An image of Reverend A.F. Nightengale Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church of Panama.

An image of Reverend A.F. Nightengale
Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of

It was on one of those nights that I sat beside my grandmother when we attended what for me was my first experience with any type of spiritual education or lecturing at one of the evangelical churches that my grandmother loved to visit. I say “visit” since she was ever wary of “organized” churches and preferred to visit all the many and sundry expressions of the Christian religion and the other unconventional ones like the “bush” churches which I will get into later.

I couldn’t help but feel literally worked over at the time, however. While there that night I was thinking of why I was there suddenly refusing to even listen to what my maternal grandfather would have referred to as a “cussed White man,” since the speaker was a white evangelist preacher. All the while I was reminding myself that my sister Aminta, who was also present, was the only other person to look to for consolation. “Some Christian this is,” I thought while observing my grandmother, “The same person who would stand by without saying a word while I’m brutalized by my father and equally mistreated by our youngest aunt.

At the time we were considered the “enemy” and even cursed at as “the snakes in the grass,” by the household full of women. By then it must have been more than two years of this kind of treatment with no let up since our mother had abandoned us to an abusive father and his relatives who seemed to be equally abusive and hateful. “The enemy,” I thought, as I looked at the images of some foreign looking devil hanging on the walls of the church, “was not the ‘cussed white man,’ but my own family.” It was then I started noticing a change in my little sister Aminta, the other witness to the physical mistreatment I was receiving. She herself, in fact was also being emotionally and physically mistreated by our abusive younger aunt on a daily basis.

My sister, it seemed to me, was the more astute of the two of us as she sat quiet and contemplative at my grandmother’s side. She seemed detached, in fact, as she saw way ahead how our lives would someday be eternally separated. The painful fact was that we were both feeling emotionally lost as children involved in the recent divorce of our parents with no words of comfort coming from any of the adults we knew leaving us only with each other for comfort and help in the rush to maturity and freedom.

Our isolation was so pronounced that even our neighbors catalogued us as “house birds” since we spent most of our days confined to our two-room “cell” in Magnolia building, and as prisoners we would gradually and inevitably become detached from each other, afraid to even discuss the so cherished freedom we both yearned for.

However, that very night in 1945 I was certain that I was no “enemy,” and I remained hopeful particularly after learning the stories of my Uncle Eric and my grandfather, Joshua Reid, who were very unique men, to say the least. Even the congregation at the Evangelical Church that night, which was mostly Westindian, was not the enemy, remembering my maternal grandfather with the original fondness I felt for him although he had not even come to Panama City to see me since the terrible breakup of my parents.

It was about this time that I also began looking forward to weekends with my paternal Aunt Bernice, the perpetual live-in “Zone” maid, whose presence in our home on Saturdays and Sundays became something for me to look forward to. I knew that for her just getting to and from work to home on these weekend get-a-ways was something of an accomplishment since her entire life was wrapped up in serving her employers and their families on the Zone. For her to even attend church was her way of getting some rest from all the work she did as an all around maid, cook and servant.

Attending church had transformed her into my “loving” Aunt Bernice who, although she hardly ever spoke to me about religious or any other matters, took the time on Sundays to keep me with her to attend Sunday service. So, off we would go to church and I distinctly felt that I was going along just to keep her company, as we joined the attendees at church service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church near the National Institute.

St. Paul Services were presided over by the Rev. A.F. Nightengale the priest (and Bishop) who performed Mass since to me the entire ceremony, the rituals and everything they did in St. Paul resembled the Spanish Catholic Church’s rites. It became, in fact, one of my few sources of enjoyment witnessing the Reverend Nightengale at work during the Sunday Service. The all Black congregation and me (still clinging to my Spanish-ness), as one in the audience, observed and listened with interest.

Not long afterwards I also started showing an interest in the little Spanish Roman Catholic Church on San Miguel Hill. It was located behind Magnolia Building and had turned into a landmark in the area of the city where we resided.

At any rate, it was a time of daydreaming for me and a time that caught me analyzing with my inquisitive nature the nature of my people. It was such inquisitiveness, eventually, that prompted me to begin to seriously consider the idea of wanting to be an educated person, and to take religion seriously, as seriously even as the Reverend Nightengale, or any politician I had ever heard of during those times.

At this time I became very reserved with the people immediately around me and would refuse to have any serious conversations with my family or contemporaries about anything I thought to be of worth. I would then escape from home to stand guard outside of what my paternal side of the family called the “Beji-nite” churches.

I sort of became “the spook who sat by the door,” in my spy-like demeanour as I tried to figure out this unusual sect. It seemed to me that these churches were the only really traditional Westindian expressions of church that I recognized and they fascinated me. I even had thoughts of joining them at one point until I noticed that the congregation was almost entirely comprised of Westindian women.

This story continues.

4 responses to “Church

  1. Anita Cumberbatch

    We were staunch Catholics and in those days Catholics never ventured into any other church.
    My best friend was Anglican/Methodist and I always wanted to see what the inside of her church which was very closed to ours in proximity looked like.

    One Sunday I sneaked in and saw the Methodist Reverend or pastor preaching the same thing as the Catholic priest but standing on a very high pulpit.
    I nearly passed out with fear thinking that I was doing something wrong by being in another church.
    Our priests were all white Americans and they used to make the rounds visiting families on Fridays.
    I believe many of the families in Rainbow City were very close to their churches. The Catolic Church used to have yearly dinners and events such as “ferias”.
    My eldest sister was practically our family liason to the church. She attended all church events in name of the family.The entire community would attend the Catholic ferias.

    When I was older in my teens, my beloved maternal grandmother would take me to her Baptist church ; and to tell you the truth, I used to think she was stealing me away from the Catholic Church.

    My grandmother taking me to her Baptist church made me appreciative of different Christian churches.Although I have noticed that I became very fond of the rituals and the lovely aroma(the rich smell of myrrh and frankincense on the altar) of the Catholic Church.

    What is the Beiji-nite church? Iam not familiar with that term.
    I am very much enjoying your story.

    Un cordial saludo,
    Anita Cumberbatch

  2. Anita,

    It is so good to hear from you again. I can thank my grandmother, Fanny, as I have started to relate, for having introduced me to the different expressions of “church” within our communities in Panama. At least when I decided upon making my own religion the Catholic Church, I had felt it was a free will choice since I had sampled the Episcopal, the Anglican etc.

    The Beji-Nite church was a special experience to me in my life. It is one of those churches that arose from our folks or more akin to traditional folk religion but with some organized church attributes to it like Bishops, etc. I will get into it more later on as they were a phenomenon onto themselves in the Republic of Panama, deserving of some kind of recognition. I do believe they filled a very great need, especially a psychological need for a very accosted group of people as we were at the time.



  3. Ocho-Gritos

    In truth, “the phenomenon unto itself” when it comes to church and West Indians in Panama (I cannot speak for this experience in Costa Rica, Nicaragua or Honduras but I am assuming it is the same where the Afro-protestant anglo population is living among mostly Hispanic Catholics)there were several denominations unto to themselves. The only other place I have seen such a huge open variety of Christian worshippers is in Harlem; again a Afro-anglo culture.

    I remember during my escapades to Maranon I would see the women in dressed in ALL WHITE from head to toe. The juxtaposition against their black skin along with their severe expressions still haunts my mind. It seemed to me, back then, every store front along Caledonia and Maranon on Saturdays or Sundays was raising the roof for God and Christ in their own way.

    My father’s tailor had a photo of Father Divine over hanging the tiny shop on Central. I asked him about Father Divine and he gave me such a lengthy explanation which made me realize how unique our culture, may be due to disconnection from our Caribbean homelands, when it came to spiritual matters. I have not encountered a similar exploration of worship in the USA; and I have been everywhere.

    Of course, I have to mention the church I compare all churhes to when it comes to grandeur. Not even the famous church in Harlem has affected me in this way. That church is the Baptist church at the enterance to Colon. My parents allowed me, when older, to venture to many churches, but we were all original members of this church. The voice of the congregation and the choir singing praises still echoes beautifully in my mind. The pastor’s deep black skin made me envious of its purity as he counseled my family on some matters. I am sure if I saw it today it would look tiny, and many of my other memories have probably been enhanced by time…

  4. Ocho-Gritos,

    All I can say is “AMEN!”