from Africa in Transition

Guest Post: West African Religion in the United States

May 8, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers. In Jim’s post, he illustrates another example of not only the close relationship between the United States and Nigeria but also how Nigerian religion influences the United States.

Far from the tony neighborhoods of Old Town, Alexandria, in a part of northern Virginia populated by auto body shops, receiving docks, iron works, wholesalers, rail lines, and waste recycling facilities, is a cluster of Pentecostal churches, bounded by the Beltway to the west, and Industrial Road to the east. Among these houses of worship on Electronic Drive is Victory Temple, a parish of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG).

The RCCG traces its origin to Pa (Josiah) Akindayomi, whose vision led to the emergence of the church in 1952 in Lagos. Explosive growth has established about two thousand parishes in Nigeria, numerous churches in other African countries and Europe, and about six hundred in North America.

Victory Temple, housed in commercial office space, is relatively small, at least in comparison to some mainline suburban denominations numbering in the 1,500-2,500 range, but its members, many of whom are African, provide strong support. Audio and video systems are impressive.

Worship commences with praise singing. Pounding chords from a base guitar and keyboard reverberate across the floor, up your legs, and into your chest, obliterating any doubt about the presence of the Holy Spirit. Attending the service is like being in the center of a big warm throbbing heart.

Strains of several faith traditions are discernible: the opening of the service is strongly Pentecostal, (as are the testimonies); the exchange of greetings among worshippers seemed very Anglican; while the sermon evidenced traces of Joel Osteen’s positive pragmatism. "Church should be a place to come to enjoy each other," says Pastor Shina Enitan. And, "If you cannot laugh in church, God cannot solve your problems."

Sunday’s sermon focused in part on the “ABCs” of marital success. ’A’ is for acceptance. Differences have to be accepted. The pastor, who came from Nigeria, explained, “I had seen cell phones, but not used them. My wife, coming from Ghana, had been using them for some time. And so, after marriage, when we discover who our spouse really is, I had to accept her talking--and the bills.” But he hinted at the saving grace of "unlimited minutes" plans. ’B’ is for burden-sharing. When you meet each other’s needs, emotional ties deepen. ’C’ is for communication. To improve that, make requests, not demands; give issues your full attention; and maintain a sense of humor, a sense of "lightness."

Some might think that Victory Temple is a fringe church, since it is located in a remote niche of a large urban area, and its congregation is far from a cross-section of society. But that would be a mistake. Instead, this dynamic RCCG parish is at the heart of our disruptive and change-filled times. In Fire from Heaven, Harvey Cox writes that in "imagery, mood, and tempo of religious service," such churches "provide ways of wrestling" with the full range of human feeling resulting from the experiences of its members. Pa Akindayomi’s legacy was never more timely.

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