Through the lens of African-initiated Pentecostal churches in East London, I’m exploring ideas and practices of civic engagement. With the general election just a month away, it seems a timely moment to be doing so; let me explain why.
African Pentecostals and their churches are thriving in London. Because Pentecostals are ‘people of the book’ (i.e. they [seek to] live their lives according to the Word of God and thus purposefully hold themselves apart from the wider society in which they live), they are often seen as apolitical. I have heard little explicit mention of the upcoming election in either casual conversation or church services. Since migrants predominate in the congregations I spend time with, the question of whether or not they have the right to vote, whatever the reason, cannot be overlooked as important in shaping their conversations – I’ll return to this.
While my research focuses primarily on these churches and their members and activities, I’ve also been meeting with non-Pentecostal Christian faith groups, local groups, and community organisers in East London in an effort to capture contrasting perspectives on what civic engagement entails the areas where the churches are located. In the process, I’ve found the ideas and practices of community organising good to think with as I ask what being civically engaged, what being ‘political’, might mean for African Pentecostals in London?
Coined by Saul Alinsky in 1940s Chicago, community organising aims to bring about systemic change by building collective power in local communities through door-knocking campaigns, and through organising neighborhood associations, religious groups, and local organisations. The departure point is to ‘meet people where they are’, i.e., to share stories, listen to concerns, and build relationships of trust, which then become the basis for taking collective action. By coming together, a community can engage in dialogue with those in positions of power (e.g., government, institutions, corporations) to make their voices heard and to create accountability.
Being Pentecostal is productively understood as an ongoing process of becoming Pentecostal. In practice this takes the form of Pentecostals ‘testifying’ (i.e., sharing their personal accounts of the benevolence of God in their lives) and ‘witnessing’ (i.e. conducting themselves in Christian ways, for example, by trying to be honest, respectful, and accepting) to their peers, colleagues, and neighbors. In doing so, Pentecostals similarly seek to ‘meet people where they are’, help them to see that God has the answers, and encourage them to become born again. At the same time, they aim to foster relations with those ‘above’ them in positions of power. In organising terms, Pentecostals strive to cultivate ‘relational power’ through these ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ relationships.
In contrast though to community organising, which understands social problems as having structural roots, Pentecostal thought portrays problems in the world in spiritual terms. It does not distinguish between the social and the spiritual, instead understanding the causes of problems as a consequence of being ungodly or the work of the devil. Such diagnoses necessitate spiritual solutions: Pentecostals pray, fast, examine their consciences, and engage in bible study in order to fortify themselves for spiritual warfare. Moreover, by seeking to conduct themselves in morally upstanding ways, they hope to inspire others to mirror their successes. In the language of community organising, their ‘theory of change’ is to serve as individual models for the kind of society they want to create.
A criticism of Pentecostalism is then that it encourages believers to individualise problems, holding individuals accountable, not social institutions. This in turn denies the historical and material conditions that shape and constrain lives. However, from the perspectives of those I’m working with, they could be said to be ‘organising’ for change one person, or rather one soul, at a time. If we take seriously their point of view, then what are its implications for their participation in wider British society?
African Pentecostals seem to be questioning the nature and site of politics, as they blur the lines between the sacred and the secular. Unlike those engaged in organising campaigns, they are less interested in reforming society, than in (re-)creating a godly one. They believe that change has to begin with themselves and with their families. In that sense, the public becomes private and the private becomes political.
In the context of contemporary Guatemala City, O’Neill (2010) argues that Pentecostalism provides believers with a deep sense of meaning, but gives them fewer ways to participate in the wider society. In contrast, in the case of the African Pentecostals in London, most of whom are migrants, their Pentecostalism offers alternative ways of participating in British society, when other avenues, such as, voting, may not be open to them because of their legal or immigration status. Their professed concern with being better Christians seems then to exist in parallel with ideas of what it means to be good citizens. Their internalised, individualised focus likely holds much appeal for local governments because it easily translates into their helping one another at a time of ongoing austerity. Yet the kinds of ethno-national-religious communities their churches can be seen to represent are also a source of concern regarding social cohesion to both local and national government.
African Pentecostals’ religiosity and the expressions it takes must be seen in relational terms, as being shaped by and shaping the wider social and political context in which they live. They help to raise some important questions going forward: if social responsibility continues to be devolved, whom will we hold responsible and what might it mean for a notion of the social? Where will the limits of (our) responsibility be? And, what will be considered ‘political’?
O’Neill, Kevin Lewis. 2010. City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala. Berkeley: University of California Press.