Heaven is a prayer away in Africa Promises: "New churches" of born-again Christians are winning thousands of converts in sub-Saharan Africa with promises of miracles that can overcome what their governments can't: poverty and disease.

Sun Journal

November 05, 1996|By Scott Straus | Scott Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NAIROBI, Kenya -- They come to Nairobi's movie theaters and public parks at lunchtime every day with God and Africa's problems on their mind. They have watched their rent, food prices and the fees they pay for health care and education rise every year while the cities around them deteriorate.

These Kenyans are not turning to politicians or to mainstream churches to solve their problems. They are putting their faith in a new wave of born-again Christianity in Africa that promises heaven on earth.

"Is God concerned about your problem?" the Rev. Agnetta Alukaya booms to a lunchtime crowd. "Yes! I want to assure you that God is caring about your sorrow and pain. Whatever you need, God will give it to you. Give him a hand!"

The evangelist delivers her sermons in a downtown Nairobi movie theater where action films, such as "Crocodile Fury," are shown in the evenings. She makes prayer a lively, participatory event, full of clapping and hand-waving.

Alukaya works for one of the "new churches" in Kenya, ChristCo, which is one of many to have left behind crosses, sacraments and other traditional symbols of Christianity. They offer instead a direct relationship with a God who answers prayers with miracles.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, as living standards decline and disillusionment with politics grows, "health and wealth" Christianity is finding a receptive audience.

More Africans are leaving their mainstream churches and adopting a livelier form of prayer to a God who can do what no one else in Africa can.

Missionaries began preaching Christianity on the continent by the 17th century, and the fastest growth has been in the 20th century. And much more so than in the West, religion remains at the center of society. What church a Kenyan belongs to, and whether a Kenyan is "saved," is as important as that person's tribe.

The new churches -- born again, Pentecostal congregations -- began to become popular about 20 years ago but now are the fastest growing Christian denominations. Here, in Nairobi, the congregations every week announce crusades, or "gospel conventions." Posters advertise "The Great Annual Holy Ghost Convention," or the "International Conference on Power Evangelism" -- and there are many others.

These crusades and conventions often feature American evangelists or preachers from elsewhere in the West. In September, Reinhard Bonnke -- the best-known Western preacher in Africa -- led a five-day crusade in Mombasa, Kenya. His message was direct, personal and appealing.

"We are not beggars," Bonnke, who is German, told a packed stadium. "We have come to receive something."

"Jesus said you should receive. Now say to Jesus, I have come to collect what you have promised." And the crowd roared in response: "I'm collecting. I'm collecting."

To make his point clear, Bonnke held a 1,000-shilling note -- equivalent to $20, or about a third of the average monthly salary -- handed it to a boy and told the crowd that Jesus would give them a "gift a million times greater."

Bonnke, founder of the Frankfurt-based Christ for All Nations, has been delivering this message in Africa since 1967. He draws crowds much larger than local politicians attract. In Mombasa, 143,000 people came to hear Bonnke on the same day that about 20,000 attended a political rally featuring the leading figures in Kenya's opposition parties.

"I've been to many political rallies and they've been of no help to me," says Justol Nyaga, a real estate agent who went to Bonnke's crusade. "I'd rather put fuel in my car to attend a meeting like this. Here you learn how to get into heaven."

The grand finale of Bonnke's crusade -- and the great attraction for many Kenyans -- was his invocation of God to heal the sick. "In the name of Jesus," Bonnke declared, "heal broken bones blind eyes open cripples stand up and walk."

The crowd edged closer to Bonnke, who welcomed some of the healed on stage. One by one they proclaimed divine intervention: speech where there was none before, asthmatic lungs that are now clear, and aching stomachs that are pain free.

This has an appeal in Kenya, where competent medical care in clinics and hospitals is unaffordable for many. Even for people with money, hospitals are overcrowded, under-equipped and unsanitary.

By the end of Bonnke's crusade, according to Christ for All Nations, 103,000 people signed up to say the preacher's visit made them new converts to Jesus. They are directed to the Jesus Celebration Center and other new churches in Kenya.

Critics of Bonnke and the new church preachers say that they are exploiting ignorance and suffering in Africa. "These people are offering a panacea," says Bishop Zablon Nthamburi, Kenya's presiding Methodist bishop and a critic of the new churches.

"They are just taking advantage of poverty. People are desperate."

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