Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Bethel Revival Ministry International, 2-4 Crown close, off Hackney Wick, 31.01.11

Church is all about commitment and dedication so I decided to put my agnostic faith to the test in a masochistic act of self-indulgence. This Sunday I awoke at 6.45 in a rural camp site just outside Didcot in Oxfordshire after a heavy night of fun with the knowledge I had to return to my home in East London and get to a service for 12.30. After one car journey, two trains, an underground diversion, a final bus journey and a cycle ride I made my commitment and sat in the foyer of the Bethel Revival Ministry smugly shattered. My body may have been present in the foyer but my mind was very much asleep. Every time I closed my eyes for prayer I was comforted not by the voice of God but by the future promise of sleep. My semi-comatose condition would have been well hidden in a more sedate service of Anglicans and Catholics but instead I was in the presence of an all singing and loud praying joyous bunch of Ghanaian evangelicals. This week’s Christian community must have judged my unenergetic worship as an act of rudeness or worse a symptom of my lighter skin colour. I pride myself on being a very unrestrained Englishman and I did not want to be passively repressed in my participation in the service’s loud singing and dancing, however I did reassure myself that I was justifiably tired because of my travels. Ironically, my tired and over-travelled state was actually surrounded by the friendliest, most forthcoming, energetic and inquisitive congregation I have yet to visit and who had culturally and historically travelled far further than me to worship God in Hackney.
The Bethel Revival Ministry International has a short but rich history, founded in 1974 by a Christian housewife named Sister Alice Newman after she was visited by God, who told her to give up her work as a hairdresser and go preach the gospel. As Sister Alice grew a predominantly Ghanaian congregation the church moved from Stoke Newington to Leyton and finally to their current building in Hackney Wick. The new building has a modern design with modest church attributes of an arched wooden door, three sets of stone arched windows and a gable roof. Lacking the romance of age, the modern building felt well-loved in its smart presentation and slightly odd with its architectural spiritual aspirations. The cost of the newly built church was clearly paid by the celebrity of Alice’s fame as a Christian healer. Visiting and healing people in Holland, Italy, Pakistan, India, Belgium and Germany as well as establishing permanent ministries in Vicenza in Italy, Accra and Kumasi in Ghana and more others around London. Alice was clearly a Christian celebrity appearing on Revelation TV (Christian digital channel) and the writer of three books “God Comes When Everything is Hopeless,” “Your Weapon is Your Prayer,” “Overcome Your Enemies with Prayer,” but Alice was not noticeable by her absence. Despite The Bethel Revival Ministry International being her spiritual home Alice was on a mission back in Ghana, not that I would have realised about her fame had it not been for the highly informative congregation.  To view the creation of the church as one woman’s journey would be wrong and meeting the congregation it was clear that the highly diverse group of Ghanaians had travelled “near and far,” to come and worship in Hackney. “Near and far,” is the staple response I have received from many West African Christians when I ask if the community are local, it’s a sign that they understand that the congregation are not local but they lack the information, interest or English language to explain from where they have come. Three congregational members particularly demonstrated how “near and far,” the church had travelled and informed and guided me through the service.
On entering the lower ground floor foyer of the church I was greeted by James, a smartly dressed and smiling man but very gentle in his manner in comparison to the more extrovert parishioners. Walking in a room of loud spoken prayers can be daunting to someone lacking sleep and energy so I was grateful for James’s thoughtful introduction. James was linguistically neither “near or far” he spoke clearly and definitively in a Ghanaian accent but could not make leading statements and appeared to be restricted to answers rather than questions; or he was being a polite host and I was being a rude inquisitive guest.  Despite a slight language barrier he was desperate for me to understand his speech and punctuated every sentence with his pupils, his eyes constantly staring into my own as we talked as if some non-verbal truth would pass between them.  It was James pointing at the various shrines of Alice’s international philanthropy in the lower foyer that informed me of the churches origins. James was a big Alice fan. James clearly believed the sentiments of the Bible and The Holy Spirit would translate any misunderstanding. As James contributed to the service with a reading and testimony he did shout in praise of God and reminded those that merely attending church does not absolve you of sin (he had just been talking to me after all) but his mild manner did dissolve and his voice and body shook with excitement.  The public religious out pouring was inoffensive with no direct target but the congregation’s own self-evaluation but his change in manner was an indication of how the gentlest of men can achieve a sense of righteousness through religion. Fascinating that the most vocal and lucid of speaking came from when he recited and talked on the Bible as if God gave him the confidence to speak out. In comparison to James’s few words but kind spirited personality was the well-spoken, deep voiced and eloquent Derek.
I did not notice Derek’s arrival until upstairs at the start of the service when he introduced himself. A large man in his 40s, neatly dressed but not suited like most men of the congregation, he wore thin framed glasses that superficially added intellectual gravitas to his smart casual appearance.  Derrick guided me through the redemption hymnal, translated the parts of the service in Twi and explained certain rituals. Not that he had to explain much, the majority of the service was the standard evangelical mix of testimonies and sermon intercut with songs. The most impressive aspect of the service was the singing and the acappella caller response relationship between the pastor and the congregation. The congregation had such a great rapport with their pastor, forming a raw vocal harmony. None of the singing was staged for certain stars (with the exception of the pastor) so the singing had a very inclusive feel in comparison to other evangelical services. The singing, dancing and praying of Derek I took to be far more introverted and a sign of a more English formal manner. Derek waved some arms and praised aloud “thank you Jesus,” but he did it with a far more reserved manner. On my travels I have been grabbed, shook, pointed at to praise the lord by enthusiastic congregational members so I was grateful for this unassuming chaperoning. In comparison to James we hardly made eye contact but we did do a lot more talking. Yet I did not get a good impression on what Derek was like until he translated for me the other congregation member’s testimonies. When translating a lady’s testimony on returning to the UK you could hear a sense of pride in his voice in helping build a connection between me and her. Derek had been visiting the church since 1993 when the church was based in Leyton and during his translation I realised not only his religious dedication but also his dedication to Ghana (his homeland) and his people. Like any good translator he merely relayed the speaker’s words and within the lady’s testimony he and her help summed up my impression of the church.
If Derek was from “near,” then the lady speaking as loud as her green, black and yellow dress was definitely from a “far.” On returning to the UK she wanted to thank the congregation for looking after and supporting her daughter in her absence as she tended other family needs back in Accra. As her voice trembled with emotion in a language I did not understand I could at least sense the gratitude in her face as Derek told me how her other family members missed the congregation back in England. Declaring the church as her family it became clear that church did not only provide a religious identity but a cultural one that helped sustain and support its members in our recently globalised world. I have never been a fan of nationalism but comparing my own pathetic sense of pride at arriving at church after a six hour journey I could understand the national sense of pride built on migration that bound The Bethel Revival International Ministry. The church may have been founded on one woman’s religious revelation and healing abilities but it existed in the many journeys of a wide variety of Ghanaian Brits who had live in London and have travelled from “near and far.”

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