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This Spot of Ground

Spiritual Baptists in Toronto

By Carol B. Duncan
Subjects Social Science, Women’s Studies, Ethnography, Emigration & Immigration, Religion
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Paperback : 9781554588459, 304 pages, November 2012
Hardcover : 9781554580170, 304 pages, August 2008


Excerpt from This Spot of Ground: Spiritual Baptists in Toronto by Carol Duncan

From Chapter 1: “A Passport to Heaven's Gate”

“Heaven's Gate”: Canada in the North American and Caribbean Black Imaginary

References to “heaven” and “Canaan” in the religious experiences of Africans and their descendants in North America, especially in the United States during the antebellum period, have identified the North, in general, and Canada, in particular, as a land of freedom from enslavement. During the period between 1834 and 1865, when slavery ended in Canada and all other British territories but continued in the United States, British North America, in particular Upper Canada and Nova Scotia on the Atlantic Coast, became places where people who escaped from slavery in the United States sought refuge. Through the Underground Railroad, a system of safe houses and escape routes, the enslaved made their way into Canada. The communities built by these people and their descendants still survive today in southwestern Ontario and Nova Scotia (Shadd 1994).

In the contemporary twentieth-century discourse of Caribbean migration epitomized by phrases such as “going to Canada” or “going to America” or “going to England”, this historically older, notion of heaven as a place of salvation from earthly travails is also referenced. Included in this reference is a notion of heaven as a place in which economic and educational advancement can be pursued.

“A passport to heaven's gate” can be seen as a symbol of the hopes and dreams represented by the journey to Canada. It also points to the liminal and potentially contradictory status of this journey. The voyage brings the traveller to the gate of heaven, itself a transitional point, thereby hinting, perhaps, that other travails await the traveller in order to enter into the heaven that lies beyond the gateway.

This song, introduced as it was from a Vincentian Christian tradition, may have arisen in circumstances in which “heaven” and the “passport” had meanings other than those I have suggested. As singer and historian Bernice Johnson Reagon has noted, in reference to the African-American sacred song tradition,”the songs are free” (Reagon 1997). By this phrase, Reagon means that the songs are open to multiple and, in many cases, simultaneous interpretations. Thus a “passport to heaven's gate”, sung in a Spiritual Baptist church in the Caribbean in a differing social and political context than Toronto, could have an alternative meaning.

In the following excerpt from the sermon delivered by the archbishop on that September 1992 night, an interpretation was offered that locates the song in the present-day circumstances of immigrant Caribbean people living in Toronto. In the archbishop's sermon, the metaphor of the passport to heavens gate was discussed with direct reference to the experience of migration to Canada:

“This [passport] is not the same as the Immigration people give you. This is the gift of the everlasting gate. Your job, your last money to make a car payment can be taken from you. Christ travelled. But I demand it of your young people, hold on to the vine! “

Thus the song and the archbishop's explanation point to the experience of journeying spiritually, physically, socially, and politically that is encompassed in immigrating to Canada. The passport has several metaphorical resonances. First, it refers to religious practice as a point of reference that working class immigrant Caribbean people can utilize to overcome the hardships of everyday life. Second, the passport also references the historical legacy of travel that has brought African people to Canada through the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade, forced migrations through the slave trade, and escape from enslavement through the Underground Railroad.

In both the song and the archbishop's statement there is an allusion to “heaven's gate” as a space of survival and resistance in which dominant power relations, referred to as the taking away of “your job or money for a car payment,” are subverted by practitioners. “Heaven's gate” also points to Canada as a “land of milk and honey” in the mythos of both escape from enslavement in the United States during the nineteenth century and as contemporary twentieth-century and twenty-first-century emigration from the Caribbean. The archbishop's statement highlights the recognition that the life that working-class Caribbean people are “given” by the “Immigration people,” the representatives of the Canadian federal government, is one that is fraught with instability, powerlessness, and economic deprivation. Thus there is a linking of relationships between the state, individual life experience, the histories of slavery and emigration, and narratives of hope and liberation contained within this song and the archbishop's statement.

A series of questions emerge when contemplating the significance of a “passport to heaven's gate. “ How do church members in the Spiritual Baptist Church in Canada make sense of their reality in the context of migration to Canada? Is Canada the paradise, the heaven of material culture, the mythical “heaven's gate?” If the quest for liberation was freedom from oppression in the here and now under the colonial and slave regime, would emigration provide a material answer to this quest for freedom in contemporary times? Are these goals subverted and transformed by consumer culture and the acquisitions of material goods as lifestyle?

The new context, life in Toronto, represents a contradictory terrain of possibilities for Spiritual Baptist church members. On the one hand, Toronto and Canada represent new economic and educational possibilities for the immigrants themselves, as well as for their children and future generations. On the other hand, this new context is one in which all respondents reported experiences of racism, classism, and sexism. The vast majority of church members are women who come from working-class and poor backgrounds in the Caribbean. Many have working histories as domestic workers in private homes or as cleaners in larger institutions. Some of the women and men have managed through hard work, educational advance, and fortitude to achieve a better economic standard of living for themselves since coming to Canada in the late 1960s and 1970s. For others, economic hardship remains a day-to-day fact of life.

Table of contents

Table of Contents for This Spot of Ground: Spiritual Baptists in Toronto by Carol B. Duncan




The Research Setting

The Study as a “Talking Book”


Book Overview



“Heaven’s Gate”: Canada in the North American and Caribbean Black Imaginary

Church-Ship: Spiritual Voyaging

Spiritual Baptists in Multicultural Canada: Considering Religious and National Identities in Migration

Countercultures of Modernity and the Problem of Multiculturalism

A Historical Overview of Multiculturalism in Canada

Multiculturalism in the Spiritual Baptist Church

Spiritual Baptist Perceptions and Experiences of Multiculturalism in Canada




Origins of the Spiritual Baptist Church in the Caribbean

“This Spot of Ground”: The Spiritual Baptist Church as “Homeplace” in Toronto

The Founding of the First Spiritual Baptist Church in Toronto (1975–1980)

Toronto Spiritual Baptist Church Organization




“So Carnally, So Spiritually”

Ritual as Performance and Social Commentary

Joining the Spiritual Baptist Church in Toronto

Coming to Canada

Work Experiences

“It Hurt Me Feelings”: Naming Racism

“I Say You Can Call Me ‘Damn Bitch’. ..Just Don't Call Me ‘Madam’!”: Challenging Sexist Racism

The Church as Community: Support Networks in the Spiritual Baptist Church





Sacred Space and Place in the Spiritual Baptist Church

Sacred Time in the Spiritual Baptist Church

Travelling to Africaland

Africa as Eden

Africaland and the African Diaspora




An Overview of Domestic Service in Canada

The Mothers of the Church

Family in the Spirit: Extended Family in the Spiritual Baptist Church

“If You Don’t Come to Me, I’m Coming to You”: Ancestral Mother

“Dey Give Me a House to Gather in di Chil’ren”: Spiritual Mother/Carnal Mother

“God Has Work for You to Do”: Nation Mother

“It Makes You Feel Like Home”: Spiritual Daughter




“Seeing” Aunt Jemima

(Re)Turning the Gaze on Aunt(y) Jemima

Re-reading Aunt(y) Jemima and the Creole Woman

Tie-head Woman

Head-ties and the Social Construction of Identity



“To Pick It Up and Take It Forward”




This Spot of Ground: Spiritual Baptists in Toronto represents the first detailed exploration of an African-Caribbean religion in the context of contemporary migration to Canada. Toronto is home to Canadas largest black population, a significant portion of which comprises Caribbean migrants and their descendants.

This book shows how the development of the Spiritual Baptist religion in Canada has been shaped by the immigration experiences of church members, the large majority of whom are women, and it examines the ways in which religious experiences have mediated the members’ experiences of migration and everyday life in Canada. This Spot of Ground is based on a critical ethnography, with in-depth interviews and participant observations of church services and other ritual activities, including baptism and pilgrimage and field research in Trinidad that explores the transnational linkages with Spiritual Baptists there. The book addresses theoretical and methodological issues also, including the development of perspectives suitable for examining diasporic African religious and cultural expressions characterized by transnational migration, an emphasis on oral tradition as the repository of cultural history, and linguistic and cultural hybridity.

This Spot of Ground contributes new information to the study of Caribbean religion and culture in the diaspora, providing a detailed examination of the significance of religion in the immigration process and identity and community formations of Caribbean people in Canada.


``This is a compelling and interesting new ethnography that will be useful in courses on urban religion, sociology and anthropology of religion, and migration studies. Recommended. ''

- A.F. Galvez, CHOICE, February 2009

``Carol Duncan's. ..stated goal was to produce a ‘speakerly’ book (15), and she does an outstanding job of capturing the subtleties of West Indian speech patterns. ... Duncan explores ways in which church members experience racism in their daily lives and provides an insightful overview of multiculturalism in Canada. Judiciously selected quotations give a feel for Spiritual Baptist perceptions of race and racism in Canada (which seems to take milder forms than in the United States). Duncan's book is exceptionally well-organized and as—as befits its title—covers a great deal of ground. ... This Spot of Ground contributes new and useful information on the study of Caribbean religions and cultures, provides a much needed, detailed examination of the significance of migrant religions, and deftly charts the formation of identity and community among Caribbean people abroad. Highly recommended. ''

- Stephen D. Glazier, Nova Religio

``The book's critical ethnography includes participant-observation of regular activities of two Toronto churches, including worship, social events, and pilgrimages, as well as in-depth interviews with leaders and lay members in Toronto and leaders in Trinidad. This approach highlights continuities and differences between the religion as practised in Canada and in the Caribbean. Duncan also incorporates her own experiences: of immigrating as a child, first to Britain and then to Canada; of growing up in Caribbean-Canadian communities in Toronto; and of correspondence with relatives, such as her grandmother, who continued to live in the Caribbean. These varied methods allow the author to convey Spiritual Baptists' life-worlds in detailed and textured ways. ... In exploring different meanings and articulations of mothering within Spiritual Baptist communities, Duncan also demonstrates strong links between federal domestic worker schemes and stereotypes with which her participants continue to struggle. ... Duncan argues that Spiritual Baptist women continue a historical tradition of valuing multiple types of mothering practices. This reclaiming of maternal identities broadly devalued within broader Canadian culture extends to rehabilitating the raced and gendered Mammy stereotype of Aunt Jemima. Duncan's thoughtful exploration of her own resistance to recognizing the importance of the figure within the spiritual lives of some of her participants is poignant and provocative. Aunty Jemima's seemingly unlikely presence demonstrates powerfully that the Spiritual Baptist faith is inherently dynamic, grounded in the life experiences of its members, who readily adapt it to meet their needs. ''

- Laurel Zwissler, University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 79, Number 1, Winter 2010

``This Spot of Ground is a groundbreaking study. ... [In it] Duncan has employed a range of methodological approaches in order to provide a compelling religio-cultural account of the Spiritual Baptists in Toronto. Of particular import is the presence of the narrative voice of the research subjects at the heart of the book. ... [It] deserves to become an essential resource, in the first instance, for all religious scholars who profess some interest in Diasporan African religions, particularly those that are Caribbean in origin. ''

- Anthony G. Reddie, Black Theology: An International Journal, Vol. 7, #3, 2009

``This excellent, thorough, and very accessible study of Toronto's Spiritual Baptists examines the religious and secular lives of Caribbean primarily female immigrants to Toronto, who came to Canada mostly as domestic workers after 1975. ... This Spot of Ground adds immeasurably to the feminist study of religion, an area that has been in the past often ignored. ... This fascinating and sensitive book provides the missing material to illuminate how these women not only survived, but managed to surmount immigration experiences that were hard, discriminatory, and potentially soul destroying. ''

- Johanna Stuckey, Canadian Woman Studies