Jamaican gospel meeting is no day at the beach
A cruise ship — not the one being towed to the U.S. — is docked at the harbor as its passengers climb waterfalls and feast on Jamaica’s signature jerk chicken and pork.
Blocks away, in a part of the city few tourists see, 439 Christians squeeze into pews and folding chairs at the Montego Bay Church of Christ for a gospel meeting.
Preacher after preacher pounds the pulpit, admonishing the churchgoers to practice integrity in all aspects of their lives. Above, stressed-out ceiling fans struggle to contain the sweat.
It’s hardly a vacation, but Bill Davis loves every minute of it. Dressed in a three-piece suit, he stands in the shade, wiping his brow with a handkerchief.
“I’ve been coming down to Jamaica since before you were born,” Davis tells a ministry student from the Jamaica School of Preaching. It was 30 years ago, in fact, when the minister for the Sylvania Heights Church of Christ in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., traveled to the city known as MoBay for vacation. He sought out the church and found its members meeting at the local YMCA.
He grew to love the Jamaican Christians and made return trips, bringing hard-to-afford medications for blood pressure and diabetes. He raised funds for construction of the church’s building and spoke at its dedication.
“I’m just excited and very happy,” Davis said of his role in the work. “This little island has supplied preachers for a lot of countries.”
The Montego Bay church hosts the gospel meeting on Ash Wednesday, a national holiday in Jamaica. In recent years, the church combined the event with a weekend training seminar for church members. Congregations in Alabama and Tennessee provide funds.
“This is my prime inspirational ground,” said Oliver Bembridge, minister for the Tydixon Church of Christ in Jamaica. The lecturers help him improve his sermon delivery and increase his Bible knowledge, he said.
Another goal of the event is to encourage Jamaica’s evangelistic, growing churches toward self-sufficiency, said Romeo Tomlinson, one of the coordinators. A native of Jamaica, Tomlinson ministers for the Westside Church of Christ in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He notes that U.S. churches, increasingly, are moving to short-term support for international missions. Tomlinson wants to hear more Jamaican ministers preaching on the importance of giving.
This year, coordinators assigned topics to the speakers — from Jamaica and the U.S. — on integrity.
Derrick Brown spoke about integrity in Christians’ sexual relationships. The minister for the Pembroke Church of Christ in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, acknowledged that the topic makes him and his fellow Christians a bit squeamish.
But it shouldn’t, he said. The topic is found throughout Scripture. And he has seen too many congregations “torn apart by men who lacked integrity” and got involved in sexual scandal.
“God wants us to understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with discussing sex in a Christian context,” he said.
Speaking about infidelity and Internet pornography, he urged the Christians — especially preachers — to practice sexual integrity. The crowd responded with frequent shouts of “Amen!”
It was a necessary topic, said Laura Brown, 84, whose late husband was a minister for a church in the Jamaican city of Ocho Rios. A longtime Sunday school teacher, she attends the gospel meeting every year.
“What they speak about is good for the church,” she said.
Camiel Fenton, 18, also teaches Sunday school at her congregation in Negril, Jamaica, and is active in the congregation’s 20-member youth group.
“I knew I would see all my favorite preachers,” she said, adding that she was so eager to attend that she packed two days before leaving for the seminar.
One of the speakers, Michael Dunbar, told attendees young and old that a Christian’s integrity should come from the desire to emulate Christ. Dunbar, who teaches at the Jamaica School of Preaching in Kingston, used two of Jamaica’s heroes to drive home the point.
Those who want to emulate reggae music legend Bob Marley will practice like Bob Marley, he said. Those who want to be like Usain Bolt must train like the Olympic medalist.
“But if we admire Christ,” he said, “we must be like Christ.”