The boom in Caribbean tourism seems eternal. One of the most flush spots in the region, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, greets more than a million tourists annually. While most overseas visitors revel in luxury vacations, including the handful who can afford the $25,000-a-night suite at the exclusive Atlantis resort, many in this nation of 300,000 endure grinding poverty, plagued by aids, drug abuse, and street crime.

Not far beyond the glittering tourist districts are shacks and poverty-stricken communities. Andrew, 86, is among those hidden from view. With little assistance from the government, he lives alone in a crumbling house without electricity or plumbing. He eats only when people bring him food.

Instead of complaining about spending his days alone, Andrew says, "I have time to pray." Although he usually has an empty stomach, he praises God for the church women who bring him food as often as they can.

"That's why [God] put us here," Andrew says, "to help." Andrew's case is not unique. In a country that is 94 percent Christian (including 33 percent evangelical), Bahamian churches assume much of the responsibility for helping people in need.

'New sense of responsibility'

Despite their quiet work with people like Andrew, Bahamian churches have been criticized for a perceived lack of social involvement. However, social work by the churches is changing gradually, in the process becoming more noticed than it was a decade ago.

Rex Major, a founding member of the Congress on the Evangelization of the Caribbean, says churches—particularly charismatic ones—have become more involved in rehabilitating drug addicts. "There is a new sense of responsibility," the evangelist says. "I think sometimes there's a critical analysis of churches by the society, and the reaction brings a sense of repentance and sorrow."

Bethel Baptist Church in Nassau is such a church. A. DeWitt Hutcheson, Bethel's minister of education, says helping the poor gives Christians an "opportunity to express their thanks to God for what he is doing in their lives." Bethel's soup kitchen serves more than 800 meals a week. The church also provide clothes, monthly checks to indigent members, and emergency financial aid.

Although the tourism-dependent economy's unemployment rate has dropped to an all-time low of 7 percent, many people still need help, since the government provides few benefits to those in grave need. Even some individuals with jobs struggle, despite the government's recent adoption of a minimum wage.

Article continues below

The minimum wage, set at $170 a week, does not apply to all employees, nor does it cover the cost of living in a society in which the per-person Gross Domestic Product is $20,100. Import taxes double prices on some goods. Gasoline is $2.75 a gallon.

No respecter of age

Chronic problems, including the spread of HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) and the thriving traffic in illicit street drugs, are creating a growing sense of crisis in the Bahamas. "There is a burgeoning of people left in the cracks, who are undereducated, underemployed—in many cases they feel unemployable—semi-literate, drug-addicted, and they have aids," Hutcheson said.

According to U.N. AIDS, the agency that tracks the global epidemic, HIV rates in the Caribbean are the highest in the world outside Africa. The Nassau Guardian reports that AIDS is the leading cause of death among people between the ages of 15 and 44.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department estimates that cocaine and marijuana trafficking added at least $200 million a year into the Bahamian economy in 1998-99, attracting more foreign money than all manufactured and agricultural goods combined.

In addition to contributing to the increasing crime rate, drug trafficking and addiction are linked to child abuse and neglect. In some cases, churches have begun taking care of Bahamian children from at-risk families.

Eartha Charlow, a senior welfare worker at the Ministry of Social Services, says the children are better off in the care of churches. "The churches involved are more sensitized to the needs of the children," she said.

Churches have also responded to the demand for quality care for the elderly. Even with help from church and community groups, however, there are not enough nursing-home beds to meet the need. For example, Andrew's church friends have been attempting to place him in a home for three years. Poverty is less a problem than it was during the early 1970s, when the country became independent. By 1975, the unemployment rates had risen to 20 percent. Tourism has revived much of the economy in recent years.

Nonetheless, poverty is still widespread, and the churches are seeking new ways to help the poor. "There is a sense in which some [churches] are now becoming more practical in helping," Major says. He credits this in part to new pastors who have a "greater social awareness."

Related Elsewhere

Learn more about poverty in the Bahamas from the CIA Factbook or

The U.S. State Department report on human rights said the Bahamian government "generally respects the human rights of its citizens; however, problems remain in several areas. There were reports that police occasionally beat and abused detainees, and prison conditions remain harsh."

Listings of Bahamian churches and provinces are available at this island guide.

Christianity Today has also done articles on the Caribbean nation of Jamaica, "The Island of Too Many Churches."

The Nassau Guardian is the Bahamas' only newspaper online.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.