As we come to the closing sessions of our 25Th anniversary Conference on Theology in the Caribbean Today, there are some markers that have been present and consistent over the years that we should highlight and be justly proud of. The first and most Christian/Catholic of them all is Hospitality. From the beginning of this conference in 1994 right through to this conference in 2019, the openness to welcome anyone who is interested and working, directly or indirectly, in religious, pastoral and theological matters in and on the Caribbean has been steadfastly followed. The rationale behind this, as stated on our website on «About Us», is the recognition of the many and various avenues and expressions of our people in practicing, understanding and expressing their faiths.
This has allowed us to be expansive in our thinking and in our expressions. In addition, as a result of most participants lodging at the conference site over the conference, hospitality also manifests itself in the many social activities, planned and unplanned, that occur during the week. These after and in-between hours events that are usually accompanied by drinks and snacks, build solidarity as well as mutual respect and understanding, and play a large role in the acceptance of various ideas precisely because of the cordial relationships built at these «limes». If anything, some have claimed that it is at these «limes» where the real theology is done at the conference. It is hard to dispute this and it highlights how hospitality is indispensable for creative expression, for unity and for vibrant faiths!
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A second marker of this conference is Resiliency. Celebrating 25 years is no small feat in a region that has seen similar efforts dissipate or close by decree. What is even more startling is that this occurred through the voluntary efforts of so many persons, living and deceased, whose commitment and nurturing created and sustained spaces for the conference to survive and remain an organ of open theological research and expression.
This was no mean task and for some years it seemed like the conference would not make it. Yet here we are, celebrating 25 years and also implementing the handing over of the reins of the conference to another generation. By the grace of God and his people in the Caribbean, the resiliency exhibited this past 25 years now has the firm hope of at least another 25 years.
The bonds of friendship forged as a result of the hospitable milieu of the conference has given participants the confidence to share their Experiential and Faith/Spiritual Journeys with other participants. This occurs more frequently at informal discussions and gatherings but it is not uncommon during our formal presentations to have persons share, and sometimes quite emotionally, their deep spiritual and experiential insights.
I am not aware of theological conferences that allow for this range of expression in their formal presentations as a regular feature, from the more traditionally academic to the experiential and spiritual, and it signals to conference participants that our understanding of theological enterprise is expansive and diverse. More than this however, it raises to the level of consciousness and confirms that our journeys of faith here in the Caribbean, in all its varieties, shapes and avenues, are significant and vitally important in order to explore how God is understood and how relationships to divinity are expressed and nurtured in the region. This is a risky endeavor, because faith journeys are not uniform or monolithic and in engaging this, the conference is open to misunderstandings especially in exploring inter-faith relationships and the contextual fabric that sustains our Caribbean faiths.
This commitment to the varieties of religious experience by the conference is enshrined in the three memorial lectures the conference has established over the years: the Rev. Idris Hamid Memorial Lecture, which honors who we consider to be the first person in the region to organize and publish, in ecumenical/inter-faith fashion, theological texts based on theologians from the region; the Cheryl Herrera Memorial Lecture, which explores women’s experiences, contributions and visions for the churches in the Caribbean, and honors the first executive secretary of the conference who worked tirelessly to assure the success of the conference; the Founders Memorial Lecture, which honors the founders of the conference, Br. Michel De Verteuil, C.S.Sp., Archbishop Joseph Harris, C.S.Sp., Msgr. Patrick A.B. Anthony, and explore theirological insights and visions for church life in the Caribbean. The conference has therefore structured the many experiential and spiritual journeys of its participants as important resources for theology.
This recognition of diversity of experiences contributes to the fourth marker of the conference, its Attention to Location. Over the years, the conference has met in St. Lucia, Dominica, Jamaica, St. Vincent, Grenada, Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname. This has made it difficult to assure adequate participation at all conferences, mainly because of the cost of travel and lodging for participants, but it is a challenge the conference accepted at its inception to try to impact as much of the Caribbean as possible and understand and respond to the unique locations that make up the complexity and vibrancy of the region.
This attention to location is also thematic in the insistence that presenters must relate to some feature or place in the Caribbean region or its diaspora as well as use thinkers and resources from the region to inform their thinking. It is what also situates what we do within the wider networks of global theological movements and in the societal and civilizational changes that have affected the Caribbean. Over the years we have invited international observers and presenters to share and compare their theological locations with us as well as leading thinkers in the Caribbean to speak to our changing social reality. Sharing reflections from various specific locations in and out of the Caribbean, provide a rich tapestry of interwoven yet unique expressions that always remind us of how much we are connected as people of faith, yet how varied our perspectives and expressions may be. It is an exercise in humility as well as an appreciation for the vast array of God’s creation.
Finally, we must recognize the unique space we have created over the years for our fifth marker, Poetics and the Body. From the very beginning, and with increasing regularity, presentations at the conference have always looked to Caribbean literature, music, art and poetry as ways to understand and adequately express our ways of existing in the region. Interestingly, these resources have always led us to reflect and speak about the human body or the body of the earth.
The wide and varied array of poetic resources in the region seem to work as grounding agents for the conference, giving shape, form and meaning to physical activity, creating liturgical spaces for constructing Caribbean solidarity, hope and love. Perhaps this is the true legacy of the conference over the past 25 years, the construction of a community of thinkers and activists that have experienced and expressed love, to each other and to God.