Trouble in Paradise: Restoring Peace between Bahamians and Haitians
This piece is fourth in a series of pieces featuring Caribbean writers reflecting on the theme of Emancipation, first published on August 1, 2017 (Emancipation Day).
Where there are differences, there are sure to be tensions – even in an island paradise. Such is the case for the Bahamas, most recently in the news due to Billy McFarland’s failed fiasco “Fyre Festival”. Excited partygoers from around the world flocked to Great Exuma Cay for a time of glamorous fun, but instead were met with uninhabitable conditions, granting them no other option but to find any way to escape the island. However, far before this dilemma, exists one that shares similar themes of escape; yet, not an Exuma exodus, but a national influx.
There is no secret that over the years many Haitians have migrated to The Bahamas. Amongst the nation’s population of nearly 390,000 residents, Haitians (whether documented and undocumented) account for about 11% of the population. There is no secret as to why Haitians have migrated to The Bahamas. Food insecurity and economic instability are chronic problems for Haiti, and as if sitting in the center of the Caribbean’s hurricane belt is not enough, the earthquake of 2010 brought further destruction, displacing about 3 million people -- a third of the nation’s population. There is also no secret that once in The Bahamas, Haitians experience a firewall of discrimination. Reports from Amnesty International, Refugees International, and the U.S. Department of State published that Haitians in The Bahamas (even those born in The Bahamas) do not receive full access to healthcare, education, or even a path to citizenship, leaving most “stateless”. However, what is the ever evasive and elusive secret is that of harmony, particularly the ways in which it can be achieved despite these growing tensions.
For a topic as complex and multi-layered as immigration, the solution is just as complex and multi-layered. Immigration is a challenge that requires many people, of many disciplines and fields, to use their expertise to construct avenues to harmony. This communal work involves healthcare professionals, educators, law enforcement, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, the state, and also the church. This article engages the latter, motivating pastors, preachers, priests, and the like, to encourage those they inspire to help in the formation of a harmonious, multicultural society.
The Bahamas proudly labels itself as a Christian nation. Almost 75% of the population belongs to a Protestant denomination, and the constitution itself requires the government to uphold Christian values. However, a Christian identity is shaped by a Christian integrity, which is the commitment to love one’s neighbor (despite how they got to become one’s neighbor) as one’s self. To love someone is to also learn someone. Therefore the work of Bahamian religious leaders is to cultivate faith spaces where the Haitian immigrant story is heard, acknowledged, and celebrated -- for the immigrant story is part of God’s story.
One way these stories can be learned is through liturgy, that which is said and done in worship. Prayers and sermons, scriptures and sacraments, litanies and calls to worship, all provide opportunities for people to explore their spirituality, dig deeper into their humanity, and to champion the dignity of others. Fashioning liturgical experiences that highlight the stories of Haitian immigrants provides an exposure to critical dimensions of the immigrant narrative that cannot be captured elsewhere. This first-hand learning breaks down barriers, falsifies stereotypes and promotes empathy.
Much of these stories can simply be told, but there is a deeply visceral power when they are also sung. Just as someone can learn about another through their story, their song is just as impactful. Music crosses barriers of space and time, and transcends the limits of language, even in the event of immigration. Haitian culture is very rich and full of pulsating music that leaves no foot left untapped. However, the most pervasive feature of Haitian music is its use of social commentary. The Boukman Eksperyans’ song “Soul in a Bottle” does just that, by rejecting a claustrophobic status quo and advocating for the freedom of authenticity and self expression:
Where there are differences, there might be tensions; but, that which is also there are stories to be heard and songs to be played. The experience of both, especially in the context of worship, fosters an atmosphere where peace and reconciliation thrives. Though the use of liturgy and music does not compose an exhaustive list, both are important steps that Bahamian church leaders can take toward harmony. The book of Leviticus makes it plain: "when strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall do them no wrong, the strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as natives among you, and you love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
The Rev. Lambert N. Rahming is a Christian religious leader who currently holds posts at Sanctuary UCC in Medford, Massachusetts and Charles Street A.M.E. Church in Boston, Massachusetts. He also serves as the Africana Associate for the Tufts University Chaplaincy in Medford/Somerville, Massachusetts.
This article was edited post publication to correct formatting errors.