The Caribbean Prevailing Against all Odds
Text and photos
by Sue Schumann Warner –
It may be tropical…but it’s no paradise. The Salvation Army in the Caribbean Territory is meeting the basic needs–survival needs–of men, women and children on the “other” side of paradise, the side not displayed in glossy travel brochures.
It’s the side where babies are abandoned in rural medical clinics–sometimes taken for use in voodoo ceremonies–where hurricanes slam into one-room shanties, leaving destitute families utterly without hope, where abused and abandoned children live on the streets, stealing or prostituting themselves to survive just one more day.
It’s the side where, in the midst of dire and unrelenting poverty, social and economic upheaval, natural disasters, and unimaginable medical and spiritual needs, the men and women of The Salvation Army give selflessly of themselves: compassionate, loving, tireless, and innovative.
“Salvationists in the Caribbean have prevailed against all odds,” said Territorial Commander Colonel Dennis Phillips who, with his wife Colonel Noella Phillips, leads the territory. “Officers, under circumstances we can’t imagine in the United States, have remained faithful and courageous–without adequate funding and, in some places, living in quarters that have no water or electricity.”
In spite of the social and economic circumstances, the Army is growing in this part of the world. The territory has more than 220 active officers, 123 corps, 50 outposts, and 124 schools and institutions. There are 10,183 soldiers and adherents. In Haiti alone, more than 17,000 students attend Salvation Army schools.
Fourteen new corps were recently opened by General Paul Rader during a visit to the territory: four in the Dominican Republic, nine in Haiti, and one in St. Maarten–which opened the work there, making it the 106th country in the Salvation Army world.
Western Territorial leaders Commissioners David and Doreen Edwards are natives of the Caribbean: David is from Guyana, and Doreen is from Barbados. They have served as leaders of the Caribbean Territory as well. “David Edwards did such an excellent job of bringing the Caribbean Territory forward,” said Phillips. “The territory wants to move and grow. Their work is a tremendous asset to us as leaders.”
Captains Victor and Rosemarie Leslie, Caribbean Territory officers who have served mostly in the West the past 15 years and are U.S. citizens, are now back in their home territory. Both wear multiple hats: Victor as finance secretary and trade secretary; Rosemarie as territorial projects officer, sponsorship director, League of Mercy secretary and Women’s Auxiliary secretary. Victor notes the budget process is complex. “Every country has a different officer allowance–the scale is based on the cost of living, indexed to the U.S. dollar,” said Leslie. “Officers are paid in the local currency; the only unifying factor is the U.S. dollar.”
The logistics involved in administrating a territory encompassing 16 countries–separated by thousands of square miles of ocean–where 13 different currencies are traded, is daunting…especially when English is not the main language in six of the countries. By the time the divisions receive items from the Trade Department in Jamaica, for example, duties have been paid twice–once, when they arrive in Kingston from IHQ, and the second time when they are received in the division.
Funding for the Caribbean Territory, which is 90 percent subsidized, is critical. With poverty rampant in many of the countries and with one country, Haiti, ranked the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, the territory is unable to generate significant support. In addition, unstable governments and economies create havoc. In Surinam, recently, inflation rose 400 percent overnight.
“I TAKE HIM AS MY BROTHER”–Students at the School for the Blind in Kingston take care of one another. The boy on the left, when asked the name of the boy he was holding, said “Sir, I don’t know his name, but I take him as my brother.”
The link between World Service giving and support for territories such as the Caribbean is direct and vital. Unfortunately, due to a decline in World Service giving, funding for the territory has had to be reduced.
Yet, the work continues–against all odds. “The Salvation Army is an oasis of hope and refuge in many places in the Caribbean,” said Phillips. “Everywhere I go, the poorer the people, the greater the pride I have in what The Salvation Army is doing. We are doing things no one else is doing.”
Long a presence in the Haitian culture, with most Catholics having links to it, voodoo is reemerging as an active religious force in that country. It is a belief that many Salvationist officers and soldiers have had links to as well. Nearly every Haitian officer I spoke with told a story similar to the one below:
“My mother was a believer in voodoo,” said one officer. “When I was 17, I became sick. My mother said an evil spirit possessed me.” She told him she would take him to a priestess for healing–but a Salvation Army officer came and spoke to his mother, and took him to the Salvation Army corps instead, where Salvationists prayed and read Scripture to him for a number of months, and God healed him.
“Early in my officership, I was doing a crusade with another officer, and we came across a voodoo priest performing ceremonies. We stopped to look, and the priest said if we stayed too long, the spirits would be driven away.” Ultimately, the voodoo priest was converted at The Salvation Army and burned his fetishes. “This happens many times in many places in the country,” the officer said.