Monday, November 1, 2010


As I travel around West Africa and meet with various Presbyterian congregations, the story from Acts 17, where Paul is in Athens, often comes to mind.  As I relay to West Africans my understanding of American Presbyterian Christianity (and as I see for myself the practice of Presbyterianism in West Africa), the comparison to Paul seems apt.

In Acts 17, the Athenians wonder about Paul, “Who is this babbler?  What is he trying to say?  He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities.”  While people never say this to my face, I imagine they must be thinking the same thing about me. 

I read an interview recently on the website beliefnet, which relayed a story about a British Anglican who was visiting Nigeria.  This British pastor preached about the time Jesus multiplies the loaves and fishes.  The pastor said that this story should be interpreted as a statement on the power of community, and not so much as a statement on the power of miracles.

It was a sermon which, I imagine, would have been very well-received in his community in the U.K.  But the Nigerian reaction was quite different.  They wrote back to the bishop in England and requested, “Next time please send us a Christian.”  Obviously, they preferred the miraculous nature of the story, and not the aspect about community. 

This story is, of course, hearsay, but I think it reflects accurately on the gap that can exist between West African and American understandings of faith.  The sermons I’ve heard preached in Ghana and Nigeria are quite different than the ones I’ve heard in the U.S.  They can be so profoundly different that one is left wondering, is this the same faith we’re both practicing and preaching? 

In a country like Nigeria, where jobs are scarce, healthcare often non-existent, corruption rampant, and crime widespread, there is a large focus on God being the provider of personal health, prosperity, and security.  I must admit, to an outsider like myself, I am surprised by how self-centered the prayers appear.  

God, give me health, bless me with wealth, lift me up into a position of power.  At the same time, God, destroy my enemies, hinder anyone who stands in my way, frustrate the plans of those who disagree with me.  There seem to be few prayers for others, for the community, or for the world at large, and hardly any at all for peace and justice.

In Acts 17, Paul says to the Athenians, “I see how very religious you are in every way.”  There’s no doubt, West Africans are an extremely religious people.  But honestly, I’m struggling a bit to appreciate this religiosity. 

I believe strongly the PCUSA can help West African Presbyterians become better Christian disciples, with an emphasis on peace, justice, and compassion.  At the same time, perhaps we in the PCUSA can benefit from the fervent faith of West Africa

Is it possible that our differing interpretations of the Bible are all true, and we can appreciate one other for the variety of ways we hear the same Bible stories?  Only one thing is certain, it is through dialogue and partnership that we’ll figure this out.  

(Above) The female ward of a rural Presbyterian Church of Nigeria hospital. This hospital continues to treat leprosy patients, even though the Nigerian government denies that leprosy is still present in the country.

(Above) A Presbyterian Church of Nigeria congregation, in a neighborhood of Lagos that is now flooded. The church has stayed put, despite the harsh conditions it faces. The youth come early every Sunday to pump out the water and mops the floors clean.

(Above and below) Two Presbyterian Church of Nigeria congregations in Lagos, which are slated to be torn down due to a road widening project.