Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City
Mark R. Gornik
368 pp., $30.00
Honey in the Lion's Mouth
Few treatments of the movement of Pentecostalized churches around our world examine the exercise of these spiritual gifts in such detail as Gornik does in Word Made Global or illustrate their exercise more lavishly. He provides accounts for all three churches, with rich biographies of the leaders, but I was particularly engaged by the account he gives of the foundation, organizational structure, liturgy, and spiritual timbre of the New York Aladura Church, much of it turning around the biography of Mother Marie Cooper, its founder. Her call came through a dream of the eye of Jesus fastened on her from above, and it meant that she then progressed through a series of offices: first as crossbearer, which initially involves praying over seven people a day, rising to twenty-one, then as deaconess, as senior prophetess, and finally as archdeaconess (for which she was ordained by the Primate of the Liberian see), with two more offices to go, reverend mother and reverend mother superior. Founding a church is one way to advancement.
It all began when Mother Cooper was working as a seamstress to pay the bills and purchased a house in the Mount Eden neighborhood of the Bronx. She then made it into a "faith home," which in Liberia might include a school but in New York was a combination of household, clinic, refuge, and House of Prayer. Mother Cooper works within an imagined narrative centered on conflict between God and Satan, and she provides spiritual direction by identifying Satan's malign activity through his demonic minions, and by calling on the protection of Jesus and of the Creator Spirit as that is realized in the cleansing power of water. Instant prayer and fasting is at the heart of her ministry, which is to wipe away the tears of those who come to her, to address their problems at home and at work, and to heal their bodies. Like the leaders of the other two churches, she acts as a cultural broker in the new environment. She makes sure there are no freeloaders in the church, and that everyone participates and acquires experience in turn. It is interesting that in a church even closer perhaps to the shared African cosmos than the others, it is the women who keep the show on the road. There might be a useful comparison here with the crucial role of women in those parts of the Chinese church closest to the rural life-world.
I began with the role of sacred topography in the modern pilgrimage from homeland to new-found land and back again. Five thousand miles from the Bronx is Mount Taborrar in Ogere, Nigeria, where the original founder of the Church of the Lord Aladura went up, with prayer and fasting, to receive a vision of the dissemination of the Holy Spirit to all nations. This is analogous to the Holy Ghost Service of the Redeemed Christian church of God, also in Nigeria, and in both churches there is pilgrimage back to the site of origins and a relocation of sacred space and time in New York itself. In the case of Aladura, "Taborrar" pilgrims arrive every August from various parts of the United States for thirteen days of the "mountain-top experience." On the occasion in 2004 described by Mark Gornik, the preacher, Archdeacon Lachana, promised "honey" in the "lion," representing power through difficulty. He concluded that "every attack becomes a promotion." That is precisely the spirit represented by each of Gornik's three churches: no longer under the dispensation of immemorial fate and fortune, but alive to a world where "all things are possible." If one looks back to the Pietist crucible of contemporary Pentecost, the emphasis on a personal relationship with the Redeemer was circumscribed by a landscape dominated by suffering, hell, and death, here in this vale of tears. Over the last hundred years that landscape is still there, but suffused with hope, particularly in the United States. where the Hill Difficulty of a Pilgrim's Progress is at least signposted to the Delectable Mountains.
David Martin is the author of On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Ashgate). He is a Fellow of the British Academy.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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