I am sure that while writing this column, I have had the occasion to repeat myself, if not verbatim, then, certainly in the point I’m trying to make. In church this past Sunday, the pastor reminded us that truth does not change. It is the one thing that stands the test and challenges of time. So therefore I suppose if I repeat the truth over and over as I know it, hopefully you and everyone else will see a conscious effort on my part to explore and expand my understanding of spiritual truth.
Please accept that this is a part of me trying to relate to my own salvation. In my attempt to gain insight into the truth, I have found prayer to be a constant (for me). It involves time. It occupies space. It has depth and contains substance if you put your realities into it. Fundamentally, prayer is the main ingredient when communicating with God. It is not an idle recitation of obscure biblical passages or pained requests when you are in dire need.
Prayer is truth spoken and truth acknowledged about the existence of the Almighty and your (and my) relationship to Him. Prayer can be a learning tool that gives voice to your spiritual understanding. It puts you on a path to your ultimate destination. If book learning in school, guided you on that journey, from pre-school through perhaps even a Ph.D., then prayer can do the same as we go through life’s journey.
From initial enlightenment to ultimate salvation, prayer is the tool that allows us to learn from this thing called life. It is our ammunition and must be used appropriately if we’re to be victorious. Let’s face it. We have enemies whose sole purpose is to bring about our failure. One of the things I know about prayer, one of its truths, is that prayer can be as powerful or as weak as one’s belief in its value. Faith based prayer can move mountains, while wishful prayer accomplishes nothing. Unlike school, you cannot “get over,” pass the course and graduate with honors, if you do not master the material.
My point is that prayer needs to be studied and understood and used to make our journey successful. At the very least, it gives us the formula to defeat our enemies on a daily basis. Prayer makes it clear to anyone who will listen that, even though we might be confused, our circumstances may seem impossible, our relationships adversarial, we don’t see defeat as inevitable.
As a Christian, you shouldn’t take for granted that you’re just having a bad day or you’re the victim of random circumstances. It’s also possible that you’re the target of deliberate evil. As such, prayer also lets you know the devil is always at work. You understand how busy he is in your life and that to survive out here, you’ve got to get busy too. It starts with putting on the full armor of prayer.
All I’m saying is that the more we understand prayer, the more effective we become in its use. It allows us to tap into an energy source more powerful than we could possibly know. It’s this truth that I’m working on and I pray for your success also.
May God bless and keep you always.
“Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but [rather] give us the determination to make the right things happen.” — Horace Mann, American education reformer
One of the joys of serving as pastor of a historic, national congregation is that it not only requires the pastor to serve and minister to every member of the church, but also to advocate for “the least of these” — those who are poor, live in crime infested neighborhoods, and desire a quality public education.
Being a prophetic pastor in the historic Black church tradition is who I am as a minister. It would be impossible for me to be something else. Bright Hope, you will never know how much I love you and appreciate the way you love, support and empower your pastor. There is no better feeling than to know that your congregation has your back! I am only able to speak prophetically on critical issues affecting our community because you make it possible. I love you dearly for your empowering me as your pastor and leader.
Since January 2012, the School District of Philadelphia has been undergoing radical education reform. Decisions are being made for our children’s future when there is no superintendent — “captain to steer the ship” — or permanent, experienced executive leadership. With a potential budget deficit which could top $400 million, the district is moving forward with a plan to radically decentralize the public schools with no publicly stated and clearly articulated vision, no input from taxpayers, parents, students, teachers and voters, and no explanation of how this radical education reform will benefit all children in the School District of Philadelphia.
I raise these points because the radical education reforms occurring at the district could take us back to an era before Brown vs. the Board of Education. In 1957, the reason Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston led the Supreme Court legal fight of Brown vs. the Board of Education was because of the issue of “neighborhood schools.” Those who were Black were not allowed to go to the high-performing, all-white “neighborhood schools.” African Americans had to attend their own all-Black “neighborhood schools,” which were inferior to those from affluent white neighborhoods. They were inferior because they lacked the proper resources to run them properly. Thus, children were receiving an inadequate education.
Today in Philadelphia, there is a big debate brewing over “neighborhood schools” versus “access to good schools.” Those who advocate for “neighborhood schools” want decentralization, which in turn means an emphasis on neighborhood schools, or schools located where a child lives. On the other hand, those who advocate for “access to good schools” are not concerned if the school is in the child’s neighborhood as long as the school is a “good school” and the child has “access” to it. Currently, this is not the case with lower schools in Philadelphia. Many in our communities are those who are in poor-performing schools, which means their dreams are compromised or unfortunately eternally deferred. While advocates for “neighbor schools” argue that they want to create “good schools” for all children in their neighborhood, the reality is, public education reform only lasts as long as our conscious and concerned elected officials are in office. We do not need “neighborhood schools” — that’s segregation — but rather we need “good schools” in every neighborhood and equal “access” to them — that’s real education reform!
In sum, if the School District of Philadelphia’s current radical education reform of decentralization means that good schools will be only in affluent, homogeneous communities, then we cannot support it. If decentralization means that only the haves will keep having while the have-nots keep suffering, then we cannot support it. If this is the district’s model and definition of decentralization, then this model is flawed. It is nothing more than a return to pre-Brown vs. the Board of Education and a 21st-century model of segregated schools based upon class and race.
Beloved, our children deserve a quality education. It’s time to fight for good schools and equal access to them!
The Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson is senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.
I was watching a video during a Bible study class a while ago about taking the Word into the world. The commentator used a word to describe this act that quite frankly surprised me. I’m familiar with witnessing, testifying and even evangelizing when it comes to spreading the Word. If you’re really committed, I can relate to someone saying, he or she is doing missionary work, even though I cannot profess to have been on any of my church’s missions. But when the commentator used the term rhythm about taking God’s Word into the world, it caught my attention. According to the host of the program, there is a rhythm, a pace, a balance to trying to take the Word into certain places, pitfalls and circumstances that simply living life presents.
What so fascinated me about using the term rhythm is that this is something I thought I really understood, inside out, on my terms, be it music, dance, poetry, song, novels, plays and in some cases television. Have you ever been to a “slow movie?” How about listening to someone you wished would hurry up and get to the point? Reality television has given us all a taste of people who cannot sing and have no business trying to dance. Yep, you got it. No rhythm. But to hear someone talk about spreading the Gospel and use the term “rhythm” was beyond me for a moment, but is some ways not foreign. As I watched and listened, I became and now have become more comfortable, if not capable, of hearing a rhythm in someone’s voice that perhaps needs praise or prayer. Being “in rhythm” I now believe is a perfect description of being prepared to respond with a word, when the Word is what’s needed. Being “in rhythm” suggests reacting in tune with the situation in order to bring balance to confusion and order to chaotic things happening to you or to someone trying to tell you about their mess.
If you can begin to see the rhythm of which I speak, then you know that all things work together for good, for those who love the Lord. You know that joy is not an emotional state of mind. It is a spiritual state of being. When you’re “in rhythm,”’ you can anticipate, improvise, be creative and create opportunities to witness, testify, hear testimony and relate the Word to someone’s worldly situation, no matter how difficult their circumstance appear. You see, the Word makes the world make sense. As is often said, the truth shall set you free. When Peter and John were commanded to be silent in Acts 4:19-22, they could only respond in one way:. “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” You see they were in rhythm. As such, it is almost an impossibility to be “in rhythm” and at the same time out of touch as to what to say to someone in need of a word; a word of praise, encouragement, a word of prayer or forgiveness or assurance or just plain physical contact. Being “in rhythm” will make you shut your mouth and simply hug someone who needs it. You see that rhythm thing makes much sense. It opens your eyes and ears to the world in a way that allows you to live sometimes through your heart alone. Now listen for the beat. It’s always there. It’s God’s orchestra and if you listen carefully, you’re in tune, in touch and in time. For the record, that’s the Holy Spirit on bass. May God bless and keep you always.
Steeped in a rich history of ministry, Beulah Baptist Church celebrated its 107th anniversary Sunday, Nov. 11. The pews were filled with faithful members and residents of the community who joined them during their anniversary service.
In 1905 a small prayer band decided to form a church, which they named Calvary, in the Eastwick section of the city. The congregation eventually outgrew its building, and with a new home, Calvary became Beulah, which means “The land of peace”.
The church has longevity and many of its members have worshiped there for decades.
Donald Foxworth began attending Beulah with his mother and father in 1940 and remains a member of the church in which he has worshiped for 65 years. Both of his parents were active members.
“It was six of us in the family, five boys and one girl, and we all served at Beulah. In our younger days we had served on the young adult choir, and I was a member of the ensemble for over 30 years, and was a trustee,” he said.
It was the people who kept him returning to the church.
“The church was originated in the Eastwick and Elmwood section and later we moved to West Philadelphia at 50th and Spruce, but it’s a more family -oriented church,” said Foxworth.
From its early origins, the church has been family-friendly, and its members have developed a close family bond, which remains to this day. Foxworth has lived through four previous pastors and recalled the days when his father, Costello Foxworth, Sr., served as the first Scoutmaster for the Boy Scout troop hosted by the church at the time.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. We’ve got more young adults involved in the church, and the church has grown from where we came,” said Foxworth who said it was a privilege to have been a member of the church for so long.
Another longtime member of the church, Leota Watson Thompson, 88, joined at age 10 and has been a member ever since.
“A bunch of us little kids joined the church, and I’m 88 now,” she said.
“I have seen so many changes, and almost left my church, but I said, ‘No, I’m going to stay and see what the end brings’,” said Thompson, who recalled the leadership of a former pastor, the Rev. Timothy Ruffin, who instituted new rules and procedures for the church.
“He was good,” said Thompson with a laugh.
Ruffin instituted a new rule that required newcomers to attend a new members’ class and made other changes for congregants to adhere to.
“When he came to Beulah, he straightened it out,” said Thompson. “He had strict rules, and strict rules are good and they didn’t want to abide by them, and I said, ‘Uh, uh. I’m not leaving my church.”
Ruffin also could speak for hours at a time, said Thompson.
“My husband was outdone, he would say, ‘You mean Rev. Ruffin kept y’all at the church all that time?’ And I would say ‘Yes, and he was good!’,” said Thompson who said with a laugh that even Ruffin’s concluding remarks took two or three hours. It was Ruffin who expanded the church at 50th and Spruce streets. Adjacent property was purchased and an annex to the sanctuary created where the members now have services and which can accommodate the growing membership.
Pastor William Henley has served in that role since 1999. He said he was 35 when he first walked into the church.
“I came in right before my conversion. I heard some preaching, not knowing what was going on at that time and the Lord was working on me at the time,” he said. After visiting the church, he gave his life to Christ and has been a member since that time.
“I came to Beulah Baptist Church in 1979 under the late pastor, Rev. Timothy E. Ruffin. I grew up there, I served there, I became an associate pastor and was ordained there,” said Henley.
Henley looked back on the days when he first attended Beulah and said that he first went to the church along with some of his young friends. His sister also attended and was an active member of the choir.
“So when I joined, not too long after that, some members of my family began to join. My mother, three of my sisters, my aunt, a cousin, that’s how some of the family became members also,” said Henley.
“Besides the longevity, they kind of remain and bonded together as family,” he said when asked about the church’s longstanding members. “Even when they transported to this area, they remained a family unit which kind of stayed together, and that brought a kind of stabilization and a commitment to serving God.”
Asked what he thought was the highlight of his days as a member of Beulah, Henley recalled his trip to Nigeria as a missionary during which he took his wife and one of his sons. The second was the burning of the church’s mortgage.
“We had a drive and a push where we were able to burn the mortgage. When the church could come together and do something like that, it just shows the support there,” said Henley.
He described the church as a missionary-intensive one which has a desire to reach out to the community.
“That’s what we would like to be and see ourselves as,” he said. “We want to engage the community and show our compassion in practical ways, showing that it is a church about them and their families.”
The church, says Henley, would like to be a part of the community and to have the community become a part of it.
Asked why members of the community would want to visit Beulah, he said the church’s unashamed worship of God through his son Jesus Christ makes it the ideal place to attend.
“We do not try to get people to think that we are other than what we portray ourselves to be. We are not the best church around, but we seek to live the way the Bible says, and to also be open so that we are not an isolated institution in the community.”
Let me ask you something. Can you explain the phrase “faith walk” to me? I have often referred to my own spiritual transformation that way and I’ve had others describe this thing that I’m on as a road to go down, as I complete this walk. I’ve even used the faith walk phrase when trying to explain a new and different view of the world, as now seen by someone who believes being saved, is more than just another trite saying.
This, whatever it is, is serious, and I have to admit very tangible. I really can feel it. I was just curious about the walk reference. I suppose when you think about it, many in the Bible had truth revealed to them on a walk, on a journey, while going from one place to another at God’s direction. Even during the subconscious traveling in a dream. It’s a simple analogy and if you think about it; what is more meaningful than a walk with someone you respect, admire, love and can learn from?
One of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had was to walk with my children when they were toddlers. There was something about them exploring and discovering the world around them without fear, because they knew Daddy was right there. Have you ever witnessed this? Have you ever been a part of the experience of walking and talking with someone you were totally in sync with? That must be one of the reasons people refer discovering God as faith walking. The effort to get closer to God requires movement. I believe the walk reference is probably an attempt (an excellent one), to describe the experience of following, or trying to follow, the path laid down by Jesus Christ. The best example we have is Enoch. “Enoch walked with God: then he was no more, because God took him away.” Genesis 5:24.
The Bible talks about walking humbly, walking in the light, walking with the wise, walking together and yes, walking on water. The point seems to be that life is a journey, and if the truth be told, the journey is infinitely better if God goes along for the ride. We want and at times need to talk to him along the way. Maybe, if we’re truly blessed, he’ll talk back. Searching for him here on Earth is fundamentally a spiritual experience.
To walk with the Lord can only be described as “stepping out on faith.” Once steps are taken, your life changes. You change. You have to. I know I did. So I guess I’ve kind of cleared up my own dilemma. This faith walk is merely an acknowledgement that you are letting God order your steps, lead you through, guide you in this world. When you do this, God will direct you straight to him. “When Jesus spoke again to the people, He said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12. So this walk thing suggests by doing so, you can directly connect with God. You can do what Enoch did. You can hope and pray like Enoch that God will take you to him also. Isn’t that the point?
So when you get up tomorrow, think about this and let God order your steps for one day. Make a concerted effort to listen and hopefully hear what he is telling you on that day. The word is faith comes by hearing. What better way to hear than by taking a deliberate stroll with the Lord? Try it. You might find God showing up in the strangest places and in the strangest faces. But you’ve got to look. I guarantee, if you go deliberately looking for God, you won’t be alone for long. You see he has this marvelous way of showing up right on time when he knows somebody is indeed seeking him out. Remember, however, the first step will always up to you.
May God bless and keep you always.
I was watching a video during a Bible study class a while ago about taking the Word into the world. The commentator used a word to describe this act that quite frankly surprised me. I’m familiar with witnessing, testifying and even evangelizing when it comes to spreading the Word. If you’re really committed, I can relate to someone saying he or she is doing missionary work, even though I cannot profess to have been on any of my church’s missions. But when the commentator used the term “rhythm” about taking God’s Word into the world, it caught my attention. According to the host of the program, there is a rhythm, a pace, a balance to trying to take the Word into certain places, pitfalls and circumstances that, simply living life, presents.
What so fascinated me about using the term “rhythm” is that this is something I thought I really understood, inside out, on my terms, be it music, dance, poetry, song, novels, plays and in some cases television. Have you ever been to a “slow movie”? How about listening to someone you wished would hurry up and get to the point? Reality television has given us all a taste of people who cannot sing and have no business trying to dance. Yep, you got it. No rhythm. But to hear someone talk about spreading the Gospel and use the term “rhythm” was beyond me for a moment, but in some ways not foreign. As I watched and listened, I became and now have become more comfortable, if not capable, of hearing a rhythm in someone’s voice that perhaps needs praise or prayer. Being “in rhythm,” I now believe, is a perfect description of being prepared to respond with a word, when the Word is what’s needed. Being “in rhythm” suggests reacting in tune with the situation in order to bring balance to confusion and order to chaotic things happening to you or to someone trying to tell you about their mess.
If you can begin to see the rhythm of which I speak, then you know that all things work together for good, for those who love the Lord. You know that joy is not an emotional state of mind. It is a spiritual state of being. When you’re “in rhythm,” you can anticipate, improvise, be creative and create opportunities to witness, testify, hear testimony and relate the Word to someone’s worldly situation, no matter how difficult their circumstance appears. You see, the Word makes the world make sense. As is often said, the truth shall set you free. When Peter and John were commanded to be silent in Acts 4:19–22, they could only respond in one way. “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” You see, they were in rhythm. As such, it is almost an impossible to be in rhythm and at the same time out of touch as to what to say to someone in need of a word; a word of praise, encouragement, a word of prayer or forgiveness or assurance, or just plain physical contact. Being in rhythm will make you shut your mouth and simply hug someone who needs it. You see that rhythm thing makes much sense. It opens your eyes and ears to the world in a way that allows you to live sometimes through your heart alone. Now listen for the beat. It’s always there. It’s God’s orchestra, and if you listen carefully, you’re in tune, in touch and in time. For the record, that’s the Holy Spirit on bass. May God bless and keep you always.
I cannot begin to share with you how wonderful God has been to me. He has richly blessed me. As I reflect over my life, I am truly amazed how far God has brought me. It is out of that spirit of gratitude that I have been inspired to author a book I am entitling, “It’s Not Where You Start, But Where You Finish.” This book is really not about me, but more importantly, about how God has granted me his favor. With the help of my chief of staff, I plan to take the next year and a half to recount my journey from early childhood to the present time, displaying the magnificent power of God.
I am deeply indebted to Robert Bogle, CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune, for allowing me to write this monthly column. In several of my columns I expressed some of the pain in my life as the result of coming from a broken family. I have come to realize more than ever the importance of one putting his faith in God, no matter the family circumstance. It is out of some of those experiences that I have a deeper appreciation for the word of God. Romans 8:28 reads, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” I must admit I have heard this Scripture many times; in fact, I have even preached it. It became clear to me as I trace and track God over my days as a youth that I am not alone, for there are some things that happen in our lives that are far from good. It is amazing how God can take some of those bad things and turn them into blessings. I plan to share in this book the pain of seeing my father beat my mother; he abandoned us, thus leaving my mother, with the help of my grandmother, to raise me and my two sisters.
Now, I look back and see how God has placed persons in my life, like the late John F. White Sr., who became a strong role model in my early teens; and the Rev. Dr. Albert F. Campbell, pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, who believed in me when I did not believe in myself, to license and ordain me at Mt. Carmel under his leadership. I went back to school to finish my education and attended college. It is my fervent prayer that this book will inspire others to understand that “It’s not where you start, but where you finish.”
I am in a wonderful season in my life, with blessings still unfolding, and I owe it all to God. I do not plan to leave out any of the pain and shame of my early years, nor do I plan to leave out any of God’s blessings. I have come to realize, as the songwriter said, “My good days outweigh my bad days, and I will not complain.” I know full well that the same God who has blessed me is able to bless others. There are so many African-American youths who have given up on themselves. They feel life has no value, even at an early age. Perhaps that is why we see so much violence in our communities. Many of them have no hope, dreams or aspirations. One of the greatest tragedies in life is to wake up every day and not have anything to look forward to. This book will show how God can take you out of the valley of despair to the mountain of hope, and turn grief into joy.
Every page of the book will have words that will flow from my heart to your heart. It is God, and he alone, who deserves the glory for all he’s done and for all he will do. Blessings are still unfolding, and I look forward to new blessings each day, for I know that morning by morning new mercies I see. Don’t dwell on your past, look to your future. It may be repetitious, but it is true, “It’s Not Where You Start, But Where You Finish.”
Rev. Charles Quann is the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church.
A Spiritual Bootcamp will be held at Muhammad Mosque No. 12, 2508 N. Broad St. beginning at 6 p.m. on June 29 and concluding at 2 p.m. on July 1.
Student minister Robert Muhammad of Houston’s Muhammad Mosque No. 45, student minister Anthony and Brother Demetric Muhammad from Muhammad Mosque No. 55 of Memphis, Tenn., and scholar Dr. Wesley Muhammad (True Islam) will all be featured.
The conference dates and times are as follows:
June 29: 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
June 30: 11:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.
July 1: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
One of the necessary requirements of being a Christian is the reality that in order to go forward, you have to take your past with you. I admit this is not an easy thing to do, but along with this truth is another one. Your past is past.
Coming to Christ and joining a family of believers requires confession, admission, acceptance and even recognition of the sinner in you. I mean, we kind of have to acknowledge our sins to truly understand the why of Jesus’ cross thing, you know, and God’s love thing for us. “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16. We’ve all heard it before. I’m just saying it comes with understanding the why, and the why is, we’re all sinners and will forever fall short. I’m just reminding you and me, that once the process of salvation takes root, one begins to understand that whatever you’ve been through, whatever you’ve done or had done to you is an integral part of God’s plan to bring the most out of you.
A real man or woman of faith has been through some stuff they ain’t particularly proud of. They will share their faith from the point of view of experience, wisdom, mistakes. They will offer testimony based on God’s tangible effect on their lives. Regardless of the hell they raised or the heaven they ran from, God is indeed good. I speak from experience and not rhetoric. My testimony is, I had a first-class ticket to hell and the devil had a welcoming committee there waiting, band and all. The devil wasn’t worried about my eventual arrival, because I wasn’t paying any attention to where I was headed. Then, as most of us who finally get it, I came to understand… “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and (to) cleanse us from all righteousness.” At first I wouldn’t accept this. I didn’t know how. I couldn’t believe anybody, let alone God, would see my flaws and faults and still love me unconditionally anyway. Wrong on my part. It’s because of those same flaws and faults and my acceptance of them that I can ask God for forgiveness and categorically know, he did before I asked. Now it’s my job not to try and bury my past, because if I do that, then I have no testimony, and without it, I can’t help anybody who just might be going through the same crap I did. There is hope and from one sinner to another, the truth is really simple. Trust me. No, better yet, trust God. Trust that he loves you and listen for his direction. Seek his roadmap out of what you’re going through.
The more I understand this, the more I realize that it’s because of where God brought me from, I’m able to see just a little bit of where he’s taking me. His belief in knowing who I can be far exceeds my own belief in who I can become. That alone suggests I’d be a fool not to confess my sins every day. There’s a certain amount of freedom in being true to yourself. There ought to be great joy in understanding your past is a prelude to a glorious future. It all begins with recognizing the “You” in God’s rear-view mirror. That You then points a spiritual direction straight toward God. It sounds simple enough. But as a Christian, please understand, you can’t get where you want to go until you swallow where you’ve been. … “Though your sins be scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good of the land.” Isaiah 1:18–19.
May God bless and keep you always.
BULL BAY, Jamaica — The robed Rastafarian priest looked out over the turquoise sea off Jamaica's southeast coast and fervently described his belief that deliverance is at hand.
Around him at the sprawling Bobo Ashanti commune on an isolated hilltop, a few women and about 200 dreadlocked men with flowing robes and tightly wrapped turbans prayed, fasted and fashioned handmade brooms — smoking marijuana only as a ceremonial ritual.
"Rasta church is rising," declared Priest Morant, who wore a vestment stitched with the words "The Black Christ." ''There's nothing that can turn it back."
The Rastafarian faith is indeed rising in Jamaica, where new census figures show a roughly 20 percent increase in the number of adherents over a decade, to more than 29,000. While still a tiny sliver of the mostly Christian country's 2.7 million people, Jalani Niaah, an expert in the Rastafari movement, says the number is more like 8 to 10 percent of the population, since many Rastas disdain nearly all government initiatives and not all would have spoken to census takers.
"Its contemporary appeal is particularly fascinating to young men, especially in the absence of alternative sources for their development," said Niaah, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies.
Founded 80 years ago by descendants of African slaves, the Rasta movement's growing appeal is attributable to its rejection of Western materialism, the scarcity of opportunities for young men in Jamaica and an increasing acceptance of it.
For the Black nationalist Bobo Ashanti commune, the Rastafarian faith is a transforming way of life, where Rastas strive to live a frugal existence uncomplicated by binding relationships to "Babylon" — the unflattering term for the Western world. They share a deep alienation from modern life and Jamaica is perceived as a temporary harbor until prophecy is fulfilled and they journey to the promised land of Africa on big ships.
Life is highly regimented at the isolated retreat, cut off from most of the comforts of modern society. But it has a strong appeal for some, among them 27-year-old Adrian Dunkley, who joined the strict sect two months ago after years of questioning his Christian upbringing and struggling to find work as an upholsterer.
"This place is helping me a whole heap. I'm learning every day, and things are starting to make sense," the new recruit known as Prince Adrian said in the shade of one of dozens of scrap-board buildings painted in the bright Rastafarian colors of red, green and gold.
Other Rastafari adherents follow a more secular lifestyle, marked by a passion for social justice, the natural world, reggae music and the ritualistic use of pot to bring them closer to the divine.
A melding of Old Testament teachings and Pan-Africanism, Rastafarianism emerged in colonial-era Jamaica in the 1930s out of anger over the oppression of Blacks. Its message was spread by the reggae songs created by musical icons Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and others in the 1970s, and the movement has attracted a following among reggae-loving Americans, Europeans and Asians. Academics believe at least 1 million people practice it worldwide.
In the United States, the population of Rastafarians appears to be steadily growing, due in part to jailhouse conversions, said Charles Price, associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of "Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica."
"I regularly get letters from inmates seeking information," Price said. "I also get regular invitations to talk to prisoners at local North Carolina juvenile facilities, often from chaplains trying to figure out what to do."
Besides the well-known ritual use of marijuana, Rastas endeavor to reject materialist values and practice a strict oneness with nature, eating only unprocessed foods and leaving their hair to grow, uncombed, into dreadlocks.
Most of its many sects worship the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, even though he was widely considered a despot in his native land and paid little heed to his adulation by faraway Caribbean people whose ancestry tended to be West African and not Ethiopian.
The worship of Selassie is rooted in Jamaican Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey's 1920s prediction that a "Black king shall be crowned" in Africa, ushering in a "day of deliverance." When an Ethiopian prince named Ras Tafari, who took the name Haile Selassie I, became emperor in 1930, the descendants of slaves in Jamaica took it as proof that Garvey's prophecy was being fulfilled. When Selassie came to Jamaica in 1966, he was mobbed by cheering crowds, and many Rastafarians insisted miracles and other mystical happenings occurred during his visit.
Adherents were long treated as second-class citizens in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, looked down on for their dreadlocks and use of marijuana. But discrimination never stopped businessmen from cashing in on the faith, whose red, green and gold clothing and accessories earn millions in sales of T-shirts, crocheted caps and other items. Marley's music and the faith's pot-laced mysticism has also been used to promote Jamaica as a tourist destination.
Rastafarian and veteran reggae luminary Tony Rebel said discrimination against Rastas has faded considerably in recent years in Jamaica.
"That discriminatory vibe has relaxed. But even so, we still we don't see a person with locks working in a bank these days, we don't see a person with locks in the police force as we would see in America or other places," Rebel said.
The first dreadlocked politician in Jamaica's Parliament was elected only last year.
Many Rastas advocate reparations for slavery and a return to Africa. The latter is a particularly fervent desire among those at Bobo Ashanti, who differ from other Rasta sects in the belief that their founder, King Emmanuel Charles Edwards, was the Black incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Some Jamaicans dismiss the faith as bizarre.
"There is a whole part of the society that would still consider Rastafari to be delusional, and this is largely hinged on the claims made about Emperor Haile Selassie and also the consumption of (marijuana) and the idea of repatriation," Niaah said.
But for adherents like Prince Xavier, a 27-year-old Frenchman who moved to the Bobo Ashanti commune a couple of years after being introduced to Rastafarians in his native Paris, it's providing answers and a positive self-identity.
"I'm learning a lot about Rastafari and about our heritage," said the bearded Frenchman, clad in a red turban and Black robe. "It is a matter of life and death." – (AP)