Wealth and Poverty in the Beliefs, Attitudes
and Consequent Practice of Black Pentecostal Churches
Key Words: Christianity; Azusa Street Revival; William J. Seymour; Great Revival; Pentecostal / Charismatic Christians; Growth; Affluence; Alleviation of poverty.
The early Pentecostal movement, like Christianity itself, was founded by non-Europeans. The Azusa Street Revival which emerged in an run-down section of Los Angeles in 1906 is commonly understood as the great watershed (or 'springboard' of spiritual gifts) for a worldwide renewal which today embraces more than 500 million Christians on all continents,1 equipping people to express their faith and tell their stories about 'God's powerful deeds' (Acts 2:11) in their own socio-economic contexts, cultural expressions and languages. A biography of William J. Seymour, its spiritual father - a quiet one-eyed African American man and descendant of slaves, carries the intriguing title For Such a Time as This,2 meaning the gospel at the beginning of a century which bore the most ugly faith of racism, ethnic cleansing, poverty, exclusion and an overall human failure 'to accept people for what they are'.3 For three years, various races, creeds and nationalities, low and high, black and white, indigenous and immigrants, poor domestic servants and entrepreneurs met in one place, people who, in the words of Harvey Cox, had 'the audacity to claim that a new Pentecost was happening, the new Jerusalem was coming soon',4 and that there would be love, equality and abundance of life for all. The Azusa 'Blessing' reached 50 countries in three years, dispatching as fast as possible 'missionaries' who felt empowered by the Spirit to converse and share with God and people.
19 century contacts in America, especially during the Great Revival, had allowed slaves to join the churches of their masters such as Methodists and Baptists, and had at rare occasions found white masters granting freedom to Africans for preaching and singing salvation to the oppressed. However, these resulted in segregated congregations which could only meet at special events. In the camp-meetings of the Revival, blacks and whites sat separated before and behind the rostrum, and it was only on the last night when the dividing wall came down that they worshipped together. It was then that African Christians began to influence white churches, through 'rhythms of life' and 'dances of surrender', and when friendships were formed across the social, racial and cultural divide.
Seymour was a member not only of a Holiness church, the Evening Light Saints, but also of a Black Union, an Association of Head and Side Waiters. In Houston, Texas, in the Bible School of C. F. Parham (whom white Pentecostals hailed as their spiritual father), Seymour personally encountered what it meant to be excluded from human fellowship. He had to sit segregated outside the classroom, with the door ajar, carefully listening to the teaching on the book of Acts, but being denied the same humanity as a white person. This experience later found expression at Azusa Street in two significant practices, divine healing through prayer, both individual and communal - and in 'tongues' or languages understood as the vehicles of communication between people and God, and people and people. Members believed that, beyond rational expressions, they could hold things in common, and not only hear but also learn together actual languages to improve communication – the original Pentecost (Acts 2) being their model. The revival lasted uninterrupted for more than three years. The Anglican minister A. Boddy wrote that white preachers shared fellowship with 'Negroes' and by their prayers and intercessions received 'the same blessings' as they had received. In W.J. Seymour's own words from Apostolic Faith:
The Pentecostal power when you sum it all up, is just more of God's love. If it does not bring more of God's love, it is simply a counterfeit. Pentecost means to live right in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians which is the standard... This is Bible religion. It is not manufactured religion. Pentecost makes us love Jesus more and love our sisters and brothers more. It brings us all into one common family. 5
In the 20 century, the centre of Christianity has shifted from the North to the South, i.e. the majority of Christians now are 'non-white indigenous' and belong to independent movements. Their dynamic growth in Asia, Africa and Latin America (including the Caribbean) must primarily be attributed to the enormous increase of pentecostal and charismatic churches in the Two-Thirds-world. Western churches as well as academic theology have tended to overlook this phenomenon and its impact on the life, faith and well-being of people, especially the poor and marginalized. Yet this new trans-cultural, trans-social and polycentric face of Christianity now poses a challenge to the former mission churches and to religious studies institutions. Recent scholars in religion not only regard it as the equivalent of the renewal in Islam, but also as a mirror of the global transformation of religion as a whole.6 They define it as a postmodern message which, through the successful blending of different traditions, equips people to cope with the dilemmas and sufferings of daily life, inspires hope to live for a better future, and - by resisting the status quo - transcends barriers and shapes a cultural and social renewal from below. Therefore, the coherence of this renewal does not lie so much in doctrine and propositions, but in the spiritual and practical experience of the Holy Spirit in apparently unjust and hopeless situations. The early Pentecostal revival among America's deprived in 1906, multiplied among the poor, women and children on other continents, indeed it blended with less publicised forerunners and similar movements of the Spirit with 'signs and wonders' elsewhere.7
With the arrival of the 21 century, we distinguish between three waves of the pentecostal/charismatic movement: the classical Pentecostals; the charismatic renewal within the former mission churches; and autochthon movements - the latter defined by the WCE as 'spirit-led' independent, non-white indigenous, apostolic and post-denominational groups, which include not only the growing number of neo-charismatic churches, in particular in Africa, but also the African Indigenous Churches (AICs) or Spiritual Baptists in the Caribbean,8 all represented in Britain. In 2001, 71 % of pentecostal/charismatic Christians were 'non-white', family-oriented, urban, and many of them among the poorest on earth, especially in the slums and ghettoes of mega-cities outside Europe. In the midst of industrial alienation, poverty, violence, migration, health-scares, political corruption, misuse of power and overall powerlessness, they opt for the Kingdom of God on earth, i.e. for a sphere of freedom, participation, self-determination, sharing and fellowship - to improve life's conditions, meet urgent needs and survive in dignity. Almost everywhere pentecostal/charismatic congregations have started from the bottom, be it among the marginalized and voiceless in Africa and Asia, the lower classes in Latin America, or the early settlers from the Caribbean and Africa in Britain and the growing number of immigrants and refugees from Africa on the European continent.9 Consequently, this has also caused these Christians from the 'underside of human life' to initiate a social upward movement, through mutual support, discipline in work and life-style, the high value placed on education, self-reliance and the overall love of life and God's creation. This can be read from the enormous growth of charismatic movements in Africa where faith, development, and the 'deliverance' from life-destroying evil spirits guide daily life. It can be observed in the slow but consistent turn of Latin America to a 'people's Protestantism' of a charismatic type against manipulative and hierarchical structures. This can be certainly observed in Britain where the large Black Pentecostal churches (the Caribbean mostly of the classical kind - Church of God movement and Apostolic 'Oneness' churches; the African either belonging to the AICs or the new charismatic renewal) have developed into training-fields for educated and aspiring young men and women. On the other hand, there is a dilemma in getting rich. Upward mobility and institutionalisation tend to bring about alienation from humble roots; in some cases, both in Africa and elsewhere, this has led to the isolation of charismatic groups from their origins, jeopardized communication with the poor masses (e.g. in Guatemala), inaugurated a black bourgeoisie (e.g. in North America), or brought about a rather uncritical belief in 'miracles' and a confidence in faith as automatically leading to 'prosperity' - meaning a gospel of success, health and wealth. According to this 'Faith gospel', God in Christ has overcome all sin, misery, disease and poverty; and so the faithful have a right to be abundantly blessed and receive well-being through prayer. With Paul Gifford, quoting a Ghanaian charismatic leader:
The traditional and orthodox churches we grew up in held many views which were diametrically opposed to God's word… They preach a doctrine which says in essence – poverty promotes humility… The missionaries erred tragically by not teaching the Africans God's Word and laws regarding sowing and reaping.10
Such a concept does not surprise for two reasons. It links up with Africa's religious worldview which is this-worldly and focuses on material realities. And (while the early AICs emphasised mainly health and healing) the younger generation is desperate to respond to social instability, unemployment, exclusion, want of cash and housing, Aids, violence, and even war.11 Also, according to my findings in Ghana, South Africa and Argentina, there is, against expectations raised in preaching influenced by American evangelists,12 no real danger for the majority of 'getting rich'. Salvation is seen as inclusive, addressing the whole person and community, and received through daily blessings and sustenance for survival. Ogbu Kalu in Power, Poverty and Prayer13 insists that the charismatic concept of 'prosperity', rightly understood, belongs to the ethics of power. As the powerful exploit those who are powerless, poverty is immanent to the prevailing system. Therefore, it poses a theological challenge to the West, for neither the former mission churches nor traditional African religion appear to have had the tools to deal with misery. The rapid rise of neo-charismatic churches in Africa after 1970 may, he writes, eventually lead to a political theology and practice where faith goes along with social analysis, and tackles poverty and abuse of power at the very roots. An example is Dr Mensah Otabil's International Central Gospel Church in Accra. His theology, rooted in black assertiveness, teaches not just to wait for miracles, but to take self-control of one's life, develop one's own spiritual and social potential, create new tools of empowerment and new sources of confidence, and 're-focus all the time'. This means not repeating 'the old excuses about suffering as a sign of being like Christ'.14 In Kalu's words:
It is the claim of Pentecostal faith and the warrant of Pentecostal ministry to insist that the Bible provides the materials out of which an alternately construed world can be properly imagined. Pentecostalism is, therefore, a child of the demise of modernism, a product of a great shift in interpretative practice which asserts that in the post-Cartesian situation, knowing consists not in settled certitudes but in the actual work of imagination.15
The foregoing history is reflected in developments in Britain, although Black churches here do not use terms like 'prosperity' and 'deliverance'. As classical Pentecostals, they relate to the early Azusa Street Revival by practising and believing in healing of the community and transcending racial, cultural and social barriers through prayer, praise and worship. In the past, Caribbean and African Christians in England were (wrongly) blamed for their 'heaven-mindedness' and 'indulgence in powerlessness'.16 Evidently, in the early years of immigration, the new groups were powerless, literally confined to the four walls of a school- or sports-hall, without resources and premises, and unable to witness in the open air as in Jamaica or Nigeria. Also, the Black churches' hope centred (and still centres) in the imminent return of Christ, the final judgement and the restoration of a just order. This belief, as S. Arnold, National Overseer of the New Testament Church of God (NTCHG),17 affirmed self-critically in the eighties, had the "unintended negative effect on the church in that its aims and objectives have been to prepare its people for that day of the Lord", and not so much to participate in the affairs of society. Heaven-mindedness, of course, is a legacy of slavery or the teaching of the slave-masters about rewards in the next world. It also is what I have called a 'white fundamentalist overlay' in the formalised beliefs of those linked to white American headquarters. However, basically, black and white, or oral and literary cultures, have a different approach to doing theology. All Caribbean congregations in England, as I found out in my early research in Jamaica in the nineteen seventies, came from poor rural areas and run-down districts in the West Indies. Yet the Jamaica Council of Churches with its various projects in fighting poverty, did not count at that time among its membership any of those groups directly working with the poor, feeding the hungry, uplifting the desperate, and running schools to improve educational standards. In Britain, the new churches, by now consolidated, but faced with racism, job-discrimination, housing problems, ill-health or the sus-law in London, began to draw on the revolutionary potential of the gospel implied in the early intercultural pentecostal message. The obvious need to carry their communities' burden turned them into functioning representatives of the black population. It equipped them for a mission which would serve the whole person in multicultural areas.18. As Bob Nind, then Anglican vicar in Brixton noted:
With the full exchange and participation of each person, they are able to confirm each other in the knowledge of their value and significance to Jesus, the Father, the Holy Spirit. They are able to endure the pressures of life as a result and contain within them a source and spring that does not run dry. Besides this power of the inner resolve the 'justice' struggles of the traditional churches can seem shallow and energy wasting. They may not be. They may be entirely appropriate for those who must bear the responsibility for a nation's structures, but in the end they are of no avail if the cohesion and integrity of the oppressed has crumbled.19
From 1980, young black scholars, influenced not least by Rastafari and Black Power, embarked on a radical critique of their parent generation's patience and 'pacification',20 so to anchor their theology in both social analysis and belief in the Spirit's efficacy, and build a church relevant for today's social realities. Joe Aldred, the outgoing director of the Centre for Black and White Christian Partnership in Birmingham (UK), therefore aims at "constructing a Caribbean theology of respect", beyond slavery and neo-liberal liberation.21 In conclusion, I may therefore quote from three interviews with Black Pentecostal pastors in Leeds in 2003.22
Levi Bailey, long-standing minister in the New Testament Church of God (NTCHG) and pastor of the congregation in Harehills,23 told of the long journey of his congregation from humble beginnings to growth, affluence and a city-wide ministry. With the exception of the few who arrived prepared educationally and theologically, most early members came from poor families. But, "in the midst of this humility, theirs was an evangelistic fervour; a steadfast faith; and the firm resolution to create heaven at any costs in Chapeltown." A "spirit of unselfishness, compassion and love" made them shelter the homeless and create resources for social, economic and spiritual survival. As the group grew, educational and social changes had to be made. Projects developed such as recreation centres, supplementary schools, training courses, youth clubs and outdoor activities. This in return "changed the structure of the Pentecostal church". It began, by multiplication of resources, to generate its own wealth and an efficient leadership. Now it attracts also the affluent and professionals who in return will care for those still struggling to make ends meet. Now these Christians "will not take a backseat any more". They attempt to alleviate suffering, but also to speak up, if necessary, to local government on issues of racism, deprivation, ethics of peace or crime-prevention, and cooperate in city-wide ministries.24 God's blessings are understood not just as financial, but also pertaining to human relationships, bridge-building with the wider community and the healing of unhealthy rifts:
Jesus Christ's gospel is for all classes… As the Pentecostal church is defined in a clear context, it gives coherence to life, worship and practice so people can use the resources at their disposal to enhance the Kingdom of God, locally and globally.25
Allan Sam, pastor of the Church of God of Prophecy (ChGP) in Chapeltown and district bishop,26 described the present work of his congregation. Some years ago, I myself had taken there a group of University students on a dark winter night; the girls had been afraid and hired a van up Chapeltown Road. The door opened, and there was music, light and joy, akin to that 'heaven' to be created in the area. Even more today, related to the ever increasing variety of human needs, the congregation deals with those for whom there is a short-fall of benefits, the unemployed, the physically and mentally handicapped and refugees. Besides the nursery, it runs a drop-in-centre, a food pantry, and an advice and counselling service for asylum-seekers, if needed, also to represent them at social services or to the MP. This, the pastor affirms, is in the first instance not done to turn them into members (though some join), but to alleviate poverty, help the less fortunate to cope, provide heating, utensils and furniture, and liberate them by prayer and joint worship from stress, anxiety and a situation of being kept in limbo. In all this music and songs play an essential role. In some cases such as that of an African family, this has resulted in counteracting a one-week's deportation order. In this way, the church has developed into a genuine witness to the community at large, and a central interface between those who want to engage themselves and those who need support. For 'prosperity' should only be there for the benefit of all people, and
Jesus' mission was first and foremost to the outcasts, misfits and those who need hope
and a voice to speak out on their behalf…It is evil to spend money on weapons
and arguments while people are dying in the world.27
Last but not least, Mable Parris, pastor of Bethel United Church,28 added a further dimension. Besides her church work in Hyde Park, Leeds, she has initiated and organised the Kenya Orphan Sponsorship Trust (KOST) in Africa. After a split between young and old in her congregation, she received a vision of a "mountain high up in the clouds, and somebody who handed me a spanner…I accepted the challenge…and I followed the Lord in confidence, boldness and fearlessness." She said, "I did not go to Africa for church… I saw for myself the conditions of misery …and I dropped everything."29
These people do not only need churches, they are in desperate need of medication and sponsorship to help children in their schooling…The orphanage is in an appalling condition. There is no food, no blankets for the children or even clothes. Medical supplies is non-existent…These people are depending on me to organise aid for them…Despite the severe
hardship and poverty, the people in Kenya love the Lord.30
In 1995, she set up the Trust and launched it in Leeds City Hall.31 From there a project grew which today not only comprises two orphanages at Homa Bay near Lake Victoria and Maphadi, but also, as a result, several churches in Kenya and Tanzania for whom she functions as the 'mother': "These people accepted me as somebody sent by God".
Concerned about "a level of poverty unknown in the West", confronted face-to-face with the street children's plight, and grasping the link between these, poverty and Aids, KOST runs vocational training colleges for youths "as a step to independence" and investment in human resources for building the future.32 As the continent has lost its wealth and prospects through the injustices committed against Africans by foreign powers, and injustices perpetuated by fellow countrymen, all of us – including the Caribbean settlers in Britain – , she insists, have to share their means and to train people to help themselves, so that there will be skills and courage in the next generation. While first Pastor Parris' church complained, feeling she belonged to them, the atmosphere slowly changed; many members and ministers are now in support of the work. On 29.9.01 the staff of Shared Earth, a small chain of gift stores based in Yorkshire, opened its doors at the Merrion Centre in Leeds to KOST and hosted a 'Harambee' - a Kiswahili word describing the cooperative act of fundraising within a community.33 Also, significantly, the Board has built bridges with the wider community and consists of both black and white Trustees, including Anglican, Methodist, Jewish, Sikh and Buddhist supporters.
We still worship in the name of Jesus…(but) Jesus says: Go and tell that I am alive!
If churches would all rise up in the power of the Spirit, we could raise our voice to the
whole of society.34
This echoes Kingsley Larbi's warnings in God and the Poor:
Unless Africans inculcate values like the culture of punctuality and excellence, positive work ethic, integrity, honesty and (engagement) in their national life, the progress that they are yearning for will continue to elude them…Since all human beings bear the image of God, he cares for both the poor and the rich, for it is his avowed intention that all…should live happily and enjoy the fruits of the earth.35