Photo by Mark Gornik
Mark Gornik: African Christianity, a gift for the Western church
Out of sight of most Americans, African Christianity is thriving in New York and other cities, here and around the globe. It is a gift in our midst, a vivid reminder that Christ is about flourishing, says the author of “Word Made Global.”
May 8, 2012 | If you want to see the cutting edge of the church today, go to the outer boroughs of New York, to the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx. There you will find a vibrant transnational movement of faith, in particular African Christianity, propelled by globalization and other forces, says the Rev. Mark Gornik.
Gornik, the founder of City Seminary of New York, spent 10 years studying African Christianity in New York City. His book, “Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City,” was named one of Christianity Today’s best books of 2012. Although largely unnoticed by most Americans, the growing presence of African Christianity in the United States is an important development for all Christians, with important lessons for the church, Gornik said.
“African Christians give us an example of how to recover a comprehensive, holistic faith,” he said. “They remind us that Christ is about flourishing, that God is interested in our bodies, our hearts and our souls.”
Before moving to New York in 1998, Gornik co-founded New Song Community Church in Baltimore. In 2003, he launched City Seminary of New York, which he serves as director.
Gornik spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about “Word Made Global” and African Christianity in New York. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: How did you get interested in studying African churches in New York City?
I moved to Harlem to work on starting a second New Song Community Church, and I noticed there was a large African immigrant community in the neighborhood, primarily from Senegal, Mali and Ivory Coast.
I began to get a sense of the city’s profound demographic changes. Since the 1980s and the 1990s, there has been a great immigration to New York from the non-Western world.
It struck me that, if Christianity was growing around the world and many of those places were now connected to New York City, then perhaps the church was growing in New York in ways that reflected those connections.
I was reading a book by Andrew Walls, “The Missionary Movement in Christian History,” and I thought, “What he’s describing is what I think is happening in New York.” I went and met him at Princeton Seminary, and he helped guide my movement into this work.
So, I found one church, and I went from there.
Q: You went all over the five boroughs of New York, tracking down and studying these churches, right?
When I started 10 or more years ago, there wasn’t one article or book on African churches in the United States that I was aware of. So I tried to see if there were any churches. It wasn’t a question of, “Where are they?” It was a question of, “Are there any?”
After a little homework I found an Ethiopian Pentecostal church in the Bronx, and I worshipped there one Sunday. It was an amazing experience. On the way out, I asked the pastor if he knew any other churches where people from Africa worshipped. He wasn’t sure, but he mentioned one in Brooklyn called Redeemed Christian Church of God.
I found them and visited one Sunday. They were renting a vacant warehouse, heating the place with kerosene heaters and it was freezing. It was a very profound worship experience.
I asked basic questions and found that most [worshippers] were from Nigeria. Later, I looked up the Redeemed Christian Church of God in “World Christian Encyclopedia,” and I’m thinking maybe there are one or two branches in Nigeria. Turns out there are almost 5,000. I realized then that this wasn’t a one-off church, but part of something pretty significant in Africa and globally.
I did that, church by church, for a number of years. I kept asking people if they knew of others, and I’d follow up and go worship there.
Q: How large is the African Christian presence in New York?
I documented about 150 congregations, but that is probably an underestimate. I would say probably 200 African congregations are in New York City, primarily from Nigeria and Ghana, some Liberian, some Ethiopian.
They don’t fit our traditional categories. Almost all are influenced by the work of the Holy Spirit in the sense of being charismatic or Pentecostal. They are not called denominations but ministries, and they have a global focus. Some might be Catholic or Presbyterian or Methodist, but primarily they’re just their own movements.
Many businesses and financial firms have their headquarters in New York, and I found the same thing for many African churches. They have a hub or a center of operations here, and they use that as a base to plant churches across North America.
Q: You write that New York is the connection point for both the global economy and African Christianity.
Globalization has really intensified things. Airplane travel has made mobility very easy. Borders have become stronger, but they’ve also become more porous. It’s contradictory but it makes sense.
One of the technical words is “transnationalism” -- that is, people have a foot in two worlds, actually more than two worlds. Someone from Nigeria will have extended family back in Nigeria, but they work and live here with their family. They went to Redeemed parish in Lagos and they go to Redeemed parish here in Brooklyn.
If they have a conference, the speakers are from Nigeria, not from their own churches in New York City or from American evangelicals or mainline Protestants -- they won’t even know of them. Leaders go back and forth for seminary education or revivals, and at the same time they’re creating and connecting networks here in the United States.
People are relating through work and faith that crosses boundaries. They’re very local, but they’re also global.
Q: So, these are not like immigrants of 100 years ago who left home never to return. They are still intimately connected to these places and are constantly going back and forth.
Absolutely. Before, when people got on the boat, they said goodbye to their parents or brothers and sisters, probably forever. And when they arrived in the United States, there was a pattern of assimilation, as people tried to adopt a culture and language here.
In a globalized world, people stay connected, and they preserve their culture. The Africans that I met are very committed to New York and have great respect for the opportunities they’ve been given and for the city and for this country. But that hasn’t meant that they’ve lost their cultural identities or their religious commitments.
Instead of losing their identity, it becomes enriched. They gain new ways of relating. Immigrants today have multiple identities. At their core they are who they are, but they’re also finding new ways to navigate life in the United States.