(RNS) — Two months ago, I stood in Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, Liberia, listening to the stories of Africans and Americans — the latter freed from slavery in the United States — who had banded together to establish the first republic on the continent of Africa two centuries before.
Providence, the oldest Baptist church in the West African country and the second oldest on the continent, was founded in 1822 by the Rev. Lott Carey, who had come as a missionary to the fledgling country and had brought a team of African American settlers home. Now, 200 years later, the Rev. Emmett L. Dunn, CEO of the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, had brought a team of African Americans home.
I have traveled to several countries in Africa, and each one is imprinted on my heart in a special way. But hearing the stories of the African American settlers was cause to pause. I connected with the history of Liberia in a way I didn’t expect. I felt blessed beyond measure.
Landing in Liberia my spirit leaped like the baby in Elizabeth’s belly when greeting Mary, the mother of Jesus. The sights and sounds of Liberia greeted my senses, sending my head and my heart into overwhelming joy.
The Rev. Lott Carey. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
In Liberia, I was at home. Home in the land of my ancestors on World Communion Sunday. Home, where a sense of “double consciousness” — a concept coined by W.E.B. DuBois to describe African Americans’ sense of dislocation from Africa and ourselves — liberated my thoughts and linked them to my theology in a free-spirited dance of deliverance.
It’s often said we must step back before we step forward. Walking in the footsteps of Lott Carey in the motherland afforded us the opportunity to do just that.
Born enslaved in 1780 in Charles City County, Virginia, Carey became a disciple of Jesus in 1807, purchased his freedom in 1813, and led the first Baptist missionaries to Africa from the United States in 1821.
After settling in Liberia, Carey and his pioneering missionary team engaged in evangelism, education and health care. He served as a missional and civic leader until his death in 1828.
Our pilgrimage relived aspects of this journey and the experiences of his team. We explored Providence Island, where Carey landed in Liberia in early 1822. Before we landed in Liberia, Dunn told us, “We expect that this journey into the past will bring home to us the love and sacrifice of those who walked this journey before us.”
The Door of Return at the Slave Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana. It was once dubbed “The Door of No Return,” signaling the last time enslaved persons would see their homeland. Courtesy photo
Our next stop in Africa took us nearly 1,000 miles east along the coast of the Assin Manso Slave River and the Cape Coast castle in Ghana, unofficially dubbed “the Door of No Return” by our Ghanian sisters and brothers, through which so many of our ancestors were shackled and shipped into the slave trade in the New World. It has become a portal for African Americans, pulling us back to Ghana.
Before walking to the Slave River, where my ancestors received their first bath after being captured and their last bath before being carted off to the Americas, we held a ceremony of protection over Lott Carey’s life. In my sanctified imagination, my African ancestors’ prayers came to fruition in the proclamation made that day. What was meant for evil, God had used for good some 400 years later.
How ironic is it? In a whitewashed slave castle used to destroy the African spirit, a group of spirited African Americans reconnected with a long-lost history, historically whitewashed in American culture and the church universal.
My Bible says, “Be steadfast and persevering, my beloved sisters and brothers, fully engaged in the work of Jesus. You know that your work is not in vain when it is done in Jesus’ name.”
It was in that spirit that the last leg of our journey in homage to Lott Carey ended with saluting our ancestors on the same shores where they passed, returning where no return was promised. In the Twi language of Ghana, “sankofa” is a word meaning “go back and get it.” We did.
(The Rev. Angelita Clifton is president of Women in Service Everywhere and an associate minister at Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, New Jersey. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
(RNS) — Over the past week, much of the world was gripped by the heartbreaking story of Rayan, a 5-year-old boy who had plunged 104 feet into a well in Morocco. For five days thousands of people went to Tamorot in northern Morocco to help and pray, while around the world hundreds of millions followed closely. On Saturday evening (Feb. 5), hopes rose as he was pulled out of the deep shaft, but the jubilation was short-lived as the news broke within minutes that he had passed away.
Images of Rayan, his grieving mother and the heroic rescue effort united much of the world around what practically no one could find disagreeable: the hope that an innocent child caught in devastating circumstances could be reunited in health and safety with his worried parents.
For many of us as Rayan departed this world, we still pray for that reunion in the next life, and are moved to contribute to his grieving family in any way that we can.
For readers of Scripture, Rayan’s time in the well brought to mind the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob (peace be upon them), in the Quran, similar to that of the Bible. In the Quran, however, Joseph’s time in the well is a focal point of an entire chapter that offers comfort to those facing a trial.
Rayan, certainly, was not thrown into the Moroccan well by envious brothers, as Joseph was. Poor infrastructure seems to have been the main reason for his death, and the fact that no one was to blame made it easy to gather everyone in sympathy.
But I can’t help but wonder while watching this unfold how differently the story of Rayan would be told, or if it would be told at all, had he been a child stuck in a crater caused by an airstrike from a military drone. Or if he was a refugee who had slipped to his death in a camp.
Figures are not for a blameless child to die due to unnecessary war. Some 1,600 children died or were maimed in Afghanistan every year for two decades, according to Save the Children, which also estimates that 25 children die or are injured each day in conflicts around the world.
Cruelty to a child is one of the few things that can still elicit a pure human reaction from most of us. It’s why the mother of Emmett Till wanted to leave the casket open after her son’s brutal murder. In her own words, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my boy.” By doing so, she sparked the civil rights movement.
It’s why the image of baby Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who washed ashore at a Turkish resort, shocked the world in a way that statistics never could. It’s why the image of over 60 Palestinian children on the cover of The New York Times did more to humanize the plight of the Palestinian people than almost all the coverage of the bombardment of Gaza combined. And it’s why the image of young Jakelin Caal, who died trying to cross the border into the United States, shook so many of us to our core.
We despise the unjust death of children, but when children die in war we feel complicit in that injustice, either through our participation in harmful policies or silence about the consequences. Many of the powers directly responsible for children’s deaths are aware of our disgust and will try to thwart coverage or sympathy that may lead to direct challenges of their use of force.
We’re told to sympathize with the child who resembles Joseph. It’s far harder for us to see ourselves as the brothers who threw him into the well.
While the brothers of Joseph were driven by envy, we’re driven by greed or apathy. The reason doesn’t matter to the child. Our repentance is to do what we can for that child, and the other children who need our help.
Rayan was a beautiful, innocent child who brought out the best of his countrymen, and the purest of sentiments from around the world. How do we then reckon with the harm of so many unholy wars and man-made tragedies in which so many beautiful children die in ugly ways? What is the work we need to do so that they may live in dignity and calm?
(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
Participants at the 3rd Symposium on Misleading Theologies sit in a session on Nov. 22, 2021, in Nairobi, Kenya. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — When some African church pastors ordered their followers to eat grass or gulp petrol or even drink poison-laced water, their congregations have obeyed the instructions, thinking the practices would bring them closer to God.
Many other pastors take their wellness advice a notch higher, claiming to heal conditions such as disability and barrenness and diseases such as HIV and AIDS, and, more recently, coronavirus. It’s not unheard of for pastors to hold their congregations spellbound as they promise to bring the dead back to life.
In recent years the All Africa Conference of Churches, an umbrella group for several Protestant denominations on the continent, has moved to combat theological claims that harm Christians, holding a series of symposiums to educate clergy and unify their churches against faith healing and other practices.
“All these pronunciations, fake testimonies and things like these are really destructive. They are not life-giving, but life frustrating,” said the Rev. Fidon Mwombeki, a Tanzanian Lutheran pastor who is the general secretary of the AACC.
Based in Nairobi, the AACC is the continent’s largest association of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox and Indigenous churches and has a presence in 42 countries. It brings together churches, national councils of churches, theological and lay training institutions and other Christian organizations.
Since 2019, the group has organized three symposiums in which theologians, clerics and lay Christians have met to explore the subject of misinformation. Some of the themes tackled in the prior conferences include power and authority, wealth and poverty, government regulation of religious organizations, and health and healing.
“If we don’t pay attention, (misleading theologies) will undermine human dignity and put the lives of people at stake. You see in some churches the minister sending people out to eat grass. This is unacceptable,” said the Rev. Bosela Eale of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, AACC’s director of theology, interfaith relations and leadership, at the most recent Nov. 22-24 symposium, held in Nairobi.
Participants at the 3rd Symposium on Misleading Theologies in Nairobi, Kenya, hold group discussions on Nov. 22, 2021. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
The theologians are warning against dangerous teachings and practices, such as: the prosperity gospel; sexual abuses in demonic exorcism and blessing for fertility; the use of toxic substances and liquids in religious rites; and demanding huge sums of money for prayers and pastoral services, among others.
Religious observers say many of the worst abuses of theology come in faith healing.
The Rev. Simangaliso Kumalo, an associate professor of religion and governance at the University of KwaZulu-Natal-Pietermaritzburg, warns that the popular belief that Jesus cures every sickness poses challenges for managing epidemics, pointing to Pentecostal churches that have, he said, spiritualized COVID-19.
“For them, the corona is not a mere virus,” Kumalo told the conference. Pastors preach that, “because members of Pentecostal churches are children of God, the virus would not infect them, or if it does, they would be healed by Jesus, the physician.”
He highlighted conspiracy theories that say viruses such as COVID-19 are God’s punishment to disobedient humanity.
Monica Nambaba, an official at the Africa Christian Health Associations Platform, said spurious teachings about health have hurt Africans in the past. “Some people with conditions such as HIV have died after religious leaders told them to stop medication after attending healing prayers,” she said.
Pastors should instead be conscious of their power to sway people’s attitudes about health measures. “If the religious leaders can use their platforms to correct this, it will go a long way in helping the communities,” Nambaba said.
According to Veronica Ngum Ndi, a disability and development professional from Cameroon, people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to faith healing attempts. Telling a person with a permanent disability that God will one day allow them to walk again is destructive, she said, and commanding them to drop their crutches because they have been cured, as some pastors do, can only worsen their problems. “Some have been injured badly in the process,” said Ndi.
At the same time, some of the church leaders and theologians at the symposium advocated for a reconsideration of African traditional healing practices, many of which have been suppressed or lost in the continent’s missionary era.
“We are referring to those aspects that make traditional healing practices beneficial. These aspects must be recovered because they are not incompatible with the gospel,” said the Rev. Herve Djilo Kuate, a pastor in the Evangelical Church of Cameroon.