Project Canterbury

A Bishop amongst Bananas

By the Right Rev. Herbert Bury, D.D.
Lately Bishop of British Honduras and Central America

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., [1911]

Chapter XII. Easter Day at Panama

LAST year but one, after a very trying Visitation--long, perilous, and exhausting--in my own Diocese, as I found myself at Bocas del Toro in the same Republic of Panama, I decided to go and spend a few days, beginning with Maundy Thursday, upon the Isthmus, and get a little rest and spiritual refreshment.

There were two inducements for me to do this. First, mine was the Mother Diocese of that little bit of American episcopal jurisdiction. Formerly the See of British Honduras and Central America extended across the Isthmus and down over a fairly large area to the Magdalena River in Colombia; but when the United States Government bought the strip of ground, ten miles wide and forty-five long, through which the Panama Canal is being made, and it thus became American territory under the Stars and Stripes, the oversight of the work was ceded to the American Episcopal Church and placed under the Presiding bishop of that Church (the Right Rev. D. S. Tuttle). As the Church members were for the most part the West Indians who were at work upon the Canal, and the same class of negroes, mainly from Jamaica, as those at work in my own stations in Central America, I naturally thought I should learn much that would be valuable for my own clergy to know, and in this I was not disappointed.

My other inducement was to have the opportunity of knowing Archdeacon Bryan, who had been appointed Vicar-General of the Zone by the Bishop of Washington under commission from the Presiding bishop, and who had given me a very cordial invitation to be his guest if I should ever come to the Isthmus.

It was in every way a most interesting and instructive visit. I describe in a following chapter my impressions of the work which the Americans are doing in constructing the Canal, so I will confine myself now entirely to the work which their Church is doing.

When the American Church took it over there were three churches on the Isthmus--at Colon, Culebra, and Panama.

Christ Church, Colon, has an interesting story. Between forty and fifty years ago two English ladies visited the place, and had, as every one must have who goes there, a series of most delightful and novel experiences, for there is not a more interesting bit of country in the whole world than that little narrow neck of land joining the two great American continents together. When taking their final leave and thanking the people of Colon for their kindness and attentions to them, they are said to have asked, "What can we do for you in return to show our gratitude?" and to have received at once the startling reply, "You might give us a church!" It is astonishing how soon the mind can accustom itself to an idea which has at first taken it completely and overwhelmingly by surprise, and so with these ladies, who, I have heard, were not in the least able even to think of giving a church themselves.

They thought over the matter, and didn't at all see why they shouldn't try; and so they set to work and collected, and finally sent out the sum of 35,000 dollars (between £7000 and £8000). A very charming stone church was built, and though it has passed through many vicissitudes since then, and been used for a warehouse and other purposes, it is now beautifully fitted up and completed, with a particularly attractive roof of rich wood, springing from carved corbels, and is well found in all respects. It is the best and nicest church we have in Central America,

The other two churches are large timber structures, the one at Panama--St. Paul's--being built in two stories, the upper one being used for the services and the lower as a school.

On my arrival at Colon I was most kindly received by Archdeacon Bryan, one of the most warm-hearted and friendly men I have ever met, and at once, after I had made friends also with the rector of Christ Church, Colon, the Rev. Edward Cooper, was taken across the Isthmus to Ancon, the American suburb of Panama, where I was to stay until the evening of Easter Day. Then began a series of new and interesting experiences in extraordinarily rapid succession, which taught me what the Americans mean by "to hustle." But let me first speak of the Archdeacon and his work.

In my judgment no better man could have been chosen to take charge of work which was to be handed over from the English to the American Church, and in which the colour question was so largely involved.

The American Church, in the whole of the United States, I am told, has only some 15,000 coloured members, and there were over 30,000 negroes on the Canal Zone, chiefly from Jamaica. The Jamaican negro is tremendously loyal, both as a subject of the Empire and a member of the Church, and, for other reasons which one need not enter into here, not inclined to expect much from other nationalities; and therefore it can easily be understood what they all felt when they learnt they had been "handed over," as they expressed it, to the Americans. The greatest tact and patience and sympathy, together with grit and firm adhesion to principle, were required, and from all I have learnt and heard and observed, Archdeacon Bryan possessed them in unusual measure, and at once, as he has done ever since, persistently put them into operation.

The negro can be very trying and obstinate, but he is sure to be won in the end when he recognizes strength, sympathy, and sincerity, and he found them at Panama in the Archdeacon.

He was allowed, for instance, very sensibly to go on using the same hymn book, to continue his prayers for the King and Royal Family, and to keep the service for Holy Communion unchanged. I am sure it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to induce him to give them up. Other sensible little acts of wise tolerance and conciliation the Archdeacon extended to our Jamaicans in the early days of his work and life among them, and there can be no doubt that he has gained them as few others in his Church could have expected to do in such a short time and under peculiarly difficult circumstances.

It would do the heart of our English Churchmen good to hear his unstinted and ungrudging testimony to the remarkable work the Church of England has done both on the Isthmus and in Jamaica, to which island he has the good sense to see that we are mainly indebted for what is encouraging in the religious work at Panama and Colon.

He had a large body of lay readers and candidates for Holy Orders, who met together, once a month, for a Celebration of Holy Communion and religious instruction and discussion, and--which is a matter of tremendous moment to an American--they sat down to breakfast together. When I was there, six clergymen were at work instead of the two who had hardly known how to compass it before, and three new churches had been built in the same number of years. There are many other things which I could speak of, did space permit, in connection with the Archdeacon's administration. It affords me very great satisfaction to give my grateful and appreciative recognition of a good man's work.

I especially rejoice that our Jamaicans found in him such a sympathetic friend, for they really love their Church, and felt keenly a great change being made in their services. The wife of a very important official on the Zone, and herself a Roman Catholic, though married to a Churchman, said to me, "I go to my own church, of course, in the morning and with my husband in the evening, and I certainly think the West Indians are the most religious people on the Zone."

Just before I arrived a whole congregation of Methodists, with their minister, sought admission to the Church, and he became a candidate for Holy Orders, and I was told that a Baptist congregation and their minister in another place were about to do the same. I cannot help thinking that it was the tact, sympathy, and large-heartedness of the Archdeacon which had made them come to such a unanimous decision to secure more corporate unity in that small sphere.

My first services were those of Good Friday, and I shall not soon forget them. I had never in my life seen such solid blocks of men, in a mixed congregation, as those present at the Three Hours in St. Paul's, Panama, nor have I ever heard such an irresistible volume of sound in the singing of hymns. In the evening, at seven, I preached to them myself, and again the church was full to its utmost capacity, a most moving and inspiring service; and as I stood at the door shaking hands with them all, and giving and receiving many a fervent "GOD bless you!"--for was I not the Bishop of the Mother Diocese and expected not to show myself a stranger?--I thought the congregation streaming out would never end.

Let me now describe Easter Day and what is meant by "hustling." Before six I had to be up for the first Celebration at Ancon, which I took myself at seven, and another followed at eight, after which there was only just time to get away and snatch a morsel of food before the Choral Celebration at ten, at which I had to preach and after it hold a Confirmation. This took us on past one p.m., and again one had to snatch a morsel of food on the way down to Panama for two p.m., when I had to dedicate a lectern and other gifts, hold another Confirmation, and preach another sermon. Evensong followed, but I had to leave at "Nunc dimittis" and take the train to Colon, where I arrived just in time for the evening service, at which I preached and held my third Confirmation.

What a service it was! The church was crowded to the doors, and great numbers of people, gathered together about the entrances and under the window spaces--all open, of course--gave the most breathless and devout attention both to the sermon and the specially impressive parts of the Confirmation. It was a most spiritual and uplifting experience for us all.

There was what is called "Advanced ritual," and very elaborate ceremonial; but there was nothing fussy and disturbing or distracting about it. All the numerous servers and choristers were most devout and attentive, the singing was unusually congregational, and "hearty" in character; the great crowded congregation of black and white were all mixed up together, for it was hopeless to expect to keep special places for any one that night; and altogether it was real "Worship," and all was done "decently and in order." It was nine p.m. before I drew breath that day after starting before six a.m., and I feel that I shall know now what an American means if he is prescribing services for me, and adds, "But we, shall have to hustle to get through." Few bishops, I fancy, can say, either, that they have confirmed in the morning on the Pacific Coast, and on the Atlantic in the evening.

I have only mentioned the services in the churches at which I was present myself on that never-to-be-forgotten Easter Day, but the others on the Zone were equally crowded, and (one hesitates to speak of it, but still it was public action on their part) I heard with great thankfulness that all the members of the Canal Commission were present at Divine Service, and I think I am right in saying at the Holy Communion.

There is a perfect army of young Americans at work, in different capacities, in connection with the great work of the Canal, and great care has been shown in promoting a true social life among them, and under good and wholesome conditions. Bad characters are very summarily dealt with, if found upon American territory, for the Governor, Colonel Goethles, is quite a despot in his way and is given the power. Games and sports are promoted indoors and out, but the unique feature of the Canal Zone is the provision by Government of six immense Young Men's Christian Association club houses at convenient centres, with everything that such institutions need to make them thoroughly efficient for their purposes of recreation and instruction. They have a membership, I believe, of about 10,000.

The quarters for the young men are extremely well equipped, and quite worthy of those engaged upon a great national work, but one cannot feel thankful enough for these great Y.M.C.A. institutions, as one thinks of the influence they must exercise upon so many thousands, constantly coming and going, of the very flower of American manhood at one of the most important times in life.

They cost the Government of the United States some £50,000 a year, I believe, and I am told that when President Taft applied for the grant to Congress, and objections were quite naturally urged against making a national grant for what might be called religious work, he at once said that the matter was a vital one and that, without the grant for the purpose for which he was applying, he could not be answerable for the moral condition of the Canal Zone. This was very plain speaking, and the grant was, I am told, at once made.

There is one important matter upon which I must now touch as I conclude, and that is colour.

I believe that GOD, in His Providence, has given at the Isthmus the opportunity for an object-lesson on colour which may be of the greatest value to the whole United States of America, and especially to the Protestant Episcopal Church--our own daughter Church.

Few people in England know how serious is this question of colour. In British Honduras itself and in the British West Indies it does not arise at all. We all worship together, receive Communion together, and meet together socially without restraint, black and white and coloured--that is to say, the mixed race. In Central America, however, far the largest part of my jurisdiction, fourteen times the size of the little colony of British Honduras, and where the Americans are the great employers of labour and have their own countrymen in all their offices and superintending departments, a very different state of things obtains. They will not come into the same church with black or coloured people, nor even dream of accepting the ministrations of coloured clergy, nor allow them as guests in their hotels.

Time and again when a clergyman, unable to put me up himself, has asked an American to do so, he has been at once asked, "Has the Bishop any colour?" and, if he had had to own that I had the least trace of it, I should have been refused hospitality. If I received one of my coloured clergy at the hotel where I happened to be staying, when in Central America, for a business interview, I couldn't ask him to stop for breakfast or any other meal. He would not be allowed to sit down with me, even if we had a table apart. But it is when one finds that the white will not worship with either black or coloured people, and yet are Christians and Churchmen themselves, that one feels rather hopelessly how serious the problem is, especially when one hears able and earnest and really spiritually-minded clergy, as I have done, defend this refusal to worship together.

But I cannot help feeling a bit hopeful, as I think of the Canal Zone, of the traditions which our English Church has laid down there, and which Archdeacon Bryan has so fearlessly followed; and this touching little incident happened in my presence on Easter morning.

As I sat in the Sacrarium at Ancon at the 10 a.m. service, listening to the first lesson and looking down the church, crowded entirely with Americans, I saw through the wire-screened door a Jamaican negro in full dress coming down the hillside. He wore a white drill suit, had on a white straw hat, carried a white umbrella, and had a bright flower in his coat. Altogether he looked very smart and pleased with himself.

Seeing the church, he came up the steps, opened the wire doors, and stepped in. At once, after a look round, instinctively, he stepped out again. The congregation was entirely white, and filled every place--and he was black! But after a moment or two, with that persistence which always distinguishes the negro, he stepped in again, and I looked on, fascinated and much moved, wondering what was going to happen, for I knew that no negro had ever been in that church before or was expected to come.

I dreaded his being turned out, for I knew that my morning's worship would be spoiled if he were. At this juncture an American looked up and saw him, and immediately went out and brought back a chair, and our darkey friend sat down! It was a most tremendous relief to me to have him there, and at the end of my sermon I ventured, though with some little doubt as to my right to do so in a church not my own, to plead for common worship for black and white, without entering into the social question at all, and for a common Eucharist.

Thus to bring the two races together in sympathy on the American Continent was, I told them, a more important, though similar, work to that of bringing the two great oceans together. They listened very attentively, though I felt the atmosphere was somewhat electric, and I had the unutterable relief and happiness of hearing next day that a leading official, and himself a Southerner--the feeling is stronger, of course, in the Southern States--had met the Archdeacon and had said to him, though he had "questioned the right of the Bishop to speak to them on such a subject," that he was wondering "whether he might not after all be right in saying that Americans had much to learn from the West Indians as well as the West Indians from them, and therefore he would advise him to set aside some seats in the church for coloured people."

I have emphasized this, but only those who know what a terrible thing colour can be in hindering CHRIST'S work, will know what it meant to me to hear those words spoken by such a man and in such a place, and how often they have helped me when praying GOD to bless the work of His Church there, and how, as I write them now, they make me place among my happiest recollections my "Easter Day at Panama."

Project Canterbury