From Kikawa-sensei’s video this week about how missionaries tend to impose behavioural changes among indigenous converts, and from last week’s Zoom discussion about how do we discern what changes need to happen in the culture and Rob-san and Brendalyn-san commented that we could allow the people from that culture to make those decisions since they too have the Holy Spirit in and among them, this is one anecdote from my own experience in West Africa.
My wife and I had lived in West Africa for a few years and this is a story that we experienced when we lived in a small town. One night we received a visit from one of our co-workers who told us the news that one of our West African friends had been missing since that afternoon. He had been playing with his friends at the base of a nearby waterfall. And as young people do, they would swim, dive, hangout, and play. The next morning, I joined the search mainly to pray and to show solidarity with the family and the community. There were lots of capable and able-bodied people from town who swam, dove, and searched the nearby areas. After some time, a “marabout” arrived. “Marabout” is the French term for religious teacher but is often also considered as a person of power who would prescribe rituals, incantations, or fetishes to help people. So, this marabout lady came and performed sacrifices to water spirits to release the body. She said some words I couldn’t understand, and she threw bananas and oranges into the water. Of course, the body was found the next day. To me, scientifically, it’s just the gasses produced in the decomposing body that caused it to float. But this action perpetuated and legitimized belief in the ritual and in the spirits.
Months later, now dealing with another issue at hand – it was a moral and ethical misconduct by one of the leaders of the local church – brought several key leaders from the national church to our town. Their meetings went on for days and we only heard about what happened in the meetings. Instead of dealing with the moral and ethical violation of the current matter at hand and punishment for the perpetrator, it was the West African church pastor who was disciplined. You see, he was the father of our friend who died in that waterfall accident. And he was there while the search went on and when the marabout performed her ritual. This West African church pastor was disciplined because he allowed the marabout to perform the ritual during the search and rescue of his missing son. In my worldview, the ethical misconduct was important and called for justice. However, for the West African church leaders, they considered the pastor’s lapse in judgment was graver from their “Power-Fear” worldview. Like I said earlier, allowing the marabout to perform her ritual perpetuated belief in the ritual and spirits, and in a way, undid what the National church was doing to turn followers of Jesus from their old ways of attaching power to people, things and places towards the power of the Holy Spirit, the very life-giving presence of King Jesus in their lives.
Even in churches, when West African pastors preach, they would very often talk about getting rid of “fetishes” (things they would ascribe protective powers to) and trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me this was like Paul’s experience in Acts 16 with the young girl with powers of divination. Even though what she proclaimed was true, Paul did not want that practice of divination to be attached in any way to the lifestyle of those who would follow King Jesus in Philippi.