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Beyond the Rivers of Africa: The Afrocentric Pentecostalism of Mensa Otabil

By Dr. Christian van Gorder


Abstract: Mensa Otabil is an African Pentecostal who has developed an Afrocentric focus as a way of responding to the initiatives and interest that face today’s growing African Pentecostal church. Otabil warns African Americans that questions of their relationship with Africa must be addressed.  Perhaps Otabil’s legacy will be his most immediate role of a motivational speaker and encourager for progress in a part of the world that has been drowned with both internal and external projections of pessimism. What is certain is that Mensa Otabil believes in a Pentecostal faith which is able to speak to Africa’s social needs. His conviction is rooted in his conviction that the inherent strength of the great people of Africa have yet to be fully released.



At least sixty percent of Ghana’s twenty million people call themselves “Christians.”  As Paul Gifford explains, “beyond the statistics, Christianity in Ghana has an obtrusiveness as great as any African country.”  He surmises “about fifty percent of vehicles have Christian slogans painted on them” with statements such as “God is King” or more cryptic messages such as “Don’t Blame Judas.” Numerous businesses field such inspiring names as “Jesus Way Upholstery; King of Kings Electrical; Jehovah Jireh Motorbody Repairs: the Lord is my Light Car Wash” and the “Wonderful Jesus Hardware”[1] It is in this West African context the Reverend Dr. Mensa Otabil preaches an unusual message for contemporary African Pentecostalism.  As Gifford states, “Otabil never misses a chance to instill Black pride.”[2] The nature of this emphasis in Otabil’s ministry is the primary focus of this research.

It is another Sunday morning at the seven thousand members International Central Gospel Church of Accra.  A stately man, dressed in a flowing royal blue African Kufti, strides with authority toward the pulpit.  Bright television lights train on an unadorned platform free of the national flags that so many African churches display to assert their “internationality.” The electric guitars and the Canga drums on the stage are silent. There is no frenzied fanfare from some latter-day John the Baptist trumpeting that this is “God’s man of destiny for this hour” or God’s “Elijah prophet” as happens in many other Pentecostal churches in this part of the world.

Harvey Cox claims that Pentecostalism, along with conservative Islam, is the most rapidly
expanding religion of our times.[3] It is a transnational phenomenon and much of African Pentecostalism seems interchangeable with messages and mannerisms that emanate from Tulsa, Los Angeles, or Dallas.  Yet, Otabil seems determined not simply to become “an echo” from some distant and transplanted Christianity.  A former Anglican, Otabil’s parents began taking him to an Assemblies of God church at age 12.  Later, he moved to the Tema Christian Fellowship in suburban Accra while he pursued a career as a graphic designer.  About 1975, Otabil began holding home Bible studies.  This group continued to grow and led to seventy people founding the International Central Gospel Church in February 1984.  At present, Otabil is gaining an audience far beyond Ghana.  He serves as the Chancellor of the 1,400 students Central University College with students from throughout West Africa.  The church has launched more than a hundred satellites including two congregations in the United States, and one each in England, the Netherlands and South Africa.  The “Living Word” television program is broadcast in Kenya, and South Africa. In Pentecostal conferences that affirm each others ministries and messages Otabil is a frequent preacher.

            Much of Otabil’s message is the basic evangelicalism that preaches salvation through faith in Christ and the immediacy of the Holy Spirit to meet the needs of daily life. Otabil’s message roots these ideas in the unique challenges of Africa and to the identity issues that confront Africans of the Diaspora.  This “Afrocentric” theme in Otabil’s ministry became apparent in 1992 when he published Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia: A Biblical Revelation of God’s Purposes for the Black Race with he book reaching an American audience through a Texas-based Charismatic distributor (Pneuma Life Publishing).  Los Angeles-based tele-evangelist Fred Price attributes the impact of Beyond the Rivers to his decision to focus more on African identity in his preaching while another tele-evangelist, Myles Murnoe (Bahamas) speaks glowingly of the book and its message. Leonard Lovett, formerly at Oral Roberts University, writes Otabil is at the “forefront” of a “reverse thrust in history” which empowers “those persons whose birth, self-understanding and world-view fall within the African race.”[4]

            The Afrocentric themes of Beyond the Rivers are not found among most African Pentecostals. This may be because African Christians are “not particularly understood” by non-African observers [5] who often dismiss adherents as believing in “magical world view” [6] when, in fact, their cosmology is more about “seeking empowerment through the Holy Spirit.”[7] There may also be confusion about what exactly is meant by the term “Afrocentric” in a theological context.  Afrocentric Christian theology can trace its germinus back to the themes of liberation first taught by scholars James Cone, Deotis Roberts, and others.  Simply defined, “Afrocentricity is a philosophy based on centering, concepts, ideas and thoughts in an African context.”[8] Grave social justice issues exist in Africa and this fact would seem to inevitably foster Afrocentric theology among the growing church.  Most Pentecostals in Africa, however are far more interested in navigating through the spiritual realms of demons, witches, and angels that float freely through this world than deal with issues of social justice.  Indeed, apart from nuances of this message from Ghanian Kwame Bediako (who looks at the Afrikanian movement in its relation to Christianity) it would seem that there is no outspoken Afrocentric evangelicalism in Africa beyond South Africa.  But who knows if this pattern will continue? African Christianity is transmutating as fast as can be imagined.

            How does this lack of an Afrocentric social justice agenda express itself in the role that African Evangelicals play a role in affecting the political climate of their nations?  Most Pentecostals would claim that they are apolitical with any influence along political lines being seemingly indirect.  Apostle Michael Ntumy, Chair of the Church of Pentecost asks Pentecostals to focus on intercessory prayer instead of confrontation with political powers. This leads Gifford to ask if “charismatic emotionalism” might “be considered as diverting attention from active social involvement.”[9] Lamin Sanneh has shown, however, that “...popular, even insurgent Christianity represents continuity with the politics of anti-structure, with the radical shake-up of structures”[10] just as it did when earlier African Evangelicals related political justice with Biblical discipleship.  Using this model, Ghanian Pentecostalism cannot now be described as apolitical.  Emmanuel Larbi states that “Pentecostals (in Ghana) have “moved from an era of political passivity to the era of direct political involvement.  More than ever, they are awakened to their political duties.”[11] Larbi cites the example of the wealthy Pentecostal Kwabena Darko, who in 1992 stood as a presidentail candidate (but lost).  Larbi notes that both Prophet Martinson Yeboah and Rev. S. B. Asore served as State Councilors. Otabil is engaged in a social justice agenda that informs his preaching and is directly related to his liberationist Afrocentric call for cultural empowerment.  The pastor claims to hold to a policy of not officially aligning himself with any particular political party.

II. Afrocentric Pentecostal Themes in Otabil’s Book Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia

What exactly is the message of Otabil’s book? The foundational theological idea in Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia is the conviction African people have lost their sense of identity through the ravages of slavery and colonialism.  As a result, Africans are struggling with the “myth of inferiority” which distorts history and leads to both their isolation and their domination by others. This dynamic is well illustrated by Isaac Mwase’s article “Shall We Till With Our Own Hoes?”[12] where Mwase describes how extraversion has negatively affected the growth of the Baptist church in Zimbabwe.  Mwase describes how a debilitating sense of victimization has taken hold among many Zimbabwean Christians.  Otabil contrasts this tendency with the cardinal principle of his socio-theological perspective: the truth that each person is made in the image of God.  Rooting identity in creation empowers Africans toward liberation.  James Cone stated that “man is not man when his creative expressions are enslaved by alien powers.”[13]  Na’im Akbar who warns that the mechanics of society are often in the hands of those who would oppress. What is needed is to create institutions which “preserve the reality of our own experiences”[14] and foster a healthy self-understanding.  When one loses their own sense of being crafted by God, they are open to subjugation and abuse. Otabil writes:

The spirit of racism thrives on misinformation and stereotyping. Instead of portraying people in the likeness of God, it seeks to devalue the worth of people who are different from us as not being as good as us . . . Inferiority is developed when you do not see what someone else sees, hears what he hears nor understand what he understands nor know what he knows. So then f any individual or groups of people mean to dominate you they would first endeavor to manipulate what you see, hear, and understand.”[15]

What may be most important about Otabil’s writings are that they are voiced in an African Pentecostal context.  Africa, however, is not the sole focus of his Afrocentric theology.  He writes “African-Americans have been made to believe that their motherland is a jungle and that slavery was a favor done them to bring them into civilization.”[16] Otabil lashes out at the “paganization” of all things African by European evangelicalism.  He rejects the idea of a “Christian name” and deliberately wears Kente to affirm his identity as an African in the backdrop of a Pentecostalism, so long beholden to non-African influences. Otabil’s writings confront “mental slavery.”  Malcolm X used the same term to describe the grip that Eurocentricity has had on the development of Diaspora African intellectual and cultural life.

Talking about his decision to enter the ministry Otabil writes that, “One of the things that the Lord led me to do was to liberate my people from mental slavery through the preaching of the Gospel and to lift up the image of the black man so as to be a channel of blessings to the nations of the world.”[17] Daily suffering for many Africans is the common currency of life and Otabil claims to fully identify with that reality. His sermons are frequently marked with the recounting of his own experiences of hardship growing up without wealth or status.

From a theological vantage, much of what Otabil claims to be battling in society springs from delusional misconceptions about individual value. Otabil writes of the “brutal effects of self-negation and alienation that have plagued people of African descent over the years.”[18]  Afrocentrist historian Chancellor Williams writes: “The very heart of the race problem is the self-abnegation and self-effacement and the loss of identity that comes from cutting people from the roots of the past and thereby losing links with their history from which a people draw strength and inspiration to move forward.”[19]          Otabil advocates the forging of new paradigms that circumvent the social and political conclusions of many non-African “Afro-pessimists.”  Otabil  laments, “the average black person will for almost all his life read books which were not written by his people; watch films that portray another race as hero; whose children will play with “white dolls” which then become the standard of beauty and watch cartoon scenes that are not relevant to his identity. Even our Bible Colleges have little or no material written by our own people.”[20]  

Otabil is forced to acknowledge the role that largely Europeanized Christian education has played in marginalizing the contributions of the African church.  He notes Africans worldwide face similar obstacles and would agree with Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson that, for Africans, there are “actually two kinds of Christianity: the Christianity of Jesus’ teaching and the Christianity which focused on the death of Christ”[21] which made social justice an irrelevant concern. It is this “false” Christianity which Otabil identifies as being fully wedded to European culture: “Christianity came to us so much clothed with European cultural norms that it became difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.’ [22]African Christians need to follow Christ without equating faith with European colonialism and the historic episodes of slave trading in the name of God.

Otabil points out that European missionaries presented to Africans a “gospel” which was rooted in their own world view and thus was created in their own image: “Their God had long blond hair, blue eyes and had a pale complexion.  In effect, the image which the missionary presented to the African looked just like the missionary”[23] “It tickles me to see people hang in their homes plaques with the inscription, Christ is the Head of this house and then has an image of a Scandinavian man represented whom they say is Jesus. . . Let’s take the veil off our eyes and really know Him in Spirit and in Truth.”[24] Otabil does not carry this logic to the same conclusion that contemporary Afrocentrists do in confronting this image.  Instead, he claims that “the physical image of the man Jesus therefore is of no consequence in your knowledge of Him.  He is beyond our petty color-barriers and transcends race.”[25]

There is a clear liberation theology of creation in Otabil’s message.  An individual must face social injustice with a vivid sense that they are empowered with God’s creative goodness. This is equally available to all persons.  Racism affronts that assumption and has been “put into place to prosecute their agenda and is still being used to keep our people from being enlightened . . .  As a black man, I have observed that a war is being waged on all fronts to portray our people in a very negative light.” [26] Afrocentric theology teaches that a “liberating and sustaining Christ rejects any notion that the God of Jesus Christ put Africans on the earth to be chattel, ‘strange fruit’ on Southern trees or anything less than full human persons.”[27] False ideas about identity have been conditioned through a tragic history.  This conditioning can only be broken by the realization of the truth [28] that Africans are not inferior.  Otabil enthuses that “God had to take Philip from a whole city wide crusade to get one lone Ethiopian!  Africa “received the Gospel before Europe.  He is a covenant keeping God!”[29] To Afrocentrists, the value that God gives to Africans is contrasted with external prejudice and paternalism. But Africans have also been marginalized by an internal lack of understanding about their own intrinsic worth, Otabil explains they have been kept from their “portion” of their inheritance as sons of Abraham: “As I travel to the Caribbean, the United States, Europe, and Africa, there is the sense of urgency and a feeling of an appointment with destiny among black people.[30]

Otabil’s Afrocentrism merges with his Pentecostalism in his view that God is
constantly at work in history. Pentecostals view the contemporary era to be just as holy as any other period in history because God is present through the Spirit and Pentecostalism offers itself as the completion or the restoration or the continuation of the book of Acts and thus sees itself as a more ideal fulfillment than other forms of Christian faith. Glossalalia is the new common world language of faith. Simon Coleman in The Globalization of Charismatic Christianity notes that it is a Christianity “described by preachers as living and overflowing and growing and all-conquering as opposed to the dead, dry, limited “religion” of other people.[31] Since they have been endowed with the true way, African Pentecostals must “turn around and see what God is doing”[32] in the world today. Otabil believes that “the total liberation of black people will be preceded by a major revival of God’s power and glory in the nations.” [33] This futuristic outpouring of the Spirit has its foundations in the empowerment of contemporary African Pentecostal movement which he declares is “now changing the complexion of Christianity.”[34] Africans will serve Christians worldwide as a “Joseph people” in providing millinearian provision in the face of soon coming end-time tribulations.

Katherine Bruce’s article Literary Theory and World Christianity[35] claims that new historicists define history as the struggle for power. Otabil describes Africa’s historic struggle for power in light of God’s unique calling to African peoples. Historic Pentecostalism teaches God has a plan for every person and, by extension, for every culture. Otabil states Africans have strayed from God’s pre-ordained calling and have brought great trouble on themselves. It is now incumbent for all Africans to attain an enlightened understanding of their identity in God should expect ferocious opposition from the malevolent spiritual forces that would work to keep them oppressed. Persecution is seen to be a result of a spiritual calling to fulfill a great vision for God. One’s position in life is directly related to one’s faithfulness to the divine call.

Otabil acknowledges the influence that Kenneth Hagin has had on his development (until 1985) but the pastor fully rejects the cause and effect prosperity doctrine of Hagin, E.W. Kenyon, and Kenneth Copeland which rejects suffering as unnecessary, but rather returns to an earlier Pentecostal cosmologies[36] focusing on the universal “war on the saints” led by Satan against God’s elect. Otabil writes:

“Normally, you do not try to destroy someone who is poor. No one goes out of the way to destroy a poor or weak person. You have to ask yourself why is it although the black people are supposed to be weak everyone attacks them. They are supposed to be weak, poor and not have anything but it seems that everything is being done to suppress them. Both on the home continent and away there is a “demonic attack from hell to stop Africans from executing their spiritual office. When these people start to stand in that place, there is going to come a light and a redemption to the nations.”[37]

Otabil preaches Africa has a chosen calling. Hadden notes that contemporary Pentecostalism sees all countries as potential “new Israel’s.”[38] For Africans, this kind of religious nationalism is also undergirded by African traditional religious understandings that entire cultures are either blessed or cursed depending on their relationship to God. For Otabil, it is certain that modern Africans have “inherited the fruits of colonialism and slavery”[39]and must deal with the legacy of historic curses. Breaking these bondages, Otabil preaches, will require both spiritual and material solutions. It is not enough to simply cast out demons or make intercessory declarations in the “heavenly realms” as neo-Pentecostals such as C. Peter Wagner or Eduardo Silvoso advocate. Otabil preaches that thorough education and strenuous work must join with “Spiritual-warfare praying” and wise discernment to confront Africa’s challenges.[40]

Otabil’s Pentecostal theological framework for this sense of destiny constitutes much of the rest of Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia. Like many Pentecostals operating from a community often suspicious of anything but preaching and healing, the author finds himself constrained to support every conviction with clearly proven Biblical precedent. Otabil states non-African Bible scholars have obscured or ignored the role that Africans play in the Biblical account and attacks historic racist renderings such as the use of the “curse of Ham” passage which have undergirded religious support for slavery and a whole host of disrespectful attitudes toward Africans. Otabil chooses to “attack the snake-bite with the snake-venom.”[41]

            Otabil begins by describing God choosing to place the boundaries of the Garden of Eden within Africa along the Gihon and Pishon rivers and in the land of Havilah. This view is not unique and has also been a theme in the exegesis of Charles Cipher, William McKissic, Cain Hope Felder and many other Afrocentric theologians;[42] but Otabil cites none of these sources. What Otabil stresses is that Africans should not consider themselves as “second-class citizens” in creation history because “God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35).” Africans are not in some way superior to other peoples; they are merely equal in every respect with all other peoples of the earth. As God has chosen Abraham, He has also has called Africans, descended from Abraham’s seed.  The role of Africans in the Bible is a vehicle to make today’s Africans aware of their own potential for leadership and will work to free them today from any misguided notions of inferiority. Otabil preaches that God’s chosen should never beg or bow before others. Africans are not in some way dependent on Christians in other nations beyond their mutual relationship as equals in God’s universal Kingdom. Africans do not need to look to anyone but God. Divine blessings are available to aid Africans in fulfilling their call to lead Christians worldwide at this dangerous era in world history. What will compromise that destiny are those Africans who mistakenly choose to imitate other cultures:

“The Lord called me to teach my congregation to stop looking to Europe and America as their source of supply but to cultivate a new spirit and ethic of national development. . . I do not believe the church in Africa should be ruled from anywhere but Africa. Our leaders must be home brewed. Our finances must be generated from the productive work of our own resources. Our headquarters must be Africa! When it becomes necessary to cooperate with other churches and ministries beyond our continent it must be based on mutual respect and love.”[43]

Christian ecumenism must be freed from any notion of paternalism. Otabil quotes a West African proverb, “A dependent man cannot be trusted.” People in search of external problem solvers are indenturing themselves to a cycle that will invariably lead to non-productivity. Mental slavery for Otabil, leads to a mind-set which fosters dependence and are hindrances to economic and cultural development. Independence is the fruit of a community of Christians living free of the delusion of insufficiency. Africans need to shake themselves from long-held assumptions about their short-comings before they can assert themselves with confidence in the world. Otabil’s ideas of the selfhood of the African and the concept of negritude have been largely influenced by the Senegalese presidents, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Abdou Diouf.[44] 

            Otabil’s Pentecostalism instructs him that freedom from external sources fosters the truest expression of a healthy local church. This theme joins with Otabil’s Afrocentricity as he explains that, “...what we have come to accept as “blackness” and “African” in many instances as stereotypes that have been made to help us to accept our (invariably inferior) place.[45] Only God’s Spirit empowers people to “break” deeply rooted strongholds of dependency. Otabil maintains that Abraham, is the father of all African peoples of the world. Africa joins Abraham in Genesis 25:1-4[46] where Abraham weds Keturah who bears him six children. The oldest was Zimran, whose name means “musical.” It is a name that “prophetically refers to a special grace gifting that characterizes the race (sic.) that Keturah and Zimran belonged to.”[47] Otabil writes that,

“ we are so full of music that when our ancestors were taken into slavery and pressed on every side out of them oozed what was in them music! A form of music that was later named Negro Spirituals. They did not produce carnality. They produced spirituality out of the abundance of what was in them. Go to any authentic Black congregation they may not preach right but they sure will sing the anointing upon you! It is through praise and worship that the presence of God is released among his people. Unfortunately, when the missionaries came, they put aside our music and brought their sedate and unexciting music forms, but, Thank God, the music is coming back to the church.[48] 

Otabil concludes that Keturah’s grandchildren, “possessed names that belonged to Cushites or black people”[49] and were Africans. Otabil returns again to the “curse of Ham” to show how it is actually a curse against Canaan; while Ham and Cush had already received God’s blessing.[50]  He explains that Nimrod and many other Cushites were “leaders of the world”[51] before the flood. Keturah’s line reappears in Jethro, father-in-law of Moses and in the people of Midian (the Kenites/Midianites). Jethro is described as a priest in the order of Melchizedek who helps Moses discard false ideas from the African Egyptian religion of his upbringing into the true understanding of proper African-Abrahamic faith. Africans are to be “present day Jethros who will teach the nations the Ways of the Lord”[52] and not the false ways of the Egyptians. Moses’ Midianite brother-in-law Hobab[53] is also presented as a typological figure of all Africans, as he is used by God to re-connect Africans with their lost Abrahamic inheritance. Later, it would be through the oft-maligned people of Midian that God would take Joseph into Egypt.

            Unlike some Afrocentrists, Otabil does not advocate the return to all traditions African. In his preaching he frequently distinguishes between ancient principles which are universal in their value and practices which are rooted in specific historical times. Traditions are rooted in contexts which are often outmoded and they must be set aside in the name of progress. This does not nullify the fact that they may have been helpful to previous generations. But today, these same traditions can be burdensome. Many African cultural traditions are simply dismissed as “Towers of Babel”[54] which have some basis in truth but have been twisted by human error. Otabil warns that “because of the role organized religion has played in the domination of the black race, there is the cry in many quarters for us to go back to our ancestral religions and totally reject the Bible.”[55] This is not Otabil’s suggestion. He is, however, careful to affirm that African traditional religions have been invaluable in helping people to understand the Pentecostal theological premise that “God is close” to peoples lives and concerns.[56] The African world view was “Biblical” in its dualistic cosmology of God providing protection against evil forces.

            Otabil’s preaching is presented in a decidedly strident voice. The preacher claims to follow in the tradition of Christ who called his followers to be “angry and yet without sin.” This element is important because the theme of anger figures prominently in many of the writings of contemporary Afrocentrists. Anger is able to produce the changes which are so long in coming. Otabil encourages his readers to recognize a balance between anger which “does not liberate but makes you a victim” on one extreme and an “escapist pie in the sky message”[57] which does not engage seriously with the issues of our time. Anger is not one dimensional. A confident church must confront injustice wherever it might originate. Otabil proclaims, “Our neighborhoods are deprived economically because of circumstances within our control which we did not control.[58] African faith freed from the “rigid demarcation between the natural and the supernatural”[59] can express a Pentecostalism of engagement with social justice issues instead of the absentee escapism of much European or American Christianity.

            In the conclusion of his book, Otabil returns again to Pentecostal themes of preparedness to fulfill the divine destiny that God’s spirit equips people to perform. The time has come for Africans around the world to take their position of spiritual authority in the world. In II Samuel 18: 21 Joab turns to the Cushite and says “this is your time.”[60] God is calling the “Cushites of this era to deliver a message concerning the things which we have seen, which has been taught to us personally and uniquely, originally and individually. I believe that the time of duplicating messages which we have read from others is over.”[61] Otabil compares the speed of Ahimaaz with the technological advancement and organizational infrastructure but spiritual bankruptcy of a people, presumably European, “without a message.” People who “run without a message will be sidelined.”[62] The Cushites, in contrast, face a hard road and suffer poverty but keep on running to fulfill their calling to serve God: “God is saying stand aside Ahimaaz. You did it yesterday but today, stand aside because there is a new hour, a new day and a new man must deliver the message. This is our time to reach our own.[63]. God is telling the black (Sic.) people all over the world that their time has come. The time of servanthood and slavery of the black man has come to an end.”[64] A role of spiritual leadership awaits African Christians who have been refined by difficulty and prepared by God to meet the challenges of a troubled, non-spiritual world.

For Otabil, the first step in understanding the destiny of Africa is to realize that “the gifts and callings of God are without repentance” and one understands one’s future role by understanding one’s historical role. The Akan (Ghanaian) term “Sankofa” calls people to go forward in their lives by looking “to the rock from which they have been hewn.” For an Afrocentrist, this appreciation of history is definitive but it is also rare among Pentecostal ministers who tend to be ahistorical and largely comfortable with reliance on a present-tense spirituality focused on miracles and spiritual warfare. Otabil is unique in his understanding of the role that history plays in affecting Africa’s future. He fuses his Pentecostal emphasis on divine calling with his instinctive Afrocentricity when he writes to African Christians that,

“We need to know our history so that we can know our future. We have to move
backwards in order to move forwards. When we want to trace Black history, we do not
trace it in a narrow cultural sense. We have to go backward and see how God has dealt
with us in difficult times. Whenever the world has been in a crisis, the Black man has always appeared on the scene

III. Contemporizing Otabil’s Afrocentric Pentecostalism

            After an extensive wait, I was led into the Pastor’s spacious office on the third floor of the International Central Gospel Church. When I arrived the good Doctor continued away on the computer, with his back to me. Over his shoulder I could see an extensive, eclectic library. When I asked him about his reading, he said that he was reading the Bible; Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore Story, David Landes’ Wealth and Poverty of Nations and a number of books of leadership written by John Maxwell. At the time, he was preparing a series of teachings for his congregation on the “Leadership Principles of Jesus.”

            I had come to “Christ’s Temple,” the International Central Gospel Church, with a question: Are the ideas expressed in Otabil’s Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia reflective of the message that he is preaching today? Paul Gifford relayed that many of what he called “black identity” themes in Otabil’s earlier preaching is not reflected in Otabil almost a decade later. The methodologies that I used to answer these questions were to visit with Otabil, attend a number of services, and meet with members of the church, with theologians from the Central University College, and to listen to three dozen sermons given by Otabil within the last year. My findings were mixed. As Gifford suggests, Otabil has adapted his focus since he began writing on Afrocentric themes a decade ago.[66] A visit to the Central University College confirmed this shift in focus. The catalogue listed a series of courses in the “Department of Black Studies” including a course called “Black Identity” that the catalogue said “looks at Black identity from a theological and philosophical perspective. [67] This course had been taught by Otabil but had not been offered for a number of years. There are also courses on African Traditional Religions; “African Philosophy and Cultural Values”; “African Arts”; “African Christian Spirituality” and the “Black Diaspora” that are waiting to be taught for lack of an appropriate educator. One course that is still taught entitled “Contemporary Theologies and Theologians” looks at a number of themes including what the catalogue calls “Otabil’s African Evangelical Pentecostal Liberation Theology” [68] a term coined by Vice Chancellor Emmanuel Kingsley Larbi to describe Otabil’ s theological approach. But all of these seemed to be traces of intent instead of signposts of actual practice. A glance at the University library showed a similar dearth of less than a dozen books on Afrocentric issues.

            It would seem that there is relatively little extraversion that affects Otabil’s congregation and its leadership. Otabil seems to be something of a loner when it comes to networking outside Ghana. His book is still widely distributed in the United States. In the past he was much more involved with the larger international Charismatic community especially with Pastor Myles Munroe of the Bahamas. Otabil does still maintain contacts with his friend of many years, Pastor Randy Morrison, a West Indian, who is now pastoring a church near Minneapolis Minnesota.[69] At a recent “Pan-African Believers Summit” he had Pastor Morrison attend as the primary speaker. There are clear instances of extraversion at work in Otabil’s ministry but he seems hesitant to become very involved with these networks. I asked him why he doesn’t travel more in North America and Europe.

My heart is in Ghana! In Africa! After that the rest can take care of itself I still do not feel a full release to really focus on the nations of the world. The Holy Spirit is still restraining me... It is so easy to get sucked into the American preaching system. It is attractive there. There are good places to go there. But you are not careful you can lose your focus. My main concern for these last seven years has shifted from trying to talk to the world to trying to help people in difficult conditions here. That is the main focus of all Christian ministries to rescue people.[70]

The reason for this shift in focus is an increasing interest in the challenges facing Ghana. Recent elections enlisted Otabil’s response on a number of fronts. It would also seem that Otabil is gaining an increasingly large national audience and voice in Ghana’s public affairs. Recent articles in the usually critical Ghanaian press have taken to referring to him as “the respected Pastor Otabil”[71]and sharing his views on where the government seat should be and offering his advice to the incoming and outgoing leaders. A recent news article notes that Otabil called for political change because Ghanaian “...politics are clouded with trivialities such as ethnic and tribal sentiments which have shifted the development aspirations of the country.”[72] Otabil is clearly increasingly involved in the Ghanaian political arena. Otabil preaches of Africa’s problems: “these conditions persist because there are conditions that give birth to them and sustain them’[73] Many Pentecostals in contemporary Africa are eager to locate demons and witches as the source of evil in society. Otabil sees the problems rooted in a host of strongholds including poor leadership, nepotism and the institution of “chiefdoms.”[74] A letter to the editor concluded with his expressed hope that “Ghana will rise to embody the character of the Eagle, which we as a people chose to be our national totem at Independence.”[75] By the year 2001, Otabil seemed to have narrowed his scope to focus on the immediate challenges of Ghana’s political and social society:

My views are growing more focused on the African condition. One cannot solve all the
problems for all the black peoples of the world. And there are deep misunderstandings
between us. A clear indication of this was when Louis Farrakhan came to Ghana. He was so attacked when he was here because he was seen as a collaborator with the oppressor and yet in America he is seen as fighting the oppressor. But when he came here he was given State support and given State facilities and the State mobilized people to hear him. This made him excited because in the United States he was not accorded that kind of honor.  But in accepting that he was seen as a tool of the oppressor in the eyes of the people. Everything he said was reinterpreted in that light. I feel sad for him because the dimensions and problems of our struggles are different.[76]

I asked Otabil what he thinks of the relationship is between Africans and African Americans.  Because Ghana is home to the slave castles where Africans were first taken before the Middle Passage, it seemed logical that our discussion connected to these historical realities:

There are great similarities between us and also major dissimilarities. The main point of departure is the process of the slave trade and the experience of slavery. The slave trade began among us but the enslavement of the Black man by the white man was not experienced in Africa because it occurred in America. As Africans we are looking at one side of this relationship. We see our people who left our shores. But the stories that unfolded on the ships and inside the slaves castles and on plantations in the States are not directly our stories. For those of us who were left here, our common story about this time ended in some ways at the door of the slave castle. Our perspectives on slavery have varying degrees of intensity.  The people who left here-left here unwillingly. But the people who left here did not leave here by accident. It was the result of a system of trade considered fair by the African collaborator trader chiefs and the European merchant trading partners. It was an evil based on equal terms. In Ghana, there is not much general resentment to the average African against slavery because it did not occur to them. For African Americans separated from their roots and having lost their traditions of language and culture and music there is a tremendous need to reconnect with Africa. And for us, there is a certain curiosity to find out what would have happened; what would have been (f we had not been so uprooted? But it is difficult to answer that question and looking to Africa will not help African Americans in answering that question because Africans subsequent to slavery increasingly became a victim herself to colonization. Who knows what would have happened f we could have developed on our own?[77]

Otabil interprets the issue of slavery in a multidimensional way that challenges both European historians who are quick to stress the role of African chiefs in this history and some African American historians who often obliterate this harsh fact from their narratives. Otabil’s recognition that there are dissimilar stories among African peoples challenges romanticized portrayals of a singular narrative. Otabil’s reminder that colonialism needs to be understood apart from slavery is yet another dimension not always emphasized by American Afrocentrists.

            Of course, any discussion by a Pentecostal pastor about the results of slavery invites the question in the listener that either a God of justice either is responsible for its occurrence or that God had nothing to do with the slave trade. Pentecostalism is usually strongly rooted in a theology of God’s sovereignty in situations and, as such, it is not surprising that Otabil allows for some role that God might have played in the unfolding of this tragedy:

God has His hand upon all peoples and movements of peoples and historically, all of us have moved. I am not saying that mass migrations are necessarily good in and of themselves but in the middle of these events, God works among people as a sign of His providence. When African Americans look to Africa, they sometimes are too quick to embrace some of the practices of our ancestors without understanding the positive and negative principles behind these practices. What African Americans are struggling for is not identical to what I am struggling for. For them, the white is still the oppressor but to us, the oppressors that we are dealing with are often our own people and leaders who are caught up in despotism, nepotism and injustice.[78]

This statement shows Otabil’s refusal to resort to a black/white dualism that is an inherently simplistic way to deal with the problems of contemporary Africa. Otabil claims that the present challenges of  Africans are primarily how to respond to other Africans who are leading unjust and militaristic governments. Romantic notions of Africa will not help confront Africa’s very real problems. Otabil continues:

African Americans sometimes underestimate the value of their migration. I say that
advisedly in light of the great pain of slavery. But out of that terrible process has emerged a people who are better placed to effect modernization than those left behind. Africans and African Americans are in different economies. They excel in life values like time management that we need here and they have more wealth creating opportunities than do we. They are more American than African. They have an American mind in an African body. The main difficulty we face here is breaking away from the legacies of our culture which is too deliberate and too communalized; as result individual efforts here have been stunted. Africa is a vast land with great resources yet that is where African Americans can help us. We do not need them to patronize us but they can give us what they have. That is what Joseph did. He met his brothers after long years not just to enjoy fellowship but to give them an information and technology transfer! He worked for the growth and development of his people. What we need is a solid collaboration.[79]

An African American desire to “rediscover their ancestral heritage” is a logical and potentially helpful dynamic between Africans and those in the Diaspora. But their search must not be for a “nostalgic Africa” crafted only by the imagination:

Ours is not a perfect continent.  If we had all of the answers, we would not be in need of healing ourselves. One group of people is going down while another is going up. “As an African, I consider our inability to renew our culture and move it from the definitions of our ancestors to be a major problem. Anyone who tells me to go back to my ancestors does not realize that I am already with my ancestors and I am trying to progress beyond their legacy!” [80]

            This theme is an important one for future interactions between Africans and African American Christians because of the role that ancestral veneration plays in rituals such as Kwanzaa and other liturgies developed by African American Christians. Otabil warns that, “over the years Africa has received numerous aid programs, national programs, United Nations programs, World Bank, IMF programs, military redemptions, constitutional experiments but all of these have not worked. What is the reason? It may be that Africa is gripped by the strongholds of traditional beliefs.”[81] Traditions, according to Otabil, are based on one generation’s solutions to specific problems and when another generation comes along they often chose to memorialize these past solutions as traditions.  The pastor recognizes that some traditions are positive and serve to reinforce important values such as respect for elders and the preservation of scarce natural resources. While transgenerational traditions are helpful others contribute to the decay of society.

            Otabil noted a tendency for African Americans to idealize African traditions. This is particularly pronounced in the interest that many African Americans show toward the Afrikanian movement, founded by a former Catholic priest Osofo Okomfo Kwabena Damuah in the 1970’s. Bediako summarizes Afrikania as an attempt to “represent and manifest the religious beliefs, ideas and practices of pre-Christian and pre-Islamic times.”[82] Otabil noted the movement was “used as a political tool against the Christian church as it grew as an increasingly alternative power structure.”[83] Today, its primary supporters are often African Americans who are not aware that, in Otabil’s words, the Afrikanian movement was “benefiting from the negativity of oppressive systems in Africa.” Of Pan-Africanist movements Otabil states:

Is an important goal for us to drive for and achieve especially in the present day with the massing of regional powers. I am not sure, however that the present leaders have the same grasp that Sengor, Nkrumah, Kenyatta and Sekou Toure had. These early African leaders thought more of Pan- Africanism as a total emancipation of the continent. Today, a different pace of reform and development is in place.... As it is I don‘t see anyone now who has the same philosophical foundations. The closest person would be ThaboMbeki.[84]  

Otabil shows his blend of pragmatism and idealism in this response. His optimism comes in the face of discouraging economic and social indicators. Increasingly, African business has been marginalized in the increasingly integrative trend of world trade. Otabil’s concern for partnering with wealthy African-Americans is that any relationship proceed with mutual benefit. For Otabil, contemporary Pan-Africanism must be about more than a common aspiration to a black identity. Mensa Otabil is an African Pentecostal who has developed an Afrocentric focus as a way of responding to the initiatives and interest that face today’s growing African Pentecostal church. Otabil warns African Americans that questions of their relationship with Africa must be addressed:  

When I go to the United States, I have frequently had very eye-opening conversations with African-Americans. I feel it is important for us to understand each other. African Americans can come here with a big brother attitude that knows better than the village African. I have heard about Malcolm X describing the difference between the ‘field nigger” and the “house nigger” and sometimes I feel like African Americans treat us as if they are the “house niggers.” They do not understand our problems. But with consistent dialogue we will reach a point of understanding. It is sad to me when I see sincere African American Christians pouring out libations to our ancestors. We are trying to change things in our society. Africans on the continent are the roots looking for fruits while African Americans are the fruits looking for roots. We have preserved their past that they are looking for them. But when we go to them, we are not looking for roots; we are looking for fruits. We can help each other.[85]

Perhaps Otabil’s legacy will be his most immediate role of a motivational speaker and encourager for progress in a part of the world that has been drowned with both internal and external projections of pessimism. What is certain is that Mensa Otabil believes in a Pentecostal faith which is able to speak to Africa’s social needs. His conviction is rooted in his conviction that the inherent strength of the great people of Africa have yet to be fully released.


Selected Bibliography

Agbeyebiawo, Daniel. The Life and Works of WEB. DuBois. Accra, Ghana: Stephill Publishing, 1998.

Akbar, Na’im. Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery. Tallahassee, Florida: Mind
Productions, 1996.

Bediako, Kwame. Christianity in Africa. The Renewal of a Non- Western Religion. Edinburg:
Edinburg University Press, 1995.

Central University College Catalogue and Statues, Accra, Ghana, 1999

Cesaire, Aime. Discourse on Colonialism. London: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Clarke, Peter B. West Africa and Christianity. London: Edward Arnold, 1986.

Cone, James. A Black Theology of Liberation. New York: Lippincott, 1970.

Davies, Joan. “Negotiating African Culture: Towards A Decolonization of the Fetish.” York
University Homepage. York, Ontario, 2000.

Douglas, Kelly Brown. The Black Christ. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1994.

Duodu, Samuel. “Pastor Otabil Calls For New Leadership.” Evening News, Accra, Ghana,
10/23/2000, p. 1.

Fage, J.D. Ghana: A Historical Interpretation. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press,

Felder, Cain Hope, editor. Stony The Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation.
Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1991.

Felder, Cain Hope. Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family. Maryknoll, New York:
Orbis Books, 1997.

Franklin, Robert M. Another Day’s Journey: Black Churches Confronting the American Crisis.
Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997.

Gaye, Adama, editor. “Pan Africanism: The Compelling Dream.” 1/28/2001, London: West
Africa, The Weekly Newsmagazine, issue 4259, pages 6-16.

Gifford, Paul. African Christianity: Its Public Role. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University
Press, 1998

Gyeke, Kwame. African Cultural Values. Accra, Ghana: Sankofa Publishing, 1998.

Imasogie, Osadolar. Guidelines for Christian Theology in Africa. (Series editor Tite Tienou),
Achimota, Ghana: ACP Publications, 1993.

Kissiedu, Baafor. “Dr. Otabil in Contemporary Politics.” The Daily Graphic, Accra, Ghana,
December 27, 2000, p. 9.

Kwabena, Okeyame. “Some Important Dates in Ghanian Pentecostalism.” Accra, Ghana: Centre for Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies, Central University College Press, 2000.

Larbi, E.K. The Development of Ghanian Pentecostalism. Ph.D. Thesis: University of Edinburg.

McCray, Walter Arthur. The Black Presence in the Bible. Chicago: Black Light Fellowship, 1990.

Mugambi, J. N. K. The Church and Reconstruction of Africa. Theological Considerations. Nairobi, Kenya: All Africa Council of Churches, 1997.

Obeng, Samuel. The Selected Speeches of Kwame Nkrumah. Accra, Ghana: Afram Publications, 1997.

Otabil, Mensa. Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia: A Biblical Revelation of God’s Purposes for the Black Race. Accra, Ghana: Altar International, 1992.

Otabil, Mensa. “Renewing Courage and Conscience.” Ghanaian Chronicle, Sunday, July 9, 2000, pp. 9-10.

Otabil, Mensa. “Dr. Otabil Replies Critics.” Daily Graphic, Accra, Ghana, 4/17/2000, p. 4.

Otabil, Mensa. Articles: Four Laws of Productivity; God Rules in the Affairs of Men; Enjoying the Blessings of Abraham. Cassette Tape Series: Pulling Down Strongholds; The Leadership Style of Jesus; Opening New Chapters in Your Life; Principles for Effective Living. Accra, Ghana: Altar International, 1996-2001.

Otabil, Mensa. Sermons: “Heritage Lectures” Accra, Ghana, 6/28-30/1999- “Is Africa Cursed?” International Central Gospel Church.

Otabil, Mensa. Sermon: “Renewing the Vision of the Fathers: The Quest For A New Ghana.” William Ofori-Atta Memorial Lectures, Christ The King Parish Hall, Accra, Ghana, 10/17/2000.

Paris, Peter J. The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.

Parratt, John. Reinventing Christianity: African Theology Today. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1995.

Roberts, J. Deotis. The Prophethood of Black Believers: An African American Political Theology for Ministry. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Sanneh, Lamin. West African Christianity. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1983. Shaw, Mark. The Kingdom of God in Africa: A Short History of African Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995.

Twum, Nana Adeji. “I Agree with Dr. Otabil.” Daily Graphic, Accra, Ghana, 1/4/2000, P. 7.

Williams, Chancellor. The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500BC to 2000AD. Chicago: Third World Press, 1987.

Wilmore, Gauyard. Black Religion and Black Radicalism. An Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1994.





[1] Gifford, Paul. Christianity in Africa, 1998, page 61.

[2] Gifford, ibid. page 82.

[3] Cox, Harvey, 1995, page 120.

[4] Otabil,  Mensa.  Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia, Dallas, TX:  Pneuma Publishing, 1992, preface.

[5] Gifford, Paul. Op. cit., page 33.

[6] Stoll, 1990, page 112.

[7] Franklin, 1997,  page 42

[8] Asante in Roberts, 1994, page 135.

[9] Gifford, page 31.

[10] Sanneh, Lamin, 1999, page 249.

[11] Larbi, Kingsley Emmanuel 1999. page 231.

[12] Mwase teaches philosophy at Ochaiuta Baptist University and submitted a paper by this title at Calvin College in July of 1999.

[13] Cone, James, 1976, page 160.

[14] Akbar, 1996, page 68.

[15] Otabil, op. cit. page 2.

[16] Otabil, ibid. page 6.

[17] Otabil, ibid, page 18.

[18] Otabil, ibid, page 4.

[19] Williams, Chancellor, 1987, page 250.

[20] Otabil, op. cit., page 5.

[21] Patterson, Orlando.  Rituals of Blood:  The Consequences of Two Centuries of Slavery in America, New York: Civitas Publishers, 1991, page 201.

[22] Otabil, op. cit. page 15.

[23] Otabil, ibid. page 13.

[24] Otabil, ibid. page 14.

[25] Otabil, ibid. page 15.

[26] Otabil, ibid. page 3.

[27] Douglass, 1992, page 2

[28] John 8:32.

[29] Otabil, page 62.

[30] Otabil, page 10.

[31] Coleman, 2000, page 109.

[32] Otabil, page 22.

[33] Otabil, page 61.

[34] Otabil, page 63.

[35] Katherine Bruek, Literary Criticism and World Christianity, paper delivered at Calvin College’s Summer Institute, July 1999.

[36] For example in the writings of Jesse-Pen Lewis.

[37] Otabil, page 64.

[38] Hadden, 1989, page 230.

[39] Otabil, page 12.

[40] Argentinean Teacher Eduardo Silvoso, now based in California, works closely with Fuller Theological Seminary professor C. Peter  Wagner teaches that Christians need to pray to break “spiritual forces” over communities.

[41] Larbi, Interview, February 13, 2001.

[42] Felder, 1991, page 166.

[43] Otabil, page 68.

[44] Larbi, 2001, page 348.

[45] Otabil, page 71.

[46] See also McCray 1990, page 124.

[47] Otabil, page 34.

[48] Otabil, page 60.

[49] Otabil, page 34.

[50] Genesis 9

[51] Otabil, page 38.

[52] Otabil, page 50.

[53] Numbers 10:29-32.

[54] Otabil, page 21.

[55] Otabil, page 10.

[56] Otabil, page 13.

[57] Otabil. page 11.

[58] Otabil, page 86.

[59] Wilmore, 1996, page 15.

[60] Otabil, page 79.

[61] Otabil, page 80.

[62] Otabil, page 82.

[63] Otabil, page 83.

[64] Otabil, page 84.

[65] Otabil, page 87.

[66] Interview with Paul Gifford, 1/25/2001.

[67] Catalogue, 1999, page 133.

[68] Catalogue, page 124.

[69] South Golden valley, Minnesota

[70] Interview with Otabil, January 2001.

[71] The Chronicle Newspaper of Accra, Ghana, January 10, 2001, page 8.

[72] The Evening News, November 23, 2000, page 7.

[73] From Cassette Tape of Sermon, “Pulling Down Strongholds”, tape number #3.

[74] Ibid.

[75] The Daily Graphic, Newspaper in Accra, Ghana, April 17, 2000, page 17.

[76] Interview, 1/24/2001.

[77] Interview 1/24/2001.

[78] Interview 1/24/2001.

[79] Interview, 1/24/2001.

[80] Interview, 1/24/2001

[81] Otabil, Cassette Tape:  Pulling Down Strongholds, #2.

[82] Bediako, 1995, page 117.

[83] Interview

[84] Interview

[85] Interview


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