We had a faith healer in town last week. A very interesting phenomenon which has raised a lot of questions for me, both culturally and theologically.
He was here for three nights and on the second evening the stadium was Standing Room Only. It was such a mob that they basically had to cancel the meeting due to crowd control issues. Now, there are no more than 250 Protestant Christians in Kayes (pop. >100,000); perhaps a few more Catholics, but this was definitely a Protestant event. Everyone else is either animistic Muslim or Islamic animist (however you prefer to express it). So how did a meeting of a minority religion draw so many, especially since getting people to attend a Bible study or visit a church is like pulling teeth?
It's all about POWER. This preacher, Pastor Michel, has a successful healing ministry. That means he has power from Somewhere, and frankly, people don't care if it's from God or the Devil or something else, if they can get close to it or get a piece of it. This may seem strange to the western mindset, especially if you are not familiar with the Flaw of the Excluded Middle (a term coined from but not to be confused with the Law of the Excluded Middle in logic). The Flaw of the Excluded Middle posits that the Western world view has a blind spot that makes it difficult for many Western missionaries to understand, let alone answer, problems related to spirits, ancestors and astrology. The Western two-tiered view of the universe typically leaves out an entire dimension seen quite readily by people of non-Western cultures. We acknowledge the material universe, and those who are some kind of believer usually accept the existence of a high supernatural plane including God, angels, the Devil, and perhaps demons. For many non-Western cultures, however, there is a middle, unseen plane which exists in this world which may include spirits and ancestors, as mentioned above, as well as genies and powers which can (perhaps) be appeased by charms, spells and fetishes.
(For more information on The Flaw of the Excluded Middle see http://www.strategicnetwork.org/index.php?loc=kb&view=v&id=3263&fto=970& .)
Here in Mali the Excluded Middle is a vital part of life. We see it in the charms people wear and attach to their babies, or hang in their gardens. One of my friends has cowrie shells braided into her hair. You would probably think they were pretty ornaments, but I know they are jiginiu, "little hopes," designed to ward off evil spirits. She also uses cowrie shells to tell fortunes, which people take very seriously.
A few years ago the police in Senegal busted up a gang of burglars who had perpetrated a chain of house invasions against expatriates (including us) and rich Africans. The leader of the gang had over 50 fetishes attached to his body (some said to be effective at warding off bullets!) and the police were careful to cut off and burn every last one lest they help him to escape.
Some years ago a plane crashed in Timbuktu. Of 50 passengers and crew there was one survivor. She was taken to the capital to be hospitalized, where they had to put her in a private room (instead of a ward, which is all most people can afford) with a guard at the door. Why? Because if she was the only survivor, there must be something different about her, she must have access to some power or medicine, and if one could only touch her... So to avoid her being mobbed, she was sequestered. Another time people here in Kayes were hurrying to see a man who never went to the bathroom. Yes, I know that sounds funny, but supposedly he never needed to urinate or defecate, and since that meant he was privy to some supernatural power, people wanted to touch him or sit in the circle of his influence. (I told my informant that I was sure he was sneaking off to the latrine late at night, but she just laughed at me).
Certain people have powers as well, depending on their caste in society. The wives of blacksmiths are said to be able to do certain kinds of spells. Griots, the "town criers" for want of a better word, are also powerful. Even though pure Islam discourages such meddling with the occult, there are marabouts, who are basically Muslim shamans. (By the way, I recently learned the former president of Mali, Moussa Traoré, overthrown in the coup d'état of 1990, is not only out of prison and pardoned, but is pursuing a second career as a Big Time Marabout in Bamako!)
Pastor Michel is also in danger of being mobbed wherever he goes. Therefore, the Malian chief of state, President Amadou Toumani Touré (popularly known as ATT, just as we have called certain American presidents colloquially by their initials, such as FDR & LBJ) called the local authorities to arrange a place for him to stay and a security contingent of national guardsmen to surround and protect him. (Can you imagine Pres. Obama personally calling out the Guard for a Benny Hinn crusade?!?)
So even though Pastor Michel may indeed have power from God to heal, people do not come to him because they believe in his God or have any intention of converting to his Christian faith. They want to get close to POWER. And so they came in droves, most bringing their sick loved ones, but many attending just to be there and to see a miracle. I was told that mentally ill people were brought in from all the surrounding villages. Whenever he prayed for them, white birds rose up from the crowd, into the sky. Were their demons being released this way? Don't ask me (I told you I haven't figured out the theology yet)!
I don't yet know the statistics on how many people were healed and of what illnesses. I am told that a few people prayed to receive Christ. I hope it's true and I will be asking in a few months if any of them come to church.
Lest I sound too hard-hearted or cynical, I want to say that I have a great sympathy for the Malian people in this area. Most Malians are sick all the time. They have a poor diet and live in a dirty environment and can't afford medical care, so they often wait until their health becomes a crisis before dealing with illness. We had a conference in Kayes once, with pastors and their families coming from outlying villages. Every one of them sought medical care while they were here in the city; they were all dealing with chronic complaints to some degree. This was quite an eye-opener to me. So I can empathize with people's desperation to find a solution of some kind, even if it's one I do not understand or agree with.
As to the theological questions raised by this ministry, this has become very long and that will be the subject of a future post.
Interestingly, on the weekend after Michel's crusade, I visited a friend in the very neighborhood where the meetings were held. Yet I was greeted at the door of her compound by some middle school-aged boys who said to me, "Christians aren't welcome here. Christians are bad." So after the excitement passes, life returns to normal, and I'm here today, gone to Mali...