African Immigrant Churches Creating Oases of Faith

( [email protected] ) May 01, 2004 09:18 AM EDT

An explosion of African immigrant churches in the past 15 years has helped reshape religious worship in the city of New York. According to the New York Times, the surge is creating “an oases of Christian faith for newcomers from Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, Ethiopia and other countries and fueling an evangelical movement long the province of Latinos and African-Americans.”

The movement in the United States thus far 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. 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.

Overall, denominations have been multiplying, with the most coming from Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity, which has surged in Africa and in other parts of the developing world. Many African churches in the US are pushing roots down deeply, either by affiliating with national denominations, like the Presbyterian Church (USA), or joining worldwide movements, said Moses Biney, pastor of a Presbyterian Church of Ghana congregation in the Bronx and a doctoral candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary. While still many others are revealing those roots and “bringing new vitality and new ways of doing things to African-American and other churches,” according to Tony Carnes, a sociologist of religion and a co-editor of New York Glory: Religions in the City. “People walk in and find community -- friendly, African hospitality.”

Many of the churches have close ties to denominations back home and use the same hymnals and prayer books. In some cases, churches founded by white missionaries during the colonial conquest of 19th-century Africa are sending their own missionaries here. They import pastors or send them home to the mother church for training.

Pastor David Tekper and Albert Amoah, leaders 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, Tekper and 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 borders. "We also need to attract much more of the Americans," Mr. Amoah said. "The church is universal. The kingdom is transcultural, transethnic."

Rev. Eddie Okyere, pastor of the Miracle Church of Christ in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn commented, "When I was called, God didn't tell me to make it an African church.” His congregation of 120 includes Africans, white Americans, Haitians and Caribbean natives.

Carnes also added that as African churches attract increasing numbers of white worshipers, they could serve as a bridge between races.

[Source: New York Times]