(Cross posted at Peter Marina’s blog)
The plane hopped and hopped from Antigua to St. Lucia, Barbados, and St. Vincent & the Grenadine Islands all the way down to Trinidad — the last island in the Leeward Islands so far south that it kisses Venezuela. Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital, bursts with colors of every kind. The colors of the visualscapes coalesce with the soundscapes of the bustling city, a stone’s throw away from Venezuela. Walking down Charlotte Street between Park Street and Independence Square just East of Woodford Square where political subversives shout their speeches, one immediately notices the vibrant colors – skin colors from charcoal black to pasty white, hair textures ranging from straight, dead hair to radically alive afros, vegetables and fruits of every variety and color including bright reds, greens, blacks, purples, and yellows.
This ain’t your typical laid-back Caribbean city. Rather, it is rough, edgy, fast, cosmopolitan, diverse, and it’s bursting bursting bursting. Trinidad does not cater to tourists, does not serve them or give them special service. The country has few tourists and treats its few visitors with indifference. The country still benefits from oil and gas, delivering it from the shackles of a tourist-intensive economy.
Global Traveling: Avoiding Crackerjacking
But just like most countries outside the protective blanket of Western privilege, the country tries to rip you off and financially rape you from every angle. Taxi and quasi-taxi cab drivers offer fares at prices over 500% actual costs and crackerjacked hotels charge above $200 for simple accommodations without internet or breakfast. I arrived at the airport at 10:30 am and waited for Trinidad-born, Antiguan Apostle Stephen Andrews to arrive at 1:10 pm. Apostle Andrews is visiting his native country to help kick off his friend Bishop Andrew John’s fourth new church under the auspices of Covenant House of Praise. Bishop John provided full accommodations for Apostle Andrews including a personal chauffeur and a stay at the Hilton hotel chain in a posh neighborhood just northeast of Queen’s Park Savannah where one of the world’s largest roundabouts circles the park. I, on the other hand, had no such arrangements. It was not until the two days prior to travel that I realized Apostle Andrews was traveling to Trinidad. Realizing he was going to Trinidad, I promptly called the millionaire pastor of a large mega-church in St. John’s to receive permission to conduct a “go-along” ethnography with him during his five-day visit. This left little time for travel planning, leaving me even more susceptible to getting financially travel raped. I hoped to find cheap accommodations near the Hilton for the go-along. On a side note, my approach to this research moves beyond the hard world of maps and demographic monographs of sociological scholars and instead develops theory through a personal voyage with transnational charismatic religious actors as they travel across boundaries in real time and space, making new religious homes and shaping local communities. I use a go-along ethnographic approach to travel the soft, malleable, and bending spaces with those engaged in religious networking as their actions occur in lived time and space. Go-along ethnography requires the researcher to not just participate in the actions of the observed, but also participate in daily activities and routines, adventurous or mundane. As a result, residing near his hotel was essential to my research goals to participate in the everyday activities of the Apostle. The trick was how to do it without getting crackerjacked.
Talking with some local residents and glancing at my guide book, I noticed that St. Ann’s Road near the Hilton offered some moderately priced options, most still above $100. Apostle Andrew’s chauffeur agreed to drive me in search of sleeping accommodations after getting the Apostle situated at the Hilton. The Hilton, after the government takes taxes, costs $210 USD without internet or breakfast. While checking in at the Hilton, Apostle Andrews asked the check in receptionist about finding a hotel with cheap accommodations. She responded with facial expressions indicating confusion – as if why would tourists not want to get a good crackerjacking – and stated that such things are not possible except maybe near the airport. Everyone thought that for me, all hope was lost as paying way too much for accommodations was the inevitable reality. I refused such a fate arguing that cheap accommodations could be found nearby and pleaded my case to the Apostle and his driver. The chauffeur and I visited three hotels near the Hilton in and around St. Ann’s Road – all around $130-$150. Finally, we found a great place for $60 USD with internet, hot water, and breakfast included. My room, located near the pool and jacuzzi, had a private front patio as well. I won. Let it be known that I hate getting ripped off and it is not about money – after all this research is fully funded with a grant. Rather, it is about outsmarting and outwitting a country that has for decades put great time and energy into improving their ability to rip off visitors. It is not easy to outsmart decades of planning from countries that have devised huge schemes with all its technological advancements. One must use their wit to outsmart the behemoth and the advantages are stacked against you. It is the proverbial David and Goliath. I stand strong and resolve to not get crackerjacked; no sir. Bullies rip people off and I cannot tolerate bullies who I believe are largely responsible for many of the world’s injustices.
The Mads: Peeing as a Weapon of the Weak
Among the mads (mads are people who do not suffer from the disease normalcy), it is natural to get angry at crackerjacking (normals love it, another symptom of their horrible disease). When it does happen, we use what sociologists sometimes call “weapons of the weak” to take vengeance upon bullies and those who financially rape us. Powerless people use the only means available to fight against bigger bullies, e.g., spitting on a cop’s face for arresting you during a protest against big banks, feigning illness to avoid mind-numbing work, etcetera. My friend Patrick likes to pee. While in Aguas Calientes in Peru, Patrick walked into a restaurant to use the facilities. A restaurant worker immediately stopped Patrick and demanded he pay money to use the bathroom. To Patrick, he was getting taken advantage of for simply wanting to perform a natural human function that would eventually lead to sickness and perhaps even death if not performed. How could these monsters get money from him for that? The injustice! Bullies! So Patrick employed the weapons-of-the-weak tactic to tell the bully “I’m not going to take your raping! I will fight back!” He entered the bathroom, opened the lid to the toilet and peed on everything but inside the toilet bowl. He peed all over the lid, the four walls, the door handles, the floor, everywhere; it was a peefest of anarchy. Take that bully! In actuality, a poor immigrant who makes a living cleaning shit from a toilet for a few cents a day had to clean Patrick’s pee. Though well meaning, sometimes we are the bullies and never realize it. Such is the privilege that seems so normal to us that we are blind.
I met Bishop Andrew’s sound man, Sherwin Gardner, on the plane, the guy who conducts all the social media and sound system maintenance for Andrew’s Antigua church, St. John’s Pentecostal Church (SJPC) House of Restoration. We sat right next to each other on the plane, failing to realize our connection to the Bishop until we reached Barbados. On the plane, I talked to him about Trinidad, hoping to gather helpful information prior to landing. Sherwin is also from Trinidad. In fact, Sherwin and Andrews both hail from a town called Arima. Sherwin offered some advice about the city and gave me his new, self-produced CD which consisted of gospel music with a Caribbean twist.
Stephen Andrews and I get along well. In fact, we genuinely like one another. Prior to meeting at the airport, we barely new one another from our connection with Brooklyn’s Bishop Lester Bradford. Upon meeting, we talked, laughed, told stories, made jokes and got along right away.
Ethnographic Anarchy: Charismatic Ethnography on the Edges
I will stop here to mention something on research methodology. Social scientists sometimes become involved with methods – collecting and analyzing data. There are many types of interviewing methods, sampling methods, methods for participant observation, analyzing data, coding methods, and so on. There are thousands of books on qualitative research methods, universities that offer classes on the topic, software programs to organize data, and conferences that focus on how to conduct ethnographic and qualitative research. In fact, I’m currently teaching a course called qualitative explorations at my university in Wisconsin. I will not bore the reader on methods, suffice it to say, methods are important to social scientists, especially those with physics envy (this term refers to social scientists who want to be like physical scientists and believe that universal, static “natural” laws used to understand plants and chemicals can be used to understand humans). In my view, research scholars use the established methods of their field to over compensate for their lack of rigorous and critical thinking. They lack wit, the ability to think on their feet and therefore must rely on the accepted established methods of their field to generate ideas and understanding about whatever they study. Methods will never compensate for what pure critical insight offers when one delves deep into the abyss of other cultures to see new layers, feel them, taste them, and become them. When traveling, I cast off the bland culture of mainstream US and fully immerse myself into previously unfamiliar cultures. You can’t pretend to do this, there is no guidebook, no rules, no tactics. Similarly, qualitative research requires thinking on your feet, establishing genuine relationships with people, becoming fully immersed in new cultures, walking the streets, genuine laughter, allowing yourself to become vulnerable in front of those you are researching, to take risks, to call people out on their bullshit and to admit (or become aware of) your own. Ethnographic research requires exposing your heart, fears, joys, sufferings, and insecurities to others while receiving theirs. This type of research involves not only seeing but feeling – deep down in your bones feeling – the world of others and taking into yourself their world of fears, joys, insecurities, heart, and sufferings. And it is not about accepting them in some liberal way, it is about truly feeling them. You should break down and cry, you should feel pure joy at their joy, you should feel angry at their stupid views while being moved by their resiliency. If you do not cry, shout, get angry, feel moved, become emotional, and experience a wide variety of life-changing moods, emotions, anxieties, fears, insecurities, and joys you ain’t doing it right. There is no book, no methods, no rules that makes for good research – it is an illusion to believe there is. Rather, good research requires what I call “ethnographic charisma” which allows the researcher to naturally connect soul to soul, heart to heart with real human beings anywhere on the planet. Ethnographic charisma allows the researcher to obliterate their culture and become enveloped into the culture of others; deep deep deep into their cultures so that you can see their colors, taste their tastes, smell their smells, smell what they smell, taste what they taste, produce the colors they produce. I am an ethnographic anarchist, a methodological saboteur, scoffing at intellectually impotent methodologists and their weak-ass rules. I am anti-methodology, I am an ethnographic anarchister, I know what I want and I know how to get it. I want to method destroy. Become a ethnographic anarchist, it’s the only way to be.
Trinidad Church Services in Suburban Barataria
The first church service was on Wednesday, June 4. I have pictures of all the church service events posted on social media flickr and video on youtube. The services do not need explanation beyond the fact that they were all typical Pentecostal church services – worship and praise music, tithes, stories, shouting, amens, and so on. I interviewed the pastor before and after the services. I interviewed him while he ran errands, ate lunch, interviewed at radio stations, etcetera, consistent with the go-along ethnographic approach (ok, so some methodology perhaps).
Some of the themes of the church services included: Planting more churches leads to reduced crime, God does not anoint machines, he anoints man, man having God offers hope to humankind, and the church must remain fluid as it was designed for movement and to change through history. The Apostle sees the charismatic movements as a powerful force of change.
Thursday: A Great Day of Research
On Thursday, June 5, the day started at 8 am. The day proved to be a great day of ethnographic research. We (Apostle Stephen Andrews, Bishop Andrew John, and I) interviewed at 98.1 FM Radio station called Family Focus Broadcasting Network. In the Caribbean, the religiously inspired radio stations are networked and connected together. For example, Family Focus links up with the popular Abundant Life Radio to broadcast religious messages throughout the Caribbean. I will learn more about this from an interview with Sherwin.
I interviewed Bishop Andrew John prior to the radio interview. We discussed the purpose of bringing in Apostle Andrews to preach at his fourth newly opened church. The radio host first interviewed me about my research on culture and religion in the Caribbean. Following this, the radio host talked with the Apostle and Bishop about their upcoming trip to Jerusalem.
The Apostle and Bishop gave me a tour through the three-story radio station that the bishop paid over a million dollars in cash for. The radio station is located deep in the heart of Port of Spain. During the tour, a radio listener called in to speak with me about my research. She told me that the Pentecostal movement spread to the Caribbean starting in Montserrat. Someone wrote a book about it, a book that I believe I received from Apostle Andrews in my first visit to Antigua in October 2013. She also explained that many religious leaders are linked and connected through the West Indian Pentecostal Assemblies (I must verify the name of this organization in my original field notes) located in Trinidad. The apostle and Bishop confirmed in an interview that they met through training with this organization and how it is through this organization that many pastors, both large and small, form connections. It is important to note, that though a large institution helps establish the potential for making connections, it is through the charisma of church leaders that allow for interpersonal networking.
After the radio station we ate breakfast at the Hilton. I interviewed both Apostle Andrews and Bishop John for over an hour, though Bishop John was the main focus of the interview. The interview focused on the following themes:
- The problems associated with the large institutionally affiliated church
- The problems of the Charismatic Church as an institution growing too large.
- The charismatic church’s affiliation with the government
- The big three: Government, Police/Military, and Church
- Religion and Politics, Religion and Culture
- Liberation theology
Just to note, these men are well aware of the problems associated with the large institutionally affiliated church. They know that when the church grows too big and searches for legitimacy, it joins the rank and file of existing power structures. They know that growing too big can make the church static and far removed from the people. They openly admitted that this is something they often think about, especially since these men are big players in the charismatic movements in the Caribbean; they are the big fish. They know they must become the elite and powerful to challenge power – particularly the government and capitalists. They say that they need to be big to fight the existing power structures while also admitting that the allure of power grants access to privilege that, once achieved, often becomes the very thing they are fighting against.
I told them that they seem to focus on pathologizing individuals while forgetting the dominant institutions that produce crime, poverty, homelessness, was environmental destruction, etcetera. I told them that they seem uncritical and subservient to the elite and their ideas. They agreed with me using the phrase “We are not scratching where it itches.” This has been the focus of their conversation the past few days, to bring a big change to the charismatic churches in the Caribbean to scratch where it itches, to address the real hurts, and those hurts, they stated, stem from the government and capitalism. They want to become the powerful not to join power, but to change power. They understood completely what I have been arguing in both my first book and this new book about the problem with the institutionalization of the charismatic church.
I pressed them on how they will go about balancing the tension between institutionalization (joining the power elite) and maintaining charisma to remain a vehicle for political and economic change. Part of their response is to remember their humble beginnings; community activism, creating democracy in the church, outsmarting the elite by joining them to change them, creating grassroots organizations, using social media to create personal and intimate connections with a large body of followers, etc.
I also asked them if they were simply poverty pimps, pimping the poor for their own wealth, after all, these are rich men. They understood how the mainstream external world might have these views. To them, these men say look closer, inspect my life and look at what I do for the people. They say that the small things they do everyday does not ever catch media attention, like waking up a 3 am to a phone call from a congregation member in crisis, giving money to a congregation member about to have furniture repossessed, staying for two hours after church service to administer guidance to a member, and so on. Much of what they said reminded me of my own job where we, as professors, offer countless unrecognized hours to help students with papers who are grasping at ideas, preparing for talks, studying for exams, writing comments on papers, advising students, and so on. None of this is recognized, none of this gets counted as points toward tenure. I must say, I attacked these men on possibly being poverty pimps. I believe they defended themselves well. I am impressed with them actually, and that does not happen often.
This interview was pivotal for my research. An entire chapter in my book is devoted to religion and culture in Trinidad looking specifically at charismatic Christianity.
Next came the exorcism. The religious leaders headed to the revival they were holding in a theater in downtown Port of Spain located on Park Street and St. Vincent. I walked around Port of Spain for about an hour prior to attending the revival. When I arrived at the revival, a woman was making what sounded like demon noises. She moved oddly, writhing on the floor on her back, her lower torso lifting to surprising heights; she was apparently more athletic than she looked. I video recorded the entire exorcism. She was an Indian woman who seemed to be demonically possessed. Bishop Andrews John laid hands on the woman, put his face close to hers, spoke to the supposed demon thought to be possessing the woman, asked periodically “what is your name,” “you will get out of her,” and so on. He even seemed cocky about exorcising the supposed demon from the woman, as if Satan is no match for him and he’s done this a thousand times. The woman went to the ground many times and was lifted back up. Eventually, the bishop said a few more magic words (you can see and hear all of this on youtube, this exorcism will be fully described in the book) and the woman fell to the ground and spit up, signifying the departure of the demon from her body. After speaking with the woman, the bishop later told me that she was a successful businesswoman who garnered jealousy and resentment from family. Apparently, someone, probably a family member, put a gris-gris (or curse) on her using an Indian form of religious practice to tap into the supernatural world.
Exorcism: Another Typical Day at Work
It is very interesting that following the exorcism, the bishop acts as if it never happened, like sneezing. He looked at me moments later and continued a previous conversation complete with joking, laughing, and moving on the everyday activities of life. It is just like when I teach a class for work, end the lecture and go on with my day. No big deal. I got up, ate breakfast, went for a jog, performed an exorcism, made groceries, paid a couple of bills, bought tea at the corner shop, cooked dinner, read my book, and went to bed.
Apostle Andrews likes to say, it’s just work man, work, work, work, got to go to work. He says becoming elevated to bishop and rising through the ranks of the church is nothing special, it is just about more work and more responsibility. In fact, he has so much responsibility that he now no longer conducts his Chaves and Castro style five-hour sermons. He knocks it out in about an hour. Interestingly, researching charismatic Christianity and observing exorcism require me to record, write, describe, analyze, theorize, and so on. For me too, exorcisms are becoming just work, more work, just another day at work.
On side notes and just for my own records, I interviewed both the bishop and apostle before and after each sermon and the performed exorcism. In many ways, these men treat their job as a vocation, a vocation that they did not necessarily want to join. They literally mean it when stating they were called to serve, it called them. In comparison, that is exactly how I feel about sociology.
Anomie and Sin Carrrrrrne?
I’m writing this at a coffee shop in a Port of Spain neighborhood called Woodbrook on Ariapita Avenue. I asked for an iced coffee. Since the coffee is rather new to the Caribbean, and in many Caribbean countries nearly nonexistent, iced coffee is really unusual. I told her no sugar. She looked at me and responded the same way a Mexican does when requesting a vegetarian dish. At first, you tell the Mexican that you want a vegetarian plate, they look as though this concept is completely understood and give you vegetables with your meat. You tell them that you do not want meat and they say “yes, yes, you have vegetables with your meat.” Then they try to avoid you because it seems that something is still wrong and they cannot imagine what it might be. They now want you to go away but you seem to refuse to do so. You go into a long explanation of how you don’t eat meat. They stare at you with an utterly confused face, not just confused, but confused with a little disgust. Then it happens, they finally get the fact that you don’t eat meat. Then the look happens immediately after the thought becomes fully comprehended. It is the look of horror, it is the look of what sociologists call anomie – the complete loss of reality, detachment from the world and all its institutions, where everything you thought you knew immediately gets tossed out the window, the world appears as camera obscura, all meaning is lost and the individual is rendered lost to the world. That look of complete shock and horror enters their face and then a weird, uncomfortable high-pitched sound squeaks from their mouth, “Sin carrrrrrne? Porque no carne? Tu es muy loco.” To overcome anomie, sociologists talk about the need to restore reality, to fill in the fracture that has been exposed rendering the everyday taken for granted reality false, exposing the illusion that it is. The Mexican now literally hates you, thinks that you are a complete idiot, a strange freak. Two things happen. They get angry at you, but knowing that they cannot hurt you and risk going to jail, mixed with wanting you gone, away from their world, they give you what you want. They usually laugh at you, feeling sorry about the pathetic freak you are while picking the meat off your plate with their bare exposed hands.
What did I say about ice coffee? Oh yes, that is the look I received when requesting coffee without sugar.
Ariapita Avenue: Whiteless Gringolandia and Spiced Doubles
Ariapita Avenue is a nightlife hotspot where the middle class nightlifers engage in the trendy nightlife scene. The nightlife scene on Ariapita looks just like trendy neighborhoods in New York, gentrification station New Orleans neighborhoods, or any worldly cosmopolitan city. The drinking age is 18, which is enough to keep me from becoming too involved in the nightlife scene. Eighteen-year olds have absolutely no cultural capital. In fact, they have negative cultural capital. Their parent’s money is the only thing they have going for them. Many of the patrons do that silly bob-your-head-to-the-loud-thumping music thing to indicate they are in tune with the beat of the night, feeling the music, available to be approached without seeming too desperate search. They look mad silly. In fact, the nightlife scene looks like Gringolandia (a term South Americans use to describe neighborhoods with establishments that cater to tourists) without the white people.
I only spent one night in the hotel. Now, I’m renting a room from a sweet-as-can-be old woman whose deceased husband was the mayor of Port of Spain. He was also head of the same church that Bishop John currently heads.
Cosmopolitan Port of Spain produces unique culinary delights, mainly street-vendor foods. They make the best Roti, perhaps in the world, as well as the street food called doubles. Doubles are like Port of Spain tacos consisting of curried chickpeas in a spicy sauce in soft bara bread topped with three different spices. Ariapita Avenue is lined with street vendors for blocks and the serve well into the night. The people here “lime” all night. To lime is to hang out and party. They drink all night and eat from street vendors selling cheap doubles, gyros, burgers, and so on. In local dialect, to express the desire to go out at night one needs to merely say: “Mehwhannah go limen mon in dah night.”
I’m traveling back to Antigua on Monday. I will leave for another Caribbean island soon but may have to fly to New Orleans for a family concern. My abuela is reaching her end. We are all with you Mom.