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Salty ritual leaves youth ministry staff wary

Published:Friday | January 11, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Some staff members at the Ministry of Youth and Culture were this week left perplexed at what they deemed 'strange' happenings at the ministry's St Andrew headquarters when salt was used during a religious ritual to 'bless' the office.

According to at least three staff members, shortly after persons reported for work on Tuesday morning, Culture Minister Lisa Hanna and acting Permanent Secretary Sydney Bartley appeared with the Reverend Dr Marjorie Lewis, president of the United Theological College of the West Indies, and called a staff meeting.

"It started like a devotion to bless the office at the start of the new year. Then they took out the salt which was in small plastic cups, said a prayer and told us to keep it on our desk as a reminder that we are the salt of the earth and that it will keep away evil spirits," said a staff member who asked not to be named.

"After that they went around to all the offices and sprinkled the salt while praying."

Another staff member, who was also wary of being identified, said some persons took the cup of salt, while others refused. The employee said they felt very uncomfortable because they found the ritual quite strange.

"Everyone was wondering what was going on. We thought it was very strange and several persons were scared. It was a strange feeling in the office for the rest of the day. Some were even saying it was evil," the staff member said.

"When they left, persons were sweeping salt out of their offices."

Christian tradition

When contacted, Lewis said that in Christian tradition, one of three elements have always been used in blessing - salt, water or oil - so there was nothing strange or untoward about what she did.

She said using Matthew chapter five verse 13, the theme of the devotion was 'You are the Salt of the Earth' and she simply used the substance to symbolise that.

"The idea was that they should keep it on their desk to remind them of what their role is. I pointed out to everyone that it was optional. No one was forced to do anything. I told them if they were uncomfortable, they did not have to participate," said Lewis.

"Salt does two things - as a preservative and to prevent decay as well as to add flavour to something bland. So the main point was that this was a symbol of being a positive influence in your work that you are the salt of the earth."

Surprising and unfortunate

Lewis said she found the misunderstanding both surprising and unfortunate, believing she had clearly explained the reason. However, she said, if persons had concerns they could have spoken to her.

Bartley also expressed surprise that there was a concern among the staff, especially because later that day several persons had expressed that they found the devotion quite refreshing.

"The aim was simply to start the year on a positive note in worship with all the staff coming together before we went into the first staff meeting for the year. We used the theme 'You are the Salt of the Earth' because we are the Ministry of Youth and Culture with responsibility for youth and the culture of the country. We hold a large responsibility to ensure that we are the salt in the pot that will make the ingredients palatable and good for the development and advancement of our country," he noted.

Bartley, who said even now he has his cup of salt on his desk, was appointed to act as permanent secretary on January 1 after the post became vacant following last month's departure of Robert Martin who officially took up duties as director general in the Ministry of Finance last week Wednesday. Bartley was the principal director of the Culture Division.