Profile: Trinidad and Tobago
POPULATION: 1.4 million. LANGUAGES: English, Creole English, Caribbean Hindustani, Creole…
PRINCES TOWN, Trinidad and Tobago — Sure, said minister Winston “Junior” Clarke, he’d be happy to give a reporter from The Christian Chronicle a ride to his church’s Thursday night Bible study.
But first, he had to pick up his car.
His wife, Jemma, gave the minister and the reporter a brief ride through the lush, hilly community of Princes Town on the island of Trinidad. It was about an hour before start time at “the royal congregation,” as Clarke calls it, the Princes Town Church of Christ.
Jemma Clarke stopped in front of a small house with multiple cars in the yard. She dropped off Clarke and the reporter and left to run errands before Bible class.
The mechanic, in a well-worn T-shirt, wiped grease from his hands as Clarke made a hasty introduction:
“This is Brian Brooks. I want him to be the next preacher of the Princes Town church. I met him in prison.”
Brooks promised to share his story later as Clarke got behind the wheel of his car, which the mechanic had once again restored to life.
The minister is grateful for the wheels. He’s spent much of the past three decades traversing the steep hills of Princes Town on foot.
“Normally I would walk, walk by myself,” he said, laughing, “just walkin’, walkin’, doing door-to-door knockin’, trying to encourage people, ‘You better come to the Lord.’”
The community of about 30,000 souls, seven miles east of San Fernando, got its name after a visit by Queen Victoria’s grandsons, Princes Albert and George (later King George V) in 1880, when Trinidad was a British colony.
Religion abounds here. It’s easy to find Hindus, Muslims and a host of Christian groups, from Catholic to Pentecostal, plus syncretic faiths that combine elements of Christianity with traditional Afro-Caribbean practices.
“There are two businesses in Trinidad: rum shops and religion,” Clarke said. “Once you start a religion anywhere in Trinidad, you get followers.”
“There are two businesses in Trinidad: rum shops and religion. Once you start a religion anywhere in Trinidad, you get followers.”
Clarke wanted little to do with any of it. He was jaded and skeptical about religion when a Church of Christ minister knocked on the door of the house he shared with Jemma in the 1980s. But she took interest and started studying the Bible. She urged Clarke to accompany her to worship.
“I told her I didn’t want to go to the Church of Christ,” Clarke said. “They think they know it all.”
Eventually, he agreed to go, but he asked her not to be upset with him if he “disrupted the proceedings.”
He tried to do just that, asking question after question during Bible study. Every time he asked, the preacher patiently said, “Mr. Clarke, turn in your Bible to …” responding with book, chapter and verse.
“I’ve never, never seen that before,” Clarke said. “I’m seein’ these things for the first time. Nobody took you to where the Bible said those things.”
Clarke and Jemma married and were baptized. He studied his Bible as he worked in maintenance for a food service company.
After eight and a half years, there was a “major retrenchment,” he said. He was laid off. New jobs were hard to come by. To feed his three children, he sold his car.
Then Parker Henderson, a longtime missionary to Trinidad, offered Clarke the chance to attend the Trinidad School of Preaching while he looked for a job. There he’d get a $100-per-month stipend.
“I said, ‘Something is better than nothing,’” Clarke recalled. “I told him, ‘I’ll come, but I’ll leave if I get a job.’”
After the first month of classes, Clarke changed his mind. Jemma got a job to help support the family as Clarke trained for ministry. After graduation in 1994, he began canvassing the streets of Princes Town, offering the same invitation he’d been so hesitant to answer. He did this all on foot. It was 10 years before he got another car.
When Clarke was baptized, there were some 250 members on the congregation’s rolls, making it one of the largest Churches of Christ in Trinidad. But “too many internal struggles” took a toll on the congregation, he said, as did the shutdown of a large sugar refinery in 2003. Only a few members were left when he started preaching in Princes Town. Now Sunday attendance hovers around 30 to 40.
“Evangelism here is very difficult because of the many, many perverted gospels,” Clarke said.
But he knows that more stubborn, spiritual seekers like him are out there, waiting to hear the truth.
That’s where his mechanic comes in.
Related: Profile: Trinidad and Tobago
After a quick tour of Princes Town, including a stop for the city’s signature coconut ice cream, Clarke arrived at the church building.
Brooks, the mechanic, followed close behind in a blue button-up shirt. He borrowed the minister’s office to share his story with the Chronicle as members trickled in for the Bible study.
He grew up in a Catholic household and trained to repair diesel engines. He smoked marijuana, and the habit escalated to cocaine and crack during the 1980s. “That’s when I started getting locked up,” he said. “I went to prison four times. In 2008, I was arrested and sentenced to 25 years.
“In prison, you hold your corner. If you’re greedy, if you like to eat, like to smoke, people will take advantage of you.”
As Brooks spoke, the words of a hymn floated into the office from the auditorium. “The cross became so heavy, I fell beneath the load.” Bible class students were singing “Follow Me,” a hymn that compares the trials of Christian living with the suffering Jesus endured at his crucifixion.
In prison, Brooks learned to deny himself, to curb his urges. He spent time in prayer. One day, while he was in the prison chapel, he saw evangelists from the Church of Christ enter the facility. He asked a fellow inmate about them.
“If you go to that study, you’re going to like what you hear,” whispered the inmate, who seemed to be hiding from the church members. Brooks later learned that the inmate had been baptized through the ministry and didn’t want the church members to know that he was back behind bars.
Brooks went to the Bible study, and “right then I knew that this was the church,” he said. He was baptized, and “when I got out of the prison, I came right here, and I never turned back.”
After sharing his story, Brooks joined his wife of 34 years, Debbie, at the Bible study. During his long years of addiction and incarceration, she took care of their three children.
“They were aware of their father’s problems,” Debbie Brooks said. “I used to carry them to Narcotics Anonymous meetings so they would understand that it is a disease. Any time he was sober, he would tell them how much he loves them. He was one of those addicts who, when he used, did it away from the house so they would not see him at his worst.”
She was skeptical when she learned of her husband’s conversion. He had been baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church before, but that commitment didn’t last. This time, “there was a kind of joy and light that was emanating from him.”
“I used to carry them to Narcotics Anonymous meetings so they would understand that it is a disease. Any time he was sober, he would tell them how much he loves them. He was one of those addicts who, when he used, did it away from the house so they would not see him at his worst.”
To be honest, “it made me pretty jealous,” she said. “I wanted that also — that joy, that sweetness.”
She studied the Bible and was baptized. A few months ago, after “burning the candle at both ends,” she and her husband, ages 61 and 63, graduated from the Trinidad School of Preaching. Their kids attended the ceremony, and Brian Brooks’ sister flew down from Connecticut to cheer them on.
As the class concluded, Brian Brooks read from the apostle Paul’s first letter to his protege, Timothy:
“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.”
Both Junior Clarke, the skeptic turned true believer, and Brian Brooks, the convict who became a convert, see themselves in those verses. Together, they face an uphill battle as they preach the Gospel to a people jaded and distracted by multiple faiths proclaiming conflicting truths.
But Brian Brooks has faith that the King of Kings who saved him can guide the people of Princes Town to the Prince of Peace.
“I thank God for what he did,” he said. “Nothing is impossible for him. He can pull you out of a pit that has no bottom.”
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