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JAMAICA: Religion

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Jamaica professes to have the greatest number of churches per square mile in the world, with virtually every imaginable denomination represented. More than 80% of Jamaicans identify as Christians.

Jamaicans are inordinately superstitious and firm believers in ghosts and evil spirits. Many islanders, for example, still recoil from harmless lizards as if they were ferocious dragons.

On any day of the week, but notably on weekends, it's common to see adults and children walking along country roads, holding Bibles, and dressed in their finest outfits - the girls in white, the men and boys in somber suits, and the women in heels, hats, and bright satins. On Sundays every church in the country seems to overflow with the righteous, and the old fire-and-brimstone school of sermonizing is still the preferred mode. Bible-waving congregations sway to and fro, roll their heads, and wail and shriek 'Hallelujah!' and 'Amen, sweet Jesus!' while guitars, drums, and tambourines help work the crowds into a frenzy.

The most popular denomination, the Anglican Church of Jamaica, accounts for 43% of the population. About 5% of the population today is Catholic. Fundamentalists have made serious inroads in recent years because of aggressive proselytizing.

Revivalist Cults
Jamaica has several quasi-Christian, quasi-animist sects that are generically named Revivalist cults after the post-emancipation Great Revival, during which many blacks converted to Christianity. Revivalism is popular among the poorest classes, but is looked down on by most educated Jamaicans.

The cults are derived from West African animist beliefs (animism has nothing to do with animal spirits; the name is derived from the Latin word anima, for soul) based on the tenet that the spiritual and temporal worlds are a unified whole. A core belief is that spirits live independently of the human or animal body and can inhabit inanimate objects and communicate themselves to humans; how humans call them determines whether they will be a force of good or evil.

Many Jamaicans commonly consult practitioners - 'balmists' - who claim to be able to invoke the assistance of spirits and duppies for black magic (called obeah, an Ashanti word from West Africa) for medicinal purposes or for ensuring a successful romance on behalf of a supplicant, for example. When used for good, obeah is called myal.

The most important Revivalist cult is Pocomania, mixing European and African religious heritages. The cult is organized into hierarchical bands, which hold meetings at consecrated 'mission grounds' (or 'seals') and are overseen by a 'leader' or 'shepherd' (or 'mother' if female).

The ritual meetings are frenzied affairs involving prayers, dances, and rhythmic drumming. Adherents often go into a trance, frequently aided by rum and ganja. Then a worshipper sometimes becomes 'possessed' by a spirit who becomes his or her guardian.

This is the most African of the Jamaican religious cults and is strongest in St Thomas parish. Based on the worship of ancestor spirit-deities, Kumina focuses on appeasing wandering spirits of dead people who did not receive proper rites and are a menace to society. Kumina ceremonies are performed for all sorts of social occasions. Goats are frequently sacrificed. Drums are particularly powerful during Kumina ceremonies, which use a ritual Bantu language from the Congo, where the cult originated.

Rastafarians, with their uncut, uncombed hair grown into long sun-bleached tangles known as 'dreadlocks' or 'dreads,' are synonymous with the island in the sun. There are perhaps as many as 100,000 Rastafarians in Jamaica. They adhere to an unorganized religion - a faith, not a church - that has no official doctrine or dogmatic hierarchy and is composed of a core of social and spiritual tenets that are open to interpretation. Not all Rastafarians wear dreads, for example, and others do not smoke ganja. All adherents, however, accept that Africa is the black race's spiritual home to which they are destined to return.

Rastafarianism evolved as an expression of poor black Jamaicans seeking fulfillment during the 1930s, a period of growing nationalism and economic and political upheaval. It was boosted by the 'back to Africa' zeal of Jamaican Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded in 1914. Rastafarians regard Garvey as a prophet. The nationalist predicted that a black man - a 'Redeemer' -would be crowned king in Africa. Haile Selassie's crowning as emperor of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) on November 2, 1930, fulfilled Garvey's prophecy and established a fascination with Ethiopia that lies at the core of Rastafarianism.

Many Garvey supporters saw their Redeemer in Selassie, and they quoted biblical references in support of Selassie's claim to be the 225th descendant from King David. He traced his family tree back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and took the title 'King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.' These Garveyites believed Selassie was God incarnate. They adopted his precoronation name, Ras Tafari: Ras (prince) and Tafari (to be feared).

One charismatic leader, Leonard Percival Howell, developed the tenets of Rastafarianism and began a proselytizing tour. In 1940, Howell established the first Rastafar-ian community - the Pinnacle - at Sligoville, northwest of Kingston. His followers adopted the 'dreadlocked' hairstyle of several East African tribes - an allegory of the mane of the Lion of Judah.

Howell's commune endured numerous police raids, and in 1954 was broken up by police. Many of the members settled West Kingston and the still-extant commune at Bull Bay, east of Kingston. By the end of the decade there were perhaps 15,000 Rastafarians in Kingston's Back-A-Wall district. As their militancy increased, leftist political activists and criminals penetrated their ranks. The deaths of two British soldiers in ensuing skirmishes did much to demonize Rastafarianism, although a subsequent report characterized the movement, correctly, as pacifist. At least 15 different sects had emerged by the 1960s, when Rastafarianism evolved a firm philosophy and solid foundation.

Disillusionment helped turn ghetto youth toward the social and spiritual salvation implicit in Rastafarianism, which came of age with Bob Marley's ascendancy to international fame and acceptance.

Rastafarian Tenets
Howell's document 'Twenty-One Points' defined the Rastafarian philosophy and creed. One tenet was that the African race was one of God's chosen races, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel descended from the Hebrews and displaced. Jamaica is

Babylon (after the place where the Israelites were enslaved), and their lot is hi exile in a land that cannot be reformed. A second tenet states that God, whom they call Jah, will one day lead them from Babylon - any place that 'downpresses' the masses - to Zion (the 'Promised Land,' or Ethiopia). A third addresses Selassie's status as the Redeemer chosen to lead Africans back to Africa.

Rastafarians have also adapted traditional Christian tenets to fit their philosophical mold or 'reasoning,' the term used to cover their distinctive discourse. They believe that the Bible originally told the history of the African peoples, but was stolen and rewritten by whites to suppress and dominate blacks. This interpretation underpins the Rastafarians' mistrust of white society. Rastafarians believe that heaven is on earth hi the present. Though Selassie died in 1975, a commonly held belief is that he still lives among them unidentified in a new guise.

Rastafarian leaders continue to petition Queen Elizabeth II to repatriate them to Africa. Meanwhile they wait for redemption. Use your international cell phone rental to learn mnore about Rastafarianism.

Ganja & Good Living
Rastafarians believe that ganja provides a line of communication with God. Again, they look to the Bible, specifically Psalm 146:8, which says, who covereth the heaven with clouds, and prepareth rain for the earth. Who maketh grass to grow on the mountains, and herbs for the service of men.

Most but not all adherents smoke ganja copiously from cigar-size spliffs (reefers) and the 'holy chalice,' a bamboo pipe made of a goat's horn. Through it they claim to gain wisdom and inner divinity through the ability to 'reason' more clearly. The search for truth - 'reasoning' - is integral to the faith and is meant to see through the corrupting influences of 'Babylon.'

In recent years, Rastafarianism has concerned itself less with redemption than with resolution of the problems of the poor and dispossessed. Despite its militant consciousness, the religion preaches love and nonviolence, and adherents live by strict biblical codes that advocate a way of life in harmony with Old Testament traditions. They are vegetarians and teetotalers who also shun tobacco and the staples of western consumption. Those who copy Rastafarian style but bring ill-repute are referred to as 'wolves.'

Rastafarian Sects
Adherents are grouped into regional sects. The Bobo Ashantis, who live above Bull Bay, follow a strictly ascetic and reclusive life, shunning interactions with Babylon, hoping intently for the day of repatriation, and relegating women to a subservient role. A sect known as the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Bob Marley was a member) is composed primarily of more accomplished, well-to-do Jamaicans who have managed a greater accommodation with Babylon and honor women, if not quite as equals, then almost.

Rasta 'yards' or communes are distinguished by the presence of flags and a figure of a lion representing Haile Selassie. Here they hold their nyahbinghis, organized gatherings also known as 'groundations.'

A Unique Lexicon
One of the 21 tenets of Rastafarianism is the belief that God exists in each person, and that the two are the same. Thus the creed unifies divinity and individuality through the use of personal pronouns that reflect the 'I and I.' ('One blood. Everybody same, mon!') T becomes the id or true measure of inner divinity, which places everyone on the same plane. Thus T and I' can mean 'we,' 'him and her,' 'you and them.' (The personal pronoun 'me' is seen as a sign of subservience, of acceptance of the self as an 'object.')

Rastafarians have evolved a whole lexicon that has profoundly influenced 'Jamaica talk' (see the Language chapter) and is laced with cryptic intent and meaning. This revisionist 'English' is inspired by Rastafarian reasoning that sees the English language as a tool in the service of Babylon designed to 'downpress' the black man. In short, they believe the language is biased. Every word is analyzed, and in this frame even the most insignificant word can seem tainted. The well-meant greeting 'Hello!' may elicit the response: 'Dis not 'ell and I not low!'

Use your Jamaica cell phone rental to find a place of worship near you.

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