Where Gospel Resounds in African Tongues
By DANIEL J.
Sunday, in more than 100 churches across New York City, pastors preach the
Gospel in languages like Ibo, Twi and Ga. Conga drums drive songs of praise.
Swaths of kente cloth cover bodies swaying in the pews.
An explosion of African immigrant churches in the past 15 years has
helped reshape religious worship in the city. The surge is creating oases of
Christian faith for newcomers from Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, Ethiopia and other
countries and fueling an evangelical movement long the province of Latinos
"They're having an impact beyond the African church," said Tony Carnes, a
sociologist of religion and a co-editor of "New York Glory: Religions in the
"The African churches are bringing new vitality and new ways of doing
things to African-American and other churches," he added.
As membership increases, the churches are growing more visible in their
neighborhoods. "People walk in and find community friendly, African
hospitality," Mr. Carnes said. "And second, there's this big emphasis on
spiritual power in their services." As African churches attract increasing
numbers of white worshipers, they can serve as a bridge between races, he
In some cases, churches founded by white missionaries during the colonial
conquest of 19th-century Africa are sending their own missionaries here.
Many of the churches have close ties to denominations back home and use the
same hymnals and prayer books. They import pastors or send them home to the
mother church for training.
The movement in the United States has been lightly chronicled, but it is
now drawing the interest of scholars of religion. Mark Gornik, a
Presbyterian minister, is writing his doctoral dissertation at the
University of Edinburgh on New York's African churches.
"Africans are taking their faith to Africans," he said, adding that in
the city alone, he has counted at least 110 African immigrant congregations
that have sprouted since the late 1980's.
They have names like the Apostolic Church of Ghana, Deeper Life Bible
Church (Nigeria), Emmanuel Worship Center International (Ethiopian) and the
Lighthouse Church of Ghana.
"What's happening in African churches is largely at the beginning," Mr.
Gornik said. "They're very responsive to human needs. It is a home away from
home for people."
That is exactly how Daniel Berkoh, 53, a member of the Church of the
Pentecost in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx, sees it. "It's like
being among my people," he said during a Palm Sunday service. "It makes me
feel as if I'm back home in Ghana. If I go to any of the other churches, I
won't see this," he said, looking at the rows of praying worshipers.
Denominations have been multiplying. For example, the Redeemed Christian
Church of God, a global Pentecostal movement based in Nigeria, came to New
York in 1995 and now has 14 branches in the city, said the Rev. Nimi
Wariboko, the pastor of a congregation in Brooklyn. The Presbyterian Church
of Ghana, its roots planted by Swiss missionaries 175 years ago, has two
outposts in the Bronx, one in Harlem and one in Brooklyn. The Celestial
Church of Christ, founded in Benin but with a largely Nigerian membership,
lists 12 New York City branches on its Web site.
Dozens of other independent congregations have popped up because
individual African pastors received the call. African congregations also
coalesce within mainline churches like the Methodist and Roman Catholic
But the most rapid expansion has come from Pentecostal and evangelical
Christianity, which has surged in Africa and in other parts of the
developing world. That energy has found an ignition point in a city where a
tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism intersects with large-scale
Most of the African congregations are from Nigeria and Ghana, sub-Saharan
Africa's largest contributors of immigrants. But there are growing numbers
of other ethnic congregations.
According to census figures, New York's African population doubled from
1980 to 1990, and again before 2000, when 95,000 African-born people were
counted. The number is probably higher because the count does not include
more recent arrivals and many illegal immigrants. The population is expected
to grow even more this decade, said Peter Lobo, the deputy director of the
population division of the Department of City Planning, who characterized
the new arrivals as "overwhelmingly highly educated and professional."
On Palm Sunday, about 500 worshipers filled the main sanctuary of the
Church of the Pentecost. The left-most section of chairs was filled by men;
women dominated the right section, with some mixing in the middle section.
In Ghana, the separation would be strict, but here, church elders make
concessions to American customs.
The women, wearing traditional African dresses and head wraps, were a
riot of color green, yellow, black and purple. The congregation sang hymns
with the vibratoless astringency of African choruses. A band kept them
rocking with a reggae-gospel beat. Voices quickly rose in a cacophony of
prayer and speaking in tongues.
As the noise diminished, one voice arose. A woman stood, while the others
sat with their eyes closed and heads bowed. She began to pour out words,
prophesying in Twi, a major language of Ghana. "Those living in sin should
repent or else God will bring his wrath upon them!" a worshiper translated
for a visitor.
More hymns in Twi followed, and Pastor David Tekper's sermon. An
interpreter near the altar rendered it into English, although Mr. Tekper
held an all-English service earlier in the day, in one example of how his
church is trying to reach out to others.
"Jesus has done his work on the cross," he preached. "He has delivered
you. He has saved you." After each phrase, the congregation roared back
with, "Wagye wo" (You have been saved).
Before the service, Mr. Tekper and Apostle Albert Amoah, leader of the
Church of the Pentecost in the United States, talked about their efforts
toward the church's growth. The church has five branches in New York and on
Long Island and at least 57 in a dozen districts around the nation. It is
the largest Pentecostal denomination in Ghana, Mr. Tekper and Mr. Amoah
said. The American wing was started in the Bronx in 1986 by a handful of
immigrants as an informal prayer group.
Like many Pentecostal churches, it is trying to reach beyond ethnic
"We also need to attract much more of the Americans," Mr. Amoah said.
"The church is universal. The kingdom is transcultural, transethnic."
Mr. Tekper acknowledged that progress had been slow. Maybe the services
should be shorter than the usual three or four hours, he mused, or maybe
African dress should be discouraged. Mr. Amoah added, "But we need to be
careful to not cut off our own people."
Small churches, too, are trying to bring in non-Africans.
"When I was called, God didn't tell me to make it an African church,"
said the Rev. Eddie Okyere, pastor of the Miracle Church of Christ, a
storefront church in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Mr. Okyere, who was a
postal worker in Ghana, came to the United States and attended a Brooklyn
branch of the Full Gospel Bible Institute while working as a hospital
dietary assistant. He was ordained in 1990 and opened his church four years
"When I came here, I had the call," he said. "I went to the school, and
the Lord established the ministry on me." His congregation of 120 includes
Africans, white Americans, Haitians and Caribbean natives. "Jesus didn't
come from one particular group," he said.
The Full Gospel Believers' Church of Harlem, whose congregation is mainly
from Ivory Coast, sends preachers to the streets to bring people into its
sanctuary on First Avenue and 120th Street. It also runs a food pantry.
Its pastor, Victor Nimba, began preaching in his native Abidjan. "My
heart was burning for having my ministry over here in America," he said.
Many African churches are pushing roots down deeply, either by
affiliating with national denominations, like the Presbyterian Church
(U.S.A.), or joining worldwide movements, said Moses Biney, pastor of a
Presbyterian Church of Ghana congregation in the Bronx and a doctoral
candidate at Princeton University. So-called African independent churches,
which are indigenous to the countries and strongly incorporate local
practices, export themselves; missionary-fostered churches that grow to
strength on their own preserve Western elements, like elders who govern the
church, general assemblies and some liturgy and hymns.
"These churches don't start as a way of evangelizing or proselytizing,"
Mr. Biney said. "They start as a way of forming communities and dealing with
new conditions. Then they begin to focus on other people."
He added, "I think the leadership of those churches have realized just
being ethnic, just being there by yourself, doesn't help too much."
The new churches display a striking variety of worship styles and
histories, and often have strict codes of behavior: no smoking, no drinking,
no eating of pork or "crawling animals," no lipstick in church. They help
nurture African customs like naming ceremonies, at which church members
gather around a newly named infant.
At the Christ Apostolic Church in Brooklyn, congregants bring jugs of
water to be blessed by the pastor, Abraham Oyedige, a respected leader
referred to as "Daddy," said Dale Irvin, the academic dean and professor of
world Christianity at New York Theological Seminary. Members drink or wash
with the water throughout the week before special occasions, for informal
blessings, or for illness.
"The water becomes a very powerful healing symbol," Professor Irvin said.
These churches create a cultural refuge, he said. "They are a way for
Africans to pass on to their children their African values," particularly
for African immigrants who see their children quickly assimilating into
Some churches also provide an array of social services, like help with
immigration problems, jobs and health counseling.
Mr. Wariboko, the Redeemed Christian Church minister, said the "African
world view," in which the spiritual world is important and can hold sway
over the physical world, tallied closely to the world view of the Bible. In
this view, it also meshes well with the exuberant worship style of
Pentecostalism, which is marked by an emphasis on conversion, the power of
the holy spirit, close attention to the Bible and supernatural gifts like
the ability to prophesy, speak in tongues and heal.
For Kwasi Ohene, 47, belonging to the Presbyterian Church of Ghana
congregation in Harlem lets him strike a cultural balance. "You live in
America, and also you live in Ghana," he said. His father-in-law died
recently, and the congregation is helping to pay for the body's return to
Ghana, where tradition says burial should take place. "Since we are from the
same place, people understand that," he said.
As Mr. Ohene spoke in Mount Morris Ascension Church on West 122nd Street,
where his church rents space, Gashishie Aguedze waited outside for the
services to end. Spread on the sidewalk were rows of fat yams from Ghana,
tins of Africa Queen-brand mackerel and red palm oil for cooking. He fully
expected them to sell out.