Religious diversity or religious pluralism — call it what you like. The place to experience it is in the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Every year, a group of students from the Pacific Lutheran University campus venture across the Caribbean Sea to experience a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious country like no other in the world.
PLU has six students studying away in Trinidad and Tobago this semester and our experience of religious pluralism has inspired us to share some of it with you on campus at home. Like no other country we can think of, Trinbagonians — as folks here refer to themselves — not only tolerate each other’s various religious persuasions, they actually celebrate each other’s religious festivals together.
Trinidad and Tobago are the southernmost islands in the Caribbean resting just northeast of South America. This twin island state is home to approximately 1.3 million people and has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the Caribbean.
Due to its colonial past it can boast being a rainbow country, a term coined by South African social rights activist Desmond Tutu on his visit to Trinidad and Tobago. 34.5 percent of the people are of East Indian descent. These Indo-Trinidadians descend from indentured laborers brought to Trinidad from India in the second half of the 19th century to work on sugar plantations.
Another 34.2 percent define themselves as being of African descent, mostly as the result of enslavement by European plantation owners. About 22 percent regard themselves as "mixed." There are also significant communities of Chinese, Middle Eastern, Portuguese, and people of other European descent.
Sophomore Perri Pettit said,“I was really surprised to see such a diverse population in such a small place. I was expecting some differences, but Trinidadians really stretch the meaning of diversity.”
Perri also said she has learned a lot about religion in Trinidad and Tobago. “It is inspirational to see so many people worshipping in so many different ways in such close quarters,” Perri said. “Down a single street you can find a Mosque, a Shouter Baptist church, a Hindu temple and a Catholic church — all within walking distance of one another.”
Yes, is a multi-religious . The largest religious groups are the and , which have 13 different sects. The , , — both Shi’ite and Suni — and s are among the smaller faiths.
Two faiths, the or and the faith — formerly called , a less than complimentary colonial term — are among the . The fastest growing groups are a host of American-style and churches usually lumped together under the term "" by most Trinidadians, although this designation is often inaccurate. has also expanded its presence in the country since the mid-1980s.
Thus far, we PLU students have been exposed to a range of religious activities that range from Patois Mass, Catholic Mass held in Creole way up in the mountains of Paramin, Stations of the Cross, Catholic re-enactment up the hill past the Mount St. Benedict Monastery of Jesus’ journey to be crucified, Siparie Mai, Hindus flock once a year on Holy Thursday to honor a Black Madonna shared by the Catholic Church and Holikaa Night, re-enactment of the Hindu Legend of Phagwa. The highlight for us, of course, has been our participation in the festival of Phagwa, a Hindu festival celebrating the beginning of Spring.
This year, our PLU group visited the Kendra Temple in Enterprise for the annual Phagwa celebration. Sophomore Patricia Shoop said that before coming to Trinidad she had never celebrated any religious event outside her own religion.
But “in Trinidad there is a unique atmosphere where religious diversity isn't just tolerated, it is embraced and appreciated. Phagwa is a perfect example of how people of different religions in Trinidad come together and have a fun time celebrating each other’s festivals,” Shoop said.
Regardless of age, race or religious background, Shoop said everybody at Phagwa is equal. “Celebrating Phagwa was a blast and I can't remember a single moment where I wasn't laughing or smiling. It was such a care free celebration where everybody was simply having a great time.”
Phagwa or Holi is celebrated in the later part of the month of Phalgun and the early part of Chaitra, in the Hindu calendar. This corresponds to the months of March-April. This festival was first celebrated in Trinidad around the year 1845. The Hindus who came from Bihar in India as indentured laborers on the sugarcane fields brought this festival and have celebrated it for over 156 years.
This festival of colors is celebrated with songs, music and dances. A variety of watercolors (Abeer) are mixed and sprayed on all who participate in the celebrations and corresponding colored powder is smeared on their bodies as well.
Today it is celebrated at a national level, in a grand style throughout Trinidad. A special type of folk song called Chowtal is sung during the course of the festival. The music is fast paced and provokes dancing, while the Chowtal songs are high pitched and piercing.
Trinidad and Tobago abounds with opportunities for folks interested in exploring and experiencing different religions and festivities. Sophomore Zachary Wangler said the trip has educated him both because he is in a different country and because he is attending a good university during this semester.
Wangler said learning about the tensions of colonial history and resistance in the Caribbean has brought him “a deeper understanding of what the word ‘diversity’ means and an appreciation of its complexity … this trip offers more experience and growth than can be put into words.”
As a group whose nearly five-month stay in Trinidad and Tobago is nearing its end, we realize more fully now that PLU provides students with study away opportunities that are mind blowing and amazing.
Exploring your options is the first step to achieving a similar experience. We urge all of you to take that risk, that chance, that opportunity to step out of the box for at least one semester. It will change your life forever.
“Studying away opens up the world in a way that must be experienced firsthand. It cannot be truly understood just by reading about it,” Shoop said. “Being immersed in a completely different culture is an incredible learning experience that I encourage everybody to try at least once.”