Sermon given by Most. Rev. & Hon. Charles H. Dufour, DD, OJ, CD at Service of Thanksgiving in Celebration of Jamaica’s 55th Independence Anniversary in South Florida at The Faith Center, Sunrise, Florida.
I count it a signal honour to have been invited to address you on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of our Independence. The theme of this year’s observance calls us to “celebrate Jamaica at home and abroad” and for many of us that means the celebration of our Jamaican culture. It is this notion of culture that I would like to briefly explore with you this afternoon.
Culture – What is it exactly? The anthropologists tell us that it is: the beliefs, behaviours, objects, and other characteristics common to the members of a particular group or society. Through culture, people and groups define themselves, conform to society’s shared values, and contribute to society.
And if you ask anybody on the street to describe Jamaican culture, my bet is that he or she would immediately begin to talk about our music, dance, poetry, food and language – which are all very important indices of culture. But Jamaican culture is so much more than this. It is those behaviours, those shared values that define us, that in my opinion make us “salt for the earth and light for the world”, as we heard in the reading from the Gospel. And this afternoon, I want to share a story with you that I think captures the true essence of Jamaican culture.
Anna was an 11 year old student at a Catholic high school for girls in the 1980’s. She was a small girl, complexion flawless with teeth as white as fresh milk. However she was always untidy – hair badly combed, blouse not properly ironed, tunic sometimes too big for her. But what was even more striking about her was her quiet, joy. Anna smiled as if she was always tasting life’s sweetness. She greeted you with the broadest smile, showing those beautiful teeth of hers and eyes twinkling in an almost impish way. As she started her classes in 1st Form her teachers noticed that her homework was sometimes done on crushed paper, and every now and then you would see some spilt porridge on it. But when the work was marked however, it was always among the best done work in the class, with very few if any mistakes – but it was always so untidy.
Her teachers realized that she sometimes seemed to be lip-reading in class and was squinting when she looked at the board, though she never complained. They spoke to her about this and she admitted that she had difficulty hearing that sometimes her eyes hurt and she had difficulty reading the blackboard. That conversation marked the beginning of a relationship with Anna’s family and the community of Catholic Sisters who sponsored the High School. They asked to see her mother to discuss how they could help her and in no time her mother appeared. She was a tall woman, very black, dressed very simply and wearing flip flop slippers, holding one young child by the hand and balancing a baby on her hip. It was clear that she was a poor woman, but one was immediately arrested by the beauty of her smile and the quiet royalty of her bearing. You could see exactly where Anna got her own beauty from.
The sisters discovered that the family lived in one room by a seaside village. They learned that there was no electricity in the hut, so Anna’s school work was done by lamp light. They also found out that the younger child was physically and mentally challenged and needed her mother’s care 24 hours a day, so keeping a job was extremely difficult. Now everything made sense. Anna had very little materially compared to her classmates at High School. The lack of light at night caused her to strain her eyes. She was hearing impaired but this had never been diagnosed since she could not afford going to the doctor. Without electricity, ironing her clothes was very difficult and that explained the way her uniform looked. There was only one table at which the family did everything – they ate there, played there and she studied there, so her homework sometimes carried all the food that her disabled sister spilled or splashed.
The school moved quickly to help Anna with glasses, uniforms, books and all the support she needed to complete high school. She was placed in an advanced class and was to sit 4 CSEC subjects in 4thForm. She worked very hard, harder than most in her class, and her grades showed it, but the sisters were worried that the work that she needed to put in in order to successfully do her 4 CXC subjects, would not be possible in her home environment. At the convent there was a little apartment, very comfortable one bedroom, with its own bathroom, a little living room, study area and all meals provided by the convent cooks. One of the Sisters called Anna aside one afternoon and offered her the opportunity to stay in the apartment for the time leading up to her exams, just so that she would have a quiet place to study, and not have all the distractions of trying to work in a cramped one-room living situation with 3 other people. The girl smiled sweetly at the nun and without even pausing to think about it said, “Oh thank you sister, but I couldn’t leave my family. It’s very hard for my mother you know, because of my sister’s condition and so I have to be there to help her take care of her”. The sister was struck silent. She could not imagine being in the place of this young woman and not grabbing this opportunity to escape the work and discomfort of her home.
Well the story continues. Anna did very well, passed those 4 subjects with Grade 1, went on to pass 9 more in 5th Form, went on to study sciences at the Advanced Level and entered the Medical School at UWI. She was the only student in her university class who did not drive; most of her classmates were children of well-to-do doctors. Most ignored her, some were very kind to her, but again when she related these stories, she was not moaning or complaining, she was smiling and remarked, “but they are dropping out one by one after each round of exams and I’m still here”.
Today Anna is a medical doctor practising in the UK, and her mother lives in a home that she bought for her and her family.
Now I tell you Anna’s story because I believe that she is in many ways a symbol, a living metaphor for true Jamaican culture. And I want to lift up some of the qualities of that culture for your consideration today as we consider Jamaica’s call to be salt and light to our world.
Firstly Anna knew herself. She knew that God was her Father. She was a black, beautiful, intelligent, loved little girl. Some would say she was a black, poor, disadvantaged little girl, but this is not how Anna understood herself. She did not need any man in a Benz, or BMW to give her money for a hairstyle to make her feel worthwhile or beautiful. With her little plaits sticking up in the top of her head and her untidy uniform, she was satisfied with herself, because she knew that she was so much more than hair and clothes. Her mother did not have much, by material standards to offer her daughter, but she had given her the one gift that was worth everything – more than any lotto jackpot – and that was making her daughter know that she was lovable and loved.
Jamaican culture is like Anna. We are a poor people by material standards, but we know who we are and that is, a great people. Intelligent, talented, creative, bountifully blessed by God. We don’t need people from other countries to tell us how good we are, nor do we need to imitate anybody else. We know who we are and we know that Jamaica is a blessed land with a blessed people. This wanting to look like others, bleaching our skin, wearing our pants like foreigners, trying to imitate people we see in music videos is not our true culture. It has crept into our identity but we must reject it. It is not who we are. This obsession with looking like Beyonce or Vybz is not our way. In fact, it is Chronixx who is the truer reflection of Jamaican culture when he says:
“All when mi ah di only man wid pants pon waist – mi nah follow nuhbody
And when di whole Jamaica bleach dem face – sey mi nah follow nuhbody!”
We don’t follow trends, we set trends! This is the fruit of knowing who we are and not needing anybody from outside to tell us how we should be. Self- confidence is at the heart of Jamaican culture and we must celebrate it at home and abroad!
Secondly, Anna was a loyal young woman, generous and caring. She did not see her little disabled sister as a burden to be carried, a load which she wanted to drop; she did not see her family as a source of shame or disgrace. When given the chance to leave, she chose them, she chose home, she chose family, she was loyal.
Jamaican culture is like Anna. We are a loyal people. We do not like ‘waggonists’ or ‘licky licky’ people. We are also a generous people. We cannot stand meanness or stinginess. Even the little we have, we share, trusting that our cupboard will never be empty. We are a caring and hospitable people. This is our culture. People from overseas marvel at Jamaican hospitality. They see how we treat visitors to our homes, to our country. Something as simple as picking up and dropping people off at the airport. A Jamaican would never think of having his or her guest take a taxi or a bus to the airport. We make the time and take them ourselves. We would never take our guest out and ask them to pay for their food. We host them royally, with the little that we have. Because we are a gracious people. We are a loyal people – When Usain Bolt chose to run for his own school William Knibb High and not transfer to one of the big sports school in Kingston – it was a demonstration of loyalty, to his school, to his community in Sherwood, Content. This is our culture and this is what makes us salt for the earth and light for the world. Loyalty is at the heart of Jamaican culture and we must celebrate it at home and abroad!
Thirdly, Anna worked hard. She was not born with any silver spoon in her mouth. The Catholic Sisters gave her a leg up, but the work she had to put in was rough. She did not spend time making envious comparisons with others and making excuses for why she couldn’t get ahead. She stayed in her lane, kept focused on the finish line and she ‘go hard’!
Jamaican culture is like Anna. We are a hardworking people. Nobody ‘go harder’ than we do. In the U.S. Afro Americans are amazed at Jamaicans and how hard we work, how we carry 2 and 3 jobs, how we push and push because we have our dream in front of us and can’t be bothered with them and their issues. “We come ya fi drink milk, we nuh come ya fi count cow”. This is our culture. This sitting down waiting for someone to do for us, give us sumpn’, let off sumpn’, is not our culture. It has crept into our identity but it is not who we are. We have to remind our children that there is no substitute for hard work, there are no easy millions to be made unless you are prepared to sell your soul to earn it by dishonest and criminal means. These images around us of superstars dripping in gold and driving around in Hummers are not the ones that we should allow to seize our hearts and imaginations.
Fourthly, Anna had a grateful spirit. She never took any kindness for granted. She was grateful for every sacrifice her mother made for her and her siblings, she was grateful to her teachers, to the Sisters who helped her, to her lecturers. She was never tired of saying thanks. This is Jamaican culture at its best. For we are a noble people and one of the marks of nobility is that we show appreciation. We say ‘Thank you”. Ingratitude is the root of selfishness. For the ungrateful are so busy thinking about all they do not have, they do not remember to give thanks for all that they do have. Gratitude is deeply a part of Jamaican culture and we must celebrate this virtue at home and abroad!
And lastly, Anna had a joyful spirit. That winning smile of hers shone through good days and bad days. Anna seemed to always be tasting the goodness of life. “Taste and see, oh taste and see the goodness of the Lord”, says the psalmist in Psalm 34 verse 8. This is the joy of a person who knows and trusts God and this is deeply ingrained in Jamaican culture. When people ask us “Why do you sing?” Some think the answer is in Bob Marley’s words:
But we believers know why we sing, even when we feel pain. In the words of Kirk Franklin “We sing because we’re happy we sing because we’re free. His eye is on the sparrow; that’s the reason why we sing!”
So like Anna we have the joy of people who know Christ Jesus personally and his gift of eternal life. We smile, we laugh, we dance! Whether we are doing the Butterfly, the Bogle, the Roast Breadfruit – roast and fry, the Signal di Plane, the S-90 or the Rock di World nuh! We are a faith-filled, joyful people. This spirit of joy is deeply engrained in Jamaican culture. It is the joy of the Lord and it indeed is our strength. And we should celebrate it here and abroad.
So what is my simple message to you and to all Jamaicans today? It is this: All over the world, people are in awe of Jamaican culture. People from every continent want to wear our colours, dance our dances, eat our food, speak our language, and play our music. I cannot think of a genre of popular music on this planet that does not have a fusion with Jamaican dance hall right now. And all of these are great aspects of our culture. But I want you to remember that culture, Jamaican culture is much more than bandana fabric, ackee, reggae, music and folk dancing. Jamaican culture is a set of living values that have made us a great people, a noble people. And if we all do not seriously strive to preserve these aspects of our culture, by lifting up these values; if we allow them to be replaced by an obsession with Dexta Daps and Ishawna, then these values, these treasures of our culture will most certainly die.
Our culture is set of behaviours, a set of qualities that are a part of our Jamaican DNA – they are confidence, knowing who we are, loyalty, our willingness to work hard, a joyful spirit and hearts that are grateful, above all to Almighty God. I look forward to the day when the music and dance industry will celebrate these virtues, these cultural values that have made us so exceptional. For it is when we live these qualities, these values that Jamaican culture will truly be a light for the world and salt for the earth.
So friends, on this our 55th anniversary of Independence “Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us”, as our first reading from the book of Ecclesiasticus exhorts us to do. The scriptures urge us to praise those who were our heroes, those who were powerful, those who composed beautiful music, those who were great artists. And this is what we usually do when we celebrate our culture, our greatness as a Jamaican people. We can all recount the great men and women, mothers and fathers of our nation, our great world-class dancers, poets, athletes!
But the Word of God goes on to give a list of other people we should single out for praise. It calls them “generous men”, or in another translation “merciful men” – men and women who should be praised and exalted, not because they were rulers or famous artists or athletes – but because of their faith, their goodness, their kindness, their decency, their faithfulness in doing the hard work day by day that has built our nation.
So today let us praise and be inspired by the hard work of our mothers, aunts and grandmothers that washed for us, cooked for us – made it possible for us to be here today. Let us praise and be inspired by the hard work of Jamaican fathers in their efforts to provide for their children, no matter how small. Let us praise and be inspired by our teachers’ dedication to educating our Jamaican children, though their salaries are a pittance. Let us praise and be inspired by young people like Anna – confident and proud, excelling despite all the odds stacked against them. Let us praise and be inspired by the Christian faith of our simplest people, that allowed them to endure and triumph over the hardships and cruelties they suffered on our journey to nationhood. These are the examples of the greatness, that have built our communities, built our country out of the chaos and destruction of our heritage as an enslaved people. Of such as them the Scripture says:
“The peoples will proclaim their wisdom
The assembly will celebrate their praises.” (Ecclesiasticus 44: 15)
This is the best of Jamaican culture and today we celebrate it at home and abroad. As the young people like to say today “Jamaica, to di world!”
God bless you all.