African Pentecostal Churches in Britain have become a phenomenon that people talk about. This is partly due to the fact that 50 years ago Britain was sending missionaries to African, but now Africans, particularly, African Pentecostals, are here and are pastoring many of the largest Churches in Britain. As we celebrate the successes of reverse missions, we must also reflect on what legacy will be passed on to the future generations of African Christians in Britain. It is this that has drawn my attention to one of the first African Churches in Britain and what we can learn from this Church and its founder. Although this Church was not a Pentecostal Church in the strict definition, but elements of Pentecostal expression were present in its services such as speaking in tongues and healing.
The history of African Churches Mission begins with the history of its founder, Daniels Ekarte, who was born in Calabar, Nigeria c. 1890s. As a boy Daniels was influenced by the Scottish missionary Mary Slessor (1848-1915) who worked amongst the Calabar people in Nigeria. Mary influenced Daniels as a result of her warming to the African culture. This sympathy towards African culture also helped Mary to stop the killing of twins in Calabar. Ekarte became a seaman and came to Liverpool, probably around 1915. He became a Christian in 1922 and began the African Churches Mission (ACM hereafter) in Toxteth, Liverpool in 1931. Liverpool’s prosperity in the mid-nineteenth century depended largely on the slave economy. The Black population increased during and after the First World War in places such as Liverpool, Bristol and London. One of the impacts of the war on Liverpool was the increase in unemployment and poor living conditions. This was coupled with racial discrimination. For example, inter-marriages between Black men and White women were a major tension in Liverpool and the children of such marriages were termed ‘half-caste’ children (today known as mixed-race or dual heritage) and were rejected by many people in the society. These children were actually labelled as ‘mongrels’. This was the socio-economic milieu into which ACM was born.
Ekarte began to organise services in the slums, private rooms and open-air fields for the ethnic minority of Liverpool and through generous giving he later acquired a permanent place to meet. Ekarte’s Church became a community centre for both Black and White people in the community. He also visited people in prisons, hospitals and gave free meals to the poor. He became a voice for the poor and marginalised in society by defending them in his sermons and public speaking. Ekarte believed and fought for racial equality. For example, he campaigned for equal payment for Black seamen because their White colleagues were receiving higher wages than them. This brought him in direct opposition with the local government and had negative effects on the ACM.
Post-Second World War brought about the birth of half-caste children resulting from the union between African American soldiers and English women. Ekarte decided to transform the ACM into an orphanage for these children and a rehabilitation centre for their mothers. He achieved this, but later this community project was ordered to close and the children transferred to the city’s children home. Ekarte was barred from any further contact with the children. The local authorities did this because they could not tolerate an African campaigning for racial equality and openly rebuking the British government for plundering the resources of Africa. In addition, financial constraints worsened the case. After this event the life of the Mission continued but it struggled to survive. Finally in 1964 the local authorities demolished the building housing the Mission. The blow of the Mission closing was too much for Ekarte and not long after he died in 1964. Ekarte was and remained a hero in the sight of Africans and other marginalised people for the great things he achieved in Liverpool, but was a controversial figure in the eyes of others.
The achievements of ACM have implications for the present African Pentecostal Churches in the Diaspora: The first challenge of ACM is the fact that Ekarte condemned publicly the inequalities that he witnessed. Ekarte used every public opportunity he had to speak against the ill-treatment of the ethnic minority of his time. It is interesting to observe that Ekarte advocated for equal payments of Black and White seamen and that he campaigned against institutional racism. In this he predates the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the United States which campaigned against racial discrimination. This point makes Ekarte a prophetic witness in his generation. African Pentecostal Churches must follow in this pioneering effort.
The majority of African Pentecostal Church leaders in Britain command a large constituency and this can be used to advance the fight against injustices such as the maltreatment of sanctuary seekers. It must be mentioned that some African Pentecostal Churches are very good in combating immigration issues. The majority of African Pentecostal Churches use mass media in their Gospel proclamation and this resource can be harnessed to speak out against various social injustices in our society.
Lastly, Ekarte did not just advocated for the oppressed; he actually did something to remedy the situation. He used the resources at his disposal to feed the poor, and open an orphanage home and rehabilitation centre. African Pentecostal Churches must move from prosperity messages that only benefit the individual to a more robust one that articulates that the reason God blesses his people is so that they can use their resources to help the poor and the oppressed in the community. This truer version of prosperity Gospel must see God’s peoples’ success as a means to an end and not an end in itself. If this is followed through, then these Churches will become agents of transformation. The financial power that some of these Churches possess through prosperity preaching can be directed to the cause of the poor and the oppressed, such as tackling human trafficking in the twenty first century. It must however be noted that some African Pentecostal Churches, such as Christian Victory Group and many others are at the fore front of social action projects. A further example is ‘The Peace Alliance’ founded by Rev. Nims Obunge MBE, a national crime reduction charity working in partnership with local communities and statutory organizations to reduce crime and fear in the community.
In conclusion, the legacy of Daniels Ekarte is found in his recognition that God is in the business of liberating the oppressed. This propelled him, like the Old Testament prophets before him, to speak out against inequalities such as institutional racism. In addition to his public denunciation of injustice, he also became an agent of social change through acting on his convictions by starting ACM which became a centre for the community. African Pentecostal Churches in Britain must be challenged in the light of ACM’s legacy and learn from their predecessor in order to serve future generations.