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Jamaican blazes trail for NY Moravians

Published:Sunday | September 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM
The Reverend Nigel Powell

Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor

The Reverend Nigel Powell heads the United Congregation Moravian Church in gentrified Harlem.

However, his congregation is overwhelmingly Caribbean with a sprinkling of black Americans. The Caribbean influence is unmistakable with an array of steel drums lining an area adjacent to the altar.

Powell is stocky, an affable man who once served at the helm of Holy Cross Moravians of Santa Cruz, St Elizabeth. He was also the minister of the Moravian Church in New Fulneck.

His interests are diverse and extend beyond the parameters of theology and church doctrine. He is assertive and renders his opinion on politics and social issues bedevilling New York, with a touch of nostalgia for his native home.

Expectedly, he was quite versed in Moravian enlightening, yet tortured past. It is a paradox that he explains with passion and candour.

In a recent interview, Powell recounted the history and travails of the church that was once referred to as Unitas Fratrum or United Brotherhood. He detailed the persecution of its members in 15th century Eastern Europe, specifically Bohemia and Moravia and eventual forced migration to the West.

Tradition and customs

"In essence, we adopted the name of our church after that region in Europe," said Powell. Notwithstanding its geographic origins and unique lore, the beloved minister, while maintaining the church's liturgical tradition and customs, such as pipe organ music, has added elements of Caribbean music, and has established a gospel choir in recognition of the Afro-Caribbean contribution to the Church as a whole.

But the Moravians were not always on the receiving end. They too had a charred chapter in their history when others were bruised by their policies.

If only to search Powell's thoughts on a sensitive issue, I read the following: "The Bethlehem-based Northern branch of the Moravian Church apologised for slavery and pledged to stamp out racism in the church. Leaders of the church's Northern Province said the apology, which called slavery 'the low point of the Moravians in North America,' offers to minister more effectively to black communities."

This apology was on the heels of the Church's Southern Province that voiced regret for the past that saw many blacks forced out of churches in the late 18th century. Many Moravians also owned slaves.

The willingness to confront the past had a rippling effect with many questioning whether the apology was even appropriate. While some decried the gesture as disingenuous, others called it a genuine gesture as the evangelic thrust moves into urban areas.

Despite the explosiveness of the subject, Powell preferred not to comment in any detail. "We must recognise the contextual framework of that time, but I am not authorised to speak on provincial matters " was his response, as he followed the church's binding protocol.

Decentralised framework

His reticence was due to the church's decentralised framework. Each church possesses its handbook comprising a constitution and bylaws, although it is guided by the principles in the Book of Order to which every church adheres.

"There is a degree of democracy that does not exist in other movements. Decisions are made by consensus. More important, there is a realisation of headship of Christ over the church. We are not formed around a single personage," said Powell.

It was one area that he laboured to explain. His strong sentiments simmered. He expressed his dismay, disappointment, and chagrin unnerved by church members who psychologically surrender to a minister. "This is a colonial legacy where you are told what to do. The result has been disastrous as so many cases of ministers who have fallen from grace have proven."

Powell's vision

Powell's vision is to revolutionise the United Congregation of Moravians. In a time when the nation's youth have fallen to drugs and gang violence, he has started highly structured programmes on weekends that involve more than 90 youth members in dance, choir and music classes, leading to a series of concerts in the neighbourhood.

"We intensely invest in our youth. We also have a scholarship programme to advance educational achievements."

Powell also highlighted the church's food drive initiative, an innovative approach to embrace those yearning for existential relevance. "It's more than delivering meals to the needy. We create a family, a Caribbean-like atmosphere and this gives a sense of meaning to everyone involved."

Of the challenges facing the Christian Church, Powell was unambiguous. "We need to inspire confidence in the gospel in a growing world of sceptics. He paused, then added: "It's mandatory that we hold the scriptures as our source of authority".

Dr Glenville Ashby is president of Global Interfaith Council Corp.Feedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby.