Thu | Dec 8, 2022

Rev Astor Carlyle: God’s heart breaks for Jamaica

Nation too creative and resilient to be so uncaring and lawless, says clergyman

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2022 | 12:08 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
Reverend Astor Carlyle, pastor of the Webster Memorial United Church in St Andrew.
Reverend Astor Carlyle, pastor of the Webster Memorial United Church in St Andrew.
Reverend Astor Carlyle, pastor of the Webster Memorial United Church in St Andrew.
Reverend Astor Carlyle, pastor of the Webster Memorial United Church in St Andrew.
 Rudolph Brown/Photographer 
Reverend Astor Carlyle, pastor of the Webster Memorial United Church in St Andrew.
Rudolph Brown/Photographer Reverend Astor Carlyle, pastor of the Webster Memorial United Church in St Andrew.
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The Webster Memorial United Church on Half-Way Tree Road in St Andrew has defied the odds by maintaining capacity congregations when other established churches are struggling with membership in an increasingly secular society. It may be because the...

The Webster Memorial United Church on Half-Way Tree Road in St Andrew has defied the odds by maintaining capacity congregations when other established churches are struggling with membership in an increasingly secular society.

It may be because the church is centrally located, or it could be the warm charisma of its rector, the Reverend Astor Carlyle, who has a flair for delivering sermons using various art forms on any given Sunday.

The son of a primary school teacher, he fashioned his communication skills under her supervision and recitation, elocution and drama were key to his growth. This versatility has now endeared him to many as he pulls the faithful closer to the Lord.

During the funeral for bassist extraordinaire Robbie Shakespeare of the genius duo Sly and Robbie, Carlyle delivered the homily on the rhythm of The Heptones’ 1974 hit Book of Rules – the title cut from an album of the same name.

He even engaged superstars Orville ‘Shaggy’ Burrell and Chevelle Franklyn to provide harmony.

He was not looking ‘forwuds’ or a new career. Instead, lead singer Carlyle believed there could be no greater tribute than a sermon in music for the reggae legend.

Last week, the confessed lover of most musical genres, a cold Red Stripe beer, good food, conversation, house parties and window shopping told The Sunday Gleaner that everything done in the house of God must be for the edification of people.

“The unique thing about Webster is its history of intergenerational ministry and worship. The ministries are vast, and they impact people across various sectors of the nation. You find that the business community connects with us because our members come from there and connect us with their entities. So you will always have the outgrowth from those relationships,” he said, explaining the strong support for the church.

Raised with four other siblings in Mount Olivet, Manchester, by his mother after her husband died, Carlyle recalled a time of kindness, respect and love for people, where values were instilled from early and nurtured.

He attended the Knox Complex of Schools in Spaldings and said he received the calling for the ministry in sixth form, despite his love for law.

His first loves

After completing studies at the Jamaica Theological Seminary, Carlyle took up duties at the Greendale United Church in the island’s badly devalued Old Capital. He calls the church and congregants his first loves.

When Webster came knocking, he did everything to remain in Spanish Town, for he, too, had heard characterisations of Webster as the “high-society, stush, money church”.

Now, Webster’s has become a joy – his joy – and he loves his congregants dearly.

“My mother, when she speaks, she speaks in colour. So I live my life in colour. She imparted to me the virtues of constant reading. I, therefore, find myself weaving words and paragraphs and sermons in colour. Jamaicans are a colourful people, so why not communicate the way we live our lives – telling the story of our lives in colour?” Carlyle said.

He rebukes any description of himself as a spiritual drama preacher, but instead said that he joined a church rich with communicators.

“Webster is filled with communicators, so we appreciate the needs of each of the groupings and try to so organise our ministry in ways that are relevant to each of the groupings. You can’t have good news that is improperly communicated. People won’t connect with it,” he said, referring to the gospel.

Carlyle is also the chaplain at St Andrew High School, where his 17-year-old daughter is a senior, and has held devotions at the all-girls institution every Tuesday for the last 10 years, weaving anecdotes into his messages.

And knowing his daughter is in the audience, Carlyle makes an extra effort to connect with the young women. For if she – or his wife and their 15-year-old son – does not understand his sermons, he knows he is in trouble.

‘CHURCHES MUST STOP SEEING EACH OTHER AS COMPETITION’

A widely respected man of God, Carlyle is also admired as a social commentator, tempering his views with salt but unafraid to speak his truth.

Long ago, he made a commitment to not only live it, but to become a shepherd of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His sermons contain no more than three points – each connected with a real-life story which connects with the gospel.

“By virtue of its calling, all are invited to come. When they come, all that which is presented must be life-giving and must be so presented to the glory of God,” he said of his sermons.

And despite employing various art forms to drive home his message, Carlyle does not get carried away.

“Pastors are not entertainers and that is what is happening in our world today that we feel that in order to connect to people – as if the gospel is not powerful enough – we must now entertain people into the gospel. We must be careful, because it’s not about entertainment,” he said.

The Church, he added, is called on to edify and build up people, as is written in Ephesians 4, and to use available tools to connect with them to experience the truth of the gospel.

He does not buy into the doctrine of whose church is right and whose is wrong, noting that there is a church for everyone in Jamaica.

“Churches must stop seeing each other as competition and hold each other’s hand. They must lift each other up if one is stronger in this area where you are not so strong. But it comes across to many that we are trying to set up little kingdoms for ourselves. That’s not what Jesus intended,” he declared.

Unity, he said, does not mean uniformity and working together does not mean doing the same things.

The Church “is that organism brought into being by God for the promotion and preservation of life in all its forms to the glory of God”.

“Don’t be so focused on going to Heaven. The mandate of the Church is to be Heaven’s representation here ... . Think of the Church as ambassadors. The Church does not belong to any of us. It belongs to God, and none of has the right or responsibility to decide that my church is right and yours is wrong. Let God decide that by virtue of the doctrine. I will not join in that,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.

Carlyle is concerned for Jamaica’s future.

“I am worried about this being a place where my children would settle down because we have lost some values over time that have underpinned the nation. We are not a gentle society. We are not a society that seems to value law and order. We have lost the whole essence of the dignity of the elderly. It becomes difficult for people to make ends meet and when the only option that many people see is to undercut or undermine the principled approach to life, I am concerned,” he reflected last week.

“I am concerned when it would seem as if there are no real punishment or consequence to breaking the law. I really am very concerned about the seeming loss of God consciousness, that feeds into our humanity as a people and how we relate to each other. I am very, very, very concerned, and I never dreamt I would be saying this about my nation, because I am a nationalist at heart, because Jamaica is such a beautiful nation, but everything seems like a fight,” Carlyle solemnly said.

Jamaicans, he said, were too talented, resilient and creative to be displaying such recklessness, including in simple things like obeying the rules of the roads.

While not as worried for himself and his wife, he believes there is so much that anchor persons here. His children, their friends and other youngsters, however, do not want to make Jamaica their home.

“When you have a significant brain drain, then who is left to build the place? So I am concerned. And I can’t stop them from wanting to leave, because the question is, what are the options? You can’t live so. And it’s only gonna get worse,” he bemoaned.

It is easy for individuals to “lose it”, and he has – and he has not hidden it from his congregation.

“With all that’s happening in Jamaica, different ones of us sit at different places of decision-making, and it’s there that we must make our voices heard on behalf of the kingdom that we belong. So politicians who say they are affiliated with different congregations and denominations, when you sit in Parliament to represent your people, how does your faith play out? In your businesses, when you sit and look at your budgets, and have to cut stock, what guides your decisions? How does equity play out in your decisions? So yes, I am social commentator in terms of the gospel, because these things matter to God – the way we treat the poor and marginalised,” he said.

God’s heart breaks at the tears of a battered woman and child, and the young man unsuccessful in seeking a job and desperately trying to be on the side of right when a gun is a choice, he said.

But that is not his only worry right now.

COVID’S FAR-REACHING IMPACT

COVID-19 has thrust churches into a new milieu of communication and long sermons are now relics. People were now watching three- to five-minute TikTok and YouTube videos and that new form of communication generally will impact the way sermons are delivered, Carlyle said.

Recognising early that the Church needed to begin communicating differently, he embarked on studies in integrated marketing and communication. He completed it just before the pandemic, and when COVID-19 came, his lessons went into action immediately. Long before that, however, Webster was present on all popular social media platforms. That will be cemented and expanded post-pandemic.

The church is also facing the mental health toll of the pandemic.

“The impact was far-reaching and broad. Children, in particular, felt disconnected from life in its real form because they were now subjected to engaging a screen, whether it be for schools or different activities,” he said.

“For seniors, church was socialisation. Going to the bank or post office was just connecting with life and others, and passing time in a meaningful way. To be told to stay home, where, for some, home is a place of respite and for others a place of tension and misery, it was extremely hard,” he told The Sunday Gleaner, adding that requests for counselling services saw uptick.

It was especially hard on those who lost loved ones and who could not be comforted the traditional way, but who also could not comfort others similarly grieving. Restrictions on hospital visits also sunk many further into depression.

Through Eden Gardens Ministries, the church’s counselling arm, Webster provided support through the dark days of the pandemic. However, many who needed its services were disadvantaged as they were unable to connect online.

Carlyle considers himself among the luckiest men on earth to have married his high-school sweetheart, Keisha.

“She is the silent river that runs through the forest of my life nurturing everything in it. My best friend, very wise, she gives me a sense of peace and purpose; my anchorage,” he said of the woman with whom he shared advanced secondary level studies.

“She is her own woman, a professional, with a small circle and understands her role. She is not pushy and yes, the congregation loves her and she them. She is not into this first lady thing,” he added.

Mrs Keisha Carlyle, he added, is focused on keeping her family happy.

His love for law is not quenched – not yet, anyway.

“I really love law, but I have no regrets in pastoral studies. It is so fulfilling. I have a panoramic view of life, engaging people’s experiences in different places,” he said.

Law could be his next academic pursuit, especially if his daughter goes that route then he would want them to study together.

But whether he chooses music, speech or drama – or shortly to be infused with the law in the near future – the Reverend Astor Carlyle is living and speaking the truth of edification of the people.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com