My Methodist brother would be proud of me: I went to church twice yesterday.
Well, “went” is probably not the right word. Let’s say I experienced church twice yesterday. You see, Culmer Cottage is right across narrow Adeline Street from the Methodist church, probably the largest church in Tarpum Bay.
And that’s saying something, because there are lots and lots of churches in Tarpum Bay. On my daily walks it seems I discover a new one each time I’m out: Seventh Day Adventist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and several evangelical churches in different flavors. There’s one in each block, I think—some marked with signs and steeples, some just tiny anonymous structures.
The Wesley Methodist Church of Tarpum Bay is the oldest church in the settlement: it was built in 1809. The walls are two feet thick, and it boasts a beautiful bell, given to the church by Mr. J.W. Culmer, a community leader who took the bell from one of his pineapple schooners and donated it to the church. Wesley Methodist Church also has a large Manse, now called the “Mission House”, which houses missionaries and volunteers visiting Eleuthera. (As a footnote, I have to add that the Mission House is currently undergoing extensive renovation, enthusiastically performed by volunteers who show up every morning, promptly at 7 AM. Completion should occur in two weeks, thankfully.)
The Methodist church is the only church in town with a bell—so there’s no doubt in my mind when it’s time for worship there: Sunday morning and evening, and Wednesday prayers. Plus Sunday school and choir rehearsal. There’s lots of activity in my little corner of town: the church, Miss Barbie’s Restaurant, and Bert’s for the Best. There’s also the Hi-Way Department Store, right across from Bert’s, but I’ve not been in it—it’s usually closed, and when it is open all I can see is one rack of clothing. I’ll venture in on a shopping expedition one day…
The church bell rings for each service, twice. The first ringing seems to be a warning, and the second is the actual call to meeting. The bell hardly quits ringing before the stentorian tones of Reverend DeWitt resound across the alley. The church sports a powerful PA system, which is beloved of its minister—and that’s how I am able to experience the service without having to dress for it and walk across the alley. I can hear every word, clearly. I can also hear every hymn, which the minister sings directly into the microphone. He’s not exactly pitch perfect, but he’s sonorous, and he takes every hymn at the same tempo—slow and ponderous.
Yesterday morning was different, however. It began as usual, with the children arriving in their Sunday best: pressed pants, and white shirts for the boys, and frilly dresses and shiny shoes for the girls. After Sunday School, the kids usually hang out on the church steps right across the street from my front door. This Sunday a nice lady came out and gave them each suckers. “Now don’t bite on them,” she says. “That will hurt your teeth.”
Then the parents arrive. Every Sunday is Easter in the Bahamas, as far as dress is concerned. The first time I saw the phenomena I was open-mouthed. These ladies really do DRESS for church. And it’s more than just pretty dresses. I’ve been introduced to a whole new fashion industry I didn’t know anything about before—it’s called the ‘Church Suit.’ There are catalogs of these glorious outfits, complete with matching hats, gloves, purses, and shoes. Often the wearer accessorizes with a corsage or silk flower, and always with jewelry. The one that stunned me yesterday was a lime green number, a suit and matching wide-brimmed hat and shoes. But there were others that rivaled its monochromatic flamboyance in shades of yellow, orange, red, and navy.
The men were also spiffy, some in suits but most in polo shirts and dress slacks. Even the cars and pickup trucks were washed and shiny. Imagine such finery in a country where the minimum wage (for those who are working) is $170 a week! Mizpah says she doesn’t know why Bahamians have this tradition—most can’t afford fancy dress, she says—but I think it’s born of respect for the church, just as teachers here dress in suits and ties for a day in the classroom.
Promptly at 11 AM, a change occurs. The call to worship is not issued by the regular minister, but by a woman! (Mizpah tells me later that she is the lay minister.) She’s not using the speaker system, or if she is it’s been turned down, yet in my living room her voice is clear, forceful, and lively. People hurry inside the church, and the singing begins. This time I hear an organ, beautifully played, and a variety of percussion instruments like shakers, cymbals, and a snare drum. The hymns are familiar to me and to the congregation, and their voices are upbeat and forceful. The tunes tumble out, one after another, each a little faster than the last, and soon accompanied by clapping and a few joyous shouts here and there. It’s quite a different sound than most Sundays—everyone is singing, not just the solemn minister, and the organ adds a full and resonant accompaniment.
The singing is followed by the message, again offered by the woman’s voice. Her statement is simple: this is a new year, and we have another chance to live our lives in meaningful ways. This is a huge gift, she says, another year of life, and we need to celebrate this opportunity and live fully and joyously in this moment.
Of course she had other language to use, other words with denominational connotations. But I was listening as a Unitarian with Buddhist leanings, sitting on my porch looking at the turquoise sea and cloudless sky and the bright colors of the women’s dresses as they walk home after the benediction.
I think of the moment, of the paths that have led me to it, and I see clearly that it is this very point in time which is the culmination of all the joys and sorrows I have encountered and all the choices I have ever made.
I am thankful, and I rejoice in this day.