PG NewsPG delivery
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Home Page
PG News: Nation and World, Region and State, Neighborhoods, Business, Sports, Health and Science, Magazine, Forum
Sports: Headlines, Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Collegiate, Scholastic
Lifestyle: Columnists, Food, Homes, Restaurants, Gardening, Travel, SEEN, Consumer, Pets
Arts and Entertainment: Movies, TV, Music, Books, Crossword, Lottery
Photo Journal: Post-Gazette photos
AP Wire: News and sports from the Associated Press
Business: Business: Business and Technology News, Personal Business, Consumer, Interact, Stock Quotes, PG Benchmarks, PG on Wheels
Classifieds: Jobs, Real Estate, Automotive, Celebrations and other Post-Gazette Classifieds
Web Extras: Marketplace, Bridal, Headlines by Email, Postcards
Weather: AccuWeather Forecast, Conditions, National Weather, Almanac
Health & Science: Health, Science and Environment
Search: Search by keyword or date
PG Store: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette merchandise
PG Delivery: Home Delivery, Back Copies, Mail Subscriptions


Headlines by E-mail

Headlines Region & State Neighborhoods Business
Sports Health & Science Magazine Forum

African churches' new spirit of independents

Sunday, February 03, 2002

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

GHANA -- The town of Somanya, hardly a wrinkle on the map of Ghana, whispers at changing times in this West African nation.

The main road through this city of 8,000 moves with women in colorful traditional dress going to market.

Juliana Ateeh leads a women's fellowship group at the Church of Israel, 3 miles outside Somanya, Ghana. The women gather amid a grove of palm trees for a midweek prayer service. (Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette)

Brawny, dark-skinned workers man the woodcutting shop, the beer club and the electrical store.

Off the main road, life calms quickly.

The red clay pathways are lumpy and dusty, and on Sunday mornings, before the rooster has finished his morning aria, they swell with waves of locals beginning their stroll to worship.

One of them is Joyce Dauty, prophetess of New Light of the World Church.

In nine years, New Light has grown from a prayer group to a congregation of 23. The church has bamboo walls and a thatched roof. A white wooden cross hangs on a back wall.

Dauty, 48, who can't read, shares her pulpit with her preacher, Stephen Tetteh Nuer.

Dauty hears the messages from God. Nuer delivers them.

On Sunday, Dauty dresses in white because it represents purity. A red sash around her waist denotes her high position.

As worshippers enter church, they must remove their shoes. Women must have their heads covered. Dauty baptizes members once a year, but not once in nine years has she offered Holy Communion because God has not yet spoken to her about it.

Dauty is Christian -- but not Catholic, Anglican or Presbyterian, three of the main Christian denominations in Ghana. She is an independent minister, one of a patchwork of more than 30 in Somanya and a member of a movement known as African Independent Churches, or AICs.

As varied and multihued as Kente cloth, independent churches are mostly homegrown churches that meld Christianity with age-old tribal practices.

What the members notice in these churches, said David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, is the message of a loving God reflected in their own languages and culture.

This makes it easier for those who are marginalized to hear the word of Christ as it relates to healing, fertility and prosperity as expressed through the traditions of Africans.

Traditions and customs

In African Independent Churches, it is not uncommon to see carved wooden stools, traditional seats of sovereignty for African royalty, and animal-skin rugs, local symbols of power and authority, as part of the pulpit. Libation, a centuries-old practice of honoring ancestors, is as much a part of some independent worship as electric guitars, keyboards and hymns. Polygamy, animal sacrifices and African occult are practiced by some congregations.

"God speaks to us, too," Dauty said through an interpreter. "He tells me what to do, and I do it."

According to the numbers, the Holy Spirit is speaking to more and more independent Christian believers.

He's in the heart of 5.1 million in Ghana, where independent believers account for 24 percent of the nation's Christians, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia. A decade ago, there were 1.8 million independent adherents, and they made up 15.8 percent of Christian worshippers in Ghana.

Today, Muslim and indigenous believers make up slightly more than one-third of West African believers. The other 65 percent are Christians, a mix of Catholic, evangelical Protestants and independent faithful.

A testament to this growth is tiny Somanya, where grass roofs and simple whitewashed exteriors are home to the lengthy prayer meetings of independent congregations.

Among the town's 60 or so Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches, a hodgepodge of independent congregations has taken root. They have from fewer than 20 to more than 100 members.

Among their preaching ranks are men and women who have been inspired through divine dreams and visions, but also by itinerant missionaries.

In the late 1950s, when Ghana first won its independence from Great Britain, a rush of U.S. missionaries -- mostly free-lance believers not linked to organized churches -- flocked to West Africa. Evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart came, dumping millions into mission activity. The newcomers showed Africans they didn't need to be a part of Western Christianity to start a church.

"There was a new spirit in Africa," said the Rev. Dr. J.O.Y. Mante, academic head of Ghana's Trinity Theological Seminary, "and a boom in independent religious cults."

Old-time religion

For African Christians, it was like pouring new wine into an old bottle.

Christianity has existed in Africa since the 1st century A.D., long before it arrived in Europe. It was limited to Ethiopia and North Africa, where it grew extensively until slowed by the rise of Islam in the seventh century.

Europeans showed up in the 16th century, when Roman Catholic missionaries entered in droves along the West Coast. The idea of evangelizing Africa soon caught on, and for the next 100 years, scores of European missionary societies were founded.

Ebenezer Marty, 65, a former street preacher who is pastor of the Jerusalem Healing Church, stands amid construction of his new church. In his church, he bathes the sick in a basin of holy water. Around the basin are other bottles of water that are perfumed and colored, along with blue and white candles, which are believed to be pleasing to the spirits. He claims to have healed people of barrenness, tuberculosis and insanity. (Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette)

They were helped along by the faith of the Africans.

Their religious world, with its spiritual hierarchies and supreme God, was compatible to the organized Christianity spreading in the West.

Nevertheless, some independent churches defied European Christianity, which tended to separate "religious" things like baptism, confirmation and Holy Communion from "ordinary" things like healing, economics and politics. Being nationalistic or Africa-centered, many independent congregations resisted the notion that they were "savage, ignorant and superstitious" and needed to be saved by Western missionaries, said Barry Linney, a London clergyman in the Church of England and a theology scholar.

As a result, African independent ministers freely began to integrate local customs into the Christian experience.

A different world

The major dividing line between mainline and independent churches seems to be faith healing, the practice of curing physical illnesses by exorcising demons. Popular and accepted by the independents -- where congregations believe that malevolent spirits can cause sickness -- most mainline churches shun healings as fetish, a practice too closely tied to witchcraft.

At the Nazareth Prayer Center in Atua, a few miles down the road from Somanya, Pastor Isaiah Larweh is preaching. A boastful, dark-skinned man with a bone-deep charisma, Larweh said that eight years ago God ordered him to perform healings.

He left his Apostolic church and started the Prayer Center, a small sanctuary with a dirt floor and a straw roof.

Today, his church has about 30 members, but scores more come for healings.

Larweh, speaking through an interpreter, said his special gift is healing women of fibroid tumors. He shows off a stack of photographs. They depict fleshy tissues that he said women have discharged after being healed.

Ridding women of fibroids allows them to conceive. In a culture that highly values fertility, his gift is a strong draw that brings referrals from mainline churches, he said, and from hospitals, too.

While healings differ from church to church, most involve prayer, laying on of hands and anointing with oil. Other practices might include using herbs or holy water.

"Ladies like to see miracles and signs of healing," Larweh said, "so they rush in."

Mainline congregations have noticed the attraction, and a few have adapted healing into their services. For example, once a month in Accra, Ghana's seaside capital, a Catholic church holds a healing service that closely resembles the spiritual ecstasy of the independents'. The service can last for hours.

Healings are popular with many independent ministers, particularly those who are illiterate. With little formal theological training to lean on, the pastors draw their spiritual legitimacy through their healings.

Poverty also plays a role in sustaining the healings.

Somanya is a sun-splashed community full of mango groves and small farms, but it is hard-hit by low wages and too few jobs.

For its residents, there are not enough hospitals, and Western medicine is too costly. So the inexpensive healings are highly sought after as alternative treatment.

That's what happened to Esther Matey, a tall woman in a green dress, her head wrapped in a white scarf. She speaks with visitors after worship at New Light of the World Church.

"There is healing here," she said, pointing to a sick worshipper lying at the back of the church. "He is here so we can pray for him. [The services] make him feel lively."

A former Muslim, Matey came to New Light because her mother was depressed and hemorrhaging from a car accident.

"When the hospital couldn't help me, I came here, and the prophetess prayed and used herbs, and my mom's problems went away."

To better understand what's happening in the independent churches, scholars point to the origins of an American religious movement: the Pentecostal tent revivals that swept across the country at the beginning of the 20th century.

At first, self-respecting mainline ministers ignored the revivals. The people in Pentecostal services -- speaking in tongues, achieving states of euphoria, dancing wildly -- were not taken seriously.

Then, within years, the still mostly black revivals ushered in a new style of worship that went on to draw millions of followers to the emotionally driven devotions.

Pentecostalism broke the rules. There were post-conversion experiences. The faithful believed in supernatural gifts. In an instant, adherents could be sanctified and go on to offer divine healing, speak in tongues and be able to prophesy.

The phenomenon, said Mante, the dean of Ghana's Trinity Seminary, is being repeated with the independent churches.

Just like Pentecostalism

The women's fellowship of the Church of Israel gathers in a semicircle and prays. The fellowship meets weekly for Bible lessons and sermons, which are followed by prayer. (Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette)

"Their significance is being felt because a generation has grown up in the churches, and the independent worship is how they connect with Christ," he said. "It is a whole new slate of religious reference."

African independent congregations mirror the development of the black church and Pentecostalism in the United States, writes Barrett, the Christian encyclopedia scholar.

Both were formed to be separate and independent from existing Christian bodies. Worshippers saw it as a way to be liberated from white racism and to create their own distinctive form of religion. Both were highly emotional, soulful, nonliterary experiences, based on black oral traditions.

Black Pentecostals were seen as a new expression of Christianity -- not strictly Protestant -- but something indigenous to black people in the United States, wrote Barrett. The style of worship later came to be accepted by the larger culture.

The same is happening in Somanya -- and across Africa -- scholars say, where the independent churches are increasingly being recognized as brethren churches.

Some are members of the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical networks. In Somanya, they are etching out alliances with the Scripture Union, an organization much like the United States' Campus Crusade for Christ. The union provides study guides and lessons to ground independent ministers in Christian doctrine. A few independent clergy sit on community church councils, where they receive advice on sacraments, organization and pastoral fellowship.

Calling the faithful

A.O. Aidoo was born and raised in one of the most established and organized of Ghana's independent churches.

The son of an independent preacher, Aidoo grew up in the Musama Disco Christo Church, which means Army of the Cross of Christ, and came to embrace the church's mixture of indigenous, Methodist and Catholic customs.

A diminutive, coal-skinned man with a ready smile, Aidoo, 62, became a pastor in 1965.

The Musama church has its roots in a Methodist ministry formed in 1919 by missionaries in Ghana. Soon after, a prayer group within the congregation wanted to introduce healing, casting of lots (to forecast the future) and anointing with oil into the services.

The Methodist hierarchy frowned upon these practices, and in 1922 the group broke away from the mainline church. They were led by Prophet Joseph Appiah, who went into the bush and prayed. There, legend holds, Appiah was visited by angels who told him to create the Musama church.

Today, there is a network of more than 100 Musama churches throughout Ghana. Their membership reaches into the hundreds of thousands, and they are held together by district councils and elders in a governing structure loosely based on Catholic leadership. In northern Ghana, the church has a headquarters that it refers to as its Vatican. The "holy city" is home to its theology school, a church-supported hospital and a high school. The spiritual head of the church is called the pope, who is regarded as a sacred being

These hybrid experiences are common to many African Independent Churches, said Stan Nussbaum of Global Mapping International, a Christian missionary research agency.

Once they take root, they create new prospects for understanding God, theology, healing, family and worship, he said, and "once that frontier is crossed, a whole new world opens up."

One of the biggest examples of this is the 80-year-old Kimbanguist Church in Western Congo. With an estimated 7 million members, it is one of the largest independent churches in Africa. Its founder, Simon Kimbangu, kept African carvings and music in the ministry to attract people to his independent religion, which drew on elements of Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism

Despite being listed by the World Christian Encyclopedia as the fastest-growing Christian denomination in the world, independent churches continue to measure their impact in the details.

Unlike the financially stronger missionary churches, most independents operate on threadbare budgets. In Somanya, the value of most of these churches is marked by the small but tidy nurseries they start for young mothers, the committees that manicure local cemeteries and in the testimonies of people who say they've been healed, spiritually and physically, by prophetic leaders.

"We are God's people," said independent minister Erusmus Adjei, wiping sweat from his brow after a nighttime midweek healing service. Adjei went unchurched until he was about 19. That's when he joined the Worldwide Healing Church, a group of 12 congregations throughout Ghana that have a zeal for healing and evangelism.

Adjei became pastor at the church in Somanya in 1983. With a congregation of more than 100, he has one of the largest independent churches in town. "Our members come for salvation," he said. "but we can help heal them, too."

As his drummer beats softly, and worshippers exchange goodbyes, a broadly smiling Adjei considers the real growth of the independent churches. It's not due to his evangelism, testimony of his healings or his sermons: "God draws the people," he said.

bottom navigation bar Terms of Use  Privacy Policy