Foreign Policy has an article running about religion in Rwanda twenty years after the 1994 genocide, and the trend is fascinating. According to the piece, Charismatic or Pentecostal Christianity is on the rise, as survivors are leaving Catholicism for the more emotional (and more American) version of the Christian faith.
They tell the story of Rebecca Umwali, who survived the genocide by a stray bit of luck and who believes that she fell possessed by demons afterward:
“It was a world of bad spirits. They put an evil spirit into my body and then they sent it back out into the world.” For the next five years, she says, her body wandered the land, causing ill wherever it could. “I had the power of causing accidents on Earth. The demons gave me that power.”
It took her five years to fight her way back. She suffered terribly, she says. But one day she encountered a group of Pentecostal Christians who prayed for her release from the powers that plagued her. With their help she finally found release, and “accepted Jesus as my king.” At age 17, she converted from her ancestral Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church, a move that finally brought her “inner peace.” Today she travels around the country, telling her story at emotional revival meetings where listeners respond ecstatically to her account of personal redemption. “After the genocide we had many different emotions,” says Rebecca. “Everyone was looking for the place where he can get healed, get peace, and where he can pray.”
I find this fascinating, but not surprising. Religious revivals are cyclical things, occurring every couple generations in some form. The Pentecostal version of faith is typically what draws the new converts, often those coming out of a musty and stale and more “traditional” or formal expression of Christianity. It’s kind of the counterpart to American evangelicals leaving their nondenominational churches for more liturgical, intellectual church traditions after experiencing spiritual abuse.
Pentecostal Christianity strongly appeals to victims of abuse, desperate for certain emotional catharsis and healing and security. This flavor of Christianity, heavy the idea of on God knowing you intimately and speaking directly to you and providing you with intense spiritual experiences through the Holy Spirit, scratches that itch (the need to be known and loved after trauma) quite well. It also lends itself to recovering addicts, as it creates a dependence on faith experiences for sustaining of belief much like a replacement addiction.
Pentecostal theology is also appealing to those who have experienced great financial instability, as it is closely tied with “prosperity gospel” teachings, where one’s relationship with God is treated like a contract: he’ll fix your life and put you back together and provide for you, if you follow his rules and devote yourself to him in a way that pleases him.
And, finally, the growth of pentecostal Christianity in Rwanda isn’t an isolated incident — it’s been a growing movement in Africa as a whole for the last decade. We’ll see more of this happening in years to come.