HYATTSVILLE, Md. (RNS) — As worshippers entered the sanctuary of Metropolitan Seventh-day Adventist Church, doorman Percy Joseph greeted them with “Happy Sabbath,” his bright red Trinidad and Tobago T-shirt showing beneath his long black coat.
Inside, guest steel drum players began to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” giving the tune known as the Black national anthem a steady beat reminiscent of the homelands of many congregants.
Then, marching and dancing flag bearers processed down the main aisle, first with the American flag, and then with banners of those lands, from Barbados to the Dominican Republic to Trinidad and Tobago.
On the third Saturday of Black History Month, at this church near Maryland’s border with the District of Columbia, it was “Caribbean Sabbath.”
Pastor Trevor Kinlock kept up the enthusiastic flavor of the service as he greeted the congregation before his sermon.
“Come on, raise your flag and represent,” Kinlock said to those fellow congregants who, like him, had Jamaican roots, before turning to a more global celebration. “We’ve come to celebrate him and we thank God for the beauty of our diversity as a people.”
Kinlock used his time at the lectern to emphasize why Black churches need to remember the history of Black people, including Americans like “Sister Harriet Tubman and Mother Sojourner Truth,” the latter who had ties to Adventism.
But he quickly added others beyond the North American mainland, such as Jamaican hero “Queen Nanny,” the spiritual and military leader of formerly enslaved African people called Maroons, who used guerrilla warfare against British troops, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who led the Haitian Revolution that overthrew French soldiers, making the island the first nation in the Americas to end slavery.
“You ought to give God a praise — thank God for the example of our Haitian brothers and sisters,” he said. “Caribbean folk know how to act up.”
Preaching on the Hebrew Bible text about the Prophet Elijah, Kinlock said, “We need the radical spirit of Elijah that resists and challenges the social evils of our day.” He cited the disproportionate numbers of people of color who are incarcerated, cases where “brown immigrant children are ripped from their parents at the border and housed in detention camps” and the killings of Black people at the hands of police officers.
“We need to call down the fire on global corporate power that still exploits the people and resources in the Caribbean and in Africa, extracting their wealth and leaving our people in poverty,” he said to cheers in agreement. “We cannot keep silent but we’ve got to speak out.”
Seventh-day Adventists, known for their observance of the Sabbath on Saturdays, have topped the Pew Research Center’s list of the most racially diverse religious groups in the U.S.
“’Caribbean Sabbath’ is not an official event across the North American Division territory of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church,” said Julio C. Muñoz, a spokesperson for that division of the church. But “there are churches with a rich Caribbean background that observe and celebrate their heritage at different times throughout the year, including Black History Month.”
At Metropolitan, which has marked its members’ Caribbean culture for more than a decade, some were celebrating not just one country but the cultural diversity within their own families.
United Kingdom-born Claudette Smith is the daughter of a Barbadian mother and Jamaican father and she married a man from Trinidad.
“Representation matters and not too many churches in the area take time to celebrate their members, the diversity in their members,” she said. “We have people from all over the place that come here to this church. And it’s nice that we get a day where we can act foolish in Jesus’ name.”
Asked about the Metropolitan service, Monika Gosin, associate professor of sociology at the College of William & Mary, said it exemplifies the latest juncture in the growth of U.S. Black immigrant populations, who have long been a part of the Black community and its churches. Pew reports that nearly half of the country’s foreign-born Black population — 46% — was birthed in the Caribbean.
“The way that we even conceptualize the Black church is changing,” she said. “This particular church service really reflects that, the way that Black people in United States are grappling with and embracing this particular diversity that they have.”
For decades, Caribbean communities in cities such as Washington, Atlanta and New York have recognized Black History Month, said Noel Erskine, an expert on Caribbean theologies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Often, a community celebration would be held in a church because such a building could provide a large and free space for gathering.
“The part that’s new is the theological piece,” he said, “to say this is a Sabbath.”
In an interview, Kinlock said the service, which draws hundreds to the sanctuary and an overflow room, is bigger than the Easter, Christmas or revival services at his church. Many replace the usual suit and tie or dress with cultural outfits that reflect their country — with T-shirts and, in one case, a skirt resembling the flag of St. Kitts and Nevis.
“It’s a space where our members and their family and friends can feel celebrated, can feel affirmed, so that is something that brings them out and then it’s good music and you get to express yourself in your authentic cultural voice and in your own way,” he said of his church, whose other Sabbaths in February celebrated African Americans and Africans, with a plan to end the month with an international food festival. “That is refreshing because there are not many spaces that they can just be themselves.”
Other Adventist churches have spotlighted their Caribbean members in services during Black History Month, from a church in Orlando, Florida, earlier this month to one in Mount Vernon, New York, last year.
Philip James, dressed in bright green and yellow colors representing his native Jamaica —and a small embossed flag on his chest just like his pastor at Metropolitan SDA — said he appreciated the special day.
“It brings back memories,” he said, carrying a hefty Bible and hymnal under one arm. “And sometimes you miss it.”
Although many of the people waving flags, cheering and dancing were excited about foreign countries, there were a couple of American flags in view.
“For me it’s special because it signifies unity and community,” said Nikita Thompson, who has attended the church for eight years. “I’m not from the Caribbean but I feel connected and I learn from them and their heritage.”
Ursula Roberts-Allen, wearing a skirt with the red and white colors of the flag of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, also affirmed the service’s educational emphasis.
“It brings me back home — it does — and helps me to teach my son what the Caribbean is about,” said the 36-year member, “and passing on our heritage to the next generation is critical.”
Olive Sterling, who described herself as “from a little place in Jamaica called Redberry,” also enjoyed the celebration, 50 years after she had joined the Washington-area church.
“It just highlights my heritage,” she said. “It does my spirit good.”