Adapted from "Righteous Riches" with permission of Oxford University Press.
"Yo quiero lo mio!" A young Hispanic woman unflinchingly demands. She seems to be looking right at me across the distance between her as a televised image and me as a bleary-eyed, early-Sunday morning-before-church channel surfer. "I want my stuff-RIGHT NOW!" a professionally dressed African American man demands, bouncing boxer-style on his toes for extra emphasis. An African American woman signs the phrase with an intensity that mirrors that of the spoken words. So forcefully do they convey a sense of authority and urgency as they lay their claim to their "stuff" that I find myself caught up in the collective effervescence of the moment. It is all I can do to keep myself from adding mine to their chorus of voices "YEAH, I WANT MY STUFF RIGHT NOW, TOO!"
These are the opening moments of a commercial for the Faith teacher Creflo A. Dollar's videotape series Laying Hold of Your Inheritance: Getting What's Rightfully Yours. The spot continues with two short excerpts from this dynamic, African American minister's message to the believer. With great passion, his arms extended before him, he entreats the viewer: "God knows how to lay hold of the invisible until it becomes visible; all He wants us to do is be like Him!" In another clip he very animatedly, and with eyes wide, shouts in a rapid-fire cadence: "You already possess everything that you're trying to get ahold of. But we gotta learn how to seize it; we gotta learn how to lay hold of the invisible!" The voiceover continues: "Learn how to get what's rightfully yours with our monthly product offer Laying Hold of Your Inheritance. To order this powerful four-tape series, write to the address or call the number on the screen."
This advertisement for Pastor Dollar's tape series was aired at the end of the weekly broadcast of "Changing Your World," an outreach production of World Changers International Ministries. This is the 20,000-member, African American megachurch in College Park, Georgia, that was founded and is co-pastored by Dr. Creflo Dollar and his wife, Taffi. The ministry was one of several profiled in an Ebony magazine article on megachurches, with congregations of 10,000 to 25,000, in predominately African American communities across the country. On the morning I saw it, that 30-second television spot seemed to crystallize the spirit of the Word of Faith Movement.
Many of today's high-profile teachers of the Faith Message are well-dressed, energetic, and politically and financially savvy African American men, like Pastor Dollar, Pastor Fred Price of Crenshaw Christian Center in South Central Los Angeles, and Pastor Keith Butler of the Word of Faith International Christian Center in Southfield, Michigan. It would be inaccurate, however, to think of the Word of Faith as a Black religious movement. The movement has attracted followers from a broad demographic spectrum throughout the United States and in many countries abroad since its emergence in the 1960s and 1970s. This movement and its message have fired the imaginations and inspired the faith of thousands (and perhaps even millions) of followers the world over.
Nevertheless, it is worth examining the implications, in the religious history of African Americans, of a movement that teaches that here and now is where God wishes to "prosper" the faithful. Today's movement may appear to be a new development to some observers, but the Word of Faith Movement actually stands in a long line of similar religious movements to emerge in twentieth-century America-movements that have synthesized New Thought metaphysics with evangelical, charismatic Christianity. As in today's Word of Faith Movement, African Americans have played a significant part in these earlier movements.
The religion and religious institutions of African slaves and their descendants in America have always had to be concerned with the material, social, political, and spiritual needs of their followers. To limit ministry to the spiritual realm was a luxury they could not afford, given the legacy of slavery and their post-Emancipation experience of discrimination. It was the role of Black churches and other religious institutions in their communities to take up the slack and meet the needs of the people. Many in the Word of Faith Movement claim to possess some new revelation of God's divine plan, but in reality the Faith Message is not a body of new teachings, despite its differences from past prosperity teachings and movements.
Today's Faith Message is a synthesis of more than one belief system: one strand comes from contemporary evangelicalism's emphasis on the "born again" experience and on the inerrancy and absolute authority of the Bible in all matters; another part draws on the beliefs and practices of the charismatic movement's free operation of the gifts of the Spirit, based on the biblical account of the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts. However, it is its New Thought strand that promises believers prosperity and other earthly rewards if they will learn to apply certain principles in order to "real-ize" God in everyday life and situations. There is a strong practical, instrumental accent in New Thought metaphysical philosophies. Once believers learn to think, or "meditate," correctly (or "hygienically") and then speak accordingly, they have access to a power that comes directly from God and is made available to them as, at least in the case of the Word of Faith Movement, Christians through faith in Christ. Two people were responsible for introducing New Thought to the African American community through large ministries before today's Frederick K. C. Price: Johnnie Colemon and Frederick Eikerenkoetter, better known as "Reverend Ike."
Although they vary on a number of characteristics, a few things are common to each of these figures: (1) They all promised their followers, who were overwhelmingly from the poor and working classes of the Black community, the "good life" in this present world as well as in the next. (2) They incorporated New Thought metaphysics with the other teachings they espoused and disseminated to their audience; these ministries picked and chose (and mixed and matched) religious forms rather freely in times when this practice was not nearly as accepted as it is today. (3) They spoke out against social injustice
in various ways, including (but not limited to) direct or indirect participation in politics. (4) Finally, they extended their charisma into the realm of marketing products and diversified economic pursuits and utilized mass media in the service of their messages.
The cover of the September/October 2000 issue of Gospel Today magazine carries the headline "Redefining Kingdom Business: Leading Ministries Shaking up the Economy" and photos of two well-known African American ministers, both with very large congregations and, seemingly, an even broader range of business pursuits as heads of their respective ministries. These two men, Bishop T D. Jakes and Pastor Kenneth Ulmer, are held up as examples of the ways African American Christians are branching out and expanding the boundaries of Christian ministry to include financial and economic stewardship of resources and community economic development.
According to the article, there is indeed a shift, or transfer, of wealth from the hands of the "sinner" (secular or "unsaved" individuals, organizations, etc.) to those of the "righteous," those within the influence of the church and evangelical religious community. The introduction to the story tells its readers: "In case you haven't been paying attention, there is something huge going on in the area of 'prosperity' among Christians" and goes on to profile the economic influence of several religious leaders in their communities.
One example is the Nehemiah Corporation of America, a not-for-profit community development corporation whose approach to revitalization takes the form of economic empowerment and wealth creation principally through homeownership and affordable housing. This faith-based organization was first established in Sacramento, California, in 1994, and since 1997 the flagship Nehemiah Program has grown to become the largest privately funded down-payment assistance program nationwide. The corporation's subdivisions include the Nehemiah Progressive Housing Development Corporation, which develops affordable housing for families and seniors through state and federal tax credit programs.
Such African American faith-based organizations are continuing a tradition of economic investment and development in Black communities across the country.
African American religious institutions have always had to attend to the material conditions of life, as well as addressing spiritual issues. From the very beginning of the African presence in the Americas, they were denied full and equal access to societal resources. Their religion spoke to that inequality and promised them resolution (or divine judgment in the future for the guilty).
Today's Word of Faith Movement markets itself as both a new revelation and an improved form of Christianity relative to what its members claim is being taught in more doctrinally traditional denominational churches, especially those in the African American communities. Religion has always played a major role in the economic survival and development of the African American community. The Word of Faith movement draws upon a long tradition of self-help and mutual aid, undergirded by an unapologetic religious sensibility. It is not new to teach people that it is not God's will for them to suffer from poverty. It is another thing altogether, however, to teach that every one of them is destined to become wealthy if he or she would only change his or her way of thinking.