Spiritual Baptist Celebrations at the Savannah

Archbishop Alston Wilson, Bishop Steven Julien, Patriarch Vernon Vaughn, Archbishop Johnny Jones, Archbishop Winston Peters, Archbishop Neville Lessey
LEFT: Archbishop Alston Wilson, Bishop Steven Julien, Patriarch Vernon Vaughn, Archbishop Johnny Jones, Archbishop Winston Peters, Archbishop Neville Lessey Reporters
Event Date: March 30, 2007
Posted: April 10, 2007

The celebration of Spiritual Baptist Shouter Liberation Day on Friday 30th March, 2007, marked 90 years since the Prohibition Ordinance that banned Shouter Baptist worship. The theme of this year's celebrations was "Celebrating Our Spiritual Freedom". The observances spanned several locations throughout Trinidad and Tobago. One such event was held at the Queen's Park Savannah East with a rally, service and concert and was attended by several Spiritual Baptist Churches hailing from many different parts of the country as well representatives of churches from St. Vincent and Jamaica. This historic day was marked by dancing, singing, drumming and prayer and was indeed a joyous occasion for all in attendance.

People came by the busload from around 9:30 a.m.; many groups dressed in similar clothing that identified them as belonging to particular churches. Others were dressed in African robes or in the garb that has long been associated with the Spiritual Baptist faith. From the start, the day was marked by music and singing. Gospel music blared through large speakers, beckoning the arriving crowds and inspiring those present to sing along and dance: an atmosphere that continued for much of the day.

As the group filled the large tents to capacity, the air was full of anticipation. Bishop Wayne Jones called the congregation to order and a drum call played by a group from several different churches welcomed everyone. The morning officially began with a regal procession of the following members of the clergy: Bishop George Francis; Archbishop Vernon Vaughn, patriarch of the Spiritual Baptist Church; Bishop Steven Julien; Archbishop Samuel Dick; Archbishop Winston Peters; Bishop George; Abbes Estrada; Abbess Cheryl Miller; Archbishop Johnny Jones; Archpriest Alexander Mockette and Archbishop Alston Wilson. Also present in the procession were representatives from the clergy of the different churches. The procession was marked by more solemn hymns.

After the highest-ranking members of the clergy were assembled at the head table, the national anthem was sung and followed by a sequence of more upbeat songs of praise during which the congregation greeted each other in love and peace. The atmosphere was warm and joyful, full of praise song, traditional bell ringing and dancing. This was followed by the Invocation of the Holy Spirit.

The energetic and charismatic Bishop Wayne Jones, who led the service, recognized the presence of the spirits of African slaves whose bodies lay in the Queen's Park Savannah which was once a slave plantation. At this point prayers were said, led by Archbishop Alston Wilson and a ritual was performed where oil was scattered onto several places on the stage and into the seated congregation. The Apostles Creed was recited by all, with the members of the head table facing the altar that was situated at the back of the stage. Several female members of the clergy gathered at the foot of the stage and conducted the pastoral prayers.

Next, members of different churches were called to the stage to read from the Christian Bible. Sister Valerie of the Isaiah Temple read the 133rd Psalm, Brother Roger Caliste read the 136th Psalm and Bishop Dick read from the book of 2nd Corinthians, chapter 3.

Addresses by several leading individuals in the Spiritual Baptist faith followed. The first speaker was King Shepard/Bishop Ray Braithwaite who mentioned that the ground had to be extensively prepared for the days proceedings, implying that the spirits of the ancestors on the former slave ground of the Queen's Park Savannah were not yet at rest. He recognized several people in the audience such as Archabbess Sylvia Roberts, widow of the late Oba Raymond Douglas; the Charge D'Affairs of the South African High Commission, Mr. Roy Setlhapelo; members of the Pacific Lutheran University in Trinidad on a study abroad program; the spouse of the current Patriarch, Archbishop Vernon Vaughn; Deputy Archbishop Ivan Lancaster; Minister of Education for St. Vincent, Honourable Gurlyn Miguel and Minister of Community Development, Gender Affairs and Culture, Honourable Joan Yuille-Williams.

Next, Mr. Roy Setlhapelo brought greetings to the crowd from South Africa, saying that although he was from far away he could identify with the spirit of liberation and freedom displayed on that day. David Heath of the Pacific Lutheran University also brought greetings and Archbishop Stephen Julien and Archbishop Neville Lessee greeted the crowd, reminding them of the importance of remembering the past and honouring those elders who have paved the way for the freedoms the Spiritual Baptist community enjoys today.

King Shepherd/Bishop Braithwaite spoke of the history of racism and marginalization that plagued the Shouter Baptists as they fought to practice their own religion. He spoke of the heroes of the church who defied the 1917 Prohibition Ordinance like Uriah Buzz Butler, famous trade union leader who led revolts for workers rights in the 1930s, and Archbishop Elton Griffith who carried the torch in the 1940s. Bishop Braithwaite related an interesting story that has become legend in St. Vincent that spoke of the power of the spirit of the Shouter Baptists. During colonial times the governor of St. Vincent went to spy on a Shouter Baptist meeting. As he approached, his horse caught the power, began to buck and threw the governor for his horse. In his anger he passed the ordinance that prohibited the practice of Shouter Baptist worship in St. Vincent.

This was a perfect introduction to the feature address that was given by Honourable Gurlyn Miguel, Minister of Education in St. Vincent, herself a Spiritual Baptist. In her address, she celebrated the endurance of a people that have suffered persecution since 1870 and rejoiced at what she saw as Jesus bringing the Caribbean together on the day of celebration. She traced the history of the Shouter Baptists as beginning with traditional religions in West Africa and then being carried to the Caribbean by African slaves. In St. Vincent, she said, the Orisha influence and Christianity forged the movement, which at its core held high, the power of the spirit. After being persecuted in St. Vincent, Baptists, she said, fled to Grenada and the Windward Islands and many found safe haven in Trinidad.

Ms. Miguel stressed the importance of three elements in ensuring the growth and strength of the church: attitude, leadership and outreach. She called for the maintenance of a good congregational environment to encourage newcomers to continue to attend and the importance of making the gospel relevant to the congregation and the changing times. She warned against the misinterpretation of biblical scripture, as the African slaves did, who saw proof of their own inferiority in the Bible. She claimed that spirituality had nothing to do with colour or race, but was about the essence of the spirit that resides in all people. At this point the Minister led the congregation in song and there was an outpouring of drumming and singing. Archbishop Johnny Jones of St. Vincent was key in leading the congregation in song. With his powerful voice and engaging spirit he brought a special and infectious energy to the proceedings.

She ended her address by informing the congregation that March was Heritage Month in St. Vincent and that the struggles and trials of African slaves were being commemorated. On this note she also informed the congregation that the Prime Minister of St. Vincent, Ralph Gonsalves, had made an official call for reparations for the slave trade at a meeting at the United Nations. The congregation greeted this pronouncement with applause. However, she stated that what was really important was forgiveness for the past and that it is only with forgiveness that people can enter 'Beulah-land'.

The Minister of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs of Trinidad and Tobago, the Honourable Joan Yuille Williams then addressed the crowd. She gave a brief alternate version of some of the history of the Spiritual Baptist church in the Caribbean. She explained that several African freedmen who fought on the side of the British during the American Civil War and were settled in what were called company villages in Princess Town and environs were some of the forbearers of the Spiritual Baptist movement. These Africans from America, she said, brought with them their own unique style of worship that was an early forerunner to the Spiritual Baptists that we know today. The Minister also spoke of the racist persecution that the Baptists were subjected to but commended the strength of its adherents as despite the ordinance passed in 1917, by 1951 when the ordinance was repealed, a movement that authorities had tried to stamp out now had thousands of followers. She ended her address by commending the work of the church in youth and community development and indicated her Ministry's commitment to being of service to the community.

At this point, the service broke for lunch and members of the churches were served lunches provided by the organizing committee. People milled around, greeting each other and gospel music and the sounds of African drumming added to the festive atmosphere. The afternoon portion of the event, unlike that of the morning, however, was a much less formal atmosphere. The stage was cleared and members of different churches were given the opportunity to perform and showcase their talents. Reverend Gibson performed two popular hymns on the harmonica; the Jerizon Folk Performers did a dance that reenacted the trials, sufferings and triumphs of the Shouter Baptists over the years; the Prizgar Lands Kelly Folk Performers, defending Best Village champions, gave an entertaining and inspiring performance; and Brother Julien performed the hymn "It is Well With My Soul".

Archbishop Johnny Jones and members of his delegation from St. Vincent then took the stage and gave a rousing performance that brought the crowd to its feet and brought many others to the stage dancing and singing in worship. The Codrington Pan Family performed next and was much appreciated by the crowd. The New Jerusalem Spiritual Baptist Church performed a humourous skit that portrayed a policeman attempting to stop Baptists from worshipping but was instead moved by the power of their worship and was forced by the power of the spirit to change his ways. Archbishop Steven Julien took the stage and led the crowd in song where he was joined by his former congregation of the Isaiah Temple who danced, sang and drummed, revving up the crowd and bringing the event to an energetic close.

As the event came to an end, Archbishop Alston Wilson thanked all who attended, making special mention of the organizers who worked tirelessly to bring the event to fruition. Special thanks was also given to the sponsors: the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, Petrotrin, SWMCOL, Maritime, Waste Disposal, First Citizens Bank, PTSC, WASA and the Eastern Credit Union. Thanks were also given for the presence of the Police Service and the St. John Ambulance Services.

Spiritual Baptist Shouter Liberation Day 2007
- Queens Park Savannah in pictures:

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