Kenyan Pastor a Face of Christianity in Africa

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Christianity is on the rise in Africa, with more than 400 million adherents. Much of the growth has been in unaffiliated churches. At the Neno Evangelism Center in Nairobi, Pastor James Ng'ang'a preaches to overflow crowds.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Evangelical Christian churches in Africa have some of the fastest-growing congregations on the continent. From the giant, outdoor churches of Lagos, Nigeria, to the storefront churches in Durban, South Africa, to tents erected in Kenya, Africans are flocking to houses of worship that promise miracles, salvation and prosperity. NPR's Jason Beaubien recently visited the Neno Evangelism Center in Nairobi, Kenya.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

The Neno Evangelism Center is behind an automotive repair shop on the edge of downtown Nairobi. The church has been growing so fast that the congregation now spills from the main warehouse-like building into two white circus tents.

(Soundbite of music)

BEAUBIEN: Pastor James Ng'ang'a is alone on the stage playing electric guitar. In front of him, several thousand people sway to the music, their fingers stretched towards the corrugated tin roof. The Neno Evangelism Center is one of the fastest-growing churches in the Kenyan capital, and its pastor practices a style of Christianity that's been embraced rapidly across Africa.

Pastor JAMES NG'ANG'A (Neno Evangelism Center): If Jesus can heal a leper, if he can open the eyes of someone who is blind, even today he is going to heal who...

BEAUBIEN: Much of the focus of Paster Ng'ang'a's service is on healing, on driving out demons. The other main topic is economic prosperity. Pastor Ng'ang'a recounts his own personal tale of being a street child, spending years in prison, being saved and proselytizing on a bicycle. He went from being an impoverished, wicked criminal, he says, to a successful preacher. He boasts that the new car he's buying costs 20 million shillings, or roughly $300,000, and he tells the congregation that he's one of the richest pastors in Kenya.

(Soundbite of service)

Pastor NG'ANG'A: ...I am among the rich preachers. I'm among them. Do you know why, what good it can do?

Congregation: (In unison) ...(Unintelligible).

Pastor NG'ANG'A: ...(Unintelligible) to God even when you have nothing.

Congregation: (In unison) Yes.

Pastor NG'ANG'A: Even when you have nothing.

BEAUBIEN: On a continent where hundreds of millions of people endure the grinding burden of poverty every day, there's little desire here to hear about the righteousness of the poor. Millions of Kenyans survive on less than $2 a day and in the capital Nairobi, unemployment is extremely high. In a service that jumps back and forth between English and Swahili, Ng'ang'a tells the homeless that it's time for them to have houses. He tells the jobless that they'll soon have work. He promises the congregation that what their enemies have stolen from them, God will give back.

(Soundbite of service)

Pastor NG'ANG'A: (Swahili spoken)

Congregation: (In unison) (Swahili spoken)

Pastor NG'ANG'A: (Swahili spoken)

Congregation: (In unison) (Swahili spoken)

BEAUBIEN: He throws fistfuls of small bills into the crowd and people scramble over one another to try to get the money. Pastor Ng'ang'a says the 100 shilling notes are seeds and the money will multiply.

(Soundbite of service)

Pastor NG'ANG'A: From nowhere. Hello?

Unidentified Man: Yes?

Pastor NG'ANG'A: From nowhere!

Unidentified Man: Yes!

BEAUBIEN: Ng'ang'a says people flock to him because he's a healer who can drive out their demons. Midway through the service, he puts on a long, white lab coat and announces that the doctor is in.

Pastor NG'ANG'A: Now I'm coming to you as a doctor. I was preaching, but now I'm coming to you with spiritual healing.

BEAUBIEN: People complaining of various problems, from ulcers to husbands who've left them, climb onto the stage. Ng'ang'a moves through the crowd clasping the faces of the sick in his palms and ordering the devils out.

(Soundbite of service)

Pastor NG'ANG'A: Out!

Unidentified Woman: Whoa!

Pastor NG'ANG'A: Get out!

Unidentified Woman: Whoa!

Pastor NG'ANG'A: Bow down.

Unidentified Woman: Whoa!

Pastor NG'ANG'A: Bow down before me!

Unidentified Woman: Oh!

Pastor NG'ANG'A: In the name of Jesus.

BEAUBIEN: After commanding the demon to depart, Pastor Ng'ang'a thrusts the person backwards and they collapse like rag dolls on the stage.

(Soundbite of service)

Pastor NG'ANG'A: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman: Whoa! Whoa!

Pastor NG'ANG'A: Watch me...

Unidentified Woman: Whoa! Whoa!

Pastor NG'ANG'A: In the name of Jesus, ...(unintelligible).

BEAUBIEN: Ng'ang'a isn't an anomaly in Kenya. There are preachers all across Nairobi who say they perform miracles on a daily basis. One Kenyan minister is currently embroiled in a scandal in which he claimed to cure infertility, but the miracle babies he produced among his followers, prosecutors say, actually came from a Nairobi orphanage.

Christianity has boomed in Africa over the last three decades, rising from about 100 million adherents in 1970 to more than 400 million today. The Catholic Church, which in some parts of Africa is the sole provider of education and health care, is the largest single denomination.

While the Catholic Church has grown significantly, much of the growth of Christianity on the continent has been in relatively small, unaffiliated evangelical churches. After the service at Neno Evangelism Center, in Nairobi, 23-year-old Jennifer Enjaru(ph) says the ceremony was incredibly powerful.

Ms. JENNIFER ENJARU: I actually saw the hand of Jesus, the way God works. I know that 'cause I couldn't believe some of these things that the devil is doing.

BEAUBIEN: Enjaru is unemployed and a single mother. She says she comes away from Ng'ang'a's church feeling moved, invigorated and uplifted. In a poor city on the world's poorest continent, these feelings, parishioners say, are of great value. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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