Bearing better fruit
“Thus, you will know them by their fruits.” —Matthew 7:20
My family and I moved to the Caribbean island of St. Croix in September 2017. Just prior to our move we took a small vacation to a little island in the north of the state of Michigan. It’s known for its fudge. There are no cars, but there is an 8-mile path that encircles the island and is populated by people on foot and on bikes. It was a daily trip for us. At first, we were enraptured by the natural beauty that surrounded us as we looked to our right over the water. But, after a trip or two I noticed a series of signs that spoke of the island’s historical tragedy: displacement, deceit, war, broken treaties. On the rest of our trips we tried to balance enjoying the natural beauty while not ignoring the historical tragedy. It’s a frame of mind that we brought with us to St. Croix.
St. Croix, like so many Caribbean islands, is a beautiful place of sun and sand and sea. It’s place that is easy to escape to and enjoy without any engagement with the past. Like so many other islands, St. Croix has a history that is too often unknown or ignored. The Virgin Islands became a territory of the United States in 1917; purchased from the Danish. But the islands have been occupied by the Spanish, English, French, and, as I discovered after moving here, the Dutch. I didn’t imagine having any ethnic or religious connection to the island’s history, but having discovered it, I thought I should look more deeply into it. What I found was disheartening and tragic, but it was not something I was willing to ignore.
As Rev. Dr. Dale A. Bisnauth writes in Power to Resist, “there was something tragic (or absurd) about the ethics of the Dutch of the Reformed tradition” (p. 10). The Dutch were responsible for the “basis of the plantation society in much of the Caribbean” (p. 10), and they weren’t kind about it either. William Boyer, in America’s Virgin Islands, suggests that of the various systems of slavery on St. Croix, the Dutch “were the most severe” (p. 23). According to Gerald F. DeJong in The Dutch Reformed Church in the American Colonies, like their Caribbean contemporaries, people of Dutch descent “were among the most active users of slave labor” (p. 161) and “developed the most severe Black Codes of any of the northern colonies” (p. 168).
As I learned about the Canons of Dordt in seminary, it never sat well with me that the Reformed church leaders would excommunicate their opponents, confiscate property, and even behead someone over their theological differences. I see now how this same spirit of cruelty and entitlement was shipped overseas in partnership with the Dutch West India Company. There are always exceptions, but my people have borne too much fruit that doesn’t match their faith. I’m reminded of what Timothy Gorringe writes in God’s Just Vengeance: wherever John Calvin’s teachings spread, punishing sentences would follow (p. 140). And yet, here I am, a descendent of the Dutch and a pastor in the Reformed Church in America serving a congregation on an island where those punishing sentences were meted out. What do I do with that?
The above indictment is not just finger-pointing, it’s not White/Dutch guilt, nor is it virtue signaling to show how “woke” I am. For me, it grows out of a conversation that happens regularly here on St. Croix. It’s a conversation about ancestors. The Dutch Reformed people are my people. Who they were is part of who I am. With the help of friends and neighbors with Afro-Caribbean roots, I’m starting to explore what it means that my ancestors live on in me. I’m trying to use this time to embrace the gifts that they offer me. But I don’t want to ignore what it might mean to repair the harm that they have done. And, recently, I was asked to consider what it might mean to offer my ancestors healing through the work that we are doing as a Reformed congregation. So, I’m trying to sink myself into my Dutch roots while also trying to bear better fruit.
St. Croix Reformed Church sits on top of a hill overlooking a vast valley in the middle of the island. It is a peaceful setting above the noise where the breeze is always blowing and the sunsets are always amazing. It is a gift to worship and gather on this hill. Yet, it is located on Ciboney land, Carib land, and Arawak land; stolen land on which they no longer walk. The land’s elevation suggest that it may have been part of a slave-owning estate that looked down on people toiling in the sun for someone else’s profits. So, while we enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds us, we will not ignore the historical tragedy that came before us. With people of various cultural roots, we have started gathering on a monthly basis to uncover history, make connections, work toward healing, and take action in hopes of repairing historical harms and building a better future (comingtothetable.org).
During this time of pandemic and partisanship and polarization around the globe, it’s tempting to isolate and ignore the pain around us; to seek contentment at the expense of compassion. This is why I’m grateful that St. Croix Reformed Church is part of the World Council of Reformed Churches and the Caribbean and North American Area Council. It reminds me that we are part of the communion of a diverse body of saints and surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who will help us lay aside the sin that clings so closely and run with perseverance that race that is set before us. All of us, with our various cultural roots, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. That, too, is a beautiful thing.
—Rev. Peter TeWinkle, Pastor
St. Croix Reformed Church
St. Croix Reformed Church