In San Andres, Colombia, the roots of a historic church run deep

SAN ANDRES, Colombia (AP) — The first Baptist church grew out of a tamarind tree perched on a hill overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

Under the shade of the tree, the founder of First Baptist taught English-speaking former slaves and their descendants how to read with the help of the Bible. The tree still stands over 175 years later, even though it is twisted after surviving devastating hurricanes.

The church is so crucial to the history of the Colombian island of San Andres that detailed records of births and deaths are kept here in crumbling books that date back nearly two centuries.

The “mother church”, as it is often called, is a source of pride for the Raizals, the English-speaking and predominantly Protestant inhabitants of San Andres, Providencia and the small islands and keys that form an archipelago in the western Caribbean. near Nicaragua. , about 440 miles (710 kilometers) from the Colombian mainland.

“For a young person like me, it’s about finding my roots — it’s good to know where you’re from,” said Reverend Shuanon Hudgson, 26, the church’s assistant pastor.

“It’s as Marcus Garvey says,” Hudgson continued: “’A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture are like a tree without roots.’ And this church has been a pillar.

Beneath the tree, a stone plaque commemorates the birth of the congregation: “The Baptist work was established here by the Reverend Phillip Beekman Livingston (Jr.) in 1844.”

Three years later, the congregation began meeting nearby under a thatched-roof hut.

It continued to grow and a building built in the style of the great Anglican churches of Jamaica was commissioned. First built in the late 19th century in Mobile, Alabama, then moved to New York, the white-walled church was dismantled and shipped to the island piece by piece.

Parishioners carried the foundations on their backs from the port to one of the highest points on the island, an area known as Hill, said Lastenia Herrera May, the wife of the current senior pastor, Reverend Ronald Hooker, and the church was dedicated on February 2, 1896.

A 100+ foot watchtower in the bell tower offers some of the best views in San Andres.

More than a century after being claimed by Spain, the island was first settled in the 1630s by English Puritans. It then became an outpost for pirates and is now home to many descendants of Puritans and African slaves, as well as many more recent arrivals from mainland Colombia.

Sharika Crawford, a history professor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, whose research focuses on Colombia and its peoples of African descent, said First Baptist “was the foundation of the Raizal community.” and “the most important social institution”. in the archipelago.

From its founding until 1913, she says, its pastors wielded great authority over the community, shaping the values ​​and behavior of islanders.

“Before the formation of the church, the population of the island lived without a church or religious establishment. Efforts to bring in a Catholic priest never materialized,” Crawford said. “Thus, the First Baptist Church and its satellite churches across San Andres and Providencia Islands had the edge over other Christian communities such as Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists.”

“The church had some glorious times,” Herrera May said. “By the 1900s, thousands had been converted.”

Livingston, the founder, first evangelized among slaves and freedmen in San Andres, Crawford said, and the church remains a symbol of the anti-slavery struggle. Every year, people from congregations across the islands gather here on August 1 to celebrate events commemorating emancipation.

At a recent Sunday service, Lucia Barker, 83, and other women in the choir, dressed in bright pink shirts, sang hymns. Parishioners seated on wooden benches, illuminated by sunlight from stained glass windows, swayed, raised their arms and sang songs steeped in Calypso beats.

“This church is my life,” Barker said of the shrine where she was baptized, married and worshiped for more than seven decades.

In his homily, Hudgson, the associate pastor, asked congregants to remember the sacrifice of their enslaved ancestors. He called on them to be resilient in the face of adversity, just like the tree and the church, and listed by name and year the many hurricanes that both survived.

“Here we get to know our land, our history, how we started with this tamarind tree, how we have a church,” said choir member Marjeen Martínez. “It’s very important to keep our roots alive.


Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Luis Andres Henao, Associated Press


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