The space is dark. A minute stream of light shines on the altar. Perfectly arranged in a circle are the must-haves of every Spiritual Baptist-a bell, Ixora flowers, Kananga water. The calabash stands in the middle, awaiting the blessing. The road for Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad and Tobago has been rocky. A faith indigenous to the country, born out of the amalgamation of ex-slaves and their colonisers, was prohibited from being practiced by issue of the 1917 Shouter Baptist Ordinance. The ban, though lifted in 1951, left the religion with a stigma that would take years to erase. Mary, who worships at St Ann's Alpha Chapel in Marabella, Trinidad, has been a Spiritual Baptist for the last 15 years, like her mother and her mother's mother. "I had a vision that told me that I need to baptise and that I needed to be baptised in the Spiritual Baptist faith,' she said. "I feel great being a Baptist. We worship a true and living God. You feel a joy in your heart after worship. Some people say we worship the devil. They say Spiritual Baptist come from the devil but I know Jesus Christ was a Baptist and the Bible show you that," she vehemently stated.
She thinks that it is a faith that few people really know about, and rituals such as "moaning" are activities very few people understand. "Moaning is a way of fasting. Everybody fasts, every religion. We simply fast in a different way. "We tie our eyes from gazing out into the world. They tie our eyes so that we won't be able to see what is going on on the outside. We meditate on the Lord," she explained. "Also catching the power is something people always afraid of but that is simply the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit allows you to see, if someone comes in, to tell you that something is wrong with that person. The way they see us move makes them afraid. But we are really from Africa," she continued. The 1996 holiday granted in observance of the Spiritual Baptists gave further legitimacy to the religion. Author Earl Lovelace, whose seminal work, The Wine of Astonishment, examined post colonial power through the lives of Spiritual Baptists living in Bonasse, felt that over the years the Spiritual Baptist religion has become more organised.
"I think there is more central organisation now. It is no longer only wayside preachers and his small flock. There is now a diocese, greater organisation and different positions. Before you were a Baptist preacher and that is it," he said. Lovelace believes that the faith does not need to be legitimised by anyone.
"They need to develop and have more self-confidence. Take a role that other churches have taken. I remember telling Bishop John from San Fernando about the church needing to communicate and speak out about issues; they need to master the communication skills required for this era," he said. Similarly, Lindon Mitchel, a director at the West Indies School of Theology in Maracas, St Joseph, feels it is the responsibility of the Spiritual Baptists to clarify exactly what their religion is. "We have a thorough understanding of the basics of other religions. There are a couple of persons who are Baptists and who have studied here. We have information that we have gathered over the years. I think there is still some cloud over the actual rituals of the faith, Spiritual Baptists and the community," he opined. "A faith, if it is to grow, must effectively communicate with the community around it,' he emphasised.