That’s the image that comes to my mind when I think of my last ten days spent among the Baptists of the world. Each year, the Baptist World Alliance Annual Gathering takes place in July – this time in Ocho Rios resort in Jamaica. The Gathering was preceded by the Baptist International Conference of Theological Educators (BICTE), and both myself and Parush had the privilege of taking part in both of these events.
Talks of ‘unity in diversity’ can sound superficial, but that really has been our experience. The diversity, or the variety of the bouquet, is striking: cultures, languages, theological persuasions, church practices, political situations… But then, on the other hand, several times I’ve been surprised by the rapport where I certainly didn’t expect it.
It was also fascinating to get to know the Jamaican Baptists. The story of the slaves and their liberation prominently in the background, justice frequently features as a special emphasis in the church services. On a Sunday, several of us were visiting the main Baptist church in Ocho Rios, and I was particularly struck by the words of an old hymn we sang – “I have no other Master [but Jesus]”…
Whilst on the subject of songs, there’s richness of both style and content that made my heart sing. Some of you know my passion for the use of music from different cultures in worship, and especially for greater presence of music created locally. That we certainly had on that Sunday – songs in Patois, spirituals, Latin American cry-for-justice songs, Spring Harvest, old hymns… just great. Come to think of it, however, missed reggae.
I was curious about the relationship with the larger Jamaican culture – I could see some aspects of it resisted, such as sensuality of relationships, women’s dressing style, or familiarity, but could only speculate about these things, as our encounter with the local culture was so limited. This, unfortunately, is another side of BWA gatherings – expensive hotels and surroundings totally unaffordable to the locals. There are reasons for this, but I still find it deeply against what I believe we as followers of Jesus should be when we meet together. I guess the most authentic encounter I had was having a few braids done on an old chair outside a barber shop off the Main Street of Ocho Rios – negotiating the price (with my all-inclusive hotel wristband it was clear I was a good silly tourist snatch!), learning about my hairdresser’s children, saying no to the offer of ‘smoke’ and a few other propositions by those hoping more may come after the braids… Being a follower of Jesus in such vibrant culture was clearly a fascinating affair, but in what ways exactly, I still don’t quite know.
It is partly my own fault, however, as the couple of free mornings that I had I headed off to experience the beauties of Jamaican nature – and these were the parts that are not necessarily accessible to a common Jamaican. This is where the ease with which such excursions are available and the lack of preparation and knowledge of the ‘local paths’ takes over, and you hit the stunning, unforgettable views of Dunns River Falls or the jungle. And it was magnificent, but I still feel as if I touched only a very particular and privileged aspect of Jamaica, and still understand very little about its everyday life and challenges.
Back to the meetings in the airconditioned hotel, and particularly BICTE, it was great to connect with teacher theologians from all over the world. I was tasked with providing an overview of the current situation in ministerial formation of the students in Europe. Given that the time for this was limited, it was a rather daunting task – but I was encouraged to hear that my colleagues, not only in Europe but also Canada and elsewhere, felt they were meeting the same challenges, and that we all needed lots of creativity, humility, openness and attentiveness to the Spirit’s move (the theme of the conference). Good to know there are so many colleagues who are kindred spirits in the same task we share.