The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Africa's Christian soldiers

January 24, 2005, 8:49 pm

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, Kenya

As Christianity fights to keep its place in an increasingly secular European society, it is flourishing in parts of the developing world, particularly in Africa.

The single-engined plane wobbled violently on its approach to the dirt strip at Marsabit, but the McGregor family maintained a cheerful calm.

Two hours earlier in Nairobi the diminutive woman pilot had strapped us in and then announced: "I'm going to pray now," in a way that suggested more than just a perfunctory formality.

But the McGregors - an improbably blond family of Anglican missionaries from Florida - were bouncing down safely enough amid a cloud of red dust, and about to be greeted by an impromptu committee of indigenous children posed around an ancient bicycle.

The McGregors had arrived with the Christian message for the nomadic camel herders on Kenya's northern borders. These are what are known as the "un-reached" - people with traditional African religions never before approached by missionaries.

That task lay ahead, but today Todd and Patsy McGregor were to baptise people of the Samburu and Rendille tribes converted in previous months.

'Riot of colour'

Their distant village lay along an unpaved road, empty apart from a broken down bus and a group of baboons which watched us reproachfully as we passed.

The baptisms took place under an acacia tree, next to a scattering of stick and cloth huts.

Todd McGregor pulled a surplice over his tropical beach shirt and used water from a stainless steel bowl to splash on the foreheads of 37 women and three men. It was a riot of colour and celebration.

People dressed in orange and red, and weighed down with elaborate head-dresses and multiple necklaces of beads, swayed and chanted.

The McGregors jigged along, straw-haired daughters slapping hands with local girls.

This was not the stern Christianity of the early missionaries with their European disapproval of indigenous practices.

Instead, a new Africanised Christianity is being presented to susceptible people.

Local beliefs - including a single divine creator, a God who was once on earth, and a spiritual existence after death- bear an eerie similarity to the Bible.

Modern missionaries are primed to discover such traditions, and co-opt them in the service of Christianity.

It is a softly-softly approach.

Only later will the McGregors tackle the endemic wife-beating and female genital mutilation.

It is enough for now that women are telling us that Christianity is changing their lives, and that it is even easier to love their husbands.

Stage presence

As the McGregors baptise the Samburu one-at-a-time in Marsabit, in Nairobi the Maximum Miracle Centre is planning a mass evangelisation.

Tens of thousands turn up in Independence Park for the highly charged event. This is Pentecostalism in its modern African form, stressing hope and personal salvation, and providing an emotional release from a life of hardship.

The star act is Rose Muhando, who sings emotively of desertion by her husband and rejection by her family.

Her performance reaches catharsis as she collapses on the stage, twitching melodramatically and still moaning into the microphone.

There is a gratifying response.

Many in the congregation cry, some beat their chests. A few simply lie flat out on the ground.

People are asked if they want to be saved. Hundreds push forward, hands raised, to be led away, glassy-faced, for counselling.

Next there is instruction in the art of giving. A pastor describes how he gave so much to the church that people told him he was crazy. But he ended up with an expensive car, he explained, such was the grace of God.

As people crowd forward, he calls on them to give whatever Jesus is telling them to give, but then suggests 200 shillings, about a day's pay for the average Kenyan.

As hands come up clutching notes to be put on the stage, stewards adroitly scoop them back from the edge.

The whole thing has a practised air, but Pastor Pius Muiru, a podgy man in a tent-like robe, tells me later that he had not intended to ask for money that evening.

He says that he suddenly thought how appropriate it would be for people to have the chance to thank God for nurturing them through the year.

Religious rivalry

Meanwhile, the McGregors are pursuing their own conversion strategy.

Today it is among the un-reached people of the Gabbra tribe near the border with Ethiopia.

Unusual rains have given the arid earth of the Chalbi Desert a superficial bloom of green that is already withering in the ceaseless wind.

The family gains entry to a stick and cloth hut. They sip tea, inspect children and smile winningly.

But at a nearby settlement - where people are gathered at a well filling plastic drums with water - the atmosphere is uneasy.

Muslim missionaries have been here already.

According to the McGregors, the Muslims are even more accepting of local practices, including the unequal position of women.

The men watering camels seem indifferent to our presence, but the women are restive.

One brandishes a stone menacingly. Our local guide is getting nervous. We retreat - sparkling Floridian smiles intact - towards the Land Rover.

None of this will daunt the McGregors though.

Converting the un-reached is their purpose, their whole function.


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