God on Their Side
Mention the words "evangelical missionary," and many Americans conjure up an image of redneck zealots' forcing starving children to be baptized before they get a few crusts of bread.
In reality, the wave of activity abroad by U.S. evangelicals is one of the most important — and welcome — trends in our foreign relations. I disagree strongly with most evangelical Christians, theologically and politically. But I tip my hat to them abroad.
In a house beside the filthy garbage dump here in Mozambique's capital, a 17-year-old named Sonia Angeline was giving birth in early June. She had no doctor and no midwife, and after four days in labor, she was a hairsbreadth from becoming one more Mozambican woman to die in childbirth.
"We didn't have money to pay for a taxi to go to the hospital," Ms. Angeline recalled, noting that her family savings at any moment are typically worth about 10 cents. Her mother, Isabel, says that if the baby still hadn't come after another day, well, she would have continued to wait.
Fortunately, at that moment Katrin Blackert, a 23-year-old volunteer for Iris Ministries, an American mission, dropped by as part of her regular visits to children living at the dump. Miss Blackert rushed Ms. Angeline to the hospital, paid the bill for the emergency Caesarean out of her own pocket (O.K., it was only $4), and saved the life of both mother and baby.
The help was extended solely on the basis of need, for Ms. Angeline doesn't attend church. Moreover, Ms. Angeline is living in a new home built by Catholic missionaries to replace her old thatch hut — not because she's a Catholic, but because she's needy.
Evangelical missionaries are controversial because they're very aggressive about gaining converts, so they antagonize long-established religions and create rifts in communities. Critics say they're bribing the poor with food to persuade them to change their faith.
There is some of that. Iris Ministries offers meals with its Sunday services, and that's one reason they're well attended. When local people come to seek cash for medicine or food, they usually get the handout — but only after they join in prayer.
But I'm convinced that we should all celebrate the big evangelical push into Africa because the bottom line is that it will mean more orphanages, more schools and, above all, more clinics and hospitals. Particularly when AIDS is ravaging Africa, those church hospitals are lifesavers.
"In most of Africa, these are the cornerstone of the health system," said Helene Gayle, who directs AIDS work for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "In some countries, they serve more people than the government health system."
The evangelicals abroad are mostly pragmatists, not ideologues, so they should be a good influence on the Christian Right. While fundamentalists in America blindly oppose condom distribution, evangelicals in Africa see their friends dying of AIDS. They thunder against sexual immorality — but often hand out condoms.
"We don't condone adultery, but we're pragmatic enough to see the country we live in," said Steven Lazar, who runs Iris Ministries' orphanage. He notes that in nearly all of the Christian weddings he attends in Mozambique, the bride is pregnant.
One of the evangelicals' most important influences is in combating the second-class status of women and girls by evangelizing not only for God, but also for equality of the sexes.
Pentecostalists, who make up one of the fastest-growing sects, preach faith healing and raising from the dead, but they also give a substantial voice in church to ordinary village women. And that in turn empowers women in the home and community.
"In our Mozambican culture, women don't have an active voice in the family," explained Ana Zaida, who teaches Bible school. "But in Christian life, we discover that not just the husband but also the wife can have a role. . . . So the wives fight to transform their husbands."
At the end of my interview, Mr. Lazar prayed for me — and came pretty close to asking the Almighty to ensure that I wrote a nice column. The episode underscored the difference between my world and his.
Yet while it sounds strange to say so, evangelicals may be Africa's most important feminist influence today. And how can one not welcome their growing presence as Ms. Angeline tells of her rescue and cradles a lovely baby girl — not surprisingly, named Katrin.
The New York Times
September 27, 2003
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF