CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

The 2007 International Conference
June 7-9, 2007
Bordeaux, France
Globalization, Immigration, and Change in Religious Movements

Faith-filled and International: Central African Women in Washington, DC and the Development of Charismatic Catholicism

by Rose Lillian Wishall EDIGER (The American University, Washington DC)

A paper presented at the 2007 International Conference, Bordeaux, France. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

This paper is based on over two years of participant observation and interviews conducted in a francophone African Catholic congregation and among its members. I have attended weekly church services; prayer and committee meetings; congregation activities such as dinners, retreats, and prayer services; and I have interviewed congregation members—focusing on Central African women—and followed them in their daily routines. This paper is a work in progress on the meanings of Christianity and Catholicism in this particular congregation, and on the ways that contact among various networks of people affect these meanings.

            The Congregation

People in the congregation say that their community perseveres because of their common belief in the love of God and their common status as children of God. The congregation is made up of people from francophone Middle and Central Africa and Haiti who live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, primarily in Washington, DC and its Maryland suburbs. The majority of people in the congregation speaks French and has completed high school or often further education. They hold diverse jobs in the US—some are diplomats, others taxi drivers, and some are students—and the congregation includes people who arrived in the US fifteen years ago as well as people who are newly arrived. The most numerous nationalities in the congregation are Cameroonian, Ivorian, Togolese, and Congolese, but there are also members from Benin, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Gabon, Rwanda, and the Central African Republic. The congregation comes together every Sunday afternoon for church services that are francophone and multicultural African in a church that has long been home to both established Americans and groups of newcomers.

500 plus member-families of this congregation are part of larger immigrant flows to the Washington, DC metropolitan area, a region that in the last three decades has experienced rapid growth in immigration and is now the “seventh-largest immigrant gateway in the United States” (Singer 2003:1). The overall immigrant population is distinct from those of other US metropolitan areas in the especially wide variety of national origins of immigrants (Singer 2003: 1-3). Further, because most immigration to Washington, DC is recent, there are few well established immigrant communities, a fact that has probably contributed to the dispersion of immigrants—including the dispersion of francophone Central Africans—across the metropolitan area. Africans in Washington, DC make up the second largest population of Africans in the US, falling just behind New York in absolute numbers (Singer 2001:7-8,11; Singer 2003:8).

Lay Leadership. The francophone African/Haitian Catholic congregation depends largely on lay leadership for its perseverance and success. Active members of the congregation join its subgroups, which include the welcoming committee (accueil), the liturgical committee, the pastoral committee, the adult and youth choirs, and adult and youth religious education. Another group of congregation members form a committee that is concerned not primarily with the spiritual and community needs of the congregation but with social concerns such as health care, immigration, and child care. Beyond these groups, several prayer and devotional meetings take place throughout the week in the congregation’s chapel, in the parish school building. These meetings are entirely dependent on congregation members, who initiate and attend them.

Prayer Groups. The prayer groups are Rising to the Faith and The Renewal. Rising to the Faith meets after church services that are held in the chapel on Monday evenings. Most of those attending mass do not stay for prayer group, which, while open to all, consists of a fairly small group of people with perhaps half a dozen or more attending in one evening. The prayer group begins its evening by arranging chairs in a semi-circle facing the altar. The prayer starts with singing. Everyone stands, facing a front corner behind the altar where the blessed unleavened bread is kept. This blessed bread, the Eucharist, is considered by Catholics to have been transformed into the actual body of Jesus, who is considered to have been the very important incarnation of God on earth. Rising to the Faith song is typically led by a Congolese woman in her 40s; she also takes an active role in other church committees. She sings fervently, eyes closed and face raised. There are no instruments. Songs are interspersed with periods of personal prayer in which individuals pray to God in voices that rise and fall in volume. Individuals thank God for having pity on them; they plead with God, their father, to have mercy on them, his children, who have sinned. After this period of song and worship, the group members sit, listen to two members read a Bible passage that one selected for this meeting, and then they discuss the Bible passage. Every person present is invited to give his or her thoughts on the verse.

The second prayer group—The Renewal—meets on Friday evenings. This group is much larger than Rising to the Faith, numbering perhaps thirty or thirty five at a typical meeting and includes Rising to the Faith participants. Its leaders initiate prayer retreats to which the congregation is invited, and it includes mass in its prayer meeting one Friday per month. The Renewal has a more structured approach to prayer—relying more on leaders and charismatic Catholic media—than does Rising to the Faith—and they too depend heavily on song. The meeting begins when three or four leaders enter the chapel and walk to the front of the chapel. The music typically includes tape recordings and a keyboard. The group sings along and the music is interspersed with individual and group prayers. There is usually a photocopied program passed out that includes words to the more unfamiliar songs and group responses.

A third group is devoted to Mary, the Catholic saint who was the mother of Jesus,. Called Legion of Mary, it is a chapter of an international Catholic lay group. Legion of Mary meets on Wednesday nights following mass in the chapel. Other congregation members attend the mass and then Legion of Mary members stay for the meetings. This group numbers about a dozen but is not regularly attended by all. The group prays the rosary and discusses what members have been doing to reach out to others to deepen their faith. The presence of the congregation’s priest is necessary for the mass but not obligatory or necessarily regular at the prayer meetings. When in attendance at the prayer and devotional meetings, he is frequently questioned about the meaning of Bible passages or about Catholic law.

            Women can be found in every congregational committee or group. They are more heavily represented than men in the welcoming committee, the liturgical committee, and as religious educators. They are about evenly represented in the social concerns committee and within the prayer groups. And while they are a minority in the pastoral committee, which functions as a governing body for the congregation and whose members are elected by the congregation, they are active contributors there too. It is also worth noting that women feature almost exclusively in food preparation and serving. Women in the congregation come from diverse backgrounds as do the congregation members in general. Most women in the congregation are educated, having finished high school or college at home or abroad. And women play a key role in the development of the congregation’s spiritual life. On special days, young women dressed in traditional clothing dance up the aisle to the church altar, carrying the money collected from the congregation as offering. Women comprise the majority of the singing voices in the choir. Women are at the forefront in educating the congregation’s children in their religion. And women prayer group leaders help to organize retreats and lead song in prayer groups, playing a key role in developing their congregation’s understanding of charismatic Catholicism and their larger role within the Catholic Church as charismatic Catholics.

            Some Historical Context

            Charismatic Catholicism, also known as Catholic Pentecostalism or the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, is generally acknowledged to have begun in 1967 among a prayer group at Duquesne University (Csordas 1997: 4) via “informal, spontaneous prayer meetings” that were “characterized by an acute experimental awareness of the presence of God” (Ford 1976: vii-viii). This phenomenon may be called by practitioners the “release” or “baptism” in the Holy Spirit, the spirit that Catholics believe make up the third part of a holy trinity—God and Jesus comprising the other two parts (Ford 1976: viii). Charismatic Catholics may speak in tongues [glossolalia], interpret tongues, prophecy, heal, and give inspirational interpretation of the Bible (Ford 1976: viii).

Charismatic Catholicism is not a homogenous movement (Csordas 1997), and it has not occurred independently of Pentecostal Christianity. In fact, its roots may be traced back to the Protestant evangelical tradition that came out of the Great Awakening, an 18th century Anglo-American revival movement (Robbins 2004: 119). Evangelical Christian denominations such as Methodist and Baptist are distinct in their emphasis on the powerful experience of conversion—often described as being “born again”—and their efforts to convert others (Robbins 2004: 119-120). In the second half of the 19th century, various Methodist Holiness groups experimented with the meaning of post-conversion experiences that affect a person’s salvation—understood to mean that the saved will experience a “second blessing” after conversion when the sin inherent in all people is taken away. (Robbins 2004: 120). In 1906, out of this experimentation arose Pentecostalism, on Azusa Street in Los Angeles under the African American preacher William Seymour (Robbins 2004: 120). Along with the principle of speaking in tongues, the Azusa Street Revival upheld the experience of the Apostles during the original Pentecost as told in Acts 2 of the Bible as exemplary of ecstatic Christian life (Robbins 2004: 120). Worship is more or less not scripted and it is egalitarian—anyone moved by the Spirit can speak (Robbins 2004: 120). The core of Pentecostal thought that, along with strict moralism, have since spread worldwide is fourfold: 1) “Jesus offers salvation;” 2) “Jesus heals;” 3) “Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit;” and 4) Jesus will come again (Robbins 2004: 121).

Starting with the Azusa Street revival, Pentecostalism quickly spread around the world and eventually came to include denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ (Robbins 2004: 121). Robbins (2004: 121) describes the next significant development in Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity—the neo-Pentecostal or charismatic movement—to have begun around 1960, when mainline Protestant churches began allowing Pentecostal converts to retain membership and form charismatic subgroups within them. Eventually including the Catholic Church starting in 1967, the charismatic and later (third-wave—in the 1970s) neo-charismatic churches differ from classical Pentecostalism in that they frequently let go the requirement of speaking in tongues to prove a person’s baptism by the Holy Spirit, and they often play down the element of ascetic moralism (e.g., allowing members to drink wine or wear jewelry) (Robbins 2004: 121). These changes are also associated with a typically higher social class location, as they draw mostly from the established or emerging middle classes (Robbins 2004: 121-122).

Learning and Defining Faith and Practice: Charismatic Alternatives

            Members of the African/Haitian congregation and lay leaders come together from a wide variety of backgrounds and social contexts. In turn, these backgrounds are reflected in uneven, dynamic ways, for instance, in the prayer groups, in interdenominational groups that meet outside of the church, and in congregation retreats and special services to which varying levels of congregation members attend. But underneath these various and shifting meeting places lies a quest on the part of faith-filled—a term I use to describe those members that avidly practice their faith and integrate it into their daily lives—congregation members to learn about and to put into practice their beliefs and spirituality.

The congregation invites renowned charismatic Catholics to come and minister to its members. The organization behind the visits—including where to lodge the visitors, how to feed and transport them, when and where to hold meetings, and how to organize refreshments for long meetings—falls largely on women volunteers. A regular set of active women volunteers, whom I earlier referred to as lay leaders, include—at least—four Congolese women (from the Democratic Republic of the Congo), three Cameroonian women, two West African women, and a Haitian woman. Central African women play a large role, then, in group leadership. They work closely with others in making things happen that make a difference to the spiritual life of congregation members.

Beatitudes. For instance, once every summer, the congregation hosts a group of three to five members of the Beatitudes charismatic religious community that is based in France. This community was begun in 1973 and includes religious and lay members, individuals and families. It is widely known for its healing capabilities. As written on the community’s website, it “has no other vocation than to live according to the model of the first Christian Community as described in the book of Acts” (The Beatitudes 2007a). The community “is a part of the ‘new communities’ born in the Catholic Church after Vatican Council II and in the charismatic Renewal movement” (The Beatitudes 2007b, author’s translation). This group was first contacted by leaders of The Renewal but since then, the organization of their visits has been a coordinated effort by many, especially a West African woman and a Congolese woman. Women organizers typically work on the sidelines or behind the scenes to make things happen. They collect the names of volunteers to help with the event and they cajole others to pitch in. They do much of the preparation themselves, and during the event, they work in orchestrating the collection of donations and in taking care of people who fall, taken by the Holy Spirit.

The Beatitudes usually lead charismatic services for the three consecutive nights that they are there, and then on the next day, Sunday. The opening service begins with mass. Following this, each meeting follows a basic pattern: The opening includes prayer and song, and this is followed by instruction from one of the visiting priests. Following instruction, which might last 45 minutes or an hour, everyone is invited to stand to be healed and to receive the Holy Spirit. The last song is like a song during regular Sunday mass—some people sing in place and some move about and converse and leave.

On the second day of the Beatitudes’ visit in June, 2006, there are Spanish-speaking people in attendance. One of the priests gives simultaneous translation for them. There are about 320 people in the church. The lead priest this evening is the most soft-spoken of the three. After he instructs the congregation, emphasizing that the Bible is important while academic diplomas are not so, he asks everyone to stand. He tells us that the Holy Spirit will today come to those to whom it hasn’t come before. He says this isn't meditation; there isn't a technique. You simply must open your heart to the breath (souffle) of the Holy Spirit. He says, the Holy Spirit breathes (souffle) tonight. He blows into the microphone. He says gibberish and repeats one syllables of sounds—for instance, tah tah tah—or rah tahn tahn (quickly). The gibberish sounds a bit like a foreign language. As the other priests walk by, the leaders speak like this occasionally, when people are standing, praying, waiting to be visited; the one-syllables are almost rolled off the tongue, quickly. The piano plays in the background. Occasionally, someone sings but it is almost more like humming—as in "ah" to different notes. This creates a haunting quality. There is also a woman standing in the front who is dancing by swaying her arms in big sweeping motions. People are visited. This is experienced differently by different people. Often, I see someone standing who starts to shake, in her hands, in her arms. This usually leads up to her falling down. Some people cry out when they fall; others are quiet. The priest says it is the fire of God (Seigneur); let it come through you.

Charismatic Archbishop. Another charismatic visitor provides an interesting counterpoint to the Beatitudes. This was a charismatic Cameroonian archbishop who visited at the request of the congregation. His instruction occurred in the chapel and was informal, much as is that of the congregation’s priest when in the chapel. He gave a brief sermon about what it means to be charismatic, and then he answered questions from those in attendance. Someone asked whether people that fall so easily during certain services have really received the Holy Spirit or whether they are pretending. It was asked, how do you tell if someone is possessed by the Holy Spirit? The archbishop’s answers were always careful. He answered that you cannot necessarily know whether someone has been struck by the Holy Spirit or whether he is faking; but this is between the person and God. He said that some people might cry out when touched by the Holy Spirit, but other people might react in other ways, for instance, someone might become quiet. The archbishop also led a service for the sick (les malades). While I entered expecting people to fall and to see miracles happen, there was nothing of the sort. Instead, the service was quiet, except for the songs. There was much prolonged Catholic ritual; the archbishop blessed water, oil, and religious objects that people had brought with them—this, I was told by a Cameroonian woman, protected these things from evil spirits. The four-hour long evening ended with the archbishop placing his fingers in oil and anointing each person’s forehead.

Charismatic, Catholic, Christian, African, Francophone, Immigrant, Black

The francophone African/Haitian congregation is composed of diverse individuals on a shifting, often collective (or sub-collective) quest(s) for a fulfilling spiritual life. This quest leads the community to charismatic Catholicism, an idea that has no single meaning and which is thus interpreted along various lines. Here, the meaning of spirituality involves the various influences on and identities of congregation members. Members are charismatic, Catholic, and Christian—an identity that is open to interdenominational ideas taken from TV, books, and friends. Congregation participants are also African and Haitian, generally leading to more spontaneous and energetic church meetings and services than those typically seen among Americans; and francophone, seen in connections to the Beatitudes, in their common French language, in their shared history of French-type schooling. Finally, they are immigrants, learning and getting by in a new society and here, creating a familiar space; and black, placing them in a marginalized racial position in the US and worldwide and in DC, linking them with African American Catholics. These identities are carried into the formation of a particular spirituality among this congregation of francophone African and Haitian Catholics in Washington, DC.


Works Cited:

The Beatitudes

   2007a The Communion of States of Life. Electronic document, http://www.thebeatitudes.org/The-Communion-of-States-of-Life, accessed 21 May 2007.

   2007b Communauté catholique internationale des Béatitudes. Electronic document, http://beatitudes.org/francais/, accessed 21 May 2007.

Csordas, Thomas J.

   1997 Language, Charisma, and Creativity: The Ritual Life of a Religious Movement. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft2d5nb15g/, acessed 8 May 2007.

Ford, Josephine Massyngberde

   1976 Which Way for Catholic Pentecostals? Harper & Row, Publishers: New York.

MacRobert, Iain

   1988 The Black Roots and White Racism of Early Pentecostalism in the USA. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

Neitz, Mary Jo

   1987 Charisma and Community: A Study of Religious Commitment within the Charismatic Renewal. Transaction Books: New Brunswick (USA) and Oxford (UK).

Robbins, Joel

   2004 The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 117-143.

Singer, Audrey

   2003 At Home in the Nation’s Capital: Immigrant Trends in Metropolitan Washington. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.

   2001 The World in a Zip Code: Greater Washington, D.C. as a New Region of Immigration. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.