Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Philip Jenkins

Believers Arrive First; Missionaries Follow

African Pentecostals in Italy.

In her 1846 poem "The Missionary," Charlotte Brontö offered a perfect summary of the impulses that drove missionaries to spread the message of Christ, no matter how overwhelming the perils might appear:

Still, with the spirit's vision clear,
I saw Hell's empire, vast and grim,
Spread on each Indian river's shore,
Each realm of Asia covering o'er.
And I—who have the healing creed,
The faith benign of Mary's Son;
Shall I behold my brother's need
And, selfishly, to aid him shun?

At the time, British and Continental European Christians envisioned Christianity as a possession of their own, to be shared with the outside world's benighted masses, in Asia and Africa. Today, though, many millions of the world's Christians see Europe itself as a primary target for mission enterprise, however thoroughly those wealthy northern people appear sunk in sin and indifference. Across Europe, we now find representatives of countless Global South denominations, marked by fervent faith and a commitment to ecstatic worship and spiritual warfare. The story of "South-North" evangelism is one of the most powerful and moving in contemporary Christianity.

As in earlier epochs, we have to be careful with the language of "mission," with its implications of planned and intentional ventures into the pagan darkness. On occasion, that is indeed the model by which religion spreads, but by no means always. Never underestimate the power of happenstance, or dare we call it Providence? Commonly, ordinary people move from one area or another, sometimes reluctantly, and they take their religion with them, with no particular intention of sharing it beyond their own community. They might move as migrants, or even (in bygone times) as slaves and deportees. The Aquila and Priscilla we meet in Acts would never have lived in Corinth had they not been thrown out of Rome. Yet however humble the conditions in which they arrive, such people create a bridgehead for their faith. They build churches, originally to serve the highly practical needs of their own communities, but over time those congregations attract interested seekers from the wider host community. After some years, the same thriving churches become the bases for newly arrived and more committed believers, who define themselves explicitly as missionaries. Believers arrive first, and the missionaries follow.

Allowing for local variations, that is the story of how African churches have become so firmly established in so many European cities, not to mention in such US centers as Houston and Atlanta. Today, African churches are a bustling concern throughout Europe—some of them in what seem highly unlikely settings. The most spectacular example is the Kiev-based Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God, founded and pastored by Nigerian-born Sunday Adelaja, which claims some 50,000 followers in Ukraine alone. In Britain, Africans pastor the nation's four largest megachurches, while the Nigerian Redeemed Christian Church of God operates in dozens of countries. In French-speaking lands, Congolese pastors and missionaries are as ubiquitous as are Nigerians and Ghanaians in the Anglophone world. Today, some African-founded churches in Europe are even reaching out with new missions to the African homelands of their parents. Can we call this double-reverse mission, or should we abandon all such directional descriptors and call it "mission" pure and simple?

Scholars have published widely on these diaspora communities, including such distinguished figures as Afe Adogame and the late Ogbu Kalu. Multiple volumes now offer case-studies of immigrant churches in First World cities, usually based on ethnographic observation, and by now, such case-studies have become almost clichéd: "A Study of the [insert name of exotic African church] Congregation in [insert legendarily white European city.]" So common are such accounts that we clamor for more comprehensive and analytical coverage, which makes it a delight to turn to Annalisa Butticci's excellent and highly readable African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe.

Butticci describes communities in Italy where Africans are a well-known presence, but are also subject to much negative stereotyping. In popular parlance, the word "Nigerian" is almost synonymous with a street criminal or drug dealer, while racist humor portrays Africans in general as savages only newly emerged from the jungle. (Incidentally, the common Italian term for a maid or domestic is a "Filipina"). In response to such hostility, African communities of necessity turn in on themselves, and they naturally seek assistance from their religious congregations. Exact numbers of such groups are debatable, but a rough estimate suggests that Italy has some five hundred Nigerian churches, and 350 more Ghanaian. It gives some idea of the religious environment we are dealing with that in calculating such figures, scholars use a rough guideline of one church per one hundred Nigerians. Most of these churches follow distinctive models of worship familiar from their homeland, and several major denominations work extensively in Europe. These include the Ghanaian Church of the Pentecost and two Nigerian movements, the Deeper Life Christian Ministries and the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries. Those three groups in particular form the subject of Butticci's book.

(A project parallel to hers could focus on West African Muslims, who are also widespread in southern Europe. While Christians turn to Pentecostal churches, Muslims favor the tolerant Sufi traditions of the African-based Muridiyya order, and images and paintings of the movement's saintly founder, Sheik Ahmadou Bamba are very common in the streets of Rome, Milan or Madrid. One way or another, African religious patterns are decisively moving northward.)

The interaction of "African" styles with Catholic Europe is central to Butticci's work. Obviously, a great many Italians do not share anti-African prejudices, and they do their best to accommodate the new churches. One exemplary contact zone is Padua's Temple of Peace, where a hospitable Catholic parish has made its facilities available to African congregations; that experience provides the basis for many of the interviews and observations in this volume. There is also a rewarding and provocative documentary made by Butticci herself, together with Andrew Esiebo, entitled Enlarging the Kingdom.[1]

So how do African and Italian Christians interact? In some ways, the encounters are quite predictable. Unlike the US, Italy does not have a strong or widespread tradition of native charismatic and Pentecostal faith, so that Italian Catholics are both surprised and bemused by African enthusiasm. They clearly do not know what to make of the claims of miracles and divine healings that are the everyday currency of those churches. Africans in turn are shocked by European irreligion and indifference, and by the lack of young and even middle-aged people in Italian churches. Repeatedly, their comments on Italian Catholic practice sound as if they could have come from generations of American evangelicals. Catholics, they often say, hold an empty and formal faith, which offers salvation in exchange for the fulfilment of ritual chore. There is no heart-religion, and little joy. We also hear very familiar Protestant suspicions about the allegedly idolatrous veneration of the Virgin and saints. Given African Christian nervousness about anything suggesting the worship of ancestors, Catholic devotion to bodily relics, to "holy bones," is particularly upsetting, even appalling.

By all rights, then, the Italian-African encounter should be chilly at best, and disastrous at worst, but happily, the story is nothing like so grim. Partly, this is a matter of personalities and cultures, as individual decency overcomes theologically grounded doubts. Time and again, we find both sides showing tolerance and benevolent inquisitiveness about fellow-Christians, not least in the willingness of Italian believers to open their properties to host African newcomers. One funny scene in the documentary shows an ordained African woman pastor in her clerical collar reporting how she once brought an Italian airport to a halt when the staff and security people flocked to ask her if she was in fact a female priest. How could such a thing be? A naïve inquiry, perhaps, but the curiosity was well-intentioned, and the pastor in question reports the affair in high good humor.

In other ways too, the different sides have surprising commonalities, and it is in this area that the book makes its greatest contribution to the literature on migrant religion. Far more than most of her predecessors working in this area, Butticci is fascinated by the role of aesthetics in religion and the different forms it takes. Italian Catholicism is, of course, eminently sacramental, with a profound sense of the sacred quality of material objects—of medals and statues, of holy water and oil. African Pentecostals distrust idolatry, but they too are value the numinous. Pentecostals also know well the holiness inherent in places, and they cherish the blessed quality of material things, including holy oils for anointing. Pentecostal faith is thoroughly physical and embodied, with a whole ritualized language of physical actions and gestures.

The book's subtitle invokes "The Politics of Presence": the African presence in Italy, in the first place, but also the presence of the holy in the material world. Pentecostals practice "the sacramentality manifest in the conflation of spirit and matter that generates perceived real presences of divine and supernatural powers pulsating in the material world, in nature, objects and substances, as well as in the human body." The one-word description for that quality is "catholicity," small-c.

The surprising harmony between Italian Catholic and African catholic emerges most strongly in a remarkable chapter about an African church that has chosen to highlight in its sanctuary a massive reproduction of Raphael's painting of the Transfigured Christ. As the author argues, the altarpiece "becomes inextricable from the religious aesthetics and everyday spiritual and social needs of the congregation." Her chapter is intriguingly entitled "Afro-Pentecostal Renaissance."

I began by quoting Charlotte Brontö's imaginative portrayal of a Victorian English evangelical called to the mission field in the early days of the great Protestant movement into the wider world. In light of recent experiences such as the African migrations northward, it is startling to revisit such early works, and to recall the sense of spiritual warfare that originally motivated such believers, their sense that their greatest foes were what the letter to the Ephesians termed the principalities, the powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, spiritual wickedness in high places. The spiritual combat would be fierce:

I know how Hell the veil will spread
Over their brows and filmy eyes,
And earthward crush the lifted head
That would look up and seek the skies;
I know what war the fiend will wage
Against that soldier of the cross,
Who comes to dare his demon-rage,
And work his kingdom shame and loss.

From a 21st-century perspective, this sounds awfully—well, awfully African. Perhaps what is happening in places like Padua and Kiev should make us revise our assumptions about that early missionary impulse.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author most recently of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels (Basic Books).

1. www.pentecostalaesthetics.net/documentary/

Most ReadMost Shared