It only seems proper that the first time I went to church was in Ghana. I grew up in a multifaith house, but religion was never a large part of my life. My dad is Jewish, but I never had a Bat Mitzvah. And while my mom was raised Protestant, the only Christian things that we did were buy a Christmas tree and dye Easter eggs.
I heard over and over again that in Ghana, the three things I had to do were attend a wedding, a funeral and church. While the first two would require either a joyous or devastating set of circumstances, it was easy to get an invite to church. From my first day at my internship, my coworkers had offered to take me to their various churches, but I waited for the best opportunity, which was attending church with the pastor’s daughter.
Bright and early (that means leaving the America compound around 7:30 a.m.), a group of students and I arrived tired but full with bofroats (Ghanaian doughnuts) at Watered Garden Church. According to the Church’s Facebook page, it is a Prophetic, Charismatic church. Due to my limited understanding of religious terms, I had no clue what this meant and assumed the service would be somber, passive and maybe a little boring. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
A few minutes after we were seated in the coveted front section with the rest of the pastor’s family, a man took hold of a microphone and began speaking in tongues. All around us, people began following him. Some spoke barely a whisper and others joined in with a boisterous scream. It quickly grew into a loud chorus, a cacophony of sound that the other obrunis and I were at the center of. I had no clue what I had gotten myself into.
I later learned that the formal term for this practice is called glossolalia, which is a common practice in Charismatic Christianity. For glosssolalists, the ability to speak in tongues is considered a spiritual gift and represents a connection with God.
Eventually, the chanting stopped and the pastor, Prophet Manasseh, came onto the stage. It was at this point that I started getting nervous. One of the few difficult aspects of living in Ghana is the widespread homophobia. Ghana is a very religious country and around 71% percent of the country is Christian and 18% is Muslim. While there is obviously nothing wrong with being spiritual, in Ghana, religion is often used to enforce “traditional” ideals, often concerning sexuality. Consequently, it is no surprise that around 98% of Ghanaians believe homosexuality is morally unacceptable.
As an American who was in Ghana when the United States Supreme Court approved same-sex marriage, I have had more arguments than I would like to count surrounding homosexuality. Ghanaians love to talk about controversial issues, and I have had everyone from my boss to random people on the trotro ask me about my opinions concerning the issue. When I told them that I support same-sex marriage, I have received every response from shock to laughter to a sermon on how “the gays” and I are going to Hell.
So I was rightfully nervous entering a place of worship, the epicenter of both the connecting power of religion as well as the fear and ignorance used to discriminate against those who are different from oneself.
Once again, my expectations were proven incorrect. Instead of preaching hate, the service was an enthusiastic display of love and devotion through music.
Along with speaking in tongues, singing is a large part of Charismatic Christianity, and it can also represent a connection with God. And at Watered Garden, they take their music seriously. A singer who had the chops to perform at any stadium and a group of equally talented and well dressed backup singers quickly took the stage after Prophet Manasseh gave a short sermon about the power of helping others while bettering yourself.
While this was technically the theme of the day, most of the two hours I was at the church consisted of singing. While lyrics, mostly in English, but a few in Twi, were projected onto the stage, the audience already knew most of them. Songs carried on and on as the backup band seemed to miraculously know when the Prophet would jump in with a few words of wisdom.
Eventually, after it was clear everyone was “feeling the power of Jesus Christ,” the music stopped. Now, it was time for the Prophet to prove his relationship with God. Another unique part of Charismatic Christianity is that it believes in the existence of modern-day miracles as well as Prophets.
For an hour, Prophet Manasseh granted miracles to anyone and everyone needing the healing power of God. Mostly, these were divided into two categories: health miracles and financial ones. Almost like a fortuneteller, the Prophet would ask if anyone in the Church was dealing with a certain ailment, from left knee pain to an eye condition. Most of the time, someone would come up to be healed.
The Prophet would say a prayer and place a dab of oil on their forehead. Often, the recipients would be so overcome with the power of God, they froze and would have fallen over without the help of attendants who took them back to their seats. Sometimes, they would lay someone on the ground if they were too large to be carried. If it was a woman, an attendant would wrap a blanket around her exposed legs to maintain modesty.
It was pretty overwhelming, to say the least. While the reactions of the churchgoers were unlike anything I had ever seen, it was sobering to hear the things that people were praying for. Along with easily fixable but expensive health problems, financial security seemed to be a pressing concern. People weren’t asking to be rich, but simply to have enough money to pay rent or afford schooling for their children.
While traditionally, I have been pretty skeptical about organized religion, it was attending church in Ghana when I began to understand why people turn to spirituality, especially in a developing country with widespread economic, political and infrastructural issues. Instead of focusing on hate and fear, what I experienced was the power of religion to uplift people and bring them together, even if it didn’t necessarily result in tangible economic or health changes.
As the obrunis were leaving, the Prophet stopped us. Neither he nor his daughter cared that none of us where religious, but he wanted to thank us for coming. It was nerve-wracking to be singled out, but even though I was an outsider, I felt welcomed and accepted.