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Charismatic rise in Africa: The Rise of Pentecostalism

As the miracle-healer descended from the sky in an immaculate white helicopter, his disciples cheered with joy: “Hallelujah! Praise Jesus.”

Gospel songs thundered through the speakers as televangelist Benny Hinn landed outside Uganda’s national stadium last month, before addressing 40 000 enraptured faithful.

His white suit picked, out by floodlights, the US-based preacher promised a “miracle crusade” to heal the sick, make the blind see and the lame walk. “In Jesus’ name, lift your hands and sing,” he cried, almost drowned out by cheering.

Pentecostal religion is mushrooming in Africa.

Promising prosperity, miracle cures and life-changing spiritual experiences, the “born again” faiths that are the staple of America’s multi-millionaire televangelists are fast taking over the world’s poorest continent.

For many, they offer hope. In Hinn’s front seats, ringed with collection buckets, sat people in wheelchairs, Aids patients, children with deformities.

Benny Hinn

Evangelist Benny Hinn is controversial for his frequently aberrant – and at times heretical – theology, his unorthodox practices, and his false claims. Nevertheless, large numbers of people who indentify themselves as Christians follow – and, often, appear to worship – this preacher.

“I want the power of the Lord to descend on me and lift me out of this chair. I want to be like you,” said John Wilson, a 58-year-old Ugandan who broke his spine in a car accident.

The US Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life says Pentecostalism is growing globally, with a quarter of the world’s two billion Christians thought to be members of these faiths that emphasise speaking in tongues, divine healing, prophesy and a strongly literal interpretation of Bible stories.

In Africa all churches are booming, but Pentecostalism is overtaking traditional Catholic and Anglican faiths brought by European colonisers over a century ago.

Pentecostals and charismatics now account for 147 million Africans, 17% of the continent’s people, compared with 5% in 1970, the World Christian Database says.

South Africa’s Apostolic Faith Mission is its biggest church. A third of urban South Africans are Pentecostals.

Last year, one million Kenyans – nearly one in 30 – attended a service by American preacher T D Jakes in Nairobi.

Nigeria, with 130 million people, is full of barn-like buildings with names like the “Mountain of Fire and Miracles”, drawing a million or more worshippers for all-day prayer.

A camp along Lagos-Ibadan expressway advertises “fervent prayer, 24 hours”.

Pentecostalism’s success owes much to energetic missionaries, especially from the United States, who are increasingly focusing on Africa.

Leaders of the US religious right such as Sam Brownback, a Republican presidential candidate, have encouraged Africa missions, citing Biblical reasons for caring for the poor.

Missionary activity has so worried Africa’s Islamic north that Algeria passed a law in 2005 making it a criminal offence to convert Muslims to another faith.

The Love Of Money
“If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, {4} he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions {5} and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. {6} But godliness with contentment is great gain. {7} For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. {8} But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. {9} People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. {10} For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV

Last November, a Moroccan court sentenced an Egyptian-born German citizen to six months jail for converting Muslims there.

South of the Sahara, though, the missionaries seeking to save African souls are well received.

Christians say the ecstatic experiences offered by Pentecostals are more exciting than the subdued worship – complete with silent congregations and soporific organ music – that the continent’s first missionaries brought here.

“Africans want things done powerfully,” said Rev Nathan Samwini of the Christian Council of Ghana.

“You meet white evangelicals from America, they behave like Africans. They are vibrant, everything is done with vigour.”

For Pentecostals, the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Christian Trinity – plays an active role in life, performing miracles and answering prayers. This appeals greatly to a continent beset by poverty and sickness.

“The success of Pentecostalism is the focus on people’s problems in this life,” said Allan Anderson, Professor of Global Pentecostal Studies at England’s Birmingham University.

“In countries where people are living on the breadline, Pentecostalism gives hope.”

Analysts say Pentecostal churches started flourishing in the 1980s, as African nations suffered economic decline on falling world commodity prices.

Destitute farmers poured into slums, seeking dwindling city jobs and creating an urban underclass in need of a new dream. “In the 1980s, our country started having serious problems,” said Abbot Justin Bile, from St Joseph’s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a nation ruined by kleptocracy and war.

“The suffering of the population pushed them to seek material solutions. If there’s a pastor promising a visa, job, or marriage, people flock to him.”

Politicians have also contributed to Pentecostalism’s rise by welcoming foreign evangelists.

Some, like Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, seek favour with the televangelist-backed US administration, analysts say.

Others, like Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and Ghana’s former president Gerry Rawlings, faced criticism from traditional church leaders and turned to Pentecostal churches to fill a legitimacy gap.

America’s preachers have long grasped the potential material rewards of their spiritual gifts.

Hinn has said he earns up to $1 million (R7 million) a year, lives in a $10 million (R70 milion) seaside mansion and owns a private jet. Creflo Dollar, who visited Uganda this month, drives a Rolls Royce.

Africa’s preachers are learning fast.

At Uganda’s Holy Fire Ministry – a marquee beside a dirt track near the airport – hundreds line up for blessings from “Prophet” Pius Muwanguzi, whose purported talents include curing Aids by touching the forehead.

In the kneeling congregation: a polio victim, a blind man,a girl who lost her phone.

The pastor touches an old woman, she faints. Then out come the collection envelopes. Minimum is 100 000 Uganda shillings (R437), although the poor can give as little as 10 000 (R43) to receive a blessing.

Muwanguzi, whose own blessings include a smart suit and a new Toyota Land Cruiser, declined an interview. But his secretary Jackie Kamanyire said payments were voluntary.

“If you feel like sowing a seed, you sow … the Prophet cures Aids, cancer and sickle cell disease with his blessings.”

Cameroon’s Pierre Anatole Mbezele, who stages miracles at his Yaounde church, gets showered with lavish gifts, including on two occasions a Mercedes Benz.

Francis Adroa gave her car to a Ugandan church promising to cure her of HIV/Aids. The miracle failed, she got sicker. And she’s now a pedestrian.

Moses Malay heads a Ugandan organisation helping what he calls victims of “pulpit fraud” after quitting a church whose pastor claimed divine powers.

“I saw people robbed and I participated. How do they do it? Simple. They instil hope, they nurture it, they reap.”

Faith healers insist there is no fraud.

“When I touch someone, I can feel God working through me,” said Pastor Luke Jaymin of Kampala’s Nakawa Pentecostal Church. “I know it’s true.”

The Rise of Pentecostal Churches

Pentecostalism is Christianity’s fastest-growing Branch. Many are drawn to the faith’s spirited style of worship.

Jan. 16, 2007 — – More and more these days in urban, Hispanic neighborhoods around the United States, decrepit storefronts and abandoned buildings have been converted into churches.

It’s a storefront one day, a church, the next where a Hispanic congregation worships, raising its hands and swaying with the same kind of spontaneity that landed the church there in the first place.

This week The New York Times published a three-part series called “House of Fire,” about the rise of Pentecostalism — the world’s fastest-growing branch of Christianity. The trend is particularly strong among Hispanic immigrants.

Many are drawn to the faith’s spirited style of worship. Music, tambourines, singing, praising, healing, speaking in tongues, and frenzied movements are all staples of a Pentecostal service. It’s believed the Holy Spirit comes through this exuberance and directly ignites churchgoers, providing them with a personal relationship to God.

Pentecostalism also emphasizes attaining rewards in the here and now, a popular theme for many Hispanic immigrants in search of the American dream. There is a strong emphasis on education, hard work and prosperity, and talk of creating a better life not in the afterworld but here, even in the ghettos, on earth.

According to the Times’ metro reporter David Gonzalez, who spent more than a year on “House of Fire,” Pentecostals are ambitious. On ABC News’ Spanish-language “Exclusiva” podcast, he recalled how a Pentecostal pastor discussed his congregation’s ambitions.

“The pastor said, ‘We are more ambitious than Rockefeller.’ Not that they want to be filthy rich, but … they want success, that if they live right by this religion, their children will go to school, they’ll get an education.”

Just a few decades ago, almost all Hispanics in the United States were Catholic. But today, Catholicism faces heavy competition. Most Hispanic Pentecostals are former Catholics. Gonzalez said one reason they convert is Pentecostals do not need saints and angels and statues, not even a priest.

All Pentecostals can preach, heal and feel the Holy Spirit. Everyone can pastor and feel like a priest.

“I was often told that they left Catholic church services feeling cold, empty,” said Gonzalez. “That’s a tough thing to say, leaving a church service feeling cold, empty. In the Pentecostal church, the storefront, the pastor knows your name. He introduces you to the congregation. They clap, and you get a chance to preach yourself. It’s personal and direct.”

Another reason many Hispanic immigrants convert is their sense of feeling adrift in this country. Pentecostal churches seem to offer benefits that reach far in a new land.

They offer a sense of community and Hispanic immigrants feel welcome there, often attending services every day at the church or at the home of parishioners. They feel less alone in their struggles and rely on the congregation for personalized support with broken families, the hardships of a new country, and feelings of nostalgia.

The political implications of this faith in the United States may also be far reaching.

Traditionally, Pentecostals avoid participating in politics. This may explain why the defense of illegal immigrants comes more from Catholics than from Pentecostals, even though so many members of the Pentecostal church are immigrants.

But these Hispanic Christians are part of the constituency that both Democrats and Republicans are going after as they gear up for 2008. “There is a challenge to politicians who look at minority communities as traditionally Democratic,” said Gonzalez. “You just can’t say because they’re Latinos, they’re going to be Democrats. They might be, on the social and economic issues, but on … family issues, they’re going to be very conservative.”

The trick, according to Gonzalez, for both major political parties, is to realize that Hispanics are diverse. To appeal to them, a candidate has to explain certain positions. Gone are the days of taking the vote for granted and just saying, “they’re going to be Democrats.”