Group encounters Breadth of Religious Traditions during Winter Break

Who knew that a diet of stewed chicken three times a day for almost a week could be so satisfying? Yet, the group of about two dozen staff and students from Trinity were barely fazed by the fowl-dominant cuisine, so enthused were they by their weeklong interfaith service and study trip to the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad.

Mazin Khalil ’15, described the trip as academically and socially enriching, explaining that it was exceptional for two reasons: the diverse group of Trinity students, most of whom didn’t know each other before they left, jelled into a cohesive, friendly and collaborative unit, and the traditions and activities they witnessed while on the island were both enjoyable and educational.

The group of 27 – which included College Chaplain Allison Read, Hillel Director Lisa Kassow and Imam Adeel Zeb – left for Port-of-Spain, the country’s capital, on January 3 and arrived home on January 10. Trinidad is one of eight College-run global learning sites, with students spending either a semester or a year on the island and taking their classes at the University of the West Indies.

While there, the visitors stayed at the Pax Guest House, nestled in the hills overlooking the northern mountain range in the town of Tunapuna, and were counseled, advised and treated hospitably by the staff of the Trinidad in Trinity Program: Shamagne and Gregory Bertrand, Florence Blizzard and Sunity Maharal Best.

Milla Riggio, James J. Goodwin Professor of English and a scholar who has focused her research on both Shakespeare and the Trinidad Carnival, visited the island nation in the early 1990s and is credited with beginning the program in 1998. Riggio called the administrative staff  “amazing,” and suggested that the sophisticated country – “with its diversified economy, amazing mix of races, ethnicities [and] cultures” — is a terrific venue for students who are interested in studying engineering, film studies, religion, history, pre-med, psychology, education, music and photography. Riggio has edited or co-edited three books about the Trinidad Carnival, including In Trinidad, a book of photographs by Pablo Delano, professor of fine arts.

Trinidad, which is sometimes referred to as the “rainbow island” because of its wide range of ethnicity, religion and culture, is in the southern Caribbean, about five miles off the coast of Venezuela. It is one of the more prosperous islands with a large middle class and whose economy is buoyed by petroleum. Buildings sit in proximity to temples, mosques and Catholic cathedrals.

The ability of people of many faiths – Roman Catholic, Muslim, Anglican, Jewish, Christian, Hindu and indigenous — to live harmoniously and share each other’s traditions was one of the aspects that fascinated the visitors, who also included three people from Wellesley College.

Read said she had long dreamed about doing a “faith trip abroad,” and was able to pull it off during winter break, thanks to financial help from the College, the Student Government Association and Repair the World, a New York City-based organization that is considered the leading authority on volunteering and service in and by the American Jewish community. Read and Kassow said a contributing factor in choosing Trinidad was the social and academic infrastructure that Riggio and other Trinity faculty had created.

Read, Kassow and Zeb had little trouble recruiting students to join the group. Khalil said his Brooklyn, NY high school has a large West Indian population so the trip fulfilled a long-held goal of his. Omari Roberts ’15, had the opposite experience. A native of Chicago, he was relatively unfamiliar with that part of the world and the trip was an opportunity that he “couldn’t pass by.” Irenae Aigbedion ’13, also from Brooklyn and of Jamaican heritage, said going to Trinidad represented an opportunity “to take a trip in my cultural context.”

Zeb said one of the eye-opening aspects of Trinidad was how joyfully everyone celebrates other peoples’ religions, especially their traditions, such as their food and music. “There’s not a lack of anxiety. Trinidadians are a very relaxed people.”

Sarah Kacevich ’13, of Southborough, MA, kept a blog during the trip. In one of her passages, she wrote: “If there’s one thing that observing the interfaith working of Trinidad showed me, it’s that faith matters…Faith, religion, and/or spirituality drives so much of what the world’s people think, do, say, vote for, work on behalf of, and donate to. It influences the communities that we form, the friendships we make, and the families that we raise, the alliances we seek and avoid, the type of health care we prefer. It shapes the financial, institutional, political, and philosophical patterns of so much of the world. Like it or not, faith has a massive presence in the world, and despite its ups and downs, it’s not going away anytime soon.”

In addition to the community service component of painting a home for the aged run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the group visited a Muslim mosque for prayers; had Shabbat dinner at Pax with Hans Stecher, a Holocaust refugee who arrived in Trinidad in 1938 and has led the small Jewish community for decades; visited the Temple of the Sea and the Statue of Hanuman and a second Hindu temple for yoga instruction; met with The Rt. Rev. Claude Berkely, Anglican bishop of the diocese of Trinidad and Tobago; enjoyed a musical experience of a house-to-house Parang on Epiphany; visited an Orisha shrine; and attended a smoke ceremony during which a shaman blessed the group members.

The group also found some time for fun, hiking through a rainforest, lying on the beach, swimming under a waterfall, and attending a steel pan band rehearsal. Aigbedion called the latter activities, “places of peace, calm and friendliness amidst the chaos.”

The students found the food to be unlike the diet they were accustomed to, with a heavy emphasis on stewed chicken and deep fried bread with shark.  But they didn’t mind the menu. They also agreed that Trinidadians felt a “monumental sense of pride” about their country and were oblivious to what a person’s skin color is.

“What the students all noticed and found meaningful was that Trinidad is so culturally rich,” said Kassow. “People are committed both to specific communities and to their national identity but none of those things are in conflict.”

Read attributed many of those characteristics to Trinidad’s unique history in which the nation – one that is now 50 years old – grew out of centuries of colonization.

Read summed up the trip this way: “Our students enjoyed a very full schedule of activities, and I have no doubt every one of them encountered new religious traditions, shared new experiences, and grappled with their own identities and beliefs…There was good, solid content shared by everyone we encountered and an openness to inquiry that makes such trips work. This was truly the best of experiential learning, and we are all grateful to have gone on this adventure.”​​​​