President David Granger: Officials of Freedom Congregational Church; Members of Freedom Congregational Church; visitors; Christian Brothers; members of the media. I’m very happy and honoured to be with you today to wish you happy Father’s Day – Happy Father’s Day – and more important to celebrate the 175th Anniversary of this church.
As you know, five hundred years ago on the 31st October 1517, Martin Luther (not Martin Luther King), Martin Luther nailed a document on a church door in Germany and this document challenged the orthodoxy and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Up to that time in the whole Western Europe the Roman Catholic Church was predominant and on that day the 31st October 1517 – and we are going to celebrate that 500th Anniversary this very year – Martin Luther challenged what was being taught as the doctrine and dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.
He started something called the ‘Protestant Reformation’ and in my view that was the most important change in religion since the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It may sound extreme, but that is what I believe; by founding Protestantism Martin Luther was able to redraw the entire religious map of Europe because many countries supported that reformation. Round about the same time printing was invented; so for the first time common folk, ordinary people, were able to get the Bibles in their own language- read for themselves.
They did not have to be told by the Pope or the Bishop or the Priest what God had said to them; they could read for themselves. People could study the commandments – they could study the covenant of the patriarchs; of Abraham, of Moses, of Isaac, of Jacob, they could pray to God directly and they could worship God without the control of the clergy. This is what we’re celebrating in 2017 – five hundred years of enlightenment.
I am a Protestant; the congregation is Protestant. What happened after Martin Luther is that several churches sprang up around the world and Congregationalism is one of the most significant and as you heard Congregationalism came to this country by way of a society called the London Missionary Society, which included several other Reformed or Protestant churches, but it was the London Missionary Society which came here over two hundred years ago which spoke exclusively to the enslaved Africans of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice. They made it their duty to speak to the poor and the downtrodden, to speak to the un-free, so it was Congregationalism more than any other church which supported African Emancipation in 1838.
This emancipation of the African people was the greatest revolution in the history of the western world. It brought to an end the greatest crime against humanity- a crime in which millions of people, millions were uprooted from Africa and brought across the Atlantic in what is called the Trans-Atlantic Trade in captive Africans, to the shores of the Americas and the Caribbean.
I don’t speak of slaves; I speak of people who were enslaved. You can’t be born a slave; other people have to make you a slave. But it was after Emancipation in 1838 that we saw in these colonies, Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice, a movement which is called the Great Village Movement- coffee plantations, cotton plantations, sugar plantations were purchased by the freed Africans and what used to be a string of plantations throughout the coast of Guyana were gradually transformed into human habitations. In fact the Great Village Movement helped to humanise this country.
It was in these human settlements that the freed Africans erected the structures that we now recognise as being associated with freedom. The freed villages like this one; like Den Amstel; like Bagotsville; like Friendship and Hope Town became the cradles of society and as I said before, and as I say now and I say again, these villages were like a house which was built on four pillars: the church, the school, the home and the farm.
And those four pillars sustained the community and if you want when you leave here you can go and build a house with four pillars and knock down one, or knock down two, or knock down three pillars. My brothers and sisters, when you knock down the church in your community; when you knock down the school; you knock down the family home; you stop working, that village; that community will collapse. Somebody say amen!
My brothers and sisters, Congregationalism helped to build those very pillars. These churches, listen to the age- one hundred and seventy-five years – these churches enable Christian worship because during the era of enslavement, the enslaved Africans were not allowed to worship. These churches fostered family life because, under enslavement, they were not allowed to marry.
Your husband or your man could be taken away and sent to the Corentyne; your wife and your children could be taken and sent to the west bank. The Africans were treated like property and as one historian said, “like two-legged domestic animals”; they had no rights, but it was the church which gathered the scattered flock and allowed them to marry and to teach them the word of God; that is why the home is so important today.
Freedom Congregational Church therefore is part of a proud tradition; it is not just a place you come to on Sundays. For decades upon decades, it has helped to make life meaningful; it helped to give you that good life, it helped to bring the kingdom of God from heaven to earth so that you could enjoy the benefits not only of worship, but also of education and also of family life and this is exactly what Congregationalism did for us here in Guyana.
This is exactly what freedom has done for us here in Stewartville; what Ebenezer has done, what Ezekiel has done. My brothers and sisters, we are the descendants of the founders of the freed villages and we look to the church to continue God’s work. We look to the schools which commit our children to education; we look to the churches so that we could devote ourselves and our families to the worship of God. We look to our farms and the world of work so that we could develop strong economies in our communities.
Congregationalism nurtured also a generation of village leaders. Churches like this one were not merely places of worship; they were also spaces for community meetings. Congregationalism concerns itself with both the spiritual and the social condition of man; it never ignored the fact that people were the creation of God.
Our brothers and sisters and those people also needed spiritual and social guidance and particularly; Congregationalism was a model of religious democracy. A distinctive feature of Congregationalism as you heard from other speakers was the autonomy of its local churches that you, the members of the congregation; people who study the Bible and who listen to the word of God, who are inspired and encouraged by the word of God could come to some decisions about how you want to govern yourself. You didn’t have to depend on somebody five thousand miles away to tell you when to bow and when to kneel. You could sit among yourselves and discuss and decide and determine how you were to worship God. That is what Protestantism did for us and that is what Congregationalism is still doing for us in Guyana.
When I addressed the Congregational Church some months ago, I linked it to the community. Most Congregational churches are not located in the towns and cities; they’re located in the rural areas. Maybe that might have been an accident of history but it turned out to be an important element not only in sustaining the church but in sustaining the communities where those churches were established. And I believe in communities. Over and over again, those of you who heard me would be reminded that I established something called a Ministry of Communities. I’m a serious man you know; if I believe in communities I establish a Ministry of Communities so that that community spirit would be fostered, we wouldn’t take it for granted.
I believe in villages and I declared the 7th of November every year National Day of Villages. So that all Guyanese could honour the importance of villages; could respect villages, whether they are African villages or Amerindian villages or Indian villages – these villages are the cradles of society. Sometimes you see some big shots in other places, even if they didn’t come from the villages, their parents and grandparents probably came from the villages. So the whole idea of the National Day of Villages is meant to ensure that all Guyanese would remember their roots and their roots are in these communities resting on those four pillars.
So today, we don’t only look back to the past hundred and seventy-five years; we look forward to the next hundred and seventy-five years. We have to have vision but some of our communities have fallen on hard times and as I feel personally some of them have rocked those four pillars that I told you about. You see damage, you see decay; you see deterioration of the physical infrastructure. You see dysfunctional families, something that pains me.
Forty-eight hours ago at this very hour, I was at a place called Onderneeming and over forty girls are there, confined on some so called offence called ‘wandering’; young girls, all of them under seventeen. One of them was crying because she had to leave her baby behind. My brothers and sisters, this mustn’t happen in our villages and our communities; that girl children are confined to a Centre because of wandering. We have to strengthen the homes; we have to strengthen the families. We have to make sure that every child; particularly girl children, have a place in the home. You see the spread of drug abuse and the Essequibo Islands-West Demerara Region is not free from the scourge of drug abuse. You see some of the economies being distorted, things that mommy used to make and granny used to make – guava jam and guava cheese and plantain chips; we now have to eat Pringles.
I have a friend over in this region here; every now and then he sends me a bottle of mauby but some people have to drink Busta; they can’t drink mauby anymore. So what is happening when you drink Busta, whose economy are you supporting? When you eat Pringles, whose economy are you supporting? These are things these villages used to produce. When these villages were founded there was no Survival supermarket, there was no Mattai supermarket, there was no Nigel’s and they didn’t starve to death and they used to live long- nowadays people dying; you know, fifty and sixty years old.
So we have to look at what is taking place in the villages. We have to rebuild the schools; as I often say, every child in school and that is why when I became President we started to provide school buses so that children could go to school; school boats in places like the Pomeroon and Demerara River, Essequibo River so children could go to school. No child should drop out in this country. No child should stay at home because he or she doesn’t have transport. No child should be without religious instruction, should stay away from church. No child should be encouraged or led astray from his or her family home. I know some ‘sweet’ men like to have two or three homes. Well one man, one wife, one family one home. [Applause.]
And work- some people who don’t like to work at all. Again, how did these villages survive a hundred and seventy-five years without work? Every village had a backdam, every backdam produced food. Every family ate the food they produced. So we have to look back to the past to find this model for the future. Our communities and our villages cannot be allowed to falter or to fail but the government cannot repair the damage alone. There needs to be a collaborative effort between the state and the church; between communities and non-governmental organisations.
My brothers and sisters, the very fact that Congregational churches and Congregationalism remain vibrant; the very fact that freedom has survived here for a hundred and seventy-five years, is evidence that they are relevant. If they were not relevant and useful they would have disappeared and what is true for freedom is true for other Congregational churches in Guyana. Some of you have seen me before. I’ve worshipped with you in Albion Chapel at Fyrish; in Arundel Congregational Church in Buxton, in Ebenezer Congregational Church at Ann’s Grove, Ebenezer Congregational Church in Den Amstel, Emanuel Congregational Church in Hope Town; Smith Congregational Church in Georgetown- y’all should make me an honorary Congregationalist because I’ve been to all of these places. Next thing I’ll have to get a visa to come into Stewartville. [Laughter.]
My brothers and sisters Congregationalism is a powerful faith but we must build on that strong foundation that our forefathers built over the last one and three quarter centuries. The church can propel itself forward by its continued service to its citizens and its communities. The church can remain relevant and vibrant by combining the profession of faith with the practice of works. It was the Congregationalists who courageously carried Christ’s gospel to the victims of enslavement more than two hundred years ago.
Today, the descendants of those enslaved Africans and other persons who were treated harshly on the plantations of this country and I include the Indians and the Chinese who have a monument here at Windsor Forest signifying their arrival in 1853. All of them look to their respective faiths and religions but here in Freedom, in Stewartville, we see a beacon of light, a beacon of hope. It is hard to imagine, at least for this generation, what life was like a hundred and seventy-five years ago; without proper tools, the poor drainage, people unable to read and write, life was difficult.
You had an oppressive class of planters who made life even more difficult – try to prevent the development of a peasantry, try to prevent the development of a prosperous class of farmers – because they wanted everybody to cut cane eternally and if people left the plantations to do their own farming, the planters felt that they were losing. Well it was the church that sustained us, that gave us hope to develop the communities our forefathers bequeathed to us.
Today, I praise and congratulate Freedom Congregational Church as part of the Guyana Congregational Union and I pray this church and the whole Congregational Union could recapture the spirit of community which has been the cornerstone of the Church’s stewardship for more than two hundred years.
I congratulate Freedom Congregational Church on its hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary and I wish it continued success in the service of people, of this village, and I pray that God may bless you all.