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The rich 200-year association between Jamaican and British Baptists will be marked by a series of events this year.
The links began when Jamaica invited British missionaries, such as John Rowe, to support the growth they were experiencing under George Liele, a freed slave from the United States who planted the first Baptist churches in the island country.

They continued in the ensuing 200 years, forged through years of slavery, colonization and the arrival of the Empire Windrush, a British ship that brought hundreds of Jamaicans to the U.K. in 1948.

In more recent years, the ties deepened further still with the slavery apology in 2007, delivered personally by a Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB) delegation the following year, and the Sam Sharpe Project, which explores the legacy of Sharpe, the Baptist deacon and slave who was instrumental in bringing about the abolition of slavery when he instigated a rebellion in Jamaica in 1831.

Celebrations and theological reflections are being coordinated by the Jamaica Baptist Union (JBU), BUGB and BMS World Mission and will be launched at the Baptist Assembly in May.

The first event takes place on May 19 at Spurgeon’s College, exploring the relevance of black theology to contemporary Britain with leading theologian and new tutor at Bristol Baptist College, Anthony Reddie. Further events will take place next autumn.

Karl Johnson, JBU general secretary, said the friendship had stood the test of time and represents “a powerful testimonial of mutuality, collaboration, respect and continuity.”

“There are many images and words that spring to mind as we reflect on the over 200-year-old friendship between Jamaican and British Baptists. Widely accepted as dating back to Feb. 23, 1814, when the Rev. John Rowe, from South Penderton, and his wife were met in Montego Bay by the Honorable Samuel Vaughan, a magistrate of the town, our friendship has withstood the test of time and represents a powerful testimonial of mutuality, collaboration, respect and continuity,” Johnson said.

“Like any longstanding partnership there were, and will be, moments of disagreement, misunderstanding and even tension, but true friendships are usually robust enough to withstand those threats and today we have much more to celebrate than commiserate about how God has led us over these two centuries,” he said.

“Indeed the BUGB/BMS are interwoven in much of our story as a faith community and we are grateful that in recent years this friendship has enjoyed a kind of ‘revival,’ primarily linked to the journey you have been on arising out of the Apology.”

“We thank God for the opportunity to accompany you on that journey in search of wholeness and harmony in racial and multicultural relationships and pledge to be ‘as Christ to you’ in pursuit of that goal. There is no doubt in our mind that God has been and will continue to be with us as friends and partners and we can justly invite others to study and embrace our story as a template worthy of emulation,” Johnson said.

Wale Hudson-Roberts, BUGB’s racial justice coordinator, said the partnership models what healthy multicultural relationships should be like – respecting and embracing difference.

“Even with the backdrop of slavery, we remain in relationship. It speaks volumes. We have been on an intentional and sometimes painful journey to relate with our differences. This model is far deeper than compromise. It is a commitment that seeks to embrace compromise,” he said.

“Two hundred years ago, JBU sought support from British Baptists. Some 200 years later, we observe the enormous contribution that Jamaicans have made to British Baptist life from both beyond the pond and in the U.K.,” Hudson-Roberts said. “Their contribution must be acknowledged, enshrined in our history books – written, spoken, celebrated and reflected upon by past, present and future generations.”

“So, in my opinion, the bicentenary is integral to the health of our movement,” he said.

For full details of the celebrations and events marking the 200-year association between Jamaican and British Baptists, visit 200Years.net.

Paul Hobson is the news editor of The Baptist Times, the online newspaper of The Baptist Union of Great Britain. A version of this news article first appeared on The Baptist Times site and is used with permission. You can follow the Baptist Times on Twitter: @BaptistTimes.

Editor’s note: Noel Erskine, professor of ethics at Emory University spoke about George Liele at the Baptist World Alliance 2013. He wrote about Liele here. Other articles related to Baptists in Jamaica are available here.

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