Spirit of Compassion
I read with great interest the article on Northmead Assembly of God’s Circle of Hope AIDS clinic in Zambia (“When the Spirit Comes Down,” by Wonsuk Ma, January 2017), because I spent six months in 2011 conducting research there with support groups for people living with HIV. Clinic clients I interviewed reaffirmed my observations about staff members’ dedication, often reporting that they were grateful that the clinic was in their low-income neighborhood. Most crucially, I noted how staff members showed acceptance and compassion toward all clients. While the clinic faces challenges—long lines, clients who sometimes do not adhere to their medications, excellent staff members who may be “poached” by other donors—it does important work in Zambia’s AIDS response.
It is encouraging to hear about the good work being done in Pentecostal churches around the globe (“When the Spirit Comes Down”). However, there was not one word in the article about the plight of homosexuals living in these societies. These churches are often at the forefront of oppressing gay people in the name of religion. Until we all confront the horrific situation of gay people (ostracism, forced marriage, beatings, prison, and execution) in so many places, especially Africa and the Caribbean, I can’t take these churches or their brand of religion seriously.
Robin Van Liew
Thank you for providing a magazine that I am able to count on for intelligence and sensitivity in both your writing and reporting. However, I must take exception to the claim that Elizabeth I “founded” the Anglican Church (“Entering my ‘Power Decade,’” by Catherine Woodiwiss, January 2017). While it is true she is credited for the eponymous settlement, those acts of Parliament did not “found” anything that did not already exist. They smoothed the waters so that the English church could proclaim the gospel in relative peace.
Traverse City, Michigan
I want to thank you for publishing the article by Susan K. Smith on John Rush in your December 2016 issue (“Can Business Be Beautiful?”). It presents a different (and more accurate) example of Appalachia than does J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy. As a born-and-bred hillbilly, I take great umbrage at Vance’s book. It is a very courageous memoir of one family, but that’s what it is—the story of one very dysfunctional family and the salutary effects of the Marines on one very mixed-up young man. Most poor and working-class Appalachians have not become as disoriented and dysfunctional as Vance’s family. Many of them, like Rush, have started enterprises of their own or are otherwise engaged at jobs they find rewarding. While not all these businesses are social enterprises as is Rush’s, they all nevertheless indicate successful adjustments to situations in which people find themselves.
Assets in Heaven
Please do more articles on businesses that have doing good in the world as their bottom line (“Can Business Be Beautiful?”). Business owner John Rush makes a point about the profit-making business model that it is the love of money that is a problem, not having money itself. A current line of research, however, is showing that it isn’t as simple as that; money and decision-making power over others quickly reduce compassionate awareness and behavior. Jesus was right about wealth: Good motivations and intentions are not enough. Any condition that reduces our sense of shared vulnerability with others works against our ability to live lives of universal love.
The religious ideas and practices of the Indigenous peoples of Bolivia, primarily Quechua and Aimara, flow like a subterranean stream through the country’s dominant Catholicism, particularly in La Paz, the most culturally Indigenous capital city in Latin America.
But evangelical Christianity, brought to Bolivia by European and North American missionaries more than 100 years ago, has also maintained a relationship with Bolivian culture—and that culture has shaped the church even as evangelicals have increased in numbers and influence.
Evangelical and other Protestant denominations, especially the neo-Pentecostals, have reached out to Aimara Indigenous communities, even while respecting fundamental components of Aimara ethnic identity. Thus while a chauvinism rooted in both national tradition and missionary evangelicalism dominates most male-female relationships in much of Bolivia, within Aimara neo-Pentecostal families, gender relations are more symmetrical.
Partly as a result of these cultural values, Indigenous women play important leadership roles within many neo-Pentecostal churches and organizations. They speak their own language in services and adopt symbols and rituals that come from their own Indigenous identity rather than European Protestant tradition. Whether it is recognized or not by outsiders, the Aimara identity proposes new ways of living and representing the Christian faith. Through the meeting of Aimara culture and neo-Pentecostalism, the assumption of male hierarchy is being questioned and subtly transformed.
In Kolkata, India’s second largest city, mass poverty affects millions. More than a third of the region’s 18 million people live in slums and 70,000 are homeless. Street and slum dwellers in Kolkata are mostly refugees or migrants from rural areas, driven into the city in search of livelihood. Whole families live in fragile shanties, bus shelters, and railway platforms, earning a meager living as rag pickers, petty hawkers, and daily wageworkers. Trapped in a vicious poverty cycle, they struggle daily for survival.
But it is also the site of broad-scale social programs rooted in Pentecostal faith.
“First feed our bellies ... then tell us about a God in heaven who loves us!” Decades ago, a hungry beggar flung these words at Mark Buntain, a young missionary-evangelist from North America who, with his wife, Huldah, had come to share the good news of Jesus with the people of Kolkata. The Buntains were convicted by these words, and the Assembly of God Church they founded 60 years ago launched a social outreach program that has served the poor of Kolkata ever since.
The Kolkata Assembly of God Church’s theory of change is deeply rooted in the gospel of Christ, with our ultimate goal being fullness of life for all, especially for the poor and marginalized in society. Though our initial response to the poverty trap was a spontaneous attempt to meet immediate needs at the grassroots level, with time we also developed a more studied response geared toward sustainable empowerment.
Excited and nervous on his first day of high school in Leskovac, Serbia, Saša Bakic waited his turn to introduce himself. After he said his name, his new teacher stopped him: “Are you Roma?” she asked. “Let’s make a deal—if you don’t skip school and stay quiet in class, I will pass you with a D.” Stunned and humiliated, Saša tried to protest amidst the class’s laughter, only to be told, “You are all the same.”
The history of the Roma—Europe’s largest minority—is pockmarked with stories of forced assimilation, enslavement, and even attempted genocide during WWII. Today, despite efforts of state and EU policy toward integration, many Roma in Eastern Europe are still mired in systemic poverty and social stigma.
The steady growth of Roma Pentecostalism in Europe, however, is another narrative challenging these sobering realities.
When Saša began attending church at age 8, he received a message of acceptance and encouragement. “The children’s sermons acknowledged that we were outcasts, but that we should love rather than hate,” he remembered, now working to complete his bachelor’s in theology. “The church told us, ‘Let’s make a better image of our community!’”
Burkina Faso, a small, landlocked country in West Africa, was on the radar of the world media in 2014 when its people rose up to end the 27-year rule of Blaise Compaoré.
A positive outcome of the uprising has been that girls are enrolling in schools at a higher rate than before the ouster, but women’s literacy across the country remains very low at 29 percent. Low literacy rates among girls and women is a key factor in keeping Burkina Faso ranked near the bottom of the human development indices.
Part of the problem is a cultural bias that favors males. A secondary problem is early pregnancy that hinders girls from fully accessing education. Several strategic partner organizations started by Pentecostal Christians—including the National Association for Bible Translation and Literacy, the Christian Relief and Development Organization, and my own organization, Evangelical Association for Support and Development—have played a key role in addressing early pregnancy.
These organizations sponsor formal education for both girls and boys in hundreds of schools, but they also have created innovative informal educational opportunities that particularly benefit women and girls. For example, my organization opened gender-balanced “speed schools” in 2006, featuring an accelerated, nine-month curriculum for those with little or no education and those who never went to school in their native language. Following the speed-school term, graduates enter their third or fourth year of primary school.
Many similar initiatives can trace their origins to students trained by Assembly of God missionaries such as Pierre Dupret, who led the first Assembly of God school in Burkina Faso in 1948. Historically, colonialism and other social and economic factors hindered women’s education. Today, Pentecostal churches, including the Assembly of God, and other Christian organizations are some of the main sources for promoting education for women in Burkina Faso.
Northmead Assembly of God Church in Lusaka, Zambia, is just like any other megachurch in the world’s megacities. About 1,500 worshippers gather for each of the two Sunday worship services. The music is emotionally uplifting, and Bishop Joshua Banda’s roaring preaching barely keeps members of the audience in their seats. Frequent amens and hallelujahs compete with the preacher’s increasing excitement. In every way, this is a typical Pentecostal church with a good dose of American influence and African traditional religious fervors.
However, this Pentecostal church also operates the Circle of Hope AIDS clinic. More people come here for HIV testing than to most government-run clinics, according to Banda, a sure sign of trust in this shame-oriented culture.
In the early 1990s, Bishop Banda didn’t think AIDS was an issue for his congregation. He was busy with preaching and evangelizing. According to census data, in 1985 the number of people infected with HIV in Zambia was about 36,000. By 1990, that number had jumped to nearly 300,000, and within five years it had doubled again. The AIDS pandemic threatened Zambia’s future.
Soon Banda was hit hard by the realization that AIDS was in his church. He became particularly aware of the suffering of widow lay leaders, and he realized if Zambia lost its future generations, there would be no church or mission at all. He set about to drastically change the direction of Northmead’s ministry.
Banda mobilized his large congregation’s resources to address this threat. Northmead established an intentional “discipleship” track to provide ministry and training for HIV/AIDS patients, their families, and the whole church. Northmead’s approach was holistic, covering spiritual, social, communal, educational, and medical assistance.