By Jude Lane
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
I was raised in the Assemblies of God church a denomination begun in my home state of Arkansas. I even went to an Assemblies of God university. And though I, as now an atheist, do not hold to any of the teachings anymore, the influence of that Christian denomination is permanently part of my life story and life philosophy. When I first chose to come to Ghana I was unaware that this denomination had a strong influence here as well. In fact, I was informed by one of my good friends, shortly before coming, that the current sitting president of Ghana was a member of the church and had been in my previous home town of Springfield, Missouri in 2014 for the hundred year anniversary of the Assemblies’ creation. I was in the same stadium section as the Ghanaian president two years before I knew anything about Foundation Beyond Belief, and the Humanist Service Corps (HSC) did not yet exist. This coincidence was too much to pass up. Ghana is known for being very religious, but having this tie to my past denomination became of great interest to me when joining the HSC team. I was incredibly curious to know how the Assemblies of God conducted itself in a culture starkly different from the version under which I was raised. I made it my goal to attended some services in our base town of Bimbilla and allow myself to see how something so close to my past felt in my present.
I have now attended multiple services of Living Bread Assemblies of God and talked with the current pastor of the small local church. The sanctuary is small. It has maybe a hundred members or so. The choir is mostly made of relatives to the pastor, the band is two drummers and a keyboardist, and the chairs are plastic. But for any of my Pentecostal friends reading this, you would be at home during their worship service. These people sing passionately (though maybe off key), they raise the hands, they form lines and dance all around the altar floor. During the message, the pastor spoke loudly and passionately. People responded with the words “amen” and ” praise God.” If not for being in Dagbanli, (luckily there is English translation during the preaching), I would have thought I entered a southern Arkansas revival. And above all, they seemed joyous. I could not help but clap, smile big, and enjoy a little taste of home. This is not to say there were not differences. But as I watched the music, listened to the pastor preach, and interacted with the people, I saw just how far the Assemblies of God worldview had really reached.
What differences there were stood out. The first that I would want to highlight was that theology seemed to lean towards earning salvation, an idea that I know is not held by the Assemblies of God organization which teaches quite the opposite; salvation cannot be earned, but only accepted freely. Two of the services contained messages of this nature. In one message, the story of the woman washing Jesus’ feet was used to portray that her physical act, or “gift,” is why Jesus forgave her for her sins. The other message suggested that the obligation to be a “warrior” for Christ required certain actions in order for God to accept one into heaven. Another difference was the strong Catholic influence. This included a very catholic portrayal of the Christ on the front wall, the pastor wearing a white collar, and ending the service with a unified prayer. The Catholic church has a long history in Ghana, but seeing this inside a Pentecostal setting stood out tremendously.
In addition to services, I visited the pastor himself to acquire more insight. Living directly next door to the church building, Pastor John has been leading this congregation for almost 20 years. He is an incredibly nice man, who smiles most of the time, and was completely open to answering a few questions for me. To check base, I asked questions concerning being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and his credentials coming from Springfield headquarters. All answers, so far, were more or less what I had expected.
Then I began questions more culturally specific: What were the Ghana Assemblies of God views on the witchcraft issues currently and did these accused deserve the treatment they were currently receiving? To which he responded, “Whether or not these people have this power is no concern, I am under the protection of God. And no, they deserve to be treated with the same rights and dignity as everyone.” Can people follow traditional beliefs and local religion and still hold to Christian teaching?* His answer, “I understand this to be a problem all across Ghana. We discourage this mixing of beliefs just like we discourage intoxication and premarital sex. It is an issue we discuss frequently, but we understand that there are those members who visit diviners and practice local magic.” Can women lead and be head pastor of an Assemblies of God church in Ghana? This question got a bit of a chuckle, “Yes, of course, if a woman is called of God, she can be credentialed like any male.”** Lastly, will a Muslim go to heaven? This was the most surprising answer of all, “That is only God’s to judge. Muslim or Christian, if a person is good and humble, this is what God considers important.”
In the United States, most people, by far, call themselves Christians. Yes, these Christians are more or less aware of other religions, but many do not intimately know a single person of a different faith. This makes it easy to say that every non-Christian is destined for hell. But in a country, like Ghana, where half of the people you meet follow god by a different name; where many people hold to traditional beliefs and consider themselves multi-religious; where many of your neighbors and close friends are wonderful people who pray differently, marry differently, bury their deceased family differently; many of these things which you are a part of because you love them as people; the ability to feel self righteous about your religious choices diminishes.
When I first entered Evangel University, I had planned on becoming a missionary. Had I continued that path, I most likely would be in a South American country working with an Assemblies of God church. On my first day visiting Living Bread Assemblies of God, there was a foreigner there. She stood and spoke at one point and seemed to have a close relationship with the congregation. While listening to her speak, I began imagining that life path and where it would have taken me, and I realized that I more or less, I had ended up doing the same thing I had wanted before just without the religion. If I have carried anything with me from my days in the Assemblies of God and my Christian heritage, it is that I want to be good to others. I know we have incredibly different views on what makes this world important, on how it began, on how it will end. But, many times I believe we all want the same thing. We all want to do good and be humble. No matter your views on the afterlife, on the souls of people, on the grand scheme of the universe, I hope we can all realized that we are here, now, together. Atheist, Muslim, Christian, or any other personal belief, let us work as one and make tomorrow a better place.
*In Ghana, as well as many other countries, it is not considered much of a problem to mix belief systems. These people are sincere in their faith, but, because of culture, allow god to work in multiple forms. I know this may seem illogical and impossible to some U.S. believers, but please be open-minded understand that this world is a big place and people and culture change drastically from one to another.
**From my understanding, women in the Assemblies of God can be pastors, but not head pastors. But, I have been out of the church for a few years now. If any of my friends can and wish to correct me, please feel free.
Jude Lane was born and raised in Arkansas. He obtained a degree in Spanish and Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) from Evangel University, and has been working for the past two years as a youth care specialist at a Springfield, Missouri children’s emergency care facility for children in poverty stricken, drug afflicted, or abusive homes. Jude chose to join HSC because he believes in serving with others to help make as many lives better as possible. He greatly enjoys travel and has visited many countries in Europe and South America. Jude loves a good conversation over just about anything.