PASTOR DANIEL AJAYI-ADENIRAN is coming for your soul. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, rich or poor, speak English or Spanish or Cantonese. He is on a mission to save you from eternal damnation. He realizes you may be skeptical, put off by his exotic name — he’s from Nigeria — or confused by his accent, the way he stretches his vowels and trills his R’s, giving his sermons a certain chain-saw rhythm.
He suspects you may have some unfortunate preconceptions about Nigerians. But he is not deterred. He believes the Holy Spirit is working through him — aided by the awesome earthly power of demographics.Skip to next paragraphMultimediaPentecostal FireAudio Slide ShowPentecostal FireRelatedTimes Topics: Religion and BeliefEnlarge This ImageArlene Gottfried for The New York Times
The Redeemed In the United States, members of the church, which practices a vigorous brand of Pentecostalism, are for the most part African immigrants — although church leaders are hoping for more diverse congregations. Above, the Chapel of Restoration in the Bronx.Enlarge This ImageArlene Gottfried for The New York Times
Pastor Raphael Adebayo during a service at a Redeemed Church service in south Dallas on Feb. 24, 2009. Pastor Adebayo has tried to appeal to the most desperate members of a poor area of Dallas, welcoming ex-convicts, the homeless and addicts. Part of his appeal is through charity. “If I give them food and clothes,” he said, “they will come to me.”Enlarge This ImageArlene Gottfried for The New York Times
Prayer during a service in a Redeemed church in the Bronx, Feb. 13.Enlarge This ImageArlene Gottfried for The New York Times
A man prays at the Chapel of Restoration in the Bronx, Feb. 13. Members of the Redeemed Church routinely speak in tongues or collapse under the healing touch of a pastor.Enlarge This ImageArlene Gottfried for The New York Times
The faithful in the Bronx following prayers in a service led by Pastor James Fadele and Pastor Daniel Ajayi-Adeniran. Like other Redeemed churches, the Chapel of Restoration was founded by transplants from Nigeria, where the church claims to have five million followers.Enlarge This ImageArlene Gottfried for The New York Times
Pastor James Fadele, head of the Redeemed Church in North America at Redemption Camp, church headquarters near Floyd, Tex.Enlarge This ImageSeamus Murphy/Reportage by Getty Images
Enoch Adeboye, the leader of the Redeemed Church, in a service in London, November 2008.
Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent, and Ajayi-Adeniran belongs to one of its most vigorously expansionary religious movements, a homegrown Pentecostal denomination that is crusading to become a global faith. In the course of just a few decades, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, founded in a Lagos shantytown, has won millions of adherents in Nigeria while building a vast missionary network that stretches into more than 100 nations. “The rate of growth,” Ajayi-Adeniran says, “is becoming exponential.” As the man coordinating the Redeemed Church’s expansion in North America, the pastor spends his days shuttling from his home base, a storefront church in the Bronx, to the denomination’s continental headquarters, a 550-acre compound in Texas, and to mission outposts scattered from Vermont to Belize. This places him at the vanguard of a revolution in worldwide Christianity, one that it is quite literally changing its face, as a faith that was once exported by white missionaries from Europe and America comes to draw its strength from the peoples of the Southern Hemisphere.
Revival is an eternal theme in the history of Christianity. Time after time, evangelical fervor ignites, burns itself out and then re-emerges in some altered and surprising form, in constant cycles of migration and renewal. The ferment of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation sent Puritans to New England, Quakers to Pennsylvania and Jesuits into the wilds of South America. The missionary movements of the 19th century inspired pious adventurers to travel to Africa and spread, in the famous formulation of David Livingstone, “Civilization, commerce and Christianity.” Today the process is reversing itself, as the population of churchgoers dwindles in Europe, remains fairly static in the United States and erupts in the “global south” — a geopolitical term that encompasses Africa, Latin America and much of Asia. Seven years ago, in a book titled “The Next Christendom,” Philip Jenkins, a Penn State religious scholar, predicted that the global south would eventually come to represent Christianity’s center of gravity. Now it appears that phenomenon is starting to manifest across a broad spectrum of Christian belief, challenging patterns of leadership and notions of religious identity that in some cases have stood for centuries.
Take, for example, the Anglican Communion. Spread along with the British Empire, its membership now tilts heavily southward: Nigeria alone, with some 20 million adherents, makes up around a quarter of the entire Anglican Communion. The church’s recent schism over gay rights, which pits liberal white bishops against traditionalist counterparts from Africa, has upended old colonial lines of authority, leading to the odd spectacle of dissident conservative ministers in America formally shifting their affiliations to authorities in faraway countries like Uganda.
The story is similar within the Catholic Church, the world’s largest Christian denomination. Roughly a third of the College of Cardinals currently hails from the global south, lending support to predictions that someday, perhaps quite soon, they will elect a non-European pope. If that were to occur, it would only echo what is happening in Catholic parishes throughout the developed world. In the United States, where a shrinking number of young men are willing to accept the sacrifices required for ordination, one in six of all diocesan priests, and one in three seminarians, are now foreign-born. The world’s largest Catholic seminary is in Nigeria. When I went to my childhood home in South Carolina for the holidays last year, a visiting Nigerian priest celebrated Christmas Mass at my own family’s parish, surprising his passive audience with an upbeat, stemwinding, almost evangelical homily on God’s glory.
Christianity is practiced differently in the global south, and especially in Africa, where it has been invested with cultural values that long predate the first missionary efforts. During the 20th century, the population of Christians in Africa grew from 10 million to around 360 million, and that could double by 2025, by which time demographers project the continent will be home to a quarter of all believers. These Africans are making Christianity their own, in ways both subtle and profound. This is evidenced in political debates over subjects like homosexuality, which is scorned throughout the continent, or condom distribution, which — despite the current pope’s opposition — some local Catholic bishops have countenanced as a practical response to AIDS. But it can also be seen in a style of worship: colorful, musical and suffused with a belief in the presence of the supernatural in everyday life.
This Africanization is obvious in Pentecostal sects like the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Here again is a story of revival. The Pentecostal movement is said to have begun in 1906, in a rundown church in a Los Angeles ghetto, where a black preacher gathered a multiracial congregation to pray in a fashion that contemporary critics saw as radical and strange, maybe even possessed. Today there are around 600 million Pentecostals worldwide, the vast majority of them in developing nations, and Africa is a hotbed. Pentecostalism is not so much an organized religion — it has no central authority — as a set of beliefs and practices that can be adapted by local entrepreneurs. It is perfectly suited to harness the modern forces of global crosspollination.
American televangelists like T. D. Jakes and Benny Hinn are received like rock stars when they fly into African capitals, where they preach to crowds estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Their African counterparts, meanwhile, are moving in the opposite direction, winning converts in Europe especially. In Kiev, a Nigerian minister leads a predominantly white Pentecostal church that claims a membership of 30,000, including the city’s mayor. Four of the 10 largest megachurches in London are run by Africans. Of all the many new sects, however, none are as organized as the Redeemed Christian Church of God. “I always cite the R.C.C.G. as the best example of a rising church that, probably by the time I die, is going to be a global denomination,” Philip Jenkins said. “It really is pushing so hard in all possible directions.”
The Redeemed Church offers a case study of the crosscurrents that are drawing Christianity southward. Its leader and guiding force, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, sums up the church’s history this way: “Made in heaven, assembled in Nigeria, exported to the world.” He preaches that his followers — known as the Redeemed — are a chosen people and have a special covenant with God, one that promises that the church will one day claim an adherent in every family on earth.
The Redeemed mission to the United States represents perhaps the greatest test to date of these immense ambitions. The church is still in its infancy here, with only around 15,000 active members, most of them Nigerians, but its goal is to make gradual inroads into the wider culture, at first aiming at members of immigrant groups — other Africans, Caribbeans, Latin Americans, Asians — and then moving on to African-Americans and whites. They are filled with the confidence of miraculous faith, though they realize they are contending with cultural impediments. “Initially, it may be rough,” says Pastor James Fadele, head of the church’s operations in North America. “But some of our children grew up in America, and they are affiliated with the church, and they have white friends, they have African-American friends, they have Asian friends. They will come to the church. It’s a matter of time.”
Fadele has entrusted the task of increasing the number of Redeemed churches to Daniel Ajayi-Adeniran. Reed-thin at 44, the minister carries himself with the earnest conviction of someone who has already surmounted many obstacles. He came to this country in 1995, without a job or a place to live. At first he slept in homeless shelters and subways until he landed a job at a Brooklyn car wash, where the owner let him bed down in a hallway. He now presides over a parish with around 400 members and branches in other cities. “I believe that when there is raw power, when the lame come to church and can walk, when the blind can come and see . . . when things begin to happen like that, people will come,” the pastor told me. “It’s going to be very, very explosive.”
THE BEST EVIDENCE OF THE REDEEMED CHURCH’S outsize aspirations, at least in this country, lies in the prairie lands of Hunt County, Tex., about an hour northeast of Dallas. Down a gravel road, past barns, a white clapboard Methodist church and flat fields of dark, freshly turned soil, a large brick-and-glass auditorium appears from behind grain silos. A sign points the way to Redemption Camp, the church’s North American headquarters. From this unlikely base, in the course of less than a decade, the Redeemed have spawned nearly four hundred parishes. Over the long term, church officials plan to develop the site as a mixed-use community, with homes, stores, a university, a commercial fish farm and perhaps even a water park.
In January, Ajayi-Adeniran traveled to Redemption Camp with other church leaders to celebrate the end of a month of fasting. Several hundred people, most of them Nigerian, gathered in the auditorium for a service that began in the morning and went well past midnight. It was televised live on the Internet for a global audience. A succession of evangelists asked God to heal sickness, to keep the faithful from harm, to cancel debts “supernaturally” and, most of all, to multiply the ranks of the Redeemed. Wearing a white linen jacket and clutching a crinkled Bible, Ajayi-Adeniran stood in the front row, hands raised and eyes closed, his head bobbing, his face fixed in an ecstatic grimace.
Even by the passionate standards of Africa, the Redeemed are renowned for the intensity of their prayer. In Nigeria, it has been called “the weeping church.” During services, members of the congregation will clap, whoop and break into glossolalia — speaking in tongues — which Pentecostals believe to be the verbal expression of the Holy Spirit. They will collapse to the floor, burying their faces in the carpet, and writhe in the throes of divine communion. “I don’t know how to explain it,” Ajayi-Adeniran once told me when I asked him what he felt when he prayed. “There’s a kind of aura that comes from above that envelops you.”
It is this spiritual zeal that the Redeemed Church hopes to bring to Americans. Though its successes so far are tentative and anecdotal, they appear to be real. In my visits to many Redeemed churches in different parts of the country, I encountered non-Nigerians at every turn. That night in January at Redemption Camp, I met an African-American woman named Della Faye Sowunmi. A native of Indiana, Sowunmi is married to a Nigerian and was first exposed to the Redeemed by her sister-in-law. “I just wasn’t getting what I was after spiritually in the Baptist Church,” she said, explaining her conversion. “To watch people praise and worship like that, it touched my heart.”
Enoch Adeboye, the Redeemed Church’s leader, calculates that there are countless Americans who feel such spiritual longing. “There is an emptiness in man that can only be filled by God,” Adeboye told me in October. Adeboye was visiting Baltimore to preside over a conference of the church’s ministers and activists. We met in a high-ceilinged Marriott hotel suite, which was guarded by two mountainous security men. Adeboye sat in a wingback chair, next to a gilt fireplace, dressed casually in black slacks, a collarless African patterned shirt and white sneakers.
To understand what the church plans for America, it is crucial to appreciate what it has become in Nigeria, largely because of Adeboye’s personal charisma and sophisticated appeals. Born into a family of poor cocoa farmers, Adeboye taught mathematics at the University of Lagos before he became a full-time minister. His followers, who revere him as a patriarch, call him the General Overseer, or Daddy G.O. The church he has built echoes his personality: it is disciplined, nurturing, systematic. Back in Nigeria, Adeboye claims to have at least five million followers, including some of the country’s most influential figures. As general overseer, he presides over financial ventures, including private schools, a bank and a media business. He’s innovative at developing methods to spread the word, as well as coming up with fresh revenue streams. The church produces inspirational movies on DVD, which are big sellers, and offers a service that sends daily text messages, believed to offer divine protection, to subscribers’ cellphones.
In our interview, Adeboye began to talk, as he often does, about his own personal journey to salvation. It is a story with the usual Augustinian elements: prestige, women, booze. But Adeboye’s distinctive weakness, one he also glimpses in this society, was what he describes as an idolatrous reliance on reason. “It begins to give man the impression that man is the almighty, that man can do anything,” the pastor said. “He can go to the moon, go to Mars, perform operations with a laser beam without spilling blood. The problem, the way I see it, is that because of the advance of technology, science and investing, the Western world began to feel that they didn’t need God as much as before. Whereas in Africa, we need him. We know we need him to survive.”
Nigeria’s evangelical surge dates to the late 1960s, when university students formed campus prayer groups. Christian students, rejecting their parents’ less-vigorous beliefs, became born again and embraced Pentecostalism, which had long been present in Nigeria but previously was considered lower class. Political factors spurred the revival, too, particularly in later years, as Nigeria suffered through a series of military dictatorships dominated by Muslims from its northern region. Though Adeboye seldom mentions Islam, Nigeria’s other proselytizing faith, it is clear that religious tension fueled the awakening. Like everyone on campus, Adeboye was exposed to Pentecostalism, but he says he didn’t give himself over wholeheartedly to God until he was in his 30s. Seeking a cure for a daughter’s persistent illness, he wandered into a modest church overseen by an aging pastor who was reputed to be a miracle worker. According to Redeemed lore, the moment Adeboye appeared, a vision told the old man that he’d found his inheritor.
The pastor, Josiah Akindayomi, founded the Redeemed Church in the 1950s, with God’s promise, according to doctrine, that it would eventually reach “the ends of the earth.” But the faith had not spread very far by the 1970s, in part because Akindayomi spoke only Yoruba, which limited his ability to evangelize beyond the bounds of his tribe. The next leader of the church, he knew through prior revelation, needed to be “a man of books,” capable of reaching the wider world. And so, in 1979, Akindayomi unveiled his succession plan.
Adeboye recently celebrated his 67th birthday — with a huge revival held at Redemption City, the church’s worldwide headquarters, located 30 miles north of Lagos. The model for the Texas site, Redemption City is built on land that was formerly occupied by animist shrines. Since the 1980s, Adeboye’s followers have constructed homes all around the grounds, along with schools, supermarkets, banks and a water-treatment plant. Every December, inside a mammoth hall, Adeboye holds a six-day event called the Holy Ghost Congress. Crowd estimates — never an exact science, especially in Africa — are in the millions.
“It is the largest prayer meeting in the world, and there is not another prayer meeting in the world that is a close second,” said Dr. James O. Davis, a Pentecostal minister based in Florida and the founder of the Billion Soul Network, an organization devoted to spreading Christianity around the world. “Everything that the Redeemed Church does is huge.”
UNLIKE MANY PENTECOSTAL DENOMINATIONS, the Redeemed Church is a tightly regimented organization, with authority flowing down from the general overseer through geographic zones and into individual parishes. Adeboye, for all his talk of blind belief, is still a numbers man, and he has shown a strong preference for delegating authority for overseas missions to leaders who have training in business or science. Pastor James Fadele, the head of the church in North America, is a former automotive-design engineer as well as a close relative of Adeboye. Fadele left a job at the Ford Motor Company to run the church full time from Texas. He holds an M.B.A. and has some practical business experience — he used to own a Wendy’s franchise in Detroit — and he says he has to think like a marketer when it comes to his mission here. “Everything,” Fadele told me, “is Americanized.”
That applies, in a narrow sense, to things like the books the Redeemed Church uses in its American Sunday schools, which have been purged of parables about market women and chickens, and more broadly, to the way the church positions itself in society. In Nigeria, church leaders speak out against corruption and make efforts to fight AIDS, while here they’ve assimilated the political rhetoric of the Christian Right, condemning abortion and pledging to take prayer back to public schools. The most Americanized aspect of the church, though, is its missionary strategy, which bears a striking resemblance to the business plan of a successful corporate chain — like Wendy’s, for instance. For now, in the United States, the emphasis is as much on erecting infrastructure as on making converts. Enoch Adeboye would prefer to have many small parishes rather than a few megachurches. So the Redeemed spread through a process similar to mitosis. When a parish reaches a certain size, it is encouraged to divide in two, with part of the congregation moving to a nearby location, usually with a newly ordained pastor, a process that the Redeemed, adopting a bit of American evangelical lingo, call “church planting.”
Last fall, I saw James Fadele give a presentation on missionary strategy to a gathering of church leaders. A short man with big voice and an endearing sense of humor, he spoke over a series of PowerPoint slides, in which Venn diagrams and bullet points alternated with pictures of the targets: black, white, Hispanic and Asian faces. “How do we love people?” he asked rhetorically. “We love people by planting churches.”
One slide, a bar graph, showed a set of ambitious growth objectives. Each of the church’s 22 zonal coordinators in North America, he said, had been charged with planting seven churches during the previous year. He announced an award for Pastor Daniel Ajayi-Adeniran, who, in addition to overseeing the overall effort, had also managed to consistently hit his numbers in the zone he administers, which encompasses New York and Vermont. Other coordinators reported less success, and Fadele cheerfully scolded them.
“Last year in October, we had 297 parishes in North America,” he said. “As of September of this year, we have 374. Praise the Lord!”
There was a round of applause, and Fadele’s voice turned stern.
“To Daddy G.O., that’s a failure,” he snapped. The number of parishes had increased by 25 percent in just a year, but Adeboye had asked for twice that.
One way that the church promotes growth in this country is by encouraging successful congregations to start satellites in other cities. Della Faye Sowunmi belongs to a church called the Holy Ghost Zone, in Irving, Tex., which grew out of a similarly named mother church in London. Both are led by female pastors. Victory Temple, based in Bowie, Md., has spun off outlets around the Southeast. Probably the most successful example is Jesus House, which was established by a large Redeemed church in Lagos. It now has branches all over the world. The Jesus House brand signature is “empowerment,” and the churches cater to the well-to-do, including businesspeople and others who have benefited from Nigeria’s recent oil boom. Jesus House’s Washington outlet is located in the Maryland suburbs, in a glass-fronted building that looks like a software company’s headquarters. “Our congregation is 90 percent professional,” said Ghandi Olaoye, the pastor. “We create avenues to give knowledge to people so that their lives can be better.” Olaoye’s church offers computer classes and hosts weekly business networking meetings. A recent celebration, “Empowerment Week,” featured American and African preachers and the motivational speaker Willie Jolley.
Church leaders are quick to contest any suggestion that they preach the “prosperity gospel” extolled by American evangelists like Creflo Dollar, which teaches that God will grant material wealth to those he favors, but whatever distinction they’re making is small. (“I am not a prosperity preacher,” James Fadele said at one sermon I attended, “but I am rich!”) Redeemed pastors routinely petition God to transform their followers into millionaires, members are encouraged to tithe and the Sunday collection is accompanied by joyous fanfare. At various events I attended, I heard Fadele ask members to raise money to help Adeboye buy a private jet (which duly arrived in March) and to sign up to accompany the general overseer, at a cost of up to $8,500 a person, on a coming pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which is to feature luxury hotel accommodation and a re-enactment of the Last Supper.
A sizable portion of the money collected in the United States is directed back into the North American organization’s centerpiece project, the expansion of the camp in Texas. Since 2000, Redeemed officials have been buying up large parcels of farmland around a rusty rail-stop town called Floyd (population: 220). They picked the spot, they say, in accordance with a vision Enoch Adeboye had many years ago, after a layover at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Progress on the project has slowed, at least temporarily, since a $20 million loan was delayed. But in mid-January, when I visited, Fadele told me that construction would soon begin on a hall that seats 20,000.
The larger quarters are necessary, Fadele said, to accommodate the many thousands that flock to Redemption Camp for an annual June revival ministered by Adeboye. The event, which goes all night, has caused some consternation among neighbors. Some cities in Texas, especially Houston, have large Nigerian communities, but the area around Floyd is pickup-truck country — very rural, with a long history of racial prejudice. Until the 1960s, a banner hanging over the main road in downtown Greenville, the county seat, read, “The blackest land, the whitest people.”
Over time, however, the Redeemed have become accepted — if a bit warily — as a part of the community, says John Horn, the Hunt County judge, its highest elected official. “I came from the law-enforcement field prior to running for judge, and I had heard some of the issues regarding the Nigerian Internet scams,” he told me. “I think there were probably some preconceived notions about that.” But Horn said the church had made efforts to reach out, inviting him, for example, to attend Fadele’s 60th birthday party. Fadele explained that the Redeemed had tried to bring all their neighbors to the camp for such public occasions to show them “we are a Christian church,” he said, “not a cult.”
The Redeemed Church has made a similar effort to quell any suspicions that American evangelical leaders might have, portraying itself as firmly within the Pentecostal fold. American evangelists are routinely invited to preach at the church’s revivals both here and in Nigeria. Those who have gone to Nigeria have come home with the impression that the Redeemed Church is a force to be respected — a potential partner, not a competitor, in a common struggle to revive Christian worship. “I often say,” says Bishop Bart Pierce, a white Pentecostal minister from Baltimore, “that the African is the midwife for next great move of God in America.”
RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION IN AFRICA is an omnipresent element of life: pastors are celebrities, waiters quote Scripture, gospel music plays in government offices and secular newspapers report miracles with the same credence they extend to soccer scores. Salvation is never too far away. When Daniel Ajayi-Adeniran woke up on Christmas morning in 1989, on the floor of his house in a town near Ibadan, hung over and convinced he had to make a change in his life, he knew where to find the Redeemed Church. There was one across the street, with a loudspeaker mounted on its roof, through which sermons bombarded the neighborhood every Sunday.
As an educated man with a civil-service job, Ajayi-Adeniran was a prime recruit, and within five years he was ordained an assistant pastor. Committed as he was to the church, he couldn’t endure Nigeria, which was then under the rule of Gen. Sani Abacha, a particularly nasty dictator. He immigrated to the United States, part of a wave of African migration that has come to many American cities. At the time Ajayi-Adeniran arrived, the Redeemed Church was just getting started in the United States. He began attending its first parish in New York, on Roosevelt Island. When some Nigerians from the Bronx decided to start their own church, he became its pastor.
The parish subdivided several times, according to the Redeemed model, before Ajayi-Adeniran settled at his current location, a yellow-painted, two-story brick building. When he first leased the property, it was derelict and gutted. Gradually, Ajayi-Adeniran renovated and built a substantial Sunday following, directing his proselytizing toward the souls available in the neighborhood. “My focus here is the black Americans, Caribbeans, Africans and Spanish,” he said. “For me to get whites in the church, it will take a miracle.”
His parish’s population has fluctuated over time because new churches keep splitting off. There are 13 so far, in locales as distant as Syracuse, Buffalo and Burlington, Vt. Some require more nurturing than others. The parish in Burlington, for instance, has been a particular struggle. “Vermont is 96.2 percent white,” Ajayi-Adeniran points out. But the general overseer wants the Redeemed to have a presence in every state, so a few years ago Ajayi-Adeniran drove to Burlington, scoured phone books for African names and eventually located some Congolese and Sudanese refugees. “Now they have maybe two or three Nigerian families, and the rest are Congolese, Sudanese, then black Americans and whites,” he said. “They’re not too many, but they average 40, 45” attendees on Sunday. “It will definitely work,” he predicted. “But it will take time.”
You might reasonably question why a church with limited resources would expend effort and capital in such an unpromising location, but that misses the point of Enoch Adeboye’s vision of ubiquity. He is preparing to meet a demand that so far exists only in prophecy. “If it appears as if initially our church is sent to target the immigrants from Africa and so on, it’s because you have to start somewhere,” Adeboye told me. “But then, later on, the people who are natives of this land will sooner or later come to the realization that they need God, and we will be on the ground when that time comes to present God to them.”
The Redeemed Church believes that this country has fallen into the thrall of wickedness. With an adoptive boldness that seems quintessentially American, Redeemed preachers talk of restoring a bygone God-fearing era. In their sermons, they invoke the founding fathers — many of whom had no problem with buying and selling people from Nigeria. “Right now there is moral decadence,” Ajayi-Adeniran said. “Things are not the way they used to be. All kinds of things: pollution and watering down of the Gospel — the gospel of convenience, the gospel of tolerance. You want to please people rather than pleasing God. That is one of the purposes, why we are here, to bring sanity to the church.”
Like many evangelists, Ajayi-Adeniran sees this as a particularly ripe moment: hard times are good times for belief. His flock in the Bronx, full of people at the margins of the work force, looks to him for spiritual guidance. On a snowy Sunday morning in January, two days before Barack Obama was to be inaugurated president, Ajayi-Adeniran strode to a clear glass lectern as his church band played an African-tinged rendition of an old American gospel hymn. In one hand, he clutched a white handkerchief; his sermons are full of sweaty exertion. “We’re going to pray for our nation, the United States of America,” he said, as he opened his Bible to the Book of Zechariah. He read a passage commanding God’s chosen people to rebuild Jerusalem’s razed temple.
“This is our Jerusalem!” Ajayi-Adeniran shouted, as he began to jump and swing his arms in loose-limbed fervor. “You want to talk to God?” he asked. In response, his congregants dropped to their knees and began to speak in tongues, which to the uninitiated sounds like a babble of sharp syllables. Above the din, Ajayi-Adeniran voiced a series of petitions to God, seizing certain phrases and repeating them, almost as if he were chanting an incantation. “Father, restore the old glory back to our nation,” the pastor said. “The old glory. The old glory.” Ajayi-Adeniran jabbed a finger toward heaven, his sermon crescendoing in a high-pitched, swooping cry: “Churches are in pain. Children of God are in pain. People are losing their jobs. Many are losing their jobs. Marriages are breaking up. God — God almighty — come and heal our land. Come and heal our land! Come and intervene. Move! Move! Move!”
IT IS A TENET OF PENTECOSTALISM that the divine is an active force, which is revealed through signs and wonders. The broad movement, however, encompasses a wide variety of practices. All the Americans I met who had gravitated to the Redeemed Church described their motivations similarly: they were searching for something that they felt was missing from this society, a feverish engagement with the worship of God. “I’ve seen in other churches such a laid-back sophistication,” said Keith N. Green, who drifted through a number of African Methodist Episcopal and nondenominational churches before joining a Redeemed parish in Columbia, S.C. “When I came here I didn’t see that. I saw a congregation of people who really enjoyed praise. I didn’t see any shyness in here about dancing for Jesus.”
The Redeemed see God as a magical presence in their lives. Like most Pentecostals, they believe that when the Holy Spirit inhabits them, they can perform miracles and see the future. Enoch Adeboye is said to have publicly prophesied the untimely death of General Abacha in 1998, three days before it actually happened. In “Let Somebody Shout Hallelujah!” a hagiographic biography of Adeboye written by his former secretary, the general overseer is credited with using his God-given powers to raise the dead, avoid traffic jams, foresee coups, restore hair to the balding and cure kidney disease, depression and H.I.V. Bart Pierce, the Pentecostal minister from Baltimore, says he witnessed such miracles while attending Adeboye’s services in Nigeria. “We watched people get right out of their wheelchairs and walk,” he told me.
“They move — ‘they’ being the Africans — in the supernatural,” said Cheryl Broadus, who attends the same multiethnic South Carolina parish that Green belongs to. Born in Brooklyn, Broadus said she happened into the church after she moved to Columbia to work for a local public television station. “They have brought those miracles that we read about in the Bible, that we know Jesus performed,” she said. “This is what really drew me and a lot of the Americans.”
Her pastor, Kwesi Ansah Jr., describes himself as a “pioneer missionary.” A few days before Christmas, he pulled up in a Nissan Pathfinder — its license plate reads, “Fear This God” — and led me into his church, which is located in a building vacated by a defunct mortgage broker. A jovial, pie-faced man, Ansah told me that in contrast to most Redeemed pastors, he is not a Nigerian but a Ghanaian, and he has spent his life preaching the Gospel in locales as disparate as Israel, Australia and Spain. His current posting, he says, is one of his most difficult. There’s a lot of evangelical competition in South Carolina, and not many Africans. But Ansah has managed to establish a congregation of around 100, with satellite parishes in other South Carolina cities.
“It was the Westerners, Europeans and Americans that brought the Gospel as missionaries to us on the dark continent of Africa,” Ansah said. “So the seed was sown, is grown, germinated, and it is now bearing fruit. So we’re now here to also give back.”
The Redeemed often cast their mission as a recapitulation, but the reality is that their church did not originate, in any meaningful sense, as a Western import. Its founder, Josiah Akindayomi, was born around 1909, into a family that worshiped Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron and war. According to “A New Paradigm of Pentecostal Power,” a study of the church by the Nigerian scholar Asonzeh Ukah, Akindayomi may have been a babalawo, a priest and healer in the indigenous tradition, before his conversion to Christianity. He started off as an Anglican and briefly attended a mission school but left that church to follow a local prophetess who belonged to a grass-roots Christian movement called aladura, or “owners of prayer.”
The aladura movement began in western Nigeria around 1920. Though its teachings and style of worship bear a resemblance to American Pentecostalism, which sprang up roughly contemporaneously, many scholars believe the aladura churches were an entirely independent phenomenon, probably a response to cataclysms like the 1918 flu pandemic. Philip Jenkins, whose most recent book, “The Lost History of Christianity,” is a study of missionary movements, points out that charismatic practices have a long history and arose with eerie similarity in places like Los Angeles and Brazil. “A lot of the stuff they’re getting, they’re getting from the Book of Acts,” he said, referring to the portion of the New Testament that describes the miracles the apostles performed during the early spread of Christianity. To scholars, this coincidence is evidence of a theological undercurrent, and to sociologists it speaks of a deep human need, but to believers it’s simply proof that some truths are everlasting.
The aladura movement incorporated elements of traditional belief systems, which revolved around a diverse pantheon of natural and ancestral spirits. For its first generation of followers, like Akindayomi, aladura represented a bridge between two worlds. “There’s a lot of homegrown material in these churches,” said Elias Bongmba, a Rice University religious-studies professor. “The members — though they may not accept it — actually share a similar worldview with the indigenous religions.”
Akindayomi, as an itinerant preacher, wandered the roads of western Nigeria in all-white garments, ringing a bell and winning converts through his healing abilities. Eventually he formed the Redeemed Church in 1952. By this time, Akindayomi had communicated with some Pentecostal missionaries who were based in South Africa, and he became convinced that the aladura tradition had gone astray. He banished the most obvious remnants of the indigenous religions, along with any suggestion of worldliness. Men and women were strictly separated at services, where there were no musical instruments, and Akindayomi refused to take up collections for fear of the corrupting influence of money. He also banned polygamy, an accepted practice in Nigeria.
Many aladura churches still exist in Nigeria, but the Redeemed now distance themselves from them. “Even though they love to pray, they are not sound biblically,” James Fadele said. The same adaptive process that produced the church in the first place has, more recently, moved in a homogenizing direction. Adeboye, who has made a close study of American evangelists, has altered some teachings to conform to biblical orthodoxy while simultaneously loosening Akindayomi’s more strident prohibitions. Music had become an integral part of worship, patriarchal restrictions on women have been lifted and the asceticism on which the church was founded has been replaced by a joyous embrace of materialism.
The Redeemed following, which was small, poor and uneducated when Adeboye became the general overseer, is now full of members of Nigeria’s elite. Adeboye has made an explicit effort to recruit the upper classes and prominent government figures by setting up what are called “model parishes,” churches where, in the words of the general overseer’s biographer, the affluent are able to “have the company of their likes at fellowship.” Adeboye enjoyed a close relationship with President Olusegun Obasanjo, a professed born-again Christian who ruled between 1999 and 2007, and though Adeboye often speaks out against corruption, the church has clearly profited from its relationship to powerful figures. Recently it has come in for criticism in Nigeria for securing lucrative government concessions and for making extravagant expenditures, like Adeboye’s new plane.
For all its transformations, however, the Redeemed Church’s primary appeal is still what it was in Akindayomi’s day: it offers its followers the chance to harness otherworldly forces. The Redeemed don’t deny that the gods of indigenous religions exist and possess real powers. But they say such spirits are satanic. A major theme of Redeemed teachings, to its Nigerian audience especially, is that becoming saved protects you from the curses, spells and sorcery that Africans, even Christian ones, commonly blame for all manner of misfortunes, from car accidents to impotence. Church officials in the United States are somewhat averse to talking about this aspect of doctrine. They are well aware of the ridicule that was heaped upon a Kenyan preacher after a video clip of his prayer to protect Sarah Palin from “the spirit of witchcraft,” offered during a guest sermon at her Alaska church, fell into the hands of bloggers. In fact, like many elements of Africa’s indigenous cosmology, the belief in evil spirits is entirely consistent with mainstream Pentecostal teaching, which holds that God and the Devil — an actual being — are engaged in continual “spiritual warfare.”
At services I attended, James Fadele frequently prayed aloud against “divination” and “enchantment.” When I asked him what he meant by that — if he thought witches were real — he replied, cautiously, “Some people don’t believe it.” Then he quoted St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which refers to “powers” and “principalities” and calls on Christians to “stand firm against the tactics of the Devil.” “So there are enemies around us,” Fadele said. “Because our eyes are not open doesn’t mean they are not there.”
Redeemed pastors often attribute afflictions like poverty and addiction to demonic possession and preach against “generational curses,” which can explain everything from inherited illness to family dysfunction. Cheryl Broadus, the South Carolina follower, told me that Kwesi Ansah had proved his effectiveness in combating evil by performing an exorcism on a woman at her church. “She was slithering on the floor like a snake,” Broadus said. “My pastor was sound, firm, using the word of God as a weapon.”
One winter night, in the poor southern part of Dallas, I attended a prayer service at a tiny Redeemed church overseen by a slight, earnest man in a blue hooded sweatshirt, Pastor Raphael Adebayo. A biting ice storm was on the way, and rain was already falling as wet and shivering people started filtering in. Every one of them was American, most of them were black, some were homeless and all of them were grasping for some kind of deliverance. Adebayo, who has made it his mission to win Dallas’s most desperate people over to the Redeemed Church, did what he could to offer it. One member of the congregation after another stood up to testify. One man said the church had helped him to stay out of trouble since he’d gotten out of jail the previous April. Another said Adebayo helped him to reconcile with his wife, who had sent him to the hospital by throwing scalding water into his face. “I am battling a huge addiction that I know is the Devil,” said a young woman in a gray puffy coat.
Adebayo called for anyone else who was dealing with addiction to come to the altar, and almost everyone in the audience moved forward. He told the congregation to repeat after him: “Say: ‘Lord Jesus, I know by the way of Scripture, you did not create my life for disaster. You did not make me for shame. I am not an American by chance. I am in this country of plenty because you have a plan for me.’ ” The pastor pulled a bottle of olive oil from beneath his lectern and anointed each person’s forehead.
After the prayer service, the pastor offered free fried chicken, and some members of the congregation began rummaging through boxes filled with secondhand clothes and odds and ends donated by a Nigerian-owned supermarket in Plano, Tex., that was going out of business. “I am from Africa,” the pastor told me. “So I know I have a lot obstacles. But I know one thing: If I give them clothes and food, they will come to me.”
A convert from Islam, Adebayo was brought into the Redeemed Church by his wife, and he started ministering in south Dallas because he knew the place, having worked there as a gas-station attendant when he first came to America. “We don’t want to start from the top,” he said. “We want to start from beneath.”
There has been some resistance to this bottom-up approach. Adebayo was one of several Redeemed pastors who expressed the opinion that some elements of the church may have become too focused on fund-raising and wealth-building and with creating a community for immigrant Nigerians rather than exporting the religion to others. Kwesi Ansah, a Ghanaian, told me that some non-Nigerians did not feel completely accepted by certain Redeemed pastors, who mostly still come from the Yoruba tribe. “Some of them think: let us keep it to ourselves,” he said. This is a common tension in young churches: St. Peter and St. Paul, after all, initially disagreed about whether the salvation of Christ was available only for those who followed Jewish law or, as Paul decisively argued, was meant for all believers. The experience of pastors like Raphael Adebayo suggests that if the church is serious about spreading its message among Americans, its best approach would be the one it had in the beginning, offering help to the needy.
“The vision of the church is to reach out, but some people want to stay in the comfort zone,” Adebayo said. “That was not the original plan.”
THE MOST IMPORTANT FIGURE in the early history of Christianity in Nigeria was a Yoruba named Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Born at the turn of the 19th century, he was captured by slave raiders as a boy, only to be freed from bondage by the British Navy and transported to the free colony of Sierra Leone, where he was converted and schooled by Anglican missionaries. In the early 1840s, Crowther returned to his homeland as a leader of the first Protestant missions. He translated the Bible into Yoruba and began the ponderous work of persuading his skeptical people to give up their gods, measuring success in terms of tiny footholds and handfuls of souls. Those few initiates who learned the Scripture, who were called “readers,” were often dispatched into the interior to preach in untouched regions. But every bit of progress was accompanied by many more frustrations, setbacks, even martyrdoms.
Mission work has always been an exercise that pits faith against futility. At the time of Crowther’s death, his biographer wrote that the vast majority of Africa remained “utter heathen, living in the densest darkness of superstition and sin.” To contemporaries, the idea that the continent could ever become Christianity’s redoubt would have seemed as far-fetched as the Redeemed Church’s vision of an African-based world church.
The Redeemed are fully aware of how impossible their mission appears: that’s why they speak in terms of miracles. Like the missionaries of old, they have put a great deal of effort into recruiting Americans who show interest in being trained as pastors — their own “readers.” Della Faye Sowunmi leads a volunteer group in her congregation, in which she urges the sometimes reluctant Nigerians to reach out to other African-Americans, and she says she hopes to one day lead a church herself. Kwesi Ansah told me that he hoped that Keith Green, one of his American parishioners, would become an effective emissary to the local black community. And last fall, when I first met him, Daniel Ajayi-Adeniran said he had particularly high hopes for one member of his congregation, a half-French, half-Dominican Bronx resident named Patrick Darge.
Darge joined Ajayi-Adeniran’s church in 2003. At the time, he was facing a long jail term on federal narcotics-distribution charges. He attributes his relatively light sentence, three years, to God’s intervention. In prison, Darge was born again and became the head of the Christian fellowship, and when he got out he came back to the Redeemed Church. He is now one of Ajayi-Adeniran’s assistants and a constant sidekick. A slight, mild-mannered 36-year-old, Darge recently started ministering his own Spanish-language service, held on Sunday afternoons, which he has tailored with a mind toward breaking down what he calls “cultural barriers.” When I visited one Sunday, there were around 10 people in attendance, and Darge struggled valiantly to shake them out of their torpor, exhorting them to sing and shout as the Nigerian Pentecostals do.
On an evening in October, shortly before Enoch Adeboye was to take the stage to preach at a revival in downtown Baltimore, Ajayi-Adeniran told me that, from this modest start, he hoped to soon plant Darge in his own church. Then that would divide, and divide again, and soon enough the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans wouldn’t view the Redeemed Church as African but as something their own. “I see us making a major breakthrough in the neighborhood,” the pastor said. “I can see new things happening now.”
We were sitting at a Starbucks. Before we left, Ajayi-Adeniran made sure to chat up the fellow sitting at the table next to us, a Cameroonian as it turned out, and he invited him to see Adeboye speak. Later, the pastor took a seat on the floor of the First Mariner Arena, a 13,500-seat venue that is the home of Baltimore’s professional indoor soccer team. Around the subterranean dressing room where the general overseer was granting audiences, a phalanx of suited ministers and bodyguards were furiously tapping on their BlackBerrys. By 10 p.m., when Adeboye finally made his way to the stage, accompanied by a pair of American guest ministers, the arena was getting close to full, with an audience of mostly black faces.
In his sermon, Daddy G.O. was his usual self. He spoke in a honeyed baritone, mixing talk of proofs and equations with colloquial parables, both biblical and African. Periodically, a startled expression would pass across his squarish face, and he would say, “Thank you, Father,” an indication of that he had received a message from above. The revelations were general and irrefutable. “Somebody here today, you will never lack again” went one. Another was: “This very night, the activity of witches in your family will come to an end.” As the clock approached midnight, Adeboye gave the audience a prophecy: “You will yet make history in this nation — amen!”
Adeboye wrapped up with the altar call, in which those who are not yet saved are called forward to become members of the Redeemed. Hundreds of people streamed to the foot of the stage.
“In Africa, we get excited when people give their lives to Jesus,” Adeboye instructed his flock. “Go ahead,” he said, “talk to the almighty.” And then it came, in a roar like a wave, thousands of voices raised in the unknowable language of heaven.
Andrew Rice is a contributing writer. His book about a Ugandan murder trial, “The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget,” will be published in May.
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