Barbuda: July 30-August 3 2014

(Cross posted on on Peter Marina’s blog)

Fred, the blond-haired French woman who organizes the boat ride to Barbuda, took my money in exchange for a two-hour bumpy, crazy bumpy, puke your guts out, boat ride to the flat, near-deserted island of Barbuda (cost of ticket is $150 EC). Unlike boat rides to other Caribbean islands, one can barely spot Barbuda until close to the island. It is flat with no real docking area, marina, buildings, stores, tourist hustlers hustling, taxis, and skyline of any sort. It is just a flat, sandy rock with almost nothing on it. Time moves slowly here, you can feel your beard grow. Reverend “Rev” Nigel picked me up shortly after the boat arrived to the tiny island with his daughter along for the ride. Although I expected Rev to drop me at a guest house (no hotels on the island), much to my surprise, he put me up at one of his apartments on the church property. These apartments are normally reserved for pastors, guest preachers, and other religious men conducting religious business with Rev in Barbuda. In fact, Rev took good care of the entire time in Barbuda, his wife and daughter even made me a lobster pasta from scratch. The apartment right near the church is in the tiny, and only, village of Codrington.

After settling in to the apartment, we went on a car ride throughout the island, mainly the northern parts of the island to see deserted, remote beaches with pink tinted sand from the coral. We later traveled the western Atlantic side of the island to see miles of remote islands, the wild Atlantic, breathtaking cliffs overlooking the ocean, caves filled with stalagmites and stalactites. This place takes your breath away. Much of Barbuda is downtime, and today, downtime remained until the 7:30 am prayer hour.

I’ve traveled to St. Martin with Rev and talked to him in Antigua but never witnessed him in a pastor role. After knowing him for a while, this is my first time seeing Rev be a rev. The following field notes of the Wednesday Prayer meeting is of no interest to the reader:

Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting:
At 7:30 prompt, Nigel’s wife Jocelyn begins prayer the prayer meeting with only about nine people in attendance. The congregation begins with hymns like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Close to Thee” to get the congregation warmed up. People continue to trickle in throughout the service. Between songs Jocelyn offers words and messages of encouragement, advice, reminders, and so on. Sometimes her messages relate directly to the topics covered in the hymnals.

After singing these hymnals, Jocelyn provides instruction for tonight’s plans. Tonight we “exult” and encourage each other using our interpretation of scripture versus that a little girl handed to us upon entering the church. These scripture versus were in small purple strips of paper. I had Joshua 1:8 on one side and Ecclesiastes – my favorite book in the bible – chapter 3 verse 1. At 7:58 pm, 19 adults were in attendance.

One man shares his interpretation of a bible passage. He starts rather timid but gets going with more confidence as he continues to talk. This man goes on and on prompting Jocelyn to issue new rules to the congregation after this man taskes up too much time with his interpretation. The rules include using only one scripture quote from the two sided purple slip with passages on both sides as well as limiting one’s interpretation to two minutes.

The congregation members take turns sharing their interpretations of various bible passages. One congregation member states “With just the mention of the name Jesus, demons tremble.” And so it goes, as Vonnegut says, as each congregation member, one by one, reads a bible passage and offers an interpretation, some longer and more rambling than others.

After all that, prayer time. Jocelyn takes prayer requests. Some church members, including Nigel, offer prayer requests. Like the ghost dance of the long ago natives, one of the prayer requests call for rain.

After prayer requests, the congregation begins praying using well known gospel hymns for a few moments until Jocelyn asks them to find their own personal spot in the church to pray privately while still remaining in a collective group – something that I have elsewhere called “collective nomic isolation.” The congregation members complied and spread throughout the church finding isolated spots for personal prayer. This is apparently a common practice in the church since pillows are readily available on the chairs and pews of the church. They used the pillows to place on the floor to prostrate on the ground with knees on the ground and elbows on the chair. Everyone in the congregation bows in some form, some even while sitting on the pews, while others walk around or lie on the floor. This goes on for about thirty minutes. Some people pray out loud, while others pray silently. I enjoy the sound of people engaged in collective groups but praying highly personalized, individual prayers out loud.

For a moment I reflected on all my experiences in the Caribbean. I thought that if god died in the enlightenment, he was born again – like so many of the inhabitants here – in the Caribbean.

After this roughly thirty minutes of prayer, the meeting ends with Jocelyn leading a final prayer at the podium. Prayer meeting ends at 9:05pm.

The next day, Nigel and I drove to the Atlantic coast talking almost nonstop about theology, philosophy, the existence of god, belief in god, morality, ultimate truth, free will and determination, religious beliefs and practices, and so on. It was intense, almost surreal. We walked toward to spectacular crashing Atlantic coast balancing ourselves on coral with the wind blowing hard talking about how all the historical forces of hundreds of years and all the events that needed to happen for us to have this conversation — in this particular form, language, and style of thought – at this moment. It was intense, and the Rev and I connected on a deep level. We hold radically different beliefs, but connect all the same.

After some down time, Rev and I had a “formal” interview in his office about his personal biography and story becoming a pastor, PAWI church structure and the problems of a charismatic movement institutionalizing, the Pentecostal movement and its future, and other issues related to the themes that will be covered in the book. We returned to the tiny village of Codrington for more downtime.

Barbuda, as far as I could tell, had few, if any, restaurants or bars. Without exaggeration, there is nothing at all to do.

Nigel introduced me to Dr. Sophia Perdikaris, an archaeologist from CUNY’s Brooklyn College, doing extensive field and community work in Barbuda. This woman does it all, teaches children, trains university students, researches as an archaeologist and cultural anthropologist on the island, creates various projects to support the island and its inhabitants, takes care of animals, and so on. I must admit, she is an incredible person. She even has a goat as a pet, along with two dogs. She does all this with at least two kids, Impressive. We had dinner at her house, along with some of her friends including a Cuban doctor I met earlier that day on a guest visit to the underfunded, under-equipped, and understaffed Barbuda hospital. It was my first time making “red gravy” vegetarian pasta. I must say, damn good.

The Cuban doctor shared powerful stories of all her travels in remote areas, including Africa, where magic, religion, myth, traditional African practices, and folklore continue to dominate social life, including perceptions on health and medicine. I usually dominate conversation with my storytelling. Not this time. This Cuban woman told fascinating stories. As much as I’ve traveled, I have only scratched the surface. I vow to go everywhere. Like Kerouac, I just gotta go man, I just gotta go.

Minutes From Nigel’s Barbuda Pentecostal Church Sunday Service August 3 at 10am (The reader will want to skip this):

  • Praise and worship songs until 10:53.
  • 2/3 full congregation, ¾ near full by the time last song ends)
  • Call for offering at 10:45
  • Ushers in uniform dance and sing outside.
  • “We’re expecting a miracle, we’re expecting God to do something.”
  • Church recites words from a blue projector screen. When there is nothing to recite, the screen says “My church, the Barbuda Pentecostal Church, is a lighthouse for the lost; an agent of positive change empowered by God to serve all men holistically, working effectively with world-wide outreach.”
  • After the announcements, Reverend Nigel takes stage.
  • Call for new people or people returning to the church after an absence.
  • Young boy shares his youth camp experience, gets overwhelmed with religiously inspired emotion.
  • Testimony from adult male about church camp and his experiences helping out.
  • Impromptu singing with Rev singing “Yes, Jesus loves me.”
  • Altar call with oil at 11:20 with singing and prayer, rapid fire exorcisms. Eight adults approach the altar (including ushers) and 5 or 6 children.
  • “Dedication” baptism of baby at 11:28. They are friends and family of the to-be baptized baby called to the front, almost 1/3 of the congregation. The parents are unmarried. Rev holds the baby and offers prayer.
  • More singing at 11:37
  • Preaching begins at 11:43
  • Uses Psalm46 which is chanted altogether, also uses Ezekiel 48:35
  • “Why should you praise a God who could change your bad situation?” (Previously, I asked Rev a hypothetical question about why, if there is a god, it would want people praying to it all the time?)
  • “Anytime you forsake God, something bad is going to happen.”
  • Nigel steps off the stage to walk between the aisles and preach.
  • “Even junkies want to be the best junkie.”
  • Singers and musicians on stage generally less enthusiastic; congregation gets excited and hyped as Rev preaches.
  • Ending prayer and song at 12:24.

We traveled to many parts of the island during this visit, including a motor boat ride across the bay to the eleven mile beach where construction for a hotel has already begun. The best food in Barbuda, besides Jocelyn and Nigel’s daughters fine lobster pasta, is them fish sandwiches. It was a joy spending time with Nigel in the small, peculiar island of Barbuda. It was also a success for the research involved. I will return to Barbuda on my trips to Antigua. I will fly instead of take that boat. Though I did not get sick, the ride is nauseating. After so much downtime in sleepy Barbuda, it was time to return to Antigua where the height of carnival approached.

My next posting is on Antigua Carnival and my trip to the beautiful and magical island of Montserrat.

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