It was a hot, dry Saturday morning in Kingston, and the polished pews gleamed at the New Testament Church of God on Eastwood Park Road. There was an air of calm. The Saharan dust blurred the sky. The traffic hustled on outside, but it was quiet inside.
The people quietly moving around the edges of the large space, setting up cameras and conferring with each other, were preparing for the official launch of the Diaspora Faith-Based Tree Planting Initiative. The New Testament Temple Church of God in the Bronx, New York, along with its subsidiary, the Good Neighbors Community Outreach Agency, put their hands and hearts together and were integrally involved in the project. At least 200 trees are to be planted at this juncture – starting with, but not limited to Kingston. Churches in every parish are being signed up for tree planting efforts in the near future. You may find the recording of the launch on June 11, 2022, here.
On the Jamaican side there are several partners: the Caribbean Tree Planting Project (CTPP), launched last year, which continues to have major support from young volunteers right across the region; the amazing Trees That Feed Foundation founded by Jamaican Americans Mike and Mary McLaughlin, which has provided thousands of fruit trees (primarily the breadfruit tree) not only to feed people in Jamaica, Haiti, and elsewhere, but also to provide income-earning opportunities and encourage sustainable agriculture; the Forestry Department of Jamaica; and the Global Jamaica Diaspora Council, which works with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade to strengthen links between the island and Jamaicans overseas. Their 2022 Conference was held recently in Jamaica. Glory Music provided musical inspiration. All of this is in support of the National Tree Planting Initiative launched by Prime Minister Andrew Holness in October 2019 (it was somewhat stymied by the pandemic, like many other projects, so it is good for it be ramped up at this time). The Minister without Portfolio Senator Matthew Samuda, who has responsibility for the environment and climate change, is also on board.
A few years back, I wrote about the role of religion in promoting stewardship of the Earth. This was after attending a meeting on World Religion Day at the Bahá’í Centre in Kingston. It struck me that caring for and nurturing the Earth has to be an integral part of any organised religion – and a part of any human being’s essential spirituality, whatever form that may take.
Reverend Cheryll Cooper Johnson has a calm demeanour, and a bright smile. “Jamaicans almost take trees for granted,” she said. “Now we have cut down so many of them.” She said that her Eastwood Park church is teaching awareness of the need not only to plant trees, but to conserve, nurture and maintain them. This partnership aims to plant “fruit tree forests” from one end of the island to the other.
“The Bible does say that the green plants are for the healing of the nations,” said Pastor Johnson. She sees trees as a revitalising, renewing energy: “What we are doing is almost like a revival.”
Acinette Nelson is managing the project on the New York side, as a long-standing member of the New Testament Temple Church of God in the Bronx and a Manager of the Good Neighbors agency; she’s an organiser. She described her Minister, Reverend Paul Peart, whose brainchild the project is, as “a visionary.” After attending the Diaspora Conference in 2018 and hearing about the Prime Minister’s plans for a tree-planting project, Reverend Peart got going. Breadfruit, ackee, tamarind, soursop are among the fruit trees to be planted – and especially this time, breadfruit, which is a major focus for their partner, Trees That Feed. Ms. Nelson stressed that a key goal is economic empowerment.
Reverend Paul Peart – Senior Pastor at the Bronx church for the past thirty years or so – arrived with his beautiful wife Ingrid, he in cool linen and sandals, she in rust color and African beads. Before my voice gave out altogether (I had horrible flu and had become speechless for a while) I had a chat with them. Reverend Peart is an active diaspora member; just last year, his church “adopted” the Gordon Town Health Centre under the Ministry of Health and Wellness’ “Adopt a Clinic” initiative.
Reverend Peart said he was not the inspiration behind the project; God was. Both are Jamaican-born – Ingrid Peart is from Portmore. Reverend Peart, born in Christiana, Manchester migrated from Jamaica at the age of thirteen to the United States, while Ingrid left Jamaica in her twenties; they met in New York. With this project, Reverend Peart wanted to get involved in something “sustainable and substantial.”
Speaking at the launch, he stressed, rather touchingly, an oft-repeated mantra of Jamaicans living abroad (he has been living away for around forty years): “We have determined in our heart not to forget where we come from.” I noticed his Jamaican accent crept in at that point. He also quoted a phrase from Jamaica’s National Anthem: “Stir response to duty’s call.” He sees his church’s efforts as a duty towards jamaica, and declared that he is not a “man of so-so words,” but of action and doing.
“Trees are a vital part of the survival of human beings,” said Reverend Peart. “Once we plant them, God gets involved, in growing them and ensuring they bear fruit.“ So, fund-raising and partnering with other New York-based diaspora churches and non-profit organisations began. Jamaicans at home perhaps do not realise how strong and vibrant that overseas network is, spanning communities.
Reverend Peart pointed out also that his congregation is diverse; many of these New York churches are made up not only of Jamaicans and other Caribbean immigrants, but also those from other diasporas – African, Hispanic, and so on. The non-profit organisation attached to his church, the Good Neighbors Community Outreach Agency provides some 2,000 families in need every week, through its Food Pantry; besides assistance with clothing, immigration issues, employment, and housing. “Need help? Ask us” is the organisation’s slogan.
Back to the trees. There is a lot of potential in developing a more robust agricultural production from fruit trees – even to serve the diaspora market in the United States, where there is great demand for Jamaican produce. Apart from this very practical food security aspect, Reverend Peart wants to create a “tree planting culture” at his church.
A tree planted at the birth of a child, for example. “One of the first things God did was to plant a garden,” said Reverend Peart, “and to create Man to keep that garden.” He wanted Man to “replenish the Earth…” So, Man has a mandate to plant trees, from the beginning until the end of time; it is a “sacred duty.” The Old Testament, in particular, has “an agricultural feel,” with all its references to fruit and harvest. And, it emerged during his speech at the launch, he believes in the duty of the church to provide for people both physically and spiritually.
Sadly, during the past two or three years the Bronx church has hosted more funeral services than normal, due to the COVID pandemic, said Reverend Peart. Something hopeful has come out of the sadness, however: at the services, memorial offerings have been earmarked for the tree-planting project.
The genial Tommy Cowan of Glory Music spoke about vision at the launch. The church’s vision is of tree forests – planting thousands of trees. From a small farming community in St. Elizabeth himself (where “I never realised that we were poor”) and the son of a Methodist preacher, he described the fruits produced on their land. “We had about twelve breadfruit trees…and our navel string was planted under each one,” he commented (yes, it was a large family, and this is an old rural tradition).
Professor Rosalea Hamilton of the Caribbean Tree Planting Project praised the dedication of the Montego Bay-based musician Jamila Falak and her team of young people. Jamila is truly dynamic and extremely smart; she gives us hope of a commitment to the future of not only Jamaica, but also the Caribbean. Church leaders have already been receiving trees and “sowing the seeds for the future,” said Professor Hamilton.
The planting of trees in the dusty back yard of the Church on a hot summer morning was more than symbolic. There was an expression of quiet satisfaction, even celebration on the faces of those who gathered to do so, pouring water from a large plastic bottle around the seedling.
“I know – I know what hunger is,” said Reverend Peart at the launch. “One of the hardest thing to do is to go to sleep on an empty stomach.”