CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

The 2007 International Conference
June 7-9, 2007
Bordeaux, France
Globalization, Immigration, and Change in Religious Movements

Transnational Religion and Migrants' Levels of Belonging: Caribbean Spiritual Baptists in New York

by Maarit FORDE (Newcastle University)

A paper presented at the 2007 International Conference, Bordeaux, France. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

In this article, I look into Caribbean migrants’ religious practices that transgress the national borders of the USA. I contribute to an emerging field of research in the religious aspects of transnational relations and activities (Levitt 2003). Analysing the religious transnationalism of Anglo-Caribbean migrants in New York City, I suggest that they orient themselves towards a variety of locales, not only a nation state or states, and experience a sense of belonging at different levels. For them, religion is much more than an avenue towards integration in the US society as an ethnic community.

The USA as a multicultural state is based on the notion of ethnic minorities as communities. Various institutions, like churches, political parties, and NGOs, steer migrants into conceptualizing themselves as an ethnic community (Basch & al 1994; see also Rudrappa 2004). Anglophone Caribbean migrants, then, form a category of Caribbean or West Indian Americans, and instead of, say, Trinidadian or Jamaican Americans, it is Caribbean Americans whom politicians address as an interest group in election campaigns. A well-established theory in migration studies holds that religious institutions help migrants to reproduce their ethnicity and to adjust to their new surroundings in the receiving country (Herberg 1960; Hirschman 2004; Warner 1998; Yang & Ebaugh 2001). According to this model, religion brings comfort to people traumatized by migration; it serves as a vehicle for becoming part of the multicultural American nation; and it can offer avenues towards socioeconomic mobility, towards achieving the American Dream. This discussion reflects the tendency of migration studies to focus on the adaptation and integration of migrants in the receiving society. I intervene in this discussion from two perspectives. First, I argue that the integrative function is not the only, or the primary, role of religion in many migrants’ lives. Religion can underpin social relations and activities that are not oriented towards the new society, but cross national borders. To make this point, I describe Caribbean Spiritual Baptist migrants’ transnational religious practice. Secondly, I challenge the primacy of ethnic categories, such as Caribbean American, in migrants’ self-definitions. I am going to look into different levels of social relations and suggest that these migrants’ religion reflects familial, national, regional and cosmological bases for their identities and sense of belonging. My work is based on two and half years of ethnographic fieldwork mainly in Tobago and in the Caribbean neighbourhoods of New York.

The Spiritual Baptist religion developed in St. Vincent and Trinidad at the end of the 19th century and has spread in many countries in the Anglophone Caribbean as well as to North America and the UK through migration. Like the Haitian vodou or Cuban santería, it is a religion that draws on various religious traditions, mainly West African religions and Protestant and Catholic Christianity. Time-consuming rituals, a rich cosmology, and spiritual manifestations are emblematic of this creole religion (Laitinen 2002; Lum 2000; Stephens 1998; Zane 1999). The first Spiritual Baptist church in New York was founded by Vincentian and Trinidadian migrants in 1969, and today, there are over one hundred Spiritual Baptist churches in Brooklyn. Many are small store front churches, and others have been built in the basements or living rooms of private homes.

Connections between Spiritual Baptist churches in the USA and in the Caribbean are strong (Forde 2003; Forde, in press). People from the Caribbean go to Brooklyn churches while visiting their families in New York City; many church leaders have congregations also in their home countries in the Caribbean, whom they visit every now and then; migrants send money and other resources to their religious leaders, called Mothers and Fathers, at home in the Caribbean; many travel to the Caribbean to undergo rites of passage; and congregations in New York often invite ritual specialists from the Caribbean to conduct important rituals. Congregants in the USA may consult church elders in the Caribbean by phone when in need of spiritual guidance, and vice versa. Not only between the USA and the Caribbean, Spiritual Baptists’ ritual practice traverses national borders as New York congregations make pilgrimages to churches in Montreal or Toronto, or when Canadian or British Spiritual Baptists visit large rituals in New York. These vibrant cross-border relations and activities, both at the level of individuals and churches, exemplify the transnational orientation of Spiritual Baptist migrants. Instead of merely a vehicle for integration in the USA, their religion reflects and produces important connections to other locales in various different countries. This does not mean that Spiritual Baptists are not interested in integrating in the USA, or that their religion does not assist them in adapting to the receiving society; it just is not all it does.

My other argument is that the ethnic category of West Indian or Caribbean is not relevant in much of Spiritual Baptists’ religious practice. Instead of regional affiliations, family, nation, and cosmology are significant bases of Spiritual Baptist migrants’ identities. I continue by illuminating these different levels of social relations through ethnographic examples.

Kin relations are instrumental to migration, and much of migrants’ transnational activities take place within networks of kin (e.g. Bauer & Thompson 2006; Chamberlain 2005). Karen Fog Olwig (2003) has suggested that rather than nation states or regions, family networks should be the primary unit of analysis in studies of migration and transnationalism. My ethnography indicates that families, including ritually constituted Spiritual families typical of Afro-Caribbean religions, can indeed form a major realm of religious transnationalism.

King Shepherd is a respected Spiritual Baptist Leader in the Queens. His grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles have been notable Spiritual Baptist elders in Tobago, and he continued his parents’ work in leading a prominent church in Tobago before moving to New York in the early 1990s. He has stayed in contact with his family and also his Spiritual family, the congregation of his church, throughout his stay in the USA. When his New York church organized a rite of passage named robing, in which certain members’ advancement in the elaborate church hierarchy was given public sanction, King Shepherd needed someone with sufficient authority and experience to officiate. He decided to invite his maternal aunt, Mother Cleorita Robinson of St. Philomen Spiritual Baptist Church, and his brother-in-law, Bishop Peter Daniel from Mt. Paran Spiritual Baptist Church in Tobago to conduct the lengthy and important ritual. He also advises members of his congregation back in Tobago to consult these senior relatives of his, when they call him for advice on spiritual matters. His Spiritual sons and daughters in Tobago visit his church when they travel to New York. In 1999, a large fund-raising ritual, a pilgrimage, was arranged in Tobago by King Shepherd’s sister and members of his Spiritual family towards his medical expenses in the USA. These examples of the movement of people, knowledge and resources along kin networks highlight the centrality of the family and kin in migrants’ transnational relations and practices.

Other scholars, such as Nina Glick Schiller, concentrate on nation states in their analyses of transnationalism. New York Spiritual Baptists, just like a great many of Caribbean migrants in general, accentuate their national identities quite visibly: they are unmistakably portrayed in clothing, jewelry, and cars. The Jamaican flag’s yellow, green, and black, or the red, white and black of Trinidad & Tobago embellish bead necklaces, anklets, and bracelets, terry wristbands, t-shirts, belt buckles, scarves and rags. Such products are readily available in shops and street vendors’ stalls in Flatbush, Crown Heights, and other Caribbean neighborhoods in Brooklyn, but also on various internet shopping sites. In church, it is common to see earrings in the shape of Trinidad combined to the head tie and the uniform of a Spiritual Baptist sister, or a Vincentian flag planted at the altar. All the congregations I visited and heard of in New York were multi-national, so that Vincentians, Trinidadians, Grenadians, Barbadians, Guyanans and Tobagonians worshipped together. There were also members from countries in which the Spiritual Baptist religion is not practiced, like Antigua, Panama, or Jamaica. In general, however, migrants and visitors tend to go to churches lead by their countrymen: King Shepherd explained that most of his congregants were from Tobago, whereas Trinidadians would be inclined to visit churches lead by a Trinidadian, and the membership of Vincentian-lead churches would be mostly from St. Vincent. 

In church, different traditions and exegeses may reveal national boundaries. King Shepherd noted that it is very challenging for a leader to fulfill the needs of a multinational congregation: for example, Trinidadians and Vincentians expect a faster tempo in ritual music than Jamaicans, whereas Jamaicans would like to mix a bit of Pocomania into the Spiritual Baptist service. Some Vincentians resent drumming, and Grenadians want to see the traditional ceremony of saraka, a feast for the ancestors, performed in church. National identities are also reproduced discursively, often in opposition to other Caribbean nationalities, for example by pejorative remarks in casual conversations.

In addition to his family network and his home island, King Shepherd orients his religious activities regionally, or even globally. He is a prominent figure in the United Ecclesiastic Order of Spiritual Baptists, a recently formed body that aims at uniting the dozens of Spiritual Baptist dioceses – and hundreds of unaffiliated churches – in the Caribbean, North America and the UK under one umbrella organization. In this role, King Shepherd has been active in organizing events like Spiritual Baptist Recognition Day (16 July) celebrations. It is here that the transnational most clearly meets the integrative: King Shepherd seeks to promote the Caribbean Spiritual Baptist presence in New York by engaging in transnational activities.

But this is not all there is to Spiritual Baptists’ orientation in the world, or their sense of belonging. Every now and then King Shepherd becomes African, Indian, or Chinese, sometimes even Syrian. I have visited numerous rituals in which migrants from various Caribbean countries congregate in some crowded basement church in Brooklyn, all dressed up in brightly coloured Indian clothes, celebrating the Indian spirit for hours on end and finally feasting with Indian delicacies. To understand what this is all about, we need to look into their cosmology.

Most Spiritual Baptist rituals take the form of a spiritual journey, not an actual transition in space, but in a Spiritual world. They travel in a fascinating universe that is constituted of different Spiritual Nations, namely Africa, India, China, and Syria, as well as Caribbean sites like rivers, beaches or markets. These Nations become perceptible in ritual practice: for example, in manifestations the Spirit takes African form by specific dance steps, unknown language, and ritual items used in the manifestation (see Laitinen 2002; Zane 1999). In the Spirit, a Barbadian grandmother who works as a live-in housekeeper n Long Island may become a respected Chinese doctor, or the Indian St. Francis. These manifestations are strikingly similar throughout the transnational Spiritual Baptist community – the Chinese spirit dances in the same manner in Toronto and Tobago, and same, melancholy melodies are hummed in Indian rituals in Brooklyn basements and Port of Spain churches. There are rituals in which the entire congregation conducts a symbolic journey to one of these Nations, and private rites of passage in which believers travel in the Spiritual world by themselves. Through repeated ritual practice, people receive a particular Spiritual identity or inclination: most Spiritual Baptists catch power, perform Spiritual manifestations, in either Indian or African style, depending on their experiences during their Spirit journeys. The cosmology reflects the age-old networks of global capitalism that connected colonial plantation societies in the Caribbean to remote corners of the world through slave trade, Indian indentureship, Chinese and European migrations, and trade.

I would like to conclude by linking discussions of migrant transnationalism and the anthropological study of ritual. Many anthropologists, like Victor Turner (1969), Bruce Kapferer (1997; 2006) and Janice Boddy (2002), have from different vantage points analysed rituals as realms in which people can reflect upon their positions in the mundane society. Bruce Kapferer’s concept of virtuality, not unlike Victor Turner’s more commonly known liminality, refers to a mode of existence apart from our daily lives. Rituals are virtual, writes Kapferer (2006, 673), because they create a space that is as real as the mundane, and yet do not necessarily have immediate connection to external realities. In the virtual space of rituals “all kinds of potentialities of human experience” may arise. Participants can “reimagine themselves in the everyday circumstances of life” (Kapferer 2006, 674-675.) Spiritual Baptist men and women in New York, working for meagre salaries in transportation or nursing, produce such spaces of reflection and creativity in their long rituals, week after week. Through repeated ritual practice they can traverse the ethnic category assigned to them in the USA. On the other hand, as Trinidadians, Guyanese, Barbadians and Jamaicans celebrate an Indian thanksgiving together, they can find common ground in their mutual history, beyond national boundaries.

When Spiritual Baptists depart on a ritual journey to Africa, India, or China, their destination is not socioeconomic advancement or adaptation in the USA. Rather than an instrument for integration, their religion is a way of being in the world, of locating oneself in relation to God, but also to family, countrymen, and America. In the Spirit, migrants position and reposition themselves in their world, drawing from the global networks of their history and their present transnational reality.



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