Monday, July 4, 2011

How to be a Winner

Over the past couple of decades the number and variety of churches in Africa have seen a major expansion. Led by West Africans, and especially Nigerians, the pentecostal churches have quickly gained ground from the staid outposts of the previous century's Christian missionaries. The new churches are the object of much fruitful anthropological study (Birgit Meyer's work has been ground-breaking; my friend and colleague at Duke, Brian Goldstone, studies the prosperity gospel in predominantly-Muslim northern Ghana). The churches arrived late to CAR, but their presence has been growing, so I decided I'd go and check one out for myself.

I picked La Chapelle des vainqueurs (Winners' Chapel) because I remembered puzzling over its name when I saw it while living in Nairobi in 2004. I brought Patrick, a Central African friend who works for a humanitarian agency. We sneaked into Sunday morning's service a few minutes late. Inside, the hall had little adornment. Signs with one-word inspirational-moral prods (“prosperity,” “faith,” “supernatural,” “wisdom,” “healing”) marked the places where other churches might have depicted the stations of the cross. Here, I saw not a single cross.

At first I didn't recognize the preacher's language – his screaming and the microphone's distortion made deciphering words difficult. A translator quickly repeated his every phrase into crisp French. It dawned on me that the mysterious language was a heavily-accented Nigerian English. “Eh-ta-do!” became a clear “C'est fait!” in French. Only thanks to the French version did I figure out that the preacher kept repeating not “the war of God” but “the word of God”.

Despite the continual references to the word of God, God's actual words were notably absent from the service. I counted only two direct biblical references – to Matthew (Jesus as healer) and Romans. And we were treated to only one song. Instead, the preacher and translator worked themselves into rhythmic, repetitive incantations: “Heey-too!” “Il a pris!” “Heey-too!” “Il a pris!” The themes of health and wealth ran through it all.

Testimonials (my favorite part) punctuated the sermon. One man came forward and told how he had been preparing a dossier to submit for a Termes de référence (a contract bid). He lacked some of the required paperwork, but when he went to drop off the folder the person told him it didn't matter. And he got the contract! Everyone cheered and clapped. Another man told how he was en mission (the terminology used for trips outside the capital) to Paoua when he got in a car accident and broke his arm. He made it to a healer in Bossangoa, who set the bone and handed him a piece of string to tie around his wrist and protect him from the town's witches. He tossed away the man's string. And look at him now – his arm is fully healed, and no witches were able to come near him!

Later, the preacher asked “all the businessmen” to come forward. Patrick whispered to me curiously, “It looks like everyone is going forward.” Indeed, the pews had emptied. This is really strange in CAR, where there are very few businesspeople. The small salaried class all draw their paychecks from the state or aid agencies. Most of the businesses are run by expatriates – Chadians and Cameroonians in the markets; French, West African and middle Easterners in minerals; Lebanese in imports – to the extent that “businessman” is almost synonymous with “foreigner” here. I wondered if perhaps Winners' Chapel encourages people to think of themselves as entrepreneurs in order to attain wealth. If so, the arrival of these churches here can only count as a good thing, for an expansion of people's imagination of the realm of paid employment beyond the state is sorely needed.

Toward the end of the three-hour service, the preacher turned to public health. He called on people to avoid exposed food (flies can come and set up on it, he explained), turned that entreaty into a spiritual metaphor (you have a doctor in you!), and then finished on a bombastic note: “Destroy diabetes! Destroy AIDS!”

Once the service had wrapped up, all of us first-timers were invited to stick around and fill out cards with our contact info (I gave my real info and have yet to be contacted) and sip warm sodas. I guess even I won something.

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