The Reverend Sonia Whitlock may not always conform to the conventional mould of a minister of the Gospel. And she makes no apologies for it.
As pastor of the Sanctuary of Praise Worship Tabernacle, which she founded in Mt Pleasant, Tobago, in 2013, Whitlock said her style of ministry is never static but constantly evolves to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of her small but growing flock.
“The word of God is unchanging but as pastors we must have the capacity to adapt and evolve in our means of delivering the unchanging word of God,” she told WMN.
“We must be able to leverage modern tools, technologies and approaches to building God’s kingdom. In order to maximise our reach, we cannot box ourselves into only delivering God’s word in traditional ways. To help people learn God’s truth and apply it to their lives practically, we must be able to reach both the common and uncommon man where they are with arms wide open.”
Ordained as a pastor in 2012, Whitlock said her first allegiance is to God, not to people’s expectations.
“God gave me a specific mandate and mission in ministry and I have found my purpose in embracing the calling that he has placed on my life. In establishing our sanctuary, God called me to ‘church the unchurched’ so that they may find their healing, restoration and purpose in Christ.”
She believes her mission is to shepherd people back to a place of redeemed worship.
“I do not believe that I have to fit into any religious mould when God has called me to stand out in my purpose and talents. I have never been moved by what the crowd is saying or doing and I understand that God has blessed me with a very unique and effervescent personality which I use for the furtherance of his kingdom, not for my glory.”
Whitlock, who is also the manager of the Belgrove’s Funeral Home, Tobago, said her ministry is really about touching and transforming lives and seeing God answer and fulfil prayers.
She said the needs of the depressed and less fortunate are particularly close to her heart.
“I have a passion for meeting the needs of the vulnerable, hurting and disadvantaged and have worked closely with young people and children for over 25 years both in ministry and through the social services.”
Whitlock continued, “I am passionate about spreading the gospel and God has blessed me with a unique persona and anointing to touch the lives of all I come into contact with. Anyone that has met with me both inside and outside of the church doors can attest to this.”
During her services, Whitlock said she rarely prepares a sermon but “moves as the Holy Spirit leads."
“I believe that worship of God is man’s supreme reason for existence and in my ministry, we must ensure that worship is our first call. Thereafter, we must teach God’s word and serve as effective witnesses of his truth. My ministry is about effectively building God’s army to reflect his glory and not our own sinfulness.”
With her ever-changing hairstyles, flawless make-up and well-tailored outfits, some may regard her as glamorous and self-centred. But Whitlock believes “as a child of God we are entitled to have a high sense of fashion or style if we so choose once it is modest."
“As believers, we must represent our creator in the best way possible both internally and externally. The God that I serve is mighty, creative, expressive, wonderful and glorious and I find my own unique expressions in showing forth how happy, beautiful, blessed and favoured I am in Christ.”
The mother of two said everyone has a right to express themselves.
“Being a child of God does not make you less expressive. In fact, you are to boldly lead the way, shining the light for others to see how they can live their purpose boldly and delightfully.”
She said the physical environment, which human beings have enjoyed for centuries, is also a case in point.
“If we look at the creative expressions of God in nature alone, we would see a multitude of different styles and types of flowers, animals, mountains and geographies in this world. Why do we think as Christians, we must downplay our expressions and portray ourselves in a boring manner? We ought to represent the kingdom of God well.
“We should be charting the way forward showing persons how they can dress in both style and modesty without being fleshly and let the world model after us, not the other way around.”
Whitlock said while an individual’s clothing may reflect how they feel on the inside, it should not define them.
“The focus is truly on cultivating the inner man and reflecting that glow of God’s illumination on the outside. It is not what man says about you but what God says that matters in the end.”
Saved at the age of 12, Whitlock’s family was always involved in the church. She grew up in the Pentecostal faith in Goodwood and was taught traditional values – respect, discipline, hard work and reverence for God at church and at home.
The charismatic minister recalled that as a young girl, she mesmerised church-going Tobagonians with her singing at Sunday School and other special functions. But she became pregnant at an early age and had to endure the stigma of having a child and getting married quite young in the church.
Whitlock said for years she was ostracised and condemned but found strength in God and the support of her husband, minister Keymar Whitlock and children.
“That experience laid the platform to launch me into my destiny and so my ministry was developed for the lost, the ‘unchurched,’ the hurting and the rejected. They can come into a non-judgemental environment and find healing, strength, acceptance, purpose and forgiveness in developing a personal relationship with God.”
Later, she would minister to audiences across the islands as a featured artiste alongside established American gospel performers like Bobby Jones Gospel, Keith Staten, Wintley Phipps (who is Trinidad-born) and others.
Professionally, Whitlock said her work with adolescent mothers, the vulnerable and broken-hearted at the Department of Social Services meshed with her yearning for ministry and she eventually became certified in counselling. She said counselling is now an integral part of her work at the Sanctuary of Praise Worship Tabernacle.
“My experience and calling to counselling has continued to serve me well as I am called to lift the spirits of the grieving and counsel families even in my position as manager at Belgrove’s Funeral Home. I continue to see the dots connecting as I follow God’s leading and allow Him to use me to minister to and uplift both believers and unbelievers throughout Tobago and beyond.”
Whitlock, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology/counselling, sociology and theology, said the members of her congregation come from all walks of life and have embraced her “open arm” approach.
“It’s all about spreading God’s love. I expect that as persons come into the sanctuary and spend time under my stewardship while being obedient to the word of God and the call of God on their life, that there will be evidence of God’s hand in their life.
“I encourage everyone to be obedient and endure God’s process of transformation and my role is really one of edification and facilitating God’s process in my flock.”
Whitlock said her pastoral journey has not been particularly challenging. She said from the moment she decided to follow God’s path, he has met her every need.
A large part of her ministry’s success, she believes, is her supportive network “to ensure that this ministry is not only successful now but will live on as a success even after God calls me home.”
She added, “Every moment of serving in my pastoral call has been fulfilling for me. From the inception of my ministry, I have never taken a salary because it is not about any financial gain. My call was to build a sanctuary for the saving and building up of souls. God has blessed me with everything I need to lead a successful ministry.”
Reflecting on covid19, Whitlock said while the pandemic continues to cause distress and death across the world, it has also presented the church with an opportunity to adapt by using technology and social media to have a wider outreach.
She believes the periods of lockdown were intended for people to not only to reflect on the spiritual trajectory of their lives but to repent and meet God.
Whitlock said she has not yet been moved by the Holy Spirit to discuss the thorny issue of mandatory vaccinations in her sermons.
“My call is to ensure that we spread God’s word vigorously and effectively throughout every physical and digital platform. My call is to win souls. The vaccine, whether it is mandatory or not, is not the saving grace for mankind and we cannot allow the debate of such to distract us from our true purpose.
“People need to be worried about living and/or dying without God. Salvation is what I would like to promote to every living person vaccinated or unvaccinated because that is the only cure for man.”
Whitlock said she has not been urging her congregation to take the vaccine but encourages members to do what they believe is best for their health and to ensure they are discerning of what God is directing them to do.
“It is a personal choice and that choice has nothing to do with their salvation or their destiny in Christ. The vaccine at this point is not apostatic or heretic and so I am not obliged to defend the church at this junction and meddle into anyone’s personal health beliefs. My focus is on ensuring that my flock have a personal relationship with God.”
In light of the country’s ongoing challenges with the pandemic, Whitlock advised Tobagonians to not let covid19 distract them from God’s saving grace.
“God has the power to heal, restore and redeem. We also have the power of choice to believe in Him and to be obedient to His will. God is not an emergency number. He wants us to submit our lives to him now and forevermore.”