By Ryan Clark
I’m standing with a group of young leaders from the United States and Bahamas reading the plaque on a monument on Green Turtle Cay, a small island or key just off Abaco Island. I read the plaque some time ago, but this time I’m reading it aloud to the group.
As I run across the phrase “fleeing American refugees,” I have to read it again. American refugees? I don’t remember reading that last time I was here.
The purpose of Pivot Bahamas is to create a learning immersion experience for young adults that includes six studies exploring God’s mission in the world ahead of 4.5 days of Caribbean cultural acquisition, leadership training and reflection on Abaco Island. We’ll have seven more studies in the coming weeks. Our cohort will discuss asset mapping our own communities as we pivot home, the third stage in Pivot: Turning Teams Toward God’s Mission Near and Far. In the third stage, these leaders will use their new skills in missiology, listening, reading a community and asset mapping in their churches back home.
We’re learning from local pastors. We’re meeting with national and local government leaders. We’re wandering the Island and eating on a shoe string. We’re diving into natural wonders and meeting with farmers and Haitian refugees. We’re having dozens of conversations and are having a suitcase of assumptions challenged. One issue sticking out to me is this existence of “American refugees.”
After the American Revolution, the Loyalists (to King George the III) were dragged into the streets and beaten. They were spit at and scorned. Some lost their lives at the hands of Patriots. King George III offered safe haven to Americans loyal to the crown in places like Canada and the Bahamas — interested in keeping a robust British presence in the area. Additionally, the islands of the Bahamas were a pirate stronghold at the time and George hoped the American immigrants would bring some law and order to help drive out pirates in the Caribbean.
Free and enslaved black Americans along with white American loyalists populated the islands of the Bahamas and their descendants live there today. The white-black dynamic is different in the Bahamas than it is the U.S.
Slavery was abolished in 1833, having abolished the chattel trade of enslaved persons in 1808, a full 30-plus years before it would occur in the U.S. When the country gained independence in 1973, leaders of African descent won nearly all the elections in the forming the new government.
Is this something I already knew? Did I learn this in school and simply forgot it? Had I even known there were white Bahamians? I can’t recall.
The thought of American refugees made my heart skip a beat, because for a brief second, I thought about my family, how much cash we could get our hands on and where we might go if we had to leave our country. Who would show us hospitality? Which country? What community?
The welcoming spirit of our brothers and sisters on Abaco Island bore Christian witness as they received us. We were literally served a lobster and grouper dinner by our church hosts when we arrived. At worship we hugged during the “passing of the peace.”
Many of us were struck by the Bahamian generosity and kindness. Hospitality is difficult for Americans to accept, which makes a certain amount of sense taking in account our rugged, individualistic culture. Accepting hospitality makes us feel vulnerable, and that doesn’t feel rugged.
Another thought occurred to me, which is that our difficulty accepting hospitality may also be a symptom of our forgetfulness. As part of the dominant church culture in the south, we forget that our ancestors left our homeland, and not always by choice. So many of us have never been a stranger, and it’s been too many generations since our elders have told the stories of our arrival.
As Christians in the south, we seem to be suffering from a kind of paradigmatic amnesia.
From Scripture to our country’s history, we start out with a framework for understanding what it was like to be a stranger. As a country, we actually learned how to deal with different cultures living side by side and in adjacent communities through numerous immigration waves. These were not smooth relationships starting out, but it did provide reams of experience with which we learned how to live and love alongside one another. I’m reminded of this when, in rural Arkansas, I drive past the string of German-Swiss vineyards, which date back to the 1880s.
Paradigmatic amnesia is a serious problem for us. If Lady Liberty closes her book and tosses it into the Atlantic; if strangers are found strange in our church sanctuaries; and our neighborhoods remained isolated behind gates, we are in danger of missing out on what God has been teaching humans for millennia. Having lived alongside people of different cultures for short and extended periods, I can say my family life, professional life and faith life are immensely more rich because I (usually accidentally) heard a word from the Spirit in these communities.
Does this mean my faith is stronger than yours? Absolutely not.
Am I morally superior than you are? I seriously doubt it.
But I do believe through experiences like Pivot, I have access to resources for my spiritual life and solving practical problems that those who haven’t couldn’t otherwise obtain.
Over the coming days and weeks, we’ll be posting reflections from Pivot Bahamas and there will be more voices and different opinions. For now, I’d love to hear your pushback on mine. Let’s dialog in the comments below.
Ryan Clark serves as the CBF Global Missions church engagement manager.