By ALICIA WALLACE
The Bahamas Christian Council has long been a source of frustration due to its intentional influence on congregations, lack of citizen-centred action, and the subsequent power it holds over governments (once again affirmed in the Prime Minister’s national address and the promise of Crown Land). It is a body of religious leaders representing various denominations that only seem to make an appearance when convenient for the egos of its membership. It does not have a consistent social or political presence, even as the country faces pressing issues.
In recent years, we heard from the Bahamas Christian Council and, more broadly, religious leaders on a number of issues, including gambling, gender equality, artificial links between carnival costumes and rape, and women’s reproductive rights. Oddly, the group has been silent on a number of issues (like statutory rape by religious leaders), and slow to act.
In April 2017, new president of the Bahamas Christian Council Bishop Delton Fernander said the group would become a “social justice ecumenical” council and a positive “change agent” rather than the “moral police” of society. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done, and the church — one of the largest constituencies in The Bahamas — is well-placed, given its resources, membership expertise, real estate, and free time, to undertake.
In 2014, it was reported that 12.8% of the population live below the poverty line — less than $5,000 a year. Children ages five to 14 had the highest poverty rate of all age groups at 19.3%.
How are the Bahamas Christian Council and individual churches responding to the high rate of poverty that affects housing, nutrition, education, and health of Bahamian people? Might churches implement a special collection, much like they do for their building funds, to raise money for feeding programmes? What would it take for churches to offer hot meals to school-age children after school?
They could recruit volunteers to assist these children with their homework and supervise them for three hours until their parents are home from work. How much more would it take for church buses to be used to safely transport children from the church grounds to their homes? There may be churches offering this services to their membership, but it is certainly not done on a wide scale, and those running successful programmes can share best practices with those that have yet to implement such a programme.
Shelter is at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and we all know there are Bahamians who do not have a safe place to live. They sleep on sidewalks, in cars, in alleyways, and numerous other places that do not offer the security we all need. Many churches have halls and event rooms that are seldom in use.
What would it take to transform these spaces to comfortable sleeping quarters people could check into in the evening and leave early in the morning? Would no church ministry take on the task of collecting pillows, blankets, and bedding for such an initiative? Churches already have the space, and built-in personnel to operate a temporary night shelter. It would not take much more to get the necessary supplies and support, especially through partnership with other organisations, to give people a safe place to sleep.
One of many issues Bahamians are reluctant to address is mental health. The Christian community largely prescribes prayer, maybe with fasting and exercise, refusing to acknowledge the science that proves mental illness is not just “feeling sad” and is not due to “demons,” but a wide range of conditions that affect mood, thought, and behaviour.
The Church could take a leading role in advocating for better mental health care, and encouraging its membership to regard mental health with the same seriousness as physical health. It is important that we understand mental health issues are not our fault, and getting treatment is not indicative of a lack of faith or strength.
Religious leaders, particularly in recent months, have had a lot to say about women’s reproductive rights. Archdeacon James Palacious in 2014, while blaming black Bahamians and their sexual and reproductive practices for poverty, called for a comprehensive national family planning programme, but there has been no indication of moves being made to make it a reality.
Organisations, practitioners, and advocates have been working to develop, fund, and deliver comprehensive sexual education programmes, and often have to fight for years to get through red tape. The Bahamas Christian Council could partner with such organizations and individuals to bring these programmes to their congregations if they are truly interested in sexual and reproductive health education.
Just out of election season and a term that included two referenda, we can all recall the role religious organisations and leaders play in not only getting people to vote, but getting them to vote in specific ways.
In The Bahamas, churches have always been involved in politics. Individual churches and leaders align themselves with specific parties and gain bargaining power they are never afraid to use. What if churches used their power in less prescriptive ways, bringing complete information to their membership, allowing congregants to make their own decisions?
Many Bahamians go to church every week, at least once per week, and force their children to go to Sunday School. This is an opportunity to teach civics and make Bahamians of all ages aware of the responsibilities and privileges as citizens of this country. Churches could make educational programmes — like the one run by the Constitutional Commission on the gender equality referendum — more accessible, bringing experts and practitioners to their grounds, whether after Bible study or on a separate night with dedicated programming.
The Bahamas Christian Council has injected itself into Bahamian politics, but many Bahamians agree that it has not been successful in meaningfully engaging the citizenry, or even its own members. The group has become comparable to a weak opposition — only showing up to blame and complain, never bringing solutions or preventative measures for the benefit of the nation.
The Council and individual churches could be doing work that aligns with their principles and contributes to the common good. They could preach love, and abandon all rhetoric in contravention with it (which would include the discontinuation and denouncement of hate speech). They could spearhead community cleanup events. They could support civic organisations like The Bahamas Crisis Centre and Bahamas Sexual Health and Rights Association. They could help to redistribute wealth by using tithes and offerings to subsidise child care, purchase school uniforms, and provide groceries to those in need.
All that is required is the heart to do good and acceptance of the challenge to think differently about their role in Bahamian society, becoming actors rather than critics.