Grenada – 2015
Living in Grenada, Part Three
Visitors in Church
Wherever Heather and I travel, if it is a Sunday or a Christian festival, we go to church. On a cruise ship? We go to any public Christian worship available, regardless of who leads it. If there is no prearranged shipboard service, I lead one myself.1 If we are guests in someone’s home, and they belong to, and attend, a church? We’ll go with them to theirs. I suppose that if we were in the home of a Hindu or a Muslim, we would go to their place of worship on their holy day... but in that case I’d also seek out some sort of Christian congregation to attend.
So, on our first full day in Grenada, we looked for, and found, St. John’s Anglican church, in Gouyave.
And, as I have mentioned, we met a man in the churchyard who told us that the service for Ash Wednesday would be at mid-day.
This fellow, by the way, has an official position in the church. He had a ring of keys, let us in, and showed us all around. However, like many of the local people that we have met, he speaks quickly and indistinctly, so that when I asked him his name, I was perplexed to hear him say, “Unnus Cummummbuh,” or something along that line.
I do like to use people’s names when I can, and since this man was so obliging and helpful, I tried hard to get him to say it in a manner that I could understand. It took several attempts, with each response continuing to sound very much like the “Unnus Cummummbuh” with which he began!
Eventually, having deciphered every syllable – and he did try to oblige me by speaking slowly – I said, “Earnest Cumberbatch?” “Ya!” he replied, delighted.
Earnest Cumberbatch then informed me that he is the “Sexton” of the parish. Indeed, when I saw him the next day he was in a cassock, and helped in the ritual with true earnestness.
On Ash Wednesday, however, we returned to the church in good time for the midday service, only to find no one there! Earnest had told us that he himself could not attend, due to a doctor’s appointment, but to find no one there at all? For the main service of Ash Wednesday?
There was a clearly marked parish building across the street, and some people standing about, so we went over to make enquiries. There we learned that the main service was not at noon, but at 6:00 PM, and that a very small and brief “meditation” would begin over at the church momentarily.
We decided that we might as well go in to the “meditation,” since we were there anyway, and I am very glad that we did. Father Ballantyne,2 the Rector, gave a beautiful and thought-provoking reflection on the place of “wilderness” in the Christian journey. We all experience times when everything is difficult and God does not seem to be near – which is a type of spiritual wilderness – and yet the People of Israel were formed into God’s chosen community, in a wilderness. Jesus himself prepared for his ministry in a wilderness, and often returned there to pray.
I looked around at the four other people who had joined us, and I wondered if Father Ballantyne must feel like he himself is in a wilderness, with almost no one having come to a carefully-prepared address such as this!
I like Father Ballantyne. He is intelligent, tall, handsome, fit, with very black skin, and a beautiful baritone speaking voice that I like to call a “radio voice.”
And his message meant a lot to me. I have been struggling spiritually about this trip that we are on – which has so much self-indulgence at a time (Ash Wednesday and the days of Lent that follow) when Christians are called to put aside selfish pleasures and seek generous, other-centred holiness of life.
People tell me, “Oh come on, you’ve worked in the church for almost fifty years! You deserve some times of refreshment and enjoyment!” They often add that Heather, too, has been a good lawyer, and many people have been helped through her skill and knowledge. Why not enjoy retirement while we continue to have both wit and health?
Why not, indeed? But the call to put aside self, and put my God first, remains valid, even if I am retired and have earned my pension.
So one simple way to honour all this is to set aside time, in this wonderful and fun adventure, to be in a church, and simply focus on our journey with Christ. And I was therefore quite glad to sit there with Heather and four other people, and listen to a reflection on spiritual “wilderness.”
We then went with Werner and Mary down to the town of St. George’s – a journey that I have already described – and came back at 6:00 PM to attend the main Ash Wednesday observance.
And I was surprised, and a little upset, to find that this service, too, was not overwhelmingly attended. There were perhaps twenty people present, and this for one of the most solemn and significant acts of worship in the entire year!
The prayers and readings and the act of receiving Communion in this service, all rotate around a very dramatic ceremony – unique to Ash Wednesday – wherein ashes are daubed on everyone’s foreheads, while the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” are recited to each person in turn. Supporting this are various prayers of repentence for the ways in which we sin and fall short of God’s expectations for us.
This service proceeded reverently, and for me, apart from my concern about the small crowd, the time was beautiful, serene, and spiritually cleansing.
Except at one point when there was an enormous “CLANG!” and I must have jumped a whole metre out of my seat.
There is an ancient custom – used in some Anglican churches, but not in many – wherein the priest lifts the bread and wine high into the air, and as he does so, a bell rings – reminding people to focus their minds and hearts on Christ’s presence. Usually the bell is a small, tinkling thing, but it can also be the bell in the church tower – where its peal might even call the townsfolk – even though not present in the church – to reflect on the Gifts of God.
In this case, the bell that rang was an enormous one in the tower right over our heads, with the rope being pulled by Earnest Cumberbatch! And, according to the ancient practice, it rang – in single deafening strokes – six times, while the ceremony proceeded at the altar.
By the second “CLANG!” I knew what we were doing; my heart slowly stilled, and I returned to the joy of worship.
After the service we met a few of the people, who were uniformly polite and welcoming to these Canadian travellers. Some became quite excited, in fact, when I told them that my mother was born on the island, and that my last known relative living here was my aunt Ethel McIntyre.
“She lived in a house called ‘Hillview’ here in Gouyave,” I said. “Oh!” said several at once, “Hillview is up there” (they pointed in the general direction of a hill beside the town), “and it is a seniors’ home now.”
So here it is Ash Wednesday. I am half a world away from home. But I have a daub of black soot on my forehead, and I feel peculiarly at home among the people of this church.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Last night, our host, Morris Pompey, asked if we would take him along when we went to church today, which we were delighted to do. We set a time of departure for 7:45 AM, which would get us to the church in plenty of time for an 8:00 AM service, which the somewhat weathered signboard outside the church lists as the main service of the day.3
Morris came down, resplendent in a pressed white shirt, tie, fedora, and formal trousers. In my “Tilley” pants and travel shirt, I felt decidedly underdressed beside him.
We were in good time – but were startled to find no one there but the Sexton, Earnest Cumberbatch.
“De mass don’ start ‘till eight tirty,” he said, indicating a line in one of the leaflets that he had in his hand.
“But the signboard there says ‘8:00 AM!’” I protested.
“Pay no ‘tention to dat,” said Earnest.
Werner and Mary had also believed the sign, and arrived in good time for 8:00 AM, so we went into the church and chatted, all sitting in a clump near the front.
Slowly the place filled up, but 8:30 AM itself – the correct time – came and went, and yet the service still didn’t start. Earnest had explained that Fr. Ballantyne was presiding at an earlier service in the next village, so I wasn’t too concerned... at first. Morris and I chatted sotto voce, and among other things he told me that some time ago the Roman Catholic priest down the road began berating people for being late, and eventually the whole congregation showed up on time all the time!
This church was now quite full (in marked contrast to Ash Wednesday!), and suddenly a voice spoke out from the back centre aisle. It was rather mumbled, so I turned to see if it was the first act of an entry procession. It wasn’t. Instead, a tall, slender, grey-bearded man, wearing a rainbow-coloured knitted headcovering, was stalking up the aisle declaiming things resembling Bible verses, or perhaps prophecy.
I always say that the mark of a “real” church is the presence therein of the mentally unstable. It is, I think, a sign of a generalized attitude of love and acceptance by the membership as a whole, and is a great parable of God’s own inclusive welcome.
So, St. John’s Gouyave certainly is a real church by this standard. Our prophet proceeded to park himself in the front pew, and every once in a while throughout the entire service he would stand up without warning and declaim something in a low mumble.
However nothing else happened – certainly nothing of a liturgical nature.
Then, in a far corner of the transept, a male voice began singing a faith chorus of some kind. He was soon joined by other voices, both male and female – of the people sitting near to him.
The choir stalls had filled up by this time, and after a few of those distant verses had come and gone, the ladies in the choir (there were no men) joined the next verse, quietly adding volume to the song. I never made out any words, but chose, eventually, to hum along with them myself. It was rather nice.
But there was some problem with electronics. There is a piano keyboard in the back balcony, and, I think, the P/A system controls. When things were turned on, the most ear-splitting crack came out of the speakers, making me startle, almost falling out of my seat. After the noise was repeated a couple of times at irregular intervals, Morris whispered to me that they probably have some problem with grounding their system.
Eventually, Fr. Ballantyne must have arrived, because a hymn was announced (by a choir lady). We all stood, and the choir began singing “How Great Thou Art,” as only African-descended women can sing. One of them had a tom-tom, and tapped a beautiful African rhythm underneath the tune, while another began shaking a tambourine, until the whole church was swaying and belting out this old standard. And up the aisle came a formal procession of robed servers, followed by Fr. Ballantyne.
I didn’t have any sort of songbook, but I know this particular hymn by heart and enjoyed the rhythmic version hugely.
Then the rite itself began, and as different things were sung or said, we were often compelled to stand there mute, until various choir ladies (we were seated at the front, almost at the edge of the choir) as well as some of the people around us, began handing us the books that we obviously lacked.
Morris himself had brought along a large-text hymnbook. He showed it to me when we set out for church, explaining that one of the reasons he doesn’t drive is because his sight is so bad.
But the service was not very old before I realized that his hymnbook was not remotely connected to anything that we were doing. It was, in fact, the 1939 Anglican Church of Canada hymn book. Hymn numbers wouldn’t apply.
Then, when someone handed him a prayerbook, he couldn’t see the normal print at all clearly, so I began turning pages for him, and pointing to where we were in the text.
But I was also concerned about Werner. He is not a regular churchgoer, and is extremely hard of hearing. I was sure that he could make neither hide nor hair of anything that was taking place. I supposed that he caught the rhythm of “How Great Thou Art,” but he couldn’t hear much of the spoken word, if any. The P/A was acting up, and was either off, or crackling loudly, or squealing with a feedback loop, and anyway, with or without microphone, people spoke quietly, and with pronounced West Indian accents. No, Werner could not possibly have made out any words.
So I was torn between helping my host, and watching out for Werner!
Fr. Ballantyne didn’t help. With nothing to indicate it in the leaflet, he threw in a service of the Imposition of Ashes – the ceremony that normally takes place on Ash Wednesday. I knew what he was doing, but did Werner? Did Morris?
Fr. Ballantyne invited all who had not been at the Ash Wednesday service to come forward now, and have the ashes smeared on their foreheads. Whereupon he was obeyed by at least 100 people! Nearly everyone there.
I became alarmed, because when the service was done, my very white forehead would have no ashes on it, which could easily suggest to the casual observer that this priest from Canada did not deign to admit to his sinfulness. As the long line of penitents crept by I kept debating whether or not to step over Morris and jump in. I didn’t do it, but I was certainly torn.
When it came time for the sermon, it turned out that a robed female assistant to Fr. Ballantyne was the preacher. The microphone was mostly working, but she was soft-voiced, and had a habit of turning her head from side to side, so that what we heard went from a murmur, to a loud word, then back to a murmur. She also had a serious frog in the throat, and kept coughing, and choking up. A choir member rushed out, and brought her a glass of water, which didn’t help much.
Her sermon was a huge project. It contained everything she could think of with respect to the season of Lent. Nothing was left out. The thing was long. Very long.
I couldn’t help squirming in behalf of Werner who could not make out a single word of it.
Mind you, this sermon began quite strongly, saying that Lent was an important time – in this increasingly secular world – to recover who you are, and whose you are. She could have stopped there.
When she did finally finish – to sit down looking somewhat exhausted – Fr. Ballantyne said “We will now have a time of silence in order to reflect on the message.” Whereupon the skinny fellow in the rainbow hat stood up and delivered a mumbled prophecy.
Further, when Fr. Ballantyne deemed that we had enough of this “silence,” he stood up and spoke about Lent – and our duty to fight evil by means of the weapons of Scripture and the Spirit of God.
Ummm... I thought that the nice lady assistant was the preacher? Or is this just a corrective to all that she had just said? I have no idea.
More hymns followed, often to a drumbeat. But sometimes the piano in the loft behind us seemed to have a different idea from the ladies in the choir as to what we were to sing, or the key in which we were to sing it. We completed one song entirely with the electric piano playing, say, in the key of F, while the ladies sang in the key of C#.
Morris? Werner? Are you still with us?
Tony, with Eveline McIntyre
Probably the great-niece of my great-aunt, Ethel McIntyre
Things finally settled down once we got to the Eucharistic prayer – and this time I was ready for the enormous clang of the steeple bell when the consecrated elements were elevated. I leaned over and warned Werner, Mary, and Morris that it was coming (which probably spared them a heart attack!).
The exchange of Peace was extensive. Everybody in this packed church seemed to go and personally extend God’s peace to everyone else. And it was so warm and friendly that Werner later told me it was his favourite part.
Communion was genuinely holy.
At announcement time, I was introduced – by the preacher lady – as was Heather. We stood up, and they clapped. Werner and Mary were also introduced, and they turned in their seats and waved.
And Morris was introduced. A sign that he is an elder statesman in the town. His presence honoured them.
After all these announcements, the service began to come to a close... but wait! Fr. Ballantyne took up the microphone and delivered an appeal for work and money for a new building project! He spoke for at least five minutes.
A blessing, and a last hymn, and we were done.
After church I was introduced to Eveline McIntyre, a woman who is probably in her sixties. This was very exciting. She carries the surname of my Aunt Ethel, and knew of her. She actually thought she knew where Ethel’s grave is! She and Earnest led us out into the graveyard, where a row of tombs there included Eveline’s father – a “Leonard” McIntyre – and her own daughter (who died at the age of three).
I hope to figure out the chain of relationship, but unfortunately Evelyn didn’t really know how we fit in.
My grandmother and Ethel were sisters, and their birth surname was Hudson. Ethel then married Donald McIntyre, one of the men of a fairly large McIntyre clan. I think that Ethel’s husband had a brother, who became the father of Leonard McIntyre, who was the father of Eveline. Unless Eveline had a different birth surname, and merely married into the McIntyre clan (which would explain the gaps in her information).
So today has been an intense day at church – what with that complex service and my various guests – but also with this first direct link to my family’s past.
Next: Driving Around
1 You can find examples of me taking shipboard services here and here. Then there was the Anglican church in Rome, that we attended, and the Church of Christ in Fresno, California.
2 The Anglican Church throughout the Caribbean maintains a strong resemblance to medieval Christianity. Priests are called “Father,” and liturgy is very elaborate.
3 In the tropics, you will recall, important stuff happens in the early morning (and late afternoon), when it isn’t quite so hot outside.