“Location, location, location”–this is the cliché and mantra of real estate professionals in every city. It is also a reality for any church which is serious about reaching its neighbors and the wider world with the message of hope and salvation in Jesus Christ. Many churches in the inner cities of the United States have found that their location has become the center of a new group of immigrants who have arrived from the far-flung corners of the world. They may have arrived as refugees fleeing civil war or political persecution, or simply in search of a better life through new opportunities. Ordinarily, it means a different culture and language has arrived in the neighborhood. That was exactly what was happening around True Gospel Tabernacle as thousands of new arrivals from Southeast Asia began to appear in South Philadelphia.1
Instead of reacting against these “foreigners”, Bishop Ernest McNear and the saints of True Gospel Tabernacle opened their arms as well as the doors of the church. In his love and sovereign mercy, God had arranged that their church building would be in the exact center of the largest concentration of Indonesians who had been relocating to Philadelphia. Although they were from a different country, spoke a different primary language, and had a host of different customs in food, dress, and music, Bishop McNear arranged a partnership with the Rock Church of Philadelphia. They would use True Gospel’s buildings at 16th and Mifflin Streets and share a ministry to the dynamically changing neighborhood around the church. It is a story which ought to be emulated by the thousands of city churches which are faced with demographic challenges as the United States continues to have the highest immigration rates of any nation in the world.2 Truly God has brought the peoples of the earth to our doorsteps.3 In many ways, inner city congregations like True Gospel Tabernacle which already minister among the poor and marginalized in their own city are well prepared to take the love of Jesus to nations in the rest of the world where the overwhelming majority of people live in impoverished communities.
The story of True Gospel Tabernacle’s ministry in foreign missions is not limited only to what was happening in South Philadelphia, but it is linked to forces that have been dramatically transforming the face and character of the church all over the world. Virtually all scholars who have been studying and writing about the growth of Christianity now recognize that the global center of the faith lies below the equator, probably somewhere in central Africa. The International Bulletin of Mission Research has for many years published an annual chart of the growth and distribution of worldwide Christianity. In its 2015 version, it projects that by 2025 the continent of Africa will lead the world and be home to more than 700 million Christians of all denominations.4 They are leaving behind the former centers of Christianity in Europe and North America as the gospel explodes across these regions of poverty-stricken and war-torn new nation states.5
Mission scholars also note that Christianity is among the fastest growing religions in the world and reflects the greatest cultural diversity of any of the major faiths. Lamin Sanneh, late Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School, has stated that “more people pray and worship in more languages and with more differences in styles of worship in Christianity than in any other religion. Well over 2,000 of the world’s languages are embraced by Christianity through Bible translation, prayer, liturgy, hymns and literature.”6
Inner city congregations like True Gospel Tabernacle which already minister among the poor and marginalized in their own city are well prepared to take the love of Jesus to nations in the rest of the world where the overwhelming majority of people live in impoverished communities.
Rise of Pentecostalism
One of the major drivers of this extraordinary growth of Christianity around the world has been the rise of Pentecostalism. Often associated in Western media caricatures as a religion for simple-minded and marginalized poor folk, global Pentecostalism has blossomed into a faith for more than half a billion people. In its various forms it speaks to genuine needs in a holistic way that older, more rational forms of Christianity do not. Swiss missionary pastor, Walter J. Hollenweger, the now retired professor of mission at Birmingham University in England, is probably one of the world’s leading experts on Pentecostalism. Having written a magisterial 10-volume study of this movement for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Zurich (as well as two later volumes, The Pentecostals in 1975 and Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide in 1997), he is regarded as the authoritative interpreter of its phenomenal spiritual growth. In an interview by Christian History he was asked why Pentecostalism is so popular around the world. He said, “The most important reason is that it is an oral religion. It is not defined by the abstract language that characterizes, for instance, Presbyterians or Catholics. Pentecostalism is communicated in stories, testimonies, and songs. Oral language is a much more global language than that of the universities or church declarations.”7
The most important reason for Pentecostalism’s explosive global growth is its oral nature, in contrast to the abstract language of the academy or the institutional church.
Pentecostalism has been powerfully shaped by the missionary calling of the church. Its adherents (whether or not they “speak in tongues”), sensing a compelling urging of the Holy Spirit, have consistently pursued a strategy of courageous evangelism and missionary church planting wherever they have gone. This has been particularly true in the post-colonial world of the southern hemisphere and Asia. It has been a fundamental conviction among Pentecostals that they have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to evangelize everywhere, thus glorifying their Savior, Jesus Christ. “The largest Pentecostal churches in the world are now found in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and on the eastern rim of Asia from Indonesia to Korea. . . . It is no coincidence that the southward shift in Christianity’s center of gravity over the twentieth century has coincided with the emergence and expansion of Pentecostalism.”8
The Birth of COGIC
The origins of the Pentecostal movement in North America and the emergence of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) have, according to most sources, some common roots in the revivals associated with the famous Azuza Street meetings in California. The Church of God in Christ, True Gospel Tabernacle’s original home denomination, was founded in 1897 by Rev. C.H. Mason and Rev. C. P. Jones, two African American Baptist preachers who had been converted to the doctrine of entire sanctification. Having been expelled by his Missionary Baptist denomination, Mason paid a visit to William Joseph Seymour’s Apostolic Faith Mission on Azuza Street in Los Angeles in 1907 and there received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
As a result of this new-found personal experience of the Holy Spirit, Mason called for a meeting in Memphis, Tennessee of all the ministers who would support these new Pentecostal doctrines. It was there that he was then elected bishop and established the headquarters for COGIC. An excellent organizer, Mason appointed bishops and overseers in many parts of the United States. Since COGIC was already a legally chartered official denomination, Mason ordained many of the early leaders of the Pentecostal movement, both black and white. In fact, during those early years, COGIC had as many white ministers as black until the stifling power of Jim Crow laws and the surrounding racial prejudices of the times began to break down those cross-cultural ministerial partnerships. To accommodate the sensitivities of those days as well as the legal hurdles of segregation in many parts of the country, the Assemblies of God (AG) denomination was formed in 1914 with most of the white Pentecostal ministers gravitating to the new AG. Although maintaining friendly ties with this new, mostly white denomination, Bishop Mason focused his attention on the evangelistic mission of his own church and went on to lead the ten-fold growth and expansion of COGIC until his death in 1961.9
Under Bishop Mason COGIC largely concentrated its resources on evangelizing and church planting in North America. His approach was followed by a number of succeeding senior bishops. The explosive growth of this mostly African American denomination, particularly in cities across the north which had seen major migrations of southern blacks following the World Wars, is one of the true success stories of church growth in America. Whether nestling in storefront chapels or taking over aging mainline denominational churches whose congregations had fled to the suburbs, or even building illustrious churches from the ground up, COGIC churches now flourished as a haven for the masses.10
However, turbulence over issues surrounding Mason’s successors brought deep dissatisfaction to a number of bishops who had served under C. H. Mason. In 1969, Bishop William David Charles, Sr. called for a meeting in Evanston, IL, to air disagreements with the changes in the structure and leadership of the church. Fourteen bishops followed his lead in departing COGIC to form the Church of God in Christ, International (which now has over 200,000 members).11 The death of Bishop Mason and the conflicts which followed had split the original COGIC, but “congregations from the two original factions continued to fellowship with each other.”12 Many years later, Bishop Ernest McNear and True Gospel Tabernacle in Philadelphia would find themselves being drawn into the new branch of COGIC, International over a different series of issues that emerged, not so much from Memphis, TN, as over the administration and leadership of churches more than 8,000 miles away in West Africa.
Early COGIC Ministry in Africa
As with many of the church denominations which began to be stirred by the calling of foreign missions, the first COGIC missionaries were women. Mrs. Mattie McCaulley, COGIC’s first, was sent to Trinidad in 1927 and she was followed by Miss Elizabeth White who left for Liberia, West Africa in 1930. Working alone among the indigenous population from a mission post at Bonika outside Monrovia, she developed a small congregation. This work prospered and it became necessary for COGIC to send another person to help. In 1931 the Mission Board appointed another lady of faith and spirit, Mrs. W.C. Ragland, and she sailed for Liberia at the beginning of 1932. This tiny but effective mission then witnessed the erection of a stucco church, COGIC’s first building in Africa.13 From this small beginning, the Church of God in Christ began what was to become a long and fruitful ministry in West Africa. Liberia, being the focus of its first efforts, became the base of expansion into other parts of the continent. By 1949 COGIC was ready to hold its first Holy Convocation in Africa and to host it in a new building constructed in Liberia’s capitol city of Monrovia. Bishop O.T. Jones, Sr. of Philadelphia, PA was sent to officiate at this event and to encourage the work.14 It would not be the last time that a COGIC bishop from Philadelphia would be sent into West Africa on a mission of major significance for the growth of the church and the expansion of the gospel! As we will see, many years later Bishop Ernest McNear was sent into this same area of the world with a new and energized mission of development, church growth, and healing which would impact the entire region.
Ghana: An Epicenter of Pentecostal Power
Situated on the Atlantic Coast at the center of West Africa, Ghana has long been a driver of social, political, and cultural-religious movements in the region. Once the center of the heinous trade in human bondage, its ports at Accra and Cape Coast witnessed the final departure of millions of captives in the bellies of the slave ships of the European empires. However, modern Ghana, the first African nation to achieve independence in the post-colonial era, having gone through a difficult period of structural adjustment required by the International Monetary Fund, is now one of the most well-developed economies on the continent.15 It is also at the very heart of the revival of pneumatic Christianity in the 21st Century. In his doctoral dissertation at the University of Birmingham, J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, now president of Trinity Seminary in Legon, Ghana, laid out the wider significance of the importance of Ghanaian spirituality in the global context. “This study was inspired partly by a desire to illustrate an aspect of the nature and manifestation of the shifting centre of gravity of Christianity in the twentieth century from the North to the South. Pentecostal Christianity, the religion of the Holy Spirit, it is argued, represents the most concrete evidence of the phenomenal expansion of Christianity in African countries like Ghana.”16
Dr. Asamoah-Gyadu goes on to explain more fully that the Pentecostal experience in Africa is not a derived religion, imported from Western sources and dressed up in flowery African costume as some might assume. He and many other indigenous African scholars have emphasized that Pentecostal expressions of Christianity arose independently on the continent during the twentieth century as they did in places like India and Korea. They are not simply carbon copies of the Azuza Street revivals or plantings of the Assemblies of God. In Ghana, the focus of the ministry of the Holy Spirit as revealed in the New Testament fits the experiential reality of the masses that have turned to God for rest and healing. It was not the result of coming to believe a catechism’s doctrinal explanation about God, it was an experience of God. In providing a broader and more multicultural definition of Pentecostalism that would fit the context of Ghana, he says:
Pentecostalism refers to Christian groups which emphasize salvation in Christ as a transformative experience wrought by the Holy Spirit and in which pneumatic phenomena, including “speaking in tongues”, prophecies, visions, healing and miracles in general, perceived as standing in historic continuity with the experiences of the early church as found especially in the Acts of the Apostles, are sought, accepted, valued and consciously encouraged among members as signifying the presence of God and experiences of his Spirit.17
It is important to note here that the special attention which the Pentecostal churches have placed on the person and work of the Holy Spirit has not diminished the role and focus on the Bible itself as the ground of their belief systems and framework of faith. A relationship with their Creator God, the goal of all spiritual journeys, is gained only through union with Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is not an independent, separate deity, but is the divine witness to, and attestation of the deity and supremacy of Jesus, the Savior of the world. That revelation comes, not from one’s individual consciousness, but by authority of the Scriptures themselves.
The Pentecostal experience in Africa is not a derived religion, imported from Western sources and dressed up in flowery African costume. It arose independently on the continent during the twentieth century. “God’s mission can be done well without a single Western dollar, pound or euro.”
Not all pneumatic church movements in Africa are strictly considered Pentecostal. The African Independent Churches (AICs), about whom much has been written in recent years, absorbed a great deal of the cultural context of traditional African spirituality as a part of their preaching and worship, but they have been phenomenally successful in planting and growing large and influential churches. Writing in an insightful article in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Dr. Thomas Oduro, president of the Good News Theological College and Seminary in Accra, Ghana, has taken pains to explain that African Independent Churches (in Ghana, called Sunsom sore, or “Spiritual churches”) did not simply copy the mission methodologies of Western denominations as they advanced the Gospel and built thousands of indigenous churches across the continent. He argues convincingly (after more than four decades of working closely with AIC churches and leaders) that they have adapted missional strategies directly from the New Testament. They do not organize mission conferences or create mission boards, nor do they select out and “send” missionaries. He has discerned four strategic concepts that have driven their phenomenal growth, not only in Africa, but for the larger churches, their expansion even into Europe, the United States, and Canada.
First, every Christian is a missionary–the call to evangelize applies to all believers.
Second, the training of missionaries is considered to be the responsibility of the Holy Spirit. They consider the phenomenal evangelistic ministry of men like Prophet William Wade Harris, the untutored “Black Elijah” who preached with great success across the western African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana, to be consistent with the fact that Jesus chose mainly unlearned men as his apostolic band.18
Third, AIC leaders allow the Holy Spirit to direct the church to areas that are to be evangelized. Examples abound of churches which spread by inspiration, not demographic mapping.
Fourth, the lack of resources should not stop missional expansion. AIC churches are typically poor, but they step out in faith, believing that God will supply what is needed. Quoting from his own earlier study, Mission in an African Way, Thomas Oduro concludes, “God’s mission can be done well without a single Western dollar, pound or euro. If the only contribution the AICs ever made to world-wide Christianity was to make this plain, it would be of great importance.”19
Major Pentecostal Denominations and Churches in Ghana
In the year 1900, there were an estimated 9.9 million Christians in Africa. That number had exploded to more than 140 million by 1970 and by 2015 it had climbed beyond 575 million, making it not only the largest religion on the continent, eclipsing Islam, but by then Christians almost constituted a majority of the entire population.20 Much of that growth has come through evangelism and the inclusion of new converts which has been the hallmark of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. However, the new Pentecostalism which has emerged across much of the African continent is different in kind and scope from much of what one finds in North America and Europe. Philip Jenkins and other scholars have made the important observation that the Pentecostal churches of the so-called majority world have incorporated much of the traditional indigenous religious experience of their native countries and so have been accepted in those cultures with greater ease. Echoing Jenkins, Allan Anderson has argued that Pentecostalism in the Southern Hemisphere “does not represent a global religion with roots in the North, but a new type of Christianity altogether.”21 In Ghana itself, this new surge of Pentecostal and Charismatic growth was dominated by several large churches and networks which, through the new avenues afforded by modern media, coupled themselves into informal international conglomerates of dynamic faith. Some were headed by popular preachers while many were driven by the extraordinary practice of commissioning lay apostles and prophets who launched out into the highways and byways guided by the urging of the Holy Spirit. In such an environment, it is easy to understand how many of these groups fractured and fragmented into smaller entities and denominations as strong personalities bumped into one another.
However, the larger congregations and denominations, like the Church of Pentecost (CoP), which by 2011 had over 10,000 congregations and more than 1.5 million members, developed strict moral guidelines for leaders and members alike and created support institutions of tremendous sophistication and influence. The CoP now has ninety-six primary schools, six secondary schools, and seven hospitals and clinics. In addition to its powerful presence in Ghana, through its own mission initiatives, it operates in more than eighty countries around the world.22 They have been able to attract far more people than the traditional Sunsom sore, which are now in decline, because of the CoP seriousness of purpose, biblical demands of faithful observance for their members, and adjacent services which far outstrip the capacity of the small indigenous congregations. For example, the CoP Pentecost University College, founded originally in 1972 as Pentecost Bible Centre, was expanded to university status in 2005 and already has more than 3,000 students in accredited undergraduate, professional, and graduate programs.23
The Church of Pentecost has an unusual and fascinating biography of its own. It originally came out of a missional connection to a congregation in Philadelphia, PA, known as Faith Tabernacle. A Ghanaian preacher, Apostle Peter Anim, made contact with this church which believed in strict faith healing, without resort to doctors and medicines. Apostle Anim had started a prayer group and was greatly influenced by Faith Tabernacle’s newsletter, Sword of the Spirit. Having had an experience of healing of his own, the influence of his group spread rapidly. Unfortunately for him, Faith Tabernacle was not strictly Pentecostal and eventually Anim left the group and affiliated with the Apostolic Faith movement based in Oregon. However, in 1935, Anim re-aligned his group again by joining the British-based UK Apostolic Church. Following that key decision, the Apostolic Church made good on its promise to send out a missionary to Ghana in the person of the Irish preacher, James McKeown. Although he was a European, McKeown worked well with his indigenous African partners and the church grew quickly.
As a result, three of the main apostolic groups along Ghana’s Gold Coast were born, each sharing core beliefs but differing in matters of faith healing. “Except for its faith healing doctrine, which has since been abandoned, Anim’s Christ Apostolic Church shared a common pattern of church organization, a common body of doctrine and teaching with both the Apostolic Church of Ghana and the Church of Pentecost.”24 It is interesting to note that these three major church denominations in West Africa share an unusual connection to Bishop Ernest McNear’s own City of Philadelphia and were born almost a century before he arrived.
The Assemblies of God (AOG), well-known in the United States and Europe, has had a presence in Ghana as early as the 1930’s and has become the largest traditional Western mission church (TWMC) in the country. Born in the United States out of the Azuza Street revivals, the AOG spread rapidly as a result of its associational policies in which each local congregation remains an independent, self-governing unit although united by doctrine and common mission. As the Assemblies reached out in missionary enterprise around the world, they carried the new Pentecostal doctrines along with their organizational philosophy. Throughout Ghana, they built not only congregations, but in a strategy of indigenous leadership development, they created Bible Schools in the north, south, and eventually in the central region of the country.
Although very successful by Western standards of church growth, even the AOG struggles to connect with the broader population of Ghanaians, particularly in rural and agricultural areas. All of the Western mission churches, whether Presbyterian, Methodist, or even Roman Catholic, have made efforts to place leadership in the hands of native men and women, particularly since the days of independence under Kwame Nkrumah in 1957. However, they have never been able to match the cultural connectedness of the Pentecostal and Apostolic churches launched by indigenous Ghanaians which were often known by their use of local languages in worship, prayers, and preaching. Therefore, churches like the CoP have been perceived to be more comfortable and, for local Ghanaians, a more respectable option. “It is more accessible than other classical Pentecostal Churches like the Assemblies of God because, although the Assemblies of God has been in Ghana since the 1930’s, it has remained largely an urban-centered and mostly English-speaking church.”25 Dr. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, the most highly respected authority on African Pentecostalism,26 has brought a sophisticated analysis to his writings which have compared Western and indigenous approaches to church ministry and growth in Ghana. He argues persuasively, “In Ghana, churches that do not ‘vernacularize’ as the CoP has done, find it difficult to attract significant following outside urban literate communities.”27
Some Western scholars like Paul Gifford at the University of London attribute the growth and dynamism of these exploding congregations to their indigenous development of the prosperity gospel which has been imported from the TV evangelists of the USA. He argues that the success of this new wave of large charismatic churches has been due, not to their appeal to historic spiritual needs, but he says “they flourish mainly because they claim to have the answers to Ghanaians’ existential problems and especially to their most pressing existential problem, economic survival”.28
However, other scholars who seem to have a deeper respect for native African ecclesiastical and theological development see evidence of a genuine renewal of Christianity among the charismatic and Pentecostal churches. The socioeconomic analyses of these growing churches of the southern hemisphere by Western scholars, as helpful as they are in explaining some of the characteristics of this historic African reversal of the decline of Christianity in the West, fall short of fully appreciating the impact of the Bible itself as an authoritative text for life and practice. The growth and dynamism of these churches and their international networks are evidence of a new spirit within African Christianity which is consciously independent of Western foreign mission societies and particularly, Western foreign financial support. The overwhelming ambition of the majority of church leaders is to see their countrymen prosper in the knowledge of the Bible and grow in spiritual maturity. “Thus, in African Pentecostalism not only is the Bible used in historic ritualistic ways, but its promises are also reinvented and applied to contemporary situations. This practice ensures that Pentecostalism remains relevant to the lives of the youthful constituencies that the new churches attract.”29
The Prayer Camps of Ghana and Togo
An important, but little-known, aspect of the religious landscape in this spiritually dynamic environment is the wide-spread existence of prayer camps in Ghana and in the neighboring country of Togo. Most of the prayer camps have been organized by the Pentecostal and evangelical churches of the country for highly focused seasons of intense prayer and deeper-life discipleship teaching. They have also provided a place for the faithful to bring family and friends for healing and exorcism. Many of the leaders in these camps, like the early disciples of Philadelphia’s Faith Tabernacle, put more trust in prayer for healing while eschewing the need for medicines and psychiatric therapy. For example, at Mount Horeb Prayer Centre which was established by Prophet Paul Nii Okai outside the town of Mamfre in Eastern Ghana, his wife told the British medical journal The Lancet that people choose their center instead of a hospital because, “they believe the power of God can work more than medicine.”30 In the context of traditional African spirituality, the existence of evil forces is real and these special camps have become a place to conduct spiritual warfare against Satan and his legions. Many indigenous African communities maintain a belief in the existence of witches and wizards in spite of the mission denominations’ dismissal of what they consider an unscientific worldview. According to Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, the most important challenge facing pastoral ministry in the context of African missions has been the people’s steadfast belief in the ongoing power of witchcraft. He says, “Indeed, the single most important contribution made by indigenous churches toward the renewal of Christianity in Africa has been the integration of charismatic experiences, particularly prophecy, healing, and deliverance, into church life.”31
However, these prayer camps have been more broadly criticized by Western aid organizations for their apparently dehumanizing treatment of mental health patients and the ostracism and neglect of people suffering from HIV/AIDS. Paradoxically, they have often been praised by local leaders as sanctuaries of safety for people, especially women, who might otherwise be attacked in rural communities as carriers of evil demonic forces. What is actually happening in these islands of illness and hoped-for cure? In 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based international non-government organization that conducts research and writing about human rights abuses around the world, issued a blistering report which accused the churches of Ghana and Togo of systematic abuse in their prayer camps.32 This explosive report cited the fact that Ghana has an estimated 650,000 people with severe mental illness but only three psychiatric hospitals and a medical force containing only three practicing psychiatrists. It claimed, “In the country mental disability is widely considered–even by persons with mental disability themselves–as being caused by evil spirits or demons.”33 Although by their own estimate there may be several hundred prayer camps in Ghana, they visited only eight of them and interviewed approximately 170 people. They described them as privately-run institutions that are primarily conducting activities like prayer, counseling, and spiritual healing along with other charitable activities. However, with no government regulation or oversight (in spite of Ghana having a national Mental Health Law) HRW drew the attention of the world to the fact that people are regularly admitted involuntarily by families, are sometimes chained to trees in solitary confinement without adequate shelter, are often held for prolonged periods of time with poor hygiene, and are even sometimes denied food in forced fasting programs. They concluded their report with a series of recommendations to the government of Ghana about how to improve conditions in the existing psychiatric hospitals. They also challenged the national public health service to inspect and provide oversight of the prayer camps in order to minimize the abuses they felt were caused by inadequately trained and managed staff.
The debate about these camps has been joined by traditional leaders, pastors, and academics like Professor Abamfo Ofori Atiemo, Senior Lecturer and head of the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Ghana. He has taken the stance, along with many others, that it is unfair for a Western aid organization based in the northern hemisphere to come into the south with its preconceptions and standards of care to critique what Ghanaians are attempting to do in the face of great need and lack of resources and governmental support. He says, “Recently both local and global human rights activists criticized religiously-inspired camps in Ghana for persons accused of witchcraft. This attitude is wrong-headed. These camps provide refuge for vulnerable girls and women, many of whom were attacked by village mobs. These prayer and healing camps also provide succour for psychiatric patients, who otherwise have limited access to mental health services.”34 Most of the prayer camps that Human Rights Watch visited are in the southern part of the country since in the Muslim northern areas there are no camps set aside for these purposes. Three of them are located in the Cape Coast region: the Jesus Divine Temple (Nyakumasi Prayer Camp), the Church of Pentecost’s Heavenly Ministries Spiritual Revival and Healing Center (Edumfa Prayer Camp), and the Charity Prayer Ministry at Kwadoegye. The significance of the Gold Coast locations was not lost on Bishop McNear as he developed his ministry in that area and, as we will see, he saw a great opportunity to minister to the pastors and public health leaders in that region who needed a more holistic understanding of spiritual and physical healing. Rather than engage in a debate which was dividing the nation, as Dr. McNear developed his ministry among the churches of the Gold Coast, he brought a more balanced and biblical approach to the spiritual, physical, and emotional care of persons who are often stigmatized because they are afflicted with strange and bewildering illnesses.
Bishop McNear’s Arrival
In 1989, Rev. Dr. Ernest McNear paid his first visit to Africa at the invitation of a pastor from Lagos, Nigeria whom he had met at a major international Pentecostal conference in Kansas City. It was a session designed to encourage spiritual leaders around the world to seek God for wisdom in the expansion of their ministries under the theme of “Multiplication Anointing”. For this visit to one of Africa’s largest cities, Ernest McNear took a fellow musician, Rev. Gary Gamble, with him for what became a 30-day preaching and teaching mission in Western Nigeria. This initial exposure to the excitement and dramatic growth of Christianity on the continent whetted his appetite for a serious engagement in foreign missions.
In 2000 the cities of Cape Coast, Ghana and Philadelphia, PA, developed a sister-city partnership to seek the mutual interest of both of their cities. They agreed to assist each other in the areas of municipal sanitation and poverty reduction through job creation. It had been brokered initially by Dr. Patrick Quainoo, a minister who had served in both cities and was known to the political leaders of each of these major metro areas. The Chief Executive of the Cape Coast Municipality, Mayor Muniru Araft Nuhu, followed up this partnership with a personal visit to Philadelphia in 2003 during which he was honored by Philadelphia’s Mayor, the Hon. John F. Street. The arrangements for this meeting of the mayors were made by Dr. McNear through his jurisdictional bishop at the time, Bishop Harold Benjamin. Since both of their cities had at one time been the capitol of their respective countries, it seemed appropriate to agree to a Memorandum of Understanding laying out a specific economic development project that would benefit the people. Mayor John Street agreed to the proposal that a gift from Philadelphia to Cape Coast was to come in the form of three large municipal waste disposal trucks which were valued at 1.2 million dollars. Following that agreement, Bishop Benjamin and Dr. McNear planned a trip to Ghana to present these trucks to the city of Cape Coast. In March of 2003, Benjamin and McNear arrived in Ghana to celebrate the city partnership in a Thanksgiving service hosted by the churches of Cape Coast and to make the official presentation of these new trucks to the city. “Harold Benjamin said this would help immensely in tackling the sanitation problems at Cape Coast.”35 The ceremony was attended by the Omanhene (King) of the Oguaa traditional area Osabarimba Kwesi Atta II. He urged the churches to work together in a transparent way for the people of the Cape Coast area. King Atta eventually reciprocated this visit in 2004 when he and his wife paid an official visit to Dr. Ernest McNear and Evangelist Barbara McNear at True Gospel Tabernacle in South Philadelphia–an exciting moment of royal respect for the whole neighborhood!
For Dr. McNear, however, this dual city engagement between Philadelphia and Cape Coast was not only an exercise in cross-cultural diplomacy; it was an opportunity for mission. In the months preceding the famous truck trip to Ghana, McNear organized a conference for COGIC pastors in Ghana along with a series of teaching seminars. Over the course of the weeks that he was in Cape Coast, he drew together a group of approximately twenty-eight churches which were to become the nucleus for a new Church of God in Christ jurisdiction in Ghana. Many of these churches had languished without support and the connectional benefits of a denominational judicatory and leadership had been lax for a number of years. By stepping into that vacuum and re-invigorating the spirit and vision of these pastors, McNear was providing the true kind of leadership that befits the calling of a bishop. These events were covered by local and national television, radio, and newspaper outlets and McNear was made an honorary citizen of Cape Coast. It was a fortuitous time of renewal and served as the beginning point for a true COGIC jurisdiction for Ghana.
The Years of Growth
From this strategic beginning in March of 2003, Rev. McNear began a steady process of organizing, training, leadership development, and church planting. He has found himself making two in-depth oversight visits to Cape Coast every year to encourage, train, and deploy pastors, deacons, and church leaders as they planted new congregations in the area. That pattern of administrative and training support has resulted in the steady expansion of his jurisdiction’s indigenous church network. On August 14, 2003, “Ghana Mission Churches of the Church of God in Christ” was officially incorporated at Victoria, Accra, by the Registrar of Companies for the nation of Ghana.36 In June of that same year, King Osabarimba Kwesi Atta II made a gift of land to the church. “This is to confirm my verbal promise to give the Church of God in Christ four (4) plots of land in Cape Coast to be used to build the headquarters of the Ghana Jurisdiction of the Church . . . it is my hope that this small gift will establish the Church in Ghana and also help to win souls for God”.37 In 2004 six additional churches were added to this emerging network, bringing the total to thirty-four. In addition, two schools were established in the cities of Cape Coast and Elmina (famous for the castle, built in 1482, which became the first European slave trading post in sub-Saharan Africa). Now the stage was set for a major move to expand Ghana Mission Churches into a full-fledged jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ.
In March of 2005, Rev. McNear (now with the title of “Overseer”) organized a Spring Workers Convention in Cape Coast with the assistance of veteran missionary Chaplain Marva Cromartie. They dedicated a new church building for the International Faith COGIC congregation and took in five additional churches. Overseer McNear conducted a Leadership Training Seminar with seventy pastors in attendance. In several evangelistic services they saw a number of conversions and there was a general sense of divine blessing on this developing new jurisdiction. Along with the new converts they also restored and received into the fellowship of Ghana Mission Churches ten former COGIC congregations that had wandered away which brought their number now to forty-nine and counting! All of this positive growth and development set the stage for a formal request to the General Board and Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ to be certified as a new jurisdiction of COGIC and to receive Overseer Ernest McNear as their Jurisdictional Bishop. Thirteen of the Ghanaian pastors signed individual letters of affidavit certifying their membership in and commitment to COGIC, their full support of Overseer McNear, and their request that he be appointed as their jurisdictional bishop.
As these things sometimes go in large church denominations, the request for a new jurisdiction was granted, but the appointment as bishop of this new territory was given to another man. Bishop Carlis Moody, president of the Foreign Mission Board, wrote to Rev. McNear informing him that he was appointing Rev. Ervin Sims, Jr., pastor of Mt. Carmel Church of God in Christ in Kansas City, to be the head of a new jurisdiction for Ghana and neighboring Togo. McNear was to remain as a District Supervisor over the churches that he had organized and developed. After all the work of giving re-birth to COGIC ministries in Ghana (at his own expense and that of True Gospel Tabernacle in South Philadelphia) this news came as a great surprise. Much of COGIC’s influence in West Africa had been dissipated in the 1970’s following the church split and God had used Rev. McNear’s connections and determined efforts to revitalize and then build upon what had been lost. However, in a rare display of humility and discipline, he accepted his role with the new Bishop Sims. They met together in Accra, Ghana, but McNear did not give up the supervision and leadership of his churches. The local pastors in Cape Coast maintained their loyalty to him. The COGIC headquarters in Memphis, TN, had not financially supported any of the ministries of True Gospel Tabernacle in Ghana and that spoke volumes to them.
Transfer to COGIC, International
Rev. McNear did not leave the Church of God in Christ until much later, but the die had been cast. Following the death in 2010 of McNear’s own jurisdictional bishop in Pennsylvania, Rev. Harold Benjamin, the opportunity for a bishopric again appeared to be on the horizon. Ernest McNear had been close to the stricken bishop and had served him as Administrative Assistant and District Overseer in the work of the Penn State Jurisdiction, even hosting his preliminary funeral service at True Gospel Tabernacle.38 However, in what appears on the surface to have been a calculated move, COGIC’s Presiding Bishop, Rev. Charles Blake, pastor of West Angeles Church of God in Christ in California, decided to disband the Pennsylvania Jurisdiction rather than appointing Ernest McNear as the jurisdictional bishop. On hearing this news, leaders in the Church of God in Christ International (based in Arkansas) reached out to Dr. McNear and inquired if he had interest in a leadership role in their denomination. In 2011 Senior Bishop, John H. Davis, Sr. of Brooklyn, NY, extended an invitation to McNear to consider joining COGIC Int’l. and serving as a Jurisdictional Bishop in Philadelphia and Ghana. It was an open door where one had closed and Rev. McNear accepted that call to join with a new set of brother bishops in continuing his ministry. The pastors of Ghana agreed as well. All of the congregations which had gathered as part of the Ghana Mission Churches back in 2005 went with him to establish the COGIC Int’l. Ghana Jurisdiction.
HIV/AIDS Partnership with Philadelphia FIGHT
As hard as inner-city communities in the USA were hit by the rampaging spread of HIV/AIDS, the nations of sub-Saharan Africa were simply overwhelmed. The numbers were mind-numbing, creating “compassion-fatigue” among donors and aid organizations. In the nation of Ghana alone, more than 231,000 people are living with a positive HIV status, nearly two-thirds of them women. More than 200,000 children have been orphaned due to the death of their parents from AIDS. In spite of educational and media efforts to inform the country, there are still more than 20,000 HIV-related deaths per year. Disregarding the frightening scale of mortality, because of stigma and the fear of being ostracized by family and friends, millions of Ghanaians living at high risk of contracting the virus do not seek testing or treatment.39 Adding to the skepticism about the medical emergency of AIDS were many reputable leaders and pseudo-authorities who refused to believe the scientific community’s explanations about the nature and spread of the virus. Chief among them in Africa has been the strident voice of Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa. As late as March of 2016, Mbeki was still vigorously arguing that there really is no large epidemic of HIV and that it is caused more by poverty and malnutrition. Mbeki’s “denialism” is estimated to have caused the premature deaths of as many as 330,000 people between 2000 and 2005 during the years when, as president, he stubbornly refused to roll out a full-scale HIV treatment program in South Africa.40
Unfortunately, as we have already seen, a complicating factor in overcoming the enormous scale of this modern-day epidemic is the widespread belief among Ghana’s Christian population that prayer and deeper spiritual devotion is the only answer to this devilish plague. In many, if not most, of the Ghanaian prayer camps, the antidote for HIV/AIDS is a prophetic prayer and anointing ministry. There can be little doubt that behind God’s appointment of Bishop Ernest McNear to this beautiful West African country was the potential for a huge impact in mobilizing the churches to help turn the tide against the virus. When Rev. McNear headed out to Ghana in 2003 he was already involved in ministering to men and women in Philadelphia who were suffering from the deadly virus. He had discovered the presence of HIV/AIDS among members of his own congregation and as a fellow pastor he had launched the Freedom From Aids Campaign in an effort to educate the churches of the city about the disease and methods of containing and managing it. On the strength of his commitment as a faith leader to battling this epidemic, McNear was invited to serve on the governing board at Philadelphia FIGHT, Pennsylvania’s largest research, outreach, and clinical services organization dealing with HIV/AIDS. He soon became Vice President of FIGHT’s board and guided them in creating a Faith Advisory Board which sponsors a World AIDS Day Prayer Breakfast, a Faith Leaders Summit, and helps to assist their Office of Faith Initiatives. (As of 2020, Dr. McNear has been elected President of FIGHT’s board.)
As Bishop McNear traveled back and forth to Ghana he listened to the anguished cries of many of his own leaders who felt helpless in the face of the AIDS crisis. He realized that in Philadelphia FIGHT he had an ally which had answers for people who were suffering. He knew that, with proper diagnosis and sustained treatment, AIDS was no longer a fatal disease. People in his own church at home were living long and fruitful lives even after discovering that they were HIV positive. He approached Jane Shull, the Executive Director at FIGHT, about a potential partnership project to serve suffering people in Ghana. She was enthusiastic. She has long advocated partnering with churches and religious congregations because, as she often says, “the people who come to us have broken spirits. We can give them medicine, but until their spirits are healed, they will not be healed”. She knows that churches often provide the kind of community and extended family support that seriously ill patients need in order to maintain the will to survive, keep their medical appointments, and stay on the prescription regimen that will allow them to thrive.41
FIGHT’s director of development Mark Seaman, who had formerly served with the Peace Corps in Africa, volunteered to help form a team and a plan. Before long they had put together a project, “Fight for Ghana,” which involved partnering with not only the Peace Corps but also the United States Agency for International Development, and, crucially, the Ghana AIDS Commission. Bishop McNear led this team into Ghana to meet with hospital administrators and nurses, but also pastors and faith-based program directors. They specifically targeted visits to some of the prayer camps where they discovered HIV infected patients suffering with other complicating diseases as well. They were hosted by government, medical, and spiritual leaders in a series of training sessions as well as in-depth radio and media interviews to get a positive message out to the entire country. Following a major seminar at Koforidua in Eastern Ghana (the region hardest hit by HIV/AIDS), Ms. Golda Asante of the Ghana Aids Commission said, “with support from Philadelphia FIGHT and the Ghana Aids Commission, visits to some prayer camps revealed over 50 HIV patients who had been confined in rooms . . . yet they had been mixed up with people with different problems at the camps.”42 Ms. Asante indicated that after training, the leaders of the prayer camps were now referring people with illnesses to the nearest health institutions. She expressed her personal happiness that such training and health treatment arrangements were making a positive impact in their region. She said, “Bishop Ernest McNear, the Vice President of Philadelphia FIGHT, said God was the ultimate healer, but had endowed people with the knowledge and skills to manage all diseases so that He in His wisdom would give healing through them.”43
African American church’s engagement in global missions is a story which is not over yet. McNear’s ministry provides a vivid example of gospel-driven holistic ministry that touches entire cities both here and around the world.
This is a modern missions story which is not over yet. Sometimes African American churches in the relatively affluent circumstances of the United States have been criticized for their lack of involvement in international missions, particularly on the continent of Africa. Dr. Kyle Canty, a pastor at Great Commission Church in Philadelphia, posted a thoughtful article about why more Black churches in the USA are not involved in foreign missionary ventures. He noted the obvious fact that many churches are doing extensive mission work in poor and underserved communities in our inner cities and lack the resources for either short- or long-term missions overseas. But he cited the encouraging stories of many African American churches, including his own, that are engaging in global missions and challenged his brothers and sisters to look to creative opportunities that the Lord is providing.44 Bishop Ernest McNear, by his creative efforts to touch the real needs of people 8,000 miles away from home, has given the church at large a vivid example of gospel-driven holistic ministry. It is a case study of what doing the gospel really means. Truly, any mid-sized church that is willing to get outside its walls and meet the real needs of its neighbors can touch an entire city. This mission story lifts that vision to the entire world.
1 “19145 Detailed Profile,” CityData.Com, 2010, accessed 1/25/12.
2 In 2013 the United States admitted 383,500 refugees and asylum seekers. Annual Flow Report, Office of Immigration Statistics, United States Department of Homeland Security. Last updated: September 5, 2014. https://www.dhs.gov/publication/refugees-and-asylees-2013, accessed 3/22/2016.
3 “I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” Revelation 3:8, NRSV
4 Todd M. Johnson, Gina Zurlo, Albert W. Hickman, and Peter F. Crossing, “Status of Global Christianity, 2015, in the Context of 1900-2050,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39, no. 1 (January 2015): 29.
5 As early as 1974 at Lausanne, Waldron Scott, an early Global Planning Director for The Navigators and first full-time General Secretary of the World Evangelical Fellowship, predicted, “. . . it is probable that by the year 2000 there will be more non-Western Christians in the world than Western! Also, by that date the center of gravity of Christendom will have shifted from north of the equator to south”. “The Task Before Us,” Let The Earth Hear His Voice: The International Congress on World Evangelization (Lausanne, Switzerland: Selected Official Papers, 1975), 19.
6 Allen Heaton Anderson, To the Ends of the Earth: Pentecostalism and the Transformation of World Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), xiv.
7 Walter J. Hollenweger, “The Rise of Pentecostalism: Christian History Interview–Pentecostalism’s Global Language”, Christianity Today/ Christian History, April 1, 1998, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-58/rise-of-pentecostalism-christian-history-interview.html.
8 Anderson, To the Ends of the Earth, 3.
9 Ibid., 51.
10 Vinson Synan, Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal, 1901-2001 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 107.
11 Ibid., p. 106.
12 Hans A. Baer and Merrill Singer, African American Religion: Varieties Of Protest & Accommodation (Knoxville: U of Tennessee Press, 2002), 160.
13 Website of Church of God in Christ Missions Department: History, www.cogic.org/missions/history, Accessed 12/20/2015.
15 “Ghana has a market-based economy with relatively few policy barriers to trade and investment in comparison to other countries in the region, and Ghana is well-endowed with natural resources.” United States Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gh.html, accessed 3/25/2016.
16 J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, African Charismatics: Current Developments Within Independent Indigenous Pentecostalism in Ghana (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2004), ix. Note: In a favorable review of J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu’s book, Dr. Afa Adogame says, “African Charismatics represents a fascinating attempt at reconstructing the complexity of indigenous Pentecostalism in Ghana, based largely on qualitative research methodology and analysis of ethnographic data.” Journal of Religion in Africa 36, Fasc.1, 124.
17 Ibid., p. 12.
18 “Harris’ strong awareness and expression of the power of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts (foresight, prediction, healing, exorcism, tongues, trance-visitations, empowerment of the word, wonders) was an appropriation of his own . . . but with Harris, the expression of these powers had its own African color and shape . . . .” David A. Shank, “The Legacy of William Wade Harris,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 10 no. 4 (October 1986): 176.
19 Thomas Oduro, “Missionary Concepts of African Independent Churches”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38, no. 2 (October 2014): 87.
20 Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, eds. World Christian Database, Africa: Religion Over Time. (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2016).
21 J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, Contemporary Pentecostal Christianity: Interpretations From an African Context (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2013), xv.
22 Anderson, To the Ends of the Earth, 184.
23 Pentecost University College website, http://www.pentvars.edu.gh/, accessed 3/13/2013.
24 Asamoah-Gyadu, African Charismatics, 26.
25 Ibid., 88.
26 “Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu has emerged as the foremost African scholar of Pentecostalism since the premature passing away of Ogbu Kalu in January 2009.” Allan Anderson, from the Foreword in J. Kwabenah Asamoah-Gyadu, Contemporary Pentecostal Christianity: Interpretations from an African Context (Eugene: Wipf & Stock: 2013), xi.
27 Asamoah-Gyadu, African Charismatics, 88.
28 Paul Gifford, Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing African Economy (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004), ix.
29 Asamoah-Gyadu, Contemporary Pentecostal Christianity, 163.
30 Jocelyn Edwards, “Ghana’s Mental Health Patients Confined to Prayer Camps,” The Lancet 383, no. 9911 (January 4, 2014): 15.
31 J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “Witchcraft Accusations and Christianity in Africa”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39, no. 1 (January 2015): 23.
32 “Like a Death Sentence: Abuses against Persons with Mental Health Disabilities in Ghana,” Human Rights Watch, New York, NY, October 2, 2012, https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/10/02/death-sentence/abuses-against-persons-mental-disabilities-ghana.
34 Abamfo Ofori Atiemo, “In Africa, Human Rights and Religion Often go Together”, Open Democracy, June 12, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/abamfo-ofori-atiemo/in-africa-human-rights-and-religion-often-go-together (accessed 3/22/2016).
35 “Philadelphia Team Visits Cape Coast,” The Evening News, Cape Coast, Ghana, March 4, 2003.
36 Republic of Ghana Certificate of Incorporation No. G. 11,954, “Church of God in Christ Ghana Jurisdiction”, August 14, 2003.
37 Letter to Bishop Ernest McNear, June 30, 2003, Osabarimba Kwesi Atta II, President, Oguaa Traditional Council, Cape Coast, Ghana.
38 John Morrison, “Bishop Harold J. Benjamin: Builder of Faith & Churches”, Philadelphia Inquirer, September 13, 2010.
39 “Country AIDS Response Progress Report- Ghana”, Ghana AIDS Commission, Accra: March 31, 2014, 14.
40 “The Cost of South Africa’s Misguided AIDS Policies,” Harvard School of Public Health News, Spring, 2009. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/magazine/spr09aids/ (accessed 3/25/2016).
41 In an extended interview with Evangelicals For Social Action, Jane Shull said, “We are in a very exciting time in the history of the AIDS epidemic. . . . We know that treating everybody as soon as they become aware of their HIV will extend their lives. . . . When their families, or their faith communities, turn their backs, it is a devastating loss to the individual, and they will often simply stop trying to become and remain healthy.” Chris Johnson and Kristyn Komarnicki, “Driven by a Vision”, Compassion and Justice, December 4, 2014, http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/compassion-and-justice/driven-by-a-vision/ (accessed 3/25/2016)
42 “Churches and Herbal Practitioners to Collaborate in National Response to HIV,” Ghana News Agency, March 14, 2014. http://www.ghananewsagency.org/health/churches-and-herbal-practitioners-to-collaborate-in-national-response-to-hiv-72094 (accessed 3/25/2016).
44 Kyle Canty, “Blacks and Missions: Following Christ into the World,” The Rooftop: A Culture-Rich Perspective on Race, Community, & the Church. June 27, 2012. http://thecityrooftop.com/2012/06/27/blacks-and-missions-following-christ-into-the-world/, accessed on 3/12/2015.