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Are we people or property?

A reflection on God’s mission in the Caribbean

by Dennis A. Smith, World Mission regional liaison for South America | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Gerard Granado, left, general secretary of the Caribbean Council of Churches, and the Rev. José Luis Casal, director of Presbyterian World Mission, are pictured during the recent consultation of Latin America and Caribbean mission partners in Colombia. (Photo by Dennis Smith)

LOUISVILLE — “When you think of the Caribbean, you probably think of sun, sea and dance. But pain and possibility are closer to the truth,” says Gerard Granado, general secretary of the Caribbean Council of Churches.

Granado was one of the speakers at Presbyterian World Mission’s consultation with of nearly 60 PC(USA) mission partners held in Cartagena, Colombia, last month.

Granado described the Caribbean as one of the most complex and diverse regions on the planet. A history of competing empires has left the region with the challenge of building coherent societies out of the remnants of genocide, the slave trade and indentured servitude.

This complex social, political and economic web is made up of tiny sovereign nation states as well as overseas territories claimed by Britain, the U.S., France and the Netherlands. The region also includes mainland nations and overseas territories such as Belize, French Guiana and Surinam.

Although the region has four official languages — French, Spanish, English and Dutch — there are also several indigenous languages and different versions of Creole. The racial and ethnic mix of the region includes indigenous peoples, Africans, Hispanics, Chinese, Indians and Javanese.

Central America and the Caribbean

Churches in the region minister in a rich inter-religious environment marked not only by the full range of Christian denominations, but also by indigenous and African-based religions, Hinduism and Islam.

“For our region,” said Granado, “the call of the gospel is to bring hope and dignity to peoples who have been systematically traumatized by 400 years of uprootedness. Our identity was stripped from us when human beings were reduced to the status of objects and property. Our ancestors were separated from their tribes and their languages.”

This is the region that sparked the famous 16th century debate between Fray Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepulveda before the Spanish crown to determine whether the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean were “hombres” (humans) — and therefore must be treated with a modicum of dignity — or “hombrecillos” (almost humans) that could legitimately be exploited as beasts of labor.

One of the tragic ironies of this debate — for which de las Casas asked God’s forgiveness late in his life — is that this logic was used to justify the African slave trade, since Europeans viewed African peoples as even less human than Amerindian peoples.

“As churches in the Caribbean, this legacy must inform our understanding of God’s mission. We are called to re-craft our educational, political and economic institutions in our quest for sustainable societies. And we do so in a context where building natural economic and political relationships with our natural neighbors is not within our rights because of the existence of overseas territories.

“Another major challenge is climate justice. As is the case with our brothers and sisters in the Pacific, small island developing states in the Caribbean bear the brunt of climate change. We also seek to accommodate waves of Venezuelan immigrants arriving on our shores, to control violent crime related to drug trafficking, and to quell the rise of violence against women and children.

“As churches,” concluded Granado, “we are called to be life-giving midwives of a new way of being together. The Spirit leads us to live into a new anthropology, not as hombrecillos, but as full-fledged human beings graced by the Creator with identity and dignity.”

Dennis Smith is World Mission’s regional liaison for South America. Based in Buenos Aires, he works with 16 mission partners from Colombia to Argentina.


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