Reinventing religious urbanity in a (post)pandemic world? – a view from Africa

At the heart of the response to the Coronavirus pandemic is a concern over physical contact and contagion translated into practices of social distancing. Many, if not all, spheres of life have been impacted and the view is widespread that a ‘new normal’ will involve a reinvention of numerous individual and collective behaviours against a potentially persistent pandemic risk, at least in the short to medium term. In Europe and North America tensions between essential public health requirements and a need to ‘re-open the economy’ have shaped debates, while questions have been raised about the extent to which the lockdown is adapted to the social and demographic reality of Global South urbanities. This is particularly the case in  African contexts, where the informal sector tends to dominate and where many urban residents live in high-density settlements, often in large family clusters, and cannot rely on a state’s welfare safety net to compensate for income losses.

In these African urban environments, the impact of the pandemic on religious activities, central in the lives of millions, has been significant. In Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, and where Pentecostal churches dominate the urban landscape, a gradual ban on religious activities was imposed as part of a series of measures to limit public gatherings. As described by Xavier Moyet these measures have met some resistance from prominent Pentecostal figures, such as Bishop David Oyedepo, Pastor of the mega-church Winners Chapel, who claimed during a service streamed online (22 March 2020)  that ‘shutting down churches would be like shutting down hospitals’.

This emphasis on the healing power of worship is recurrent in African Pentecostal theologies with the paradigm of ‘spiritual warfare’ at times invoked to explain and respond to the pandemic. This paradigm relates to the struggle against evil forces and ancestral afflictions blocking access to success, health and wealth. For some churches, it has provided a framework to ‘spiritualize’ the Covid crisis in turn raising concerns about possible detrimental consequences to public health messaging. Moreover, while much scholarship on Pentecostalism in Africa and Latin America has suggested that Pentecostalism often promotes attitudes and subjectivities addressing the insecurity of neoliberal regimes (without contesting them), Pentecostal churches are also increasingly at the forefront of initiatives providing key services in welfare, sanitation, health care or education [1].

Pentecostal church in Lagos.

As part of the RUA (Religious Urbanisation in Africa) Project we explored how Pentecostals (but also Catholics, Kimbanguists and Islamic groups) were producing such religious urban strategies in the contexts of Lagos and Kinshasa— two of the most populated and fastest growing cities in sub-Saharan Africa. The research found evidence of relatively higher trust in religious organisations, linked to the possibility of accessing symbolic and material resources, with health centres run by FBOs (Faith-Based Organisations) considered more reliable than those run by the state or other private, non-religious organisations, even if there are often barriers to their use owing to cost. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, the role of religious leaders in shaping the perceptions of public health recommendations can also be potentially crucial given their substantial reach and influence among urban populations.

The other key findings of the RUA project relevant to the challenges of the current pandemic relate to the emergence of self-contained, mega-infrastructures and ‘prayer cities’, such as the Redemption Camp built by the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in the periphery of Lagos. These religious enclaves often accommodate million-strong crowds gathering for intense and lengthy prayer meetings, forming ‘effervescent assemblies’ à la Durkheim, reflecting the unbounded ambition and vitality of the Pentecostal project, as well as the ‘sensational appeal’ of Charismatic ‘aesthetics of persuasion’ as coined by anthropologist Birgit Meyer [2].

While these spaces and the socio-affective intensity they allow act as signs of divine presence, blessings and success, their efficacy in creating and managing publics also lies in their capacity to act as ‘spatial fix’, to adapt David Harvey’s notion to the world of Pentecostal urbanism [3]. The notion of ‘fix’, Harvey notes, should be understood as an operation of spatial embeddedness and immobilisation, a ‘solution’ to a tendential problem of overaccumulation and a possible response to an ‘insatiable drive’. One could argue that the expansionist drive of Pentecostal Christianity is indeed its raison d’être, and is projected onto the symbolic and social space of a moral community inherently ‘called’ to grow and transcend a whole range of earthly boundaries. The difference with Harvey’s reading is that the conversion of resources (both church donations and religious surplus capital) into physical spaces, equipment and infrastructure becomes a testimony to the entwining of human action and divine vision.

A Pentecostal service before the changes brought by Corona, RCCG, Lagos

With the current pandemic these spaces have largely remained empty and restrictions on religious gatherings have led many Pentecostals to worship from the safety of their homes, sometimes remotely participating in religious services streamed online, or broadcast on TV or radio. Of course, the global deployment of Pentecostalism through electronic and audio-visual media has been well documented and the possibility of broadcasting services, deliverance, healing prayers etc.  is not a novelty in itself. Offerings, tithes and donations can also be transferred electronically via the Internet or mobile phone text messaging.  However, given the importance of the space-body nexus in Pentecostal practice, and the centrality of tactile sensorialities, many questions remain about the impact of the pandemic on the dynamics of embodied charismata and emplaced rituals. As Marleen de Witte points out “touch and tactile sensations are a key modality of spiritual experience and religious subjectivity in African charismatic Pentecostalism, and ‘feeling it in the body’ is often taken as an indicator of the true presence of the Holy Spirit” [4]. While she argues that believers can also be ‘touched’ by the transcendental energy of the Spirit flowing through audio-visual media and new technologies, the importance of place-making and collective worship – bringing people into close and emplaced charismatic ‘praying proximity’ – should not be downplayed.  ‘Born-again’ subjectivities rely heavily on individualised tropes of conversion and deliverance, yet Pentecostal worship is also a time-space within which believers ‘commune with God alone while in the presence of others’ [5], encouraging us to identify the ‘productive dynamic between the individual and the group’ [6]. Churches can thus be considered spaces of intersubjectivity but also of social control through mutual gaze as Simon Coleman pointed out in his study of Swedish Evangelicals [7]. Additionally, they constitute spaces of embodied learning, where individuals internalise the performativity of charismatic techniques du corps and can develop an introspective habitus by being exposed to the emotionally charged testimonies and public confessions of others.

From ongoing conversations with colleagues and RUA research participants in Lagos and Kinshasa as well as in Nigerian and Congolese diasporas, there seems to be a widespread anxiety building up among pastors and religious leaders about the inability of churches, during the lockdown and/or because of the restrictions, to retain – to ‘fix’, in a way – their members. This concern needs to be understood against a wider religious field shaped by intense competition between churches and highly charismatic pastors, competition also played out in the media and popular cultural spheres [8]. As Maman Josy, a member of a large Congolese Pentecostal church put it: ‘when you worship online you can be distracted and tempted to look at other churches, but when you are physically present in the church, you just don’t leave the service like that’. Maman Josy also felt a clear difference in the performance of offerings, ‘giving less money when worshipping online because not influenced by the heat [la chaleur] of the church community’.

A key question here is thus the extent to which the current pandemic restrictions may involve the emergence of ‘inattentive crowds’, leading in turn, to a volatility of membership, and perhaps more importantly for religious leaders to a detrimental loss of capital in the forms of offerings and ritualised donations. The weakness of communication infrastructure and lack of resources among members who may not be able to afford reliable access to the Internet also partly explain why leaders of African Pentecostal churches may be reluctant to prioritise various forms of remote or mediatised worshipping in a possible post-pandemic ‘new normal’ scenario. While it is of course too early to draw conclusions about any possible lasting changes, it is clear that the current pandemic crisis represents a challenge to forms of religiosity heavily dependent on the performative and spectacular aesthetics of collective intensity and social effervescence, often deployed through the appropriation and transformation of urban space.

— David Garbin

David Garbin is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Kent, UK. He specialises in modern Africa, migration, diasporic religion and urban change and is a fellow of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity”

Notes

[1] See for example the edited volume on Pentecostalism and development edited by Dena Freeman (2012)

[2] Meyer (2010, 2015)

[3] see Harvey (2001)

[4] de Witte (2012: 2)

[5] Luhrmann (2012: 4) cited by Hovland (2016: 341)

[6] Hovland (2016: 341)

[7] Coleman (2000)

[8] As Katrien Pype (2012) has shown in her ethnography of religious media and drama groups in Kinshasa

References

Coleman, S. 2000. The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

de Witte, M. 2012. ‘The electric touch machine miracle scam: Body, technology, and the (dis)authentication of the Pentecostal supernatural’, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/293214735

Freeman, D. 2012 (ed.) Pentecostalism and Development: Churches, NGOs and Social Change in Africa. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harvey, D. 2001. Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography. New York: Routledge.

Hovland, I. 2016. ‘Christianity, place/space, and anthropology: thinking across recent research on evangelical place-making’, Religion, 46(3), 331-358.

Meyer, B. 2010. ‘Aesthetics of Persuasion: Global Christianity and Pentecostalism’s Sensational Forms’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 109 (4): 741-763.

Meyer, B. 2015. Sensational Movies. Video, Vision and Christianity in Ghana. Berkeley: The University of California Press.

Pype, K. 2012. The Making of the Pentecostal Melodrama: Religion, Media and Gender in Kinshasa. London: Berghahn Books.

All images (c) by David Garbin.


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