…To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
For those who may not be too familiar with this quote, it came from Nelson Mandela, a man who knew the value of freedom, and of struggle for liberation. Understanding the privilege of being able to address you today, my friends of the Spiritual Baptist faith, I thought about the word liberation, and what it truly means in Tobago’s context today.
One can only have liberation if an oppressive force or restraint is removed; and liberation is usually only achieved through struggle. Because of that struggle, those who have been liberated, appreciate the value of that freedom.
It is hard to imagine today being harassed by police, arrested and charged for practicing one’s faith. However, for 34 long years—between 1917 and 1951—this was the experience of the Spiritual Baptists, a movement that ironically was forged from the flames of oppression occasioned by slavery. On Friday, March 30, 1951, you my brothers and sisters, won the right to sing, to shout, to dance, and to praise your God without the fear experienced by your predecessors over previous decades. Importantly, that right is enshrined in our Constitution, which guarantees all persons in Trinidad and Tobago the “freedom of conscience and religious belief and observance”.
Thus, the story of the Spiritual Baptists of Trinidad and Tobago is one which reflects courage, persistence, endurance and creativity—much like the story of Tobago’s current evolution. Even today as we await the progress of the Tobago autonomy bill, that process reflects an ongoing struggle, not merely for recognition, but for the opportunity to determine our path forward, as an island seeking to fashion a robust economy and an enduring society. It mirrors the struggle faced by James Biggart, APT James, ANR Robinson, and many other, less heralded Tobago heroes, including Dr. Winston Murray, who sadly passed away at the beginning of this year.
The Spiritual Baptist faith, may I suggest, isn’t merely a religion. It’s an institution embedded in a rich cultural history, and a legitimate part of Tobago’s heritage. It is easily discernible from a distance; the singing and chanting, accompanied by drums and vigorous hand clapping, are rooted in spirituality, as cries of worship, triumph and celebration. These cries have endured throughout 34 years of prohibition, and even after Spiritual Baptists in this country won legal freedom in 1951, they continue to endure today. That word liberation also implies a shift in social attitude, and acceptance; and it is this battle you, our brothers and sisters, needed to win most.
We cannot deny your contributions to Trinidad and Tobago. These are embedded in our music, through the steelband, calypso and soca; your customs and dress are undeniably a part of our heritage, and are reflected in the Tobago Heritage Festival. Spiritual Baptists, so to speak, can be found in every walk of life in our community, as influential and dedicated working professionals in both the public and private sectors. This influence has spread to our brothers and sisters along the Caribbean Sea, and even in communities in the US and Canada. While Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler is well known for his role in seeking workers’ rights and helping to transform the sphere of labour in this country, it is probably a lesser known fact that he was a devout Spiritual Baptist. In the same way, many others have done their part without recognition, because social progress was far more important.
The Tobago House of Assembly has always been ready to support the Baptist community in Tobago. I am pleased to note that progress has been made on the construction of a permanent home for Spiritual Baptists on this site, three acres of land provided by the Tobago House of Assembly. We have also been proud to contribute to Liberation celebrations, and to your outreach programmes, which allow you to give back to the communities, including homes for the aged at Lambeau, Bacolet, Mason Hall and Canaan/Bon Accord. Their residents cherish not only the hampers and other items you share, but your encouraging words of comfort, and actions of love and spirituality.
So when you celebrate Spiritual Baptist Liberation Day, we at the level of the THA celebrate with you. It is both a testimony of and a memorial for all those who have struggled for this right of liberation without tasting its fruits; for all those whose self-prescribed obligation is to make our society, our island, and our country better; it highlights the value of our religious diversity and inclusiveness; and it is a reminder of how much better it is to correct our wrongs for the cause of social justice than to simply ignore them.
Indeed, how good and pleasant it is for Brethren to dwell together in unity. Most of all, your resoluteness should be an inspiration to all Tobagonians, and a testimony to the strength of the human spirit; an affirmation that despite the challenges we may face in life, adversity does not equal defeat; oppression does not equal surrender; and misfortune does not equal failure.
Against this background, therefore, I suggest to you that today’s celebrations allow for reflection and introspection. You must answer the question: How can we as individuals and as a faith, a collectivity, organise and mobilise to continue to contribute to the enhancement of our society, and attend to the ills that currently confront us? Ought this not be achieved through community spirit, volunteerism, generosity and youth development?
As I close, I would like to leave you with this message: stay steadfast, but upgrade your work in your communities. Our current generation of youth needs all the guidance possible to navigate an ever-changing and ever-challenging world. They will learn so much more by the way we live, and by what we show them, than what we tell them to do. There will be times when we have to leave the 99 and look for the one lost sheep, to safeguard their future. Remember their future is Tobago’s future.
The extent to which our generation would be able to retire and live in relative peace, and enjoy a reasonable quality of life, is the extent to which we would have done our duty, in ensuring that our youths would have been trained in the way they should go, so they would not depart therefrom.
And therefore, let this be an occasion for reflection, thanksgiving and unification, so that we do not take for granted the long road you have travelled, and the long road ahead. Tobago’s development demands that you seek opportunities to work with other groups and organisations, because we all want the same thing: a bright future for Tobago, and for Trinidad and Tobago. The Tobago House of Assembly will continue to encourage an environment of togetherness, and of collaboration, where each one of us works for the benefit of all. If we work one for another, we cannot fail; we will not fail. I thank you.