Nigerian church brings noise, passion to Texas town

Saturday, June 21, 2008

FLOYD, Texas – John Skinner stands in his rural driveway, defeated.

A halo glows over the ink-black night, a bass drum thumps, ecstatic voices rise and fall in the distance. It's 10 p.m.

"When they get going, it goes all night," he said with a whatcha-gonna-do grin. "As long as they're not breaking the law, I have to live with them. I don't have to like it, but I have to live with them."

"Them" for Mr. Skinner and many of his neighbors are Nigerians – thousands and thousands of Nigerians.

Each June, members of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Africa's largest and most ambitious Pentecostal denomination, travel from around the world for a slain-in-the-spirit, dance-in-the aisles, shout-at-the-top-of-your-lungs Christian revival in a former cotton field 50 miles northeast of Dallas.

The three-day, three-night service was expected to end at about sunrise today with Holy Ghost-inspired spasms of worship. Between 2,000 and 4,000 people attended each night.

"It's a yearly event, a time for worshpping God and a time to meet with our father in the Lord, Pastor Adeboye," said Bisi Oshinkoyu, who stood Thursday at the mouth of a tent you might see at the State Fair of Texas. She wore a canary-yellow dress printed with a kaleidoscope of colors. The material wrapped her hair, flowed over her shoulders, cinched at the waist and flared to the floor. She carried a tambourine.

Mrs. Oshinkoyu and her husband, Yomi, arrived in East Texas from their home in Raleigh, N.C., by way of Nigeria.

"We're on a mission," she said. "A lot of us feel we've been sent to take America back to where it used to be spiritually."

Why Floyd, Texas?

American and European missionaries fueled the spread of Christianity across Africa in the 1960s and '70s. Since then, many evangelical churches such as RCCG believe Americans have gone astray – their spirituality dimmed by material wealth, their moral convictions blunted by a permissive popular culture.

"Our basic vision is to make heaven and to take as many people with us as possible," the church's leader, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, said this week.

"We see light retreating from the darkness here. Something's wrong, and that's why we are here."

But why Floyd?

The unincorporated former railroad stop – with an estimated population of 100 – is about 10 miles west of Greenville, a city known for a banner that once hung over Main Street: "The Blackest Land, The Whitest People."

Pastor Adeboye said God spoke to him on a stopover at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport about 20 years ago. He told him to buy land and build a Nigerian-style church camp in Texas.

Over the last eight years, the church has spent more than $2 million to purchase about 700 acres and several homes. It has built an elementary-school-size church, poured a parking lot, and hired architects to design Redemption Camp, which is patterned after the church's home base in Lagos, Nigeria.

In coming years, church leaders plan to build a village-type housing development, a man-made lake and maybe even a water park.

"As we begin to establish schools and colleges and other society-related establishments, people will come to know we've come to be a blessing," Pastor Adeboye said.

Freedom vs. respect

Nobody has to convince farmer Bill Waidelich the pastors from RCCG are heaven-sent. They've purchased nearly 300 acres and his ranch-style home over the last five years.

"I have three kids to put through college and two years of droughts when they came along," he said. "It all worked out in a good way – the Lord really took care of me."

Mr. Waidelich acknowledges that some of his neighbors are suspicious of the congregation's plans, concerned about traffic and infuriated by the late-night noise.

"Everybody's always nervous about somebody new in the community, especially if they're racially different," he said. "But that's what America's all about, the freedom to live wherever you want."

But Judy Dillingham, who lives across a creek bed from the campground, said the issue isn't freedom, it's respect.

Seyi Adewale of Houston receives support in the youth ministry tent at The Redeemed Christian Church of God's 12th Annual Convention.

During the congregation's biggest events – in June and October – church members have parked in people's driveways, buzzed down rock roads, and strewn trash into ditches. Even with her doors closed and windows down, she can hear the preaching and music until early into the morning.

"They don't live here; they don't care what we go through," she said. "This is like their vacation. This is like Palm Beach at spring break. This is our community; we have to live out here all the time. They don't."

Hunt County sheriff's deputies towed several cars parked along U.S. Highway 380 last year, according to Lt. Brian Alford. The church paid $11,000 to rebuild one road.

Other than a few calls to complain about the noise, this year's conference seemed to go off without a hitch.

Big numbers

Uniformed security guards directed traffic into a massive, lighted cement parking lot. Concession stands offered cold drinks and traditional African dishes of suya – a roasted chicken rubbed with peanut oil – served on white rice.

A 125-member choir, refrigerator-sized speakers and concert-style lighting animated worship in the main hall. One house-sized tent was used for a teenage ministry and another served as a dining room. Child care was provided at the brick-and-mortar church.

By next year, church leaders say, the main tent will be transformed into an auditorium capable of seating 25,000.

Big numbers are a Nigerian thing, members say.

Each December in Lagos, the church hosts the Holy Ghost Conference, which it claims attracts between 4 million and 8 million people. If accurate, it would be the largest gathering of Christians on Earth.

Pastor Adeboye, a mathematics professor before he took over as general overseer of RCCG in 1981, said the church's evangelical ambitions are straight out of the Bible – to bring the gospel to all nations.

"I know in the U.S. when you have a congregation of 50,000 that's a really, really big church," he said. "If people come ... they find that in this organization, the pastors alone number more than 50,000.

That will broaden their vision and then together we can believe in God, not just for revival in America, but for revival in the whole world."

Jacob Olupona, who teaches indigenous African religions at Harvard Divinity School, said RCCG's expansion in Texas and around the world will almost certainly continue. The church has 2 million to 5 million members in at least 90 nations.

"What we're seeing is the expansion of their kingdom into North America," he said. "They've been fairly successful recruiting people into the church, and I see them as a part of the larger American religious mosaic. They're no longer just an African church in the United States."


PENTECOSTAL: The Redeemed Christian Church of God, Africa's largest Pentecostal church, has established parishes in at least 90 countries. There are 276 in the United States and 20 in North Texas.

HEADQUARTERS: Lagos, Nigeria

MEMBERSHIP: About 25,000 in the U.S. and 2,500 in North Texas. Worldwide, estimates run from 2 million to 5 million.

REDEMPTION CAMP: The church's 674-acre development in the Hunt County town of Floyd includes an elementary-school-sized church, an outdoor pavilion capable of seating about 10,000 people, several homes and outbuildings. Church leaders envision a sprawling compound that would include schools, a village-style housing development, parks, a manmade lake and possibly a water park.

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