church continues in the way the pietistical rituals are observed, the Baptisms, Palm Sunday and Good Friday Processions which draw large crowds in streets. Though not street events, the Harvest and Lord’s Feast, which are celebrated with much pomp, also draw large sections of the community each year.
Acceptance of the church came with its growth. The once bitter resentment in "established" church circles mellowed more so when the Spiritual Baptists joined the Barbados Christian Council (BXC), and played an active role in that Organisation.
The observers and writers who have often misrepresented the Spiritual Baptists’ worship have done so because of ignorance, said Arch Bishop Williams, noting that by paying superficial attention to dress, they tended to see sects such as the "Shakers", "Pocomania" and "Shango" as one. That the church has an African orientation in the worship is probably the cause of suspicion.
They are still some members alive who were among the first baptised into the denomination, but the children and grandchildren of the departed are still there. Youth represent more than 80 percent of the membership, a factor that gives the Organisation much dynamism and augurs well for the future.
The future is thus being insured through the church’s administration with the establishment of the Grand Council, the Supreme Council and the weekly general meeting. These are decision- making entities and represent the collective wisdom of all members.
Spiritual Baptist members are well informed about themselves, the Bible and their social responsibility. Their solidarity with African ancestral links are noted in their conversations, African attire- dashiki and algkada, hairstyles and handicrafts. An expression of themselves surely is found in their culinary arts which are shared with Barbadians and visitors at the national Crop- Over Festival.