Africa's largest evangelical church plans a new home in rural Texas
BY SCOTT FARWELL
The Dallas Morning News Posted on Wed, Jul. 20, 2005
FLOYD, Texas - (KRT) - God may work in mysterious ways, but that is little comfort to Luanne Moody. She's lived in the same mobile home for 27 years, and she knows all her neighbors, the names of their dogs and the throaty signature of each pickup that eases past her place. But not for long. Moody and most of her neighbors are white, though soon they may be in the minority. The Redeemed Christian Church of God - Africa's largest and most ambitious evangelical church - plans to build a 10,000-seat sanctuary, two elementary school-size lecture centers, a dormitory, several cottages, a lake and a Christian-themed water park across a creek bottom from Moody's homestead. The project that one senior pastor described as a "Christian Disneyland" is still in the early stages. So far, the Nigeria-based church has spent between $1 million and $3 million on about 500 acres of pasture - more land than the proposed Dallas Cowboys stadium complex in Arlington, Texas.
Moody and her neighbors say they expect heavy machinery to roll in any day. The Caddo Basin Special Utility District punched through an 8-inch water line in June, and a local company has been hired to put in a high-capacity sewer system.
"I don't like to be called a racist, but I don't like to be overrun, either," Moody said recently, sitting under her carport in Mockingbird Estates, a patchwork of modest homes, tree-studded land and rock roads.
"They live different, they think different, they have different cultures," she said. "I don't have any problem with black people. ... I just feel uncomfortable in large numbers of them."
Call it redneck, race-baiting, irrational or ignorant, but for many people who live in Floyd, a fading railroad stop on the rural fringes of Hunt County, Texas, Moody's comments reflect their reality.
Danota Meeks said she's worried that real estate values will dip, crime will spike, and her country way of life will vanish.
"I'd hate to have one of those Jasper, Texas, kind of things," she said, referring to the gruesome dragging death of a black man by three white racists in 1998. "I'd hate for those people to come out here for salvation and redemption and not feel welcome."
In Dallas, at the church's regional headquarters, Pastor Ajibike Akinkoye (pronounced A-kin-coy-eh), a former language and literature professor who has taught in Nigeria and at the University of Texas at Dallas, tried but failed to suppress a smile when asked about the talk.
He said church leaders knew there would be some hype and hysteria about the project. He said he's been told the Ku Klux Klan is still active in the area.
"They may not welcome us, but we are not afraid of them," Akinkoye said. "In fact, maybe God sent us there so we can bring them to the Lord ... to chase them out of the darkness and to bring them into the marvelous light of God."
Ultimately, he said, only one color will matter in Floyd and the surrounding community.
"Whether you're black or white, money has only one color, green," he said. "Whether you're Ku Klux or evangelical (Christian), a dollar is a dollar. They're going to like that, they can't say no to that ... and we are going to bring a lot of money to that place."
That fact is not lost on Hunt County Judge Joe Bobbitt, who said he and other county commissioners were worried the Africans might be religious extremists when they purchased their first parcel of land in Floyd about five years ago.
But after Akinkoye pitched the church's plans and invited county commissioners to a tent revival, his concerns faded.
"They were congenial, very kind, well-spoken," he said. "If you have the right to be in this country, I want you to be in Hunt County."
But it wasn't always that way, and many people say it hasn't changed much since the 1960s, when a banner hung over the main road into Greenville, the county seat.
It read: "Blackest land, whitest people."
Judge Bobbitt has a photograph of that sign hanging in his office.
"If you try to change history, or try to hide history," he said, "you can't learn from history."
Nine years ago, two churches with predominately black membership were burned in Greenville, about 10 miles from Floyd, sparking demonstrations by the New Black Panther Party and two factions of the Ku Klux Klan.
An investigation by the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Texas found that racism was not a motive in the fires. An 18-year-old black man with a learning disability confessed to torching the churches and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Akinkoye, a pastor and one of the Nigerian church's U.S. coordinators, said he has considered whether arson is a threat to the church's buildings in Floyd.
"If it happens, the first thing we will do is pray for them," he said. "Then God will turn it around for good, and the very people who used their hands to damage this place ... God will bring them back to repent or pay restitution, and they will give their lives to Christ."
Akinkoye said the church would protect its investment, but ultimately pastors would rely on a supernatural security system.
"If God doesn't protect that place," he said, "you're out in the open."
Why would a Nigerian church with between 2 million and 5 million members worldwide, with congregations in 90 nations, with more than 200 parishes in the United States, want to build its North American headquarters in Floyd, estimated population 100 (including the dogs)?
The simple answer is, pastors say, because God told them to.
Twenty years ago, the church's general overseer, Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye (pronounced A-de-boy-yeh), stopped at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on his way to a revival by American televangelist Kenneth Hagin in Oklahoma.
That's when he had a vision from God about the church's future in Texas.
Ten years later, soon after Akinkoye arrived in Dallas to pastor the church's first fledgling congregation, he said he, too, began hearing the voice of God.
"You are not going to build a megachurch yet," the pastor said, recounting the words of the Almighty. "You are going to plant little parishes around the Dallas metroplex, and then I will give you a camp."
After a series of what pastors at the church call miracles, the Nigerians purchased the first 114 acres of land in 2000. Today, the church owns 490 acres and is negotiating for several more parcels. Pastors say by the time it is finished in five to 10 years, the camp could double or triple in size.
It would function as the church's North American headquarters, as a Christian retreat and potentially as a home for members of the church who need a place to live.
The project would cost tens of millions of dollars to build and would probably be bankrolled by the mother-church in Nigeria.
It may seem like an audacious dream from a Third World church facing crushing issues of poverty, AIDS and unemployment at home.
But the Redeemed Christian Church of God and other evangelical African churches - a product of American and European missionaries in the 1960s and `70s - say many American Christians have lost their way, their passion dimmed by material wealth, their moral convictions blunted by a permissive pop culture.
African missionaries see the United States as their mission field.
"The material world is not as important as the spiritual world," explained Pastor A.A. Olorunnimbe (pronounced Oh-low-roon-im-bay), speaking from Nigeria. "The fact that you have two cars and live in a beautiful house and have all the best insurance programs ... why would you need God? But all these things are temporary. Remember that."
In Nigeria, the church's slain-in-the-spirit, dancing-in-the-aisles, shouting-halleluiah-at-the-top-of-your-lungs style of worship is wedded to a message of self-affirmation. Africans may be poor, the thinking goes, but at least they're not lost.
Pastors say the church's Holy Ghost Congress each December attracts more than 6 million followers, which, if true, would make it the largest Christian gathering in the history of man.
Financially, the gravitational pull of the African masses has allowed the denomination to plant churches in Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait and mainland China.
Once they take root, like most of those in the United States, pastors send 20 percent of the congregation's tithes to the national headquarters. Akinkoye said his parish typically contributes about $4,000 a month.
"There's a lot of churches, and that's a lot of money, and that's every month," he said.
That money helps finance the church's global ambitions.
In June, the church took its boldest evangelical step into the United States by holding its annual North American Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York. The event was billed as evidence of the church's commitment to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. An estimated 15,000 people attended over three days.
In Africa, pastors say their mandate is to have a church building within 30 minutes walking distance of every citizen. In the United States, they aspire to plant a church within a five-minute drive to every American.
This spring, the church purchased about 12 acres of land in Plano, Texas, appraised at $425,250 for a new 500-member church. At Sunday services in McKinney, Texas, the message is translated into Spanish.
Afe Adogame (pronounced A-de-gam-eh), a Nigerian who studies and teaches in Germany, spent three years researching the denomination while studying at Harvard. He said he began to understand the church's motives when he noticed a poster in the main sanctuary in Africa.
It read: "Missionaries to a dead Europe."
"Their mission goal is to make heaven and to take as many people with them as possible," he said, "and they mean it."
In Floyd, a United Methodist Church, circa 1914, stands at the mouth of a road that ends at the Nigerian church's land.
Paul Patterson, a retired teacher, stepped off a riding lawn mower in front of the clapboard prairie church recently. He took off a straw hat that flopped over his ears and considered the controversy in his community.
Floyd is full of God-fearing country folk, he said. It may take some time, but most of his friends have good hearts and will make good neighbors.
"Some people may be concerned," he said, "but you're always concerned about what you don't know or understand."
REDEEMED CHRISTIAN CHURCH OF GOD
The Redeemed Christian Church of God was founded in Nigeria in 1952 by Pa Josiah Akindayomi, who grew up illiterate in the West African country's southwestern tribal region. Nine people attended the church's first prayer meeting. Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye, a former mathematics professor, assumed leadership of the church in 1981 after Akindayomi's death. Under Adeboye's guidance, the church has established parishes in more than 90 countries, including China and Pakistan, and throughout Europe. There are 292 churches in North America.
Denomination/doctrine: Christian (Pentecostal)
Estimated membership: World: 2 million to 5 million; United States: 25,000; North Texas: 2,500
Mission statement: To make heaven. To take as many people as possible with us.
Web site: http://www.rccgna.org
Leadership: General Overseer: Pastor E.A. Adeboye; Chairman, North American board of directors: Pastor James Fadele; Special events and projects: Pastor Ghandi Olaoye; Dallas/North Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas: Pastor Ajibike Akinkoye; Fort Worth/South Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Alaska: Pastor Biodun Coker
� 2005, The Dallas Morning News.
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