I grew up in a magic island but for most of my childhood, I was banned from participating in its culture. You see I was raised in an American-founded Fundamentalist Christian faith so it did not matter that I was living in the hottest cultural melting pot in the world. I was never to eat from it or enhance its flavor. Yes, I know "cultural melting pot" is a phrase that gets tossed around lightly but trust me, when it comes to the twin island republic of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), which Bishop Desmond Tutu declared "A Rainbow Nation," the definition is the real, dictionary deal.
Roman Catholics, Anglicans (the religions of the European conquistadors, colonials, aristocracy and land-owning coloreds) along with Presbyterians and Hindus (the second largest faith on the island), Orisha (indigenous African spirituality), Muslims and Native Amerindian spiritual practitioners coexist in an almost seamless, organic way. Most of those belonging to the mainstream Christian sects (Roman Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian) are middle, upper-middle class and wealthy and far too educated/world-traveled/culturally sophisticated and integrated for religious fundamentalism. Hindus are already Universalist in their outlook and have no need to impose their religion.
On Christmas morning, roving parañderos, crash your home singing carols in Spanish and you are expected to offer them food and booze. A few months earlier during Divali, you will find Trinis of all backgrounds lighting deeyas with their Hindu neighbors and visiting the Divali Nagar (a giant Divali theme park) for the music, food and festivities. Our native inhabitants are celebrated during Amerindian Awareness Month, with tribes from as far as Suriname coming to Trinidad for heart-stirring processions.
On a full moon, you just might hear African drums waft through the air as festivals to Mama Oshun and Ogun Baba, stir up deep and long forgotten vibrations.
I can assure you that at this very moment, different races and religions are working side by side in mas camps (workshops where Carnival costumes are made) preparing for Carnival 2015 and are swaying and striking notes in perfect harmony at steel-band orchestra rehearsals. Of course, the real "Rainbow" comes alive on Carnival Monday and Tuesday where every age, color, creed, class, sexual orientation of people collide in a dizzying, sensual display of human freedom, dancing to soca music, a groovy, sexy fusion of African and Indian rhythms as the primary ingredients with subtle hints of pop, latin, reggae and techno.
T&T is a land where you will find black man doing tai chi in the Savannah, a Chinese Rastafarian smoking ganga under a coconut tree at Maracas beach, a yoga studio founded by a Syrian, doing mud yoga in the park and male belly dancer, fearlessly auditioning on live television. See below
T&T has active an active Humanist Society with Kevin Baldeosingh and B.C. Pires writing freethinking op-eds in the Trinidad Express for over 20 years now. Our internationally renowned mas-man Peter Minshall captured the essence of being a Trini, when he described himself as a, "dougla, mullato spiritual freak; an African, Indian, European, Chinese, Syrian mix-up." Out of our fiery melting pot of just 1.7 million people bubbles a seemingly endless stew of creativity that has birthed new musical instruments, fashion, street performance, Nobel Laureates, renown scholars and our famously beautiful women, many of whom you may be surprised you already know, even if you did not know they came from the T&T melting pot.
All of this heat, all of this color and I was ordered not to be a part of it! I was told the rainbow was evil.
In the early 20th, Century Christian sects founded by enterprising capitalists in the United States began infiltrating Trinidad and Tobago. Unlike the mainstream Christian faiths, these new arrivals had no interest in flavoring and tasting the pot. Instead they brought apocalyptic predictions, aggressive proselytizing, literal biblical translation and eschatology that made their religion and political preferences central to world events. Their grand vision ended with a spectacular finale of vindication, but only for their followers.
As soon as I could read, I was taught that the plot-line of the entire planet started with a six-day creation, a garden utopia, literal Adam and Eve and a failed test of obedience involving a magic fruit tree and talking snake (that was really the Devil in disguise) which Yahweh, the only true God had set up. The solution? This supremely jealous God selected a special race of people to make blood sacrifices to him (for some reason this deity loved circumcised penises and the smell of roasted flesh) and follow a set of laws to foreshadow his eventual incarnation into the human form of Jesus, through a virgin so that he could sacrifice himself to appease own wrath. I was told the Crucifixion was essentially my fault I was born with evil inside me and already deserving of punishment. My existence literally pained Jesus/Yahweh unless I showed gratitude for his grand gesture of sacrificing himself and demonstrated that gratitude by joining the church and submitting without question to its authority. I had better do it soon too because Jesus/Yahweh's earth-experiment in human obedience was soon to end a big anti-climax for billions who were off to eternal destruction.
By my late teens, the cognitive dissonance required of me to believe this was just too burdensome. I mean what do you expect after a first class British education in the sciences and world history? But what truly contributed to my loss of faith in that entire paradigm was having friendships outside of my Christian sect. Most of my Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Hindu and heathen friends did not grow up with the level of abuse and dysfunction I experienced in my "only true Christian" home. Many outside my sect were often happier, more fulfilled, balanced and wonder of wonders, loving people. How could I possibly believe any theology that said they were all evil, damned and doomed and still hold on to a single shred of my human integrity?
Fundamentalist Christianity also left a gaping cultural void in my soul. Thankfully all the colors of the Trini rainbow were waiting the moment I said, "Farewell!" to it.
I read all the forbidden free-thinking articles of Trini intellectuals. I attended pujas and spend hours talking to the pundits. I attended Christmas mass with my Roman Catholic friends. I lost myself to the messy madness of a J'ouvert. I took irie trips with conscious friends. I marked my milestones in ink and piercing rites of passage and the only man I connected with enough to ink and pierce my body turned out to be loud and proud Jesus-loving Trinidadian of Chinese descent. (His t-shirt designs feature in our 50th Independence Video) I reconnected to my African roots and let the spine-tingling, earth shattering voice of Ella Andall, one of Trinidad's foremost Orisha singers seep into my pores.
Although I would remain unaffiliated with any specific religious group to this day, my exploration revealed there was multifaceted beauty reflective of love, joy, peace on a much more universal scale than I was previously led to believe. The diversity of the human race in their capacity to seek understanding of the Infinite and Unknown, is glorious! It mirrors the organic diversity of nature. It should be preserved and celebrated. Never condemned or corralled into a conformist, conventional mass.
Colonialism and the use of religion as PR for imperial economic power is fresh in the minds of Trinis. You see, we've never stopped writing songs about it. We're not just the birthplace of party music but also historically poignant, politically powerful, protest music. Long before today's conscious Afro-punk movement, long before Rage Against The Machine and System Of A Down vibrated my ear drums and aroused my righteous anger. Back in the days when the USA was still in the grips of the saccharine Poison, Paula Abdul and the Fresh Prince (I'm dating myself) me and my fellow Trini university students had 3 Canal keeping us vigilant against the modern day "Soucouyants" (our folkloric version of the shape-shifting vampire. Legend goes the only way to prevent them from sucking your blood is to rub salt on your skin) with hidden political and economic agendas. Our national instrument also serves as a constant reminder of the desperate struggle to preserve ancient rhythms deemed "unholy" and "unruly" by religious/political power.
It's been fifty-one (51) years since the Union Jack descended and our red, white and black flag unfurled to an anthem that begins, "Forged from the love of Liberty" and ends, "Here every creed and race find an equal place". Our prosperous economy has allowed the Government to subsidize tertiary education for a generation, particularly women, who dominate the academic field right now. This has created a massive, middle class of free-thinking, intellectual, artistic, spiritual but not extremist, Universalist and tolerant people. The older generation with their tribalism, racism, sexism and religious absolutism are dying out.
Today, I'm happy to say it has paved the way for the country to have serious discussions on extending rights to LGBT People, which mainstream Roman Catholic, Anglican and Hindu clergy already support. Dr. Fr Stephen Geofroy delivered a passionate plea to uphold the values enshrined in the constitution of Trinidad and Tobago and avoid the fate of places like Uganda and Nigeria.
LGBT, aren't they not humans still, yes or no? Yes? Then they should have rights as other people have. We've come over a long history of slavery and indentureship and now it is time to break the many things that denigrate the person. We do not belong to a theocracy, neither are we in a religious oligarchy where people impose their beliefs on others. -- Dr. Fr Stephen Geofroy
So too the younger Hindu pundits:
To discriminate against another in the workplace on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation is unacceptable from the Hindu standpoint and symptomatic of a failure to discern the equal presence of God. -- Pundit Anantanand Rambachan
Sadly, as expected, the American-founded Fundamentalist Christian faiths have other ideas. Fortunately, they are quickly discovering that Trinidad and Tobago is not Uganda. At a lecture on Human Rights and Religious Freedom at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, the highly irrelevant "anal sex", "religious sin" and "demonic possession" talking points of Evangelicals were met with derisive laughter and resounding boos by faculty and students who not only took the opportunity to respond but to bravely come out. One professor in particular, delivered a closing statement I think Americans currently struggling with separation of church and state issues should hear:
What protects American freedom is exactly the same thing that protects our freedom in sweet T&T-- a brilliantly worded secular constitution, keeping the cultural black hole that is absolutist, supremacist religious/political fundamentalism from swallowing up the rainbow.