I met Larry several months ago on the bus to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.
He and his wife were Nigerian missionaries travelling overland to Cypress with their young son because that’s where God told them to go.
To kill time on the 14-hour drive I shared my agnostic beliefs. If the amount of time they spent telling me about Jesus is anything to judge by, they divined that God put me in their path for a reason, and tried hard to bring me into the fold.
To no avail, because as I explained to them — many times, since such conversations tend to become circular — I don’t acknowledge the Bible as the final authority on anything, let alone everything. That would be irrational.
Larry chuckled. “I don’t need rationality,” he explained. “I have Christ Jesus.”
We agreed to disagree. One thing puzzled me, though, and I put it to Larry.
Throughout history some of the worst human atrocities have been committed for God’s sake. For example, the European colonials who brought Christianity to West Africa also bought African slaves, kept them in dungeons and shipped them in chains overseas to toil in the New World.
“Those were your ancestors,” I told him. “The Europeans who enslaved your ancestors practiced the same Christianity that you are preaching now.
“How do you reconcile that?”
The trans-Atlantic slave trade happened because Africans were “living in the dark” and needed to be shown the light of Jesus, he said.
Larry’s faith told him that slavery at the hands of Christians was the price Africans paid for salvation.
From that moment I’ve never underestimated the power of Christian dogma in West Africa.
It is ever-present in southern parts of West African nations, close to the Gulf of Guinea where maritime Europeans colonized, wielding cutlass and cross, for almost five centuries.
The northern regions became mostly Muslim under trans-Saharan Arab influence. And everywhere West Africans retained their animist traditions and still believe strongly in juju, or fetish witchcraft.
But most people in Ghana also converted to Christianity, keeping their spiritual bases covered. The brand of Christianity currently en vogue is particularly evangelical, bordering on fanatic.
Right now a team of pastors and their flocks are praying for rain at the Akosombo Dam, which is supposed to provide hydroelectricity to the entire nation but has suffered a recent drought (conveniently, the
rainy season finally began just before the praying, hallelujah).
Some Ghanaians — particularly in Kumasi where I live — go to church five nights a week for six hours at a time. Everyday greetings invoke God’s praise.
In the streets pastor men with microphones screech their testimony at passersby. Gospel music blares on the radio everywhere, from shops and market stalls and taxicab windows. Folks sing along.
Get on a minibus — all of which have slogans such as “God time is best time” or “Jesus is my seatbelt” emblazoned on their rear windshields — and it will not depart out of town before a pastor steps on to bless the journey.
If he doesn’t get any money for his efforts he keeps praying until he does.
It’s hard to say if such alms come from spiritual gratitude or the desire to shut the pastor up. Everyone knows he will keep praying, harder and louder, until somebody pays.
If people want salvation they can and do go to church, where offerings are a much-publicized affair, I’m told. The entire congregation watches as supplicants wanting special blessings step forward and donate, at the pastor’s behest.
Their peers — and presumably God — judge their devotion according to the sum.
These are people living in an impoverished society who cannot always afford food but would rather starve than forego salvation.
Such irrational devotion is the enduring legacy of European colonialism in West Africa.
Even now, 50 years since the end of colonialism, West Africans are confused and struggling with social dichotomies.
They practice two systems of government — traditional tribalism and imported democracy — and two systems of religion — traditional animism and imported Christianity and Islam.
Jesus helps make sense of the muddle. Keep the faith and things will work out.
But Jesus isn’t building hospitals, purifying water or curing disease.
People are doing those things, with or without Jesus and donations to His church.
Ahh, but here Larry and I differ. He would say such improvements happen only by the grace of God.
Rationality can’t rule out the possibility that he may be right.
Sympathy for the African plight wants to give him the benefit of the doubt.
So Larry and his Christian ilk are either saved, or they are suckers lining pastoral pockets (if they are not receiving offerings themselves).
Either way, they’re living slavery’s legacy.
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.