To The Ends Of The Earth

This year, for the first time in the known history of the Church of God, the Feast of Tabernacles was held in the nation of Suriname [1].  As the work of preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in Suriname is not widely known, I have received a lot of requests to talk about the Feast of Tabernacles there.  Rather than give a travelogue, though, I think it would be best to frame the proclamation of the work in Suriname with a look at the Bible and what it says about evangelism.  Let us begin with Acts 1:8.  Immediately before returning to heaven, and shortly before the disciples received the Holy Spirit, Jesus told the eleven the following in Acts 1:8:  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  There is no doubt that Suriname is a place that can easily be described as the end of the earth.  Another verse that will help us to understand the situation of the Church of God in Suriname is Titus 1:5.  Crete was a peripheral area in the early Church of God, and Paul gave Titus in Titus 1:5 a command that is relevant to the contemporary situation of the church in Suriname:  “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.”

With this biblical context, we can better understand the situation of the Church in Suriname.  Before getting into more detail about the congregation there that I met during the Feast of Tabernacles, I would like to discuss some of the history and context of the nation of Suriname itself, as it is likely not to be very familiar to many people.  The nation of Suriname gained its independence in 1975, before which it had been a colony of the Netherlands since the 17th century.  Suriname sits on the northern side of South America and is a nation about the size of the state of Washington with about 500,000 people, most of whom live in and around the capital city of Paramaribo.  Although Suriname has always been rich in natural resources, such as the bauxite that helped build American airplanes during World War II, oil, and the gold that draws contemporary investment from mining companies in the United States and China, little of this wealth has filtered to the people of Suriname, who have suffered declining incomes over the past few years and whose average income is about two thirds of the world average, at about the level of South Africa’s and China’s average incomes.  In addition to stagnant incomes and a mediocre standard of living, the nation has a particularly serious diaspora problem, with almost as many Surinamese living abroad, especially in the Netherlands, as live in the actual country itself.  Additionally, the nation is viewed as a problematic area with regards to logistical services in drug and human trafficking, with involvement in these problems reputed to be at the highest levels of Suriname’s government.

The paradoxes and problems of Suriname’s development and its moral implications go back a long way, and they come into their sharpest relief when we look at one of Suriname’s most intriguing set of historical ruins, that of the Jodensavannah, or Jewish Savannah, an area of former sugar plantations owned by Jewish slave owners from the seventeenth century to the abolition of slavery in the Dutch Atlantic world in 1863, during which time the merchants and slave owners of Suriname were connected with New Netherlands–later New York–and Amsterdam.  Strikingly, we have no evidence of the Church of God being present in Suriname during the Dutch colonial period, although frequently where Jews were free to keep the Sabbath without harassment it is common to find the Church of God throughout history as well.  Lamentably, though, the Jewish property owners of Suriname used their religious freedom to copy their nominally Christian neighbors in viewing people as mere chattel property in the pursuit of mammon.

All of this history has had an influence on the Church of God in Suriname, to which we now turn.  The Church of God in Suriname is small, numbering a bit less than a dozen baptized members who meet in a rented hall near the historic center of Paramaribo.  During the days of the Worldwide Church of God, there were about a dozen members who were under the jurisdiction of the Church of God in neighboring Guyana, formerly British Guiana.  At present there is one assistant pastor who lives in Orlando, Florida who oversees the work in Suriname, visiting two or three times a year, as part of both the Caribbean and Dutch work and sending weekly sermons for the congregation to watch in video on the laptop during services.  Although some of the members of UCG in Suriname speak English, all of them are more comfortable in Dutch.  There are only two baptized men in the entire congregation in the country, one young adult who recently turned eighteen, a few women, and more energetic and curious children.  Unfortunately, one of the matriarchs of the congregation, an elderly woman who had been in the church for decades, died during the Feast of Tabernacles a few days after having a stroke.  Neither of the men in the congregation has been in the church for more than a few years or gives even sermonette messages, and during the Feast they were attempting to learn how to lead songs by mimicking those of us who came from the United States, having never been formally trained to give songs nor having seen many live services themselves.

It must be admitted that the Church of God in Suriname is a very peripheral work for a variety of reasons.  The absence of trained local leadership has made it difficult for the Church of God to protect doctrinal integrity in the congregation there, and until recently they did not receive regular messages and so their instruction was meager.  It is hoped that having the Feast of Tabernacles in Suriname will bring the needs of the Surinamese brethren to a larger audience.  The only place from the United States where one can fly directly into Suriname is from Miami, and so any work from the United States must be directed from Florida, where most of the speakers at the Feast of Tabernacles came.  Otherwise, in order to reach the country one must fly through Amsterdam, Aruba, Curaçao, Georgetown, Guyana, or Port of Spain, Trinidad.  One might think it obvious that the work in Suriname could be directed from the Netherlands, but that particular national church is very small itself at less than 100 members in the entire country and therefore lacks the manpower itself to send very much help abroad on behalf of another Dutch-speaking area, although there is at least one family with Surinamese roots who attends UCG in the Netherlands that has been able to provide help to the region.  Indeed, this particular family brought a suitcase that was full of booklets and magazines in Dutch to help out the work in Suriname and also hymnals, because until the Feast this year the brethren of Suriname sang from the purple 1973 Worldwide Church of God hymnal, having never received any later ones in the intervening decades.  There are few more obvious signs of the area’s peripheral status within the Church of God than that.

What does this mean for us?  Admittedly, the portion of the body of Christ that lives in Suriname is one that is obscure and unknown for most of us.  The isolation of the brethren, the lack of material they have had in their native language for education in the Bible, and their great unfamiliarity with much of the Church of God as a whole is something that we may have a hard time understanding and relating to, unless our experience with the Church of God goes back several decades or unless we have made a habit of going to obscure and out-of-the-way places in our own travels.  Nevertheless, these members are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and there are at least a couple of reasons why we should care a great deal about their spiritual well-being.  For one, the Church of God has a mandate from Jesus Christ Himself to preach the Gospel throughout the entire world to all nations, and the viability of congregations in isolated places like Suriname is evidence that we are doing our job as a church.  In addition to this, the ability of churches to grow in numbers as well as in spiritual maturity depends in large part on faithfulness to biblical doctrine and to the development of local leadership as well as the spiritual knowledge of brethren as a whole.  Even if we have little desire or ability to travel to Suriname or other remote areas around the world where God’s people reside as pilgrims and strangers on this earth, we are joined with them through our common beliefs and practices in obedience to God and through the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit within us all.  When seen in that light, it is worthwhile to have some knowledge of and concern for the well-being of all of our brethren, no matter in what ends of the earth they may be.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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