“The British Virgin Islands is a Christian community!” That popular saying continues to be echoed loud and proud throughout the Virgin Islands by young and old. However, it was last week that the weightiness of this common BVI declaration was fully appreciated thanks to the presentation of a distinguished panel on ZBVI radio.
The panel discussion which was moderated by Ms. Sandra Ward, Cabinet Secretary and member of the Interdenominational Day of Prayers organizing Committee included: Mrs. Esme Potter, Minister of Church of God of Prophecy Long Look, Dr. Angel Smith, Director of the Virgin Islands Studies Institute at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College and Methodist Preacher; and Dr. Charles Wheatley Chairman of the Board of the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College and Methodist Preacher.
The discourse was one of the many activities held in observance of the 4 May, Interdenominational Day of Prayer; and during the hour long program the panelists explained how prayer is deeply entrenched in the BVI culture and history.
Prayer in History
Dr. Smith shared that prayer was one of the mentioned activities on the day of Emancipation from slavery and he explained that this is why the traditional August Monday thanksgiving service is so important.
“On that day in 1834 when slavery finally ended, it was declared a holiday because all churches were supposed to be open. It was a day of thanksgiving, and that is what happened. We have accounts written by the Methodist Missionaries, in particular, who talked about what happened in three different locations – at East End, at Road Town, and at Zion Hill where there were Methodist chapels. All of the missionaries reported that the chapels were filled to overflowing, and there were persons standing outside.”
Dr. Smith said the missionary account noted that people prayed and were thankful as they stated that the abolition of slavery was a long time in coming. He said that this is also the reason why 1st August was always declared not just a holiday, but a day of praise and thanksgiving.
Prayer In Schools
The Director of the Virgin Islands Studies Institute noted also that the social structures of the Virgin Islands focused on the Church, and this goes back to the fact that at a point in the Territory’s history most of the schools were run by the Methodist Church. “Schools were in churches, they were chapel schools and that had influence on the society, because the society was built on the church.” He explained that church school system is the reason to this day that everything in the BVI starts with prayer. “There is no separation in the BVI: prayer is a part of what we do,” Dr. Smith stated.
In stressing how prayer became the social norm in the BVI community Dr. Wheatley noted that during his school days prayer was said four times per day. “Religious instruction and prayer has been one of the foundation of the education system of the Virgin Islands.”
The Chairman of the HLSCC Board further explained that when the first Education Act in the BVI became law in 1955 it stipulated that prayers and scripture reading should start the school day. He also noted that in the 1977 Education Act that followed collective worship involving students at the start of the school day was stipulated. Dr. Wheatley also referenced the Act of 2004, and further pointed out that the 2015 Education regulations in section 8 also calls for collective worship at the schools.
First Political Leaders Came from the Church
Even the legislative arm of government is said to have a link to the Church. Dr. Smith noted that the first BVI legislators were Methodist Church Leaders: “The church had a system that educated persons beyond the primary level to preach…They would have learned all the skills necessary…And these were the men that became our first Ministers of Government. They are the forerunners that carried the torch…It is a very important part of our history,” Dr. Smith noted.
Prayer Society and Family
Dr. Smith announced that prayer has always been a part of the Virgin Islands life and history shows that most of the residents had prayers very early in the morning: “I remember hearing persons talk about coming to town for example leaving Cane Garden Bay, and other places where they had to get into town to buy stuff at the Georges Store, but when they got there the Georges were having devotions. So, they could time it based on the time factor because after devotion then they open the door. There is always reference to family and prayer,” he said.
Even social things happening in the society were not done without prayers such as house openings, and boat launches. In illustrating the point that prayer was an innate feature of the Virgin Islanders of past, Dr. Wheatley referenced various praying-related activities that were then part of the social norm: “The changes that we have seen in the life of the community and the effects of those changes on how people pray and where people pray really is interesting. In the 1940s, and 50s people gathered together to have all night prayer meetings…”
“Those meetings were part of their life. They saw those meetings as giving them the sustenance they needed in order to face the challenges which were there for them in life whether it was hardship or economic situations; and other problems that they experienced. In other words people were very dependent upon the Lord, and they saw their strength coming from the Lord and the avenue to get to the Lord was through prayer and they used it,” he added.
Mrs. Potter agreed with the other panelists that prayers shaped the Virgin Islands scape and noted that it was more than just religious ideal: “They (Virgin Islanders of the past) were taught that our survival was God’s mercy and grace…In other words their relationship with God was their survival because of the manner of life and the hardship that they had to go through they realized that they couldn’t survive without God.”
She also shared that she took her prayerful upbringing and fused it to her adult family life by insisting that her family had an hour of prayer: “6:00 o’clock in the afternoon if you ever come to my house you have to join in family prayer, and I have found that that prayer have been a restraining influence on the children.”
“Those of you who know my family, I am not saying that they are perfect, but that family prayer has become like a restraining influence. They never got into trouble like other children. The police man has never been to my house unless they had a car accident on the road. Prayer like the Bible says: the family that prays together, the influence and the respect that you have for each other when you pray together is not there when you don’t,” she explained.
In admonishing other families to commence praying together, Mrs. Potter said: “I find that praying as a family has a lot to do with how your family grows up to be. It builds a fear of God in the life of the individual when you constantly remind them of their creator and what he expects of us, especially if you try to live a life yourself that defines what you are talking about.”