Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City
By Mark R. Gornik
Eerdmans, 368 pp., $30.00 paperback
Over ten years ago Andrew Walls, the renowned historian and mission theologian, with whom I was studying at Princeton Theological Seminary, mentioned that one of his students had begun researching African immigrant churches in New York City. The student, according to Walls, was literally walking block by block in the city looking for these churches, of which very little was known at the time. Mark Gornik, I later learned, was that student. Word Made Global presents wonderful insights based on his ten years of painstaking and brilliant ethnographic research.
Gornik, the director of City Seminary in New York and the founding pastor (now emeritus) of New Song Community Church in Baltimore, explores the Christian movements in Africa that have crossed over into New York City and are putting down roots there. Embedded in this larger narrative are stories of African immigrants who, despite the strain and stress of living in New York, strive to live by Christian beliefs and practices that they also passionately propagate.
By Gornik's count, African immigrants have established about 150 congregations in New York City. These are diverse in size, country of origin, membership, theological beliefs and religious practices. Several of them, Gornik notes, have no permanent place of worship and meet in rented storefronts, "converted basements" and "borrowed sanctuaries." To help the reader appreciate the wide variety of these African churches, he gives us a panoramic view of Ethiopian Orthodox, Catholic, Pentecostal, independent, francophone and Liberian congregations located in all of New York City's five boroughs. Gornik also reveals the complex local and global networks that exist among these churches, their home denominations and countries, and many Pentecostal and charismatic movements within and outside the United States.
The book reveals the African churches' bottom-up approaches to mission, as compared with the top-down approaches of many Western Christian missions to Africa and Asia. Unlike Western missions to Africa, which are often initiated and supported financially by home churches and mission boards, the African congregations are in many cases formed by individuals who migrated to the U.S. for personal reasons, often to seek better economic opportunities.
Marie Cooper and Nimi Wariboko are the founding pastors of two of the congregations Gornik describes. Cooper, affectionately called Mother Cooper, migrated to the United States from Liberia in 1984. In addition to essential personal items, she brought with her religious paraphernalia--her Bible, white cloth garments and a small wooden cross--and, of course, her Christian beliefs. Initially she worshiped with an African-American congregation, but soon she became disenchanted with its worship style. She then began prayer meetings in her apartment. Over a decade, this prayer group grew in size until it became an official branch of the Church of the Lord (Aladura).
Nimi Wariboko left his lucrative Wall Street investment banking job in 1998 to begin a branch of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Brooklyn. He supported the nascent ministry with proceeds from the sale of his car and funds from his retirement savings.
The growing presence of African Christianity in the United States is part of a trend of Christianities of the Global South making inroads in the North. Since the 1970s large numbers of Africans have migrated to several European countries, Canada and the United States. In many cities and towns they are reviving Christianity through the establishment of new churches and evangelistic ministries. …