The Zaire-based Kimbanguist Church is at the forefront of the Africanization of Christianity
BAREFOOT throng of thousands ... a sea of gaily colored umbrellas... serious, excellent choruses ... a sweating tuba player ... and dozens of little green plastic bowls full of dirty, crumpled money. It's another outdoor, monthly worship service of one of the largest Christian churches to originate in Africa - the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth - and the first to be admitted (in 1969) to the World Council of Churches.
Christian, but neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic, blending elements of both in an original way, the church is popularly known as the Kimbanguist Church, after its founder, Simon Kimbangu, who is credited by his followers with miraculous healings.
Kenyan Ali Mazrui, narrator of the widely seen BBC television series "The Africans," cites the Kimbanguist Church as a key example of the Africanization of Christianity.
Such independent African churches are "flourishing in Africa today" and may be the fastest-growing ones, he writes.
They "synchronize or blend Christianity with African custom and practices, putting far more stress than do missionary churches on music and dance in worship, communal self-help, and prayer related to faith-healing," Mr. Mazrui writes.
In April 1921, according to the leaders of the Kimbanguist Church, Simon Kimbangu healed a dying woman in Zaire (then called the Belgian Congo). He soon attracted followers, who, as Mazrui notes, recognized him as an African "prophet," a black "messenger." Mazrui writes that "Simon Kimbangu began to challenge the white monopoly of religious leadership in the country."
"When Kimbangu was in life, he was giving to the black man his pride of being black," says Dr. Ekofo Bonyeku of the Faculty of Protestant Theology in Kinshasa and a member of the Disciples of Christ church.
BUT the Belgian colonial authorities saw Kimbangu as antiwhite, anti-Belgian, and anticolonial, says another theologian here who requested that his name not be used. The Belgians jailed him in 1921, where he died 30 years later.
His Belgian jailers had tried to render Kimbangu ineffective, but their repression made him a martyr with an enormous following.
Critics in this superstitious country accuse the Kimbanguists of relying on magic to perform so-called "miracles," and even blamed the current head of the church for a river-ferry accident because he happened to have used the ferry a few days earlier.
His followers call Kimbangu "the One Sent by Jesus Christ."
"Simon Kimbangu did raise the dead; he cured the lame. In fact, he performed everything as it is written in the Bible. As the Apostles did, so he did the same," says Bena Silu, executive director of the office of the head of the Kimbanguist Church in Kinshasa.
"This is one of the reasons why the Kimbanguist Church is growing so fast," he continues in an interview. "People are having evidence that God is not just an idea, but is acting, and the results of his action can be seen."
The church claims 6 million members worldwide, mostly in central Africa, but also in Canada, France, Switzerland, and Belgium, where the top Kimbanguist official is white.
One theologian outside the church estimates that there are probably closer to 2 to 3 million members of local churches but that "they seem to be growing, as most churches are here."
Mr. Silu says: "We are not Catholics; we are not Protestants. We are just Kimbanguists."
The church uses the Bible and practices communion in a way that is similar to Catholic practices, but it has pastors - including women - instead of priests.
Today, as their service progresses through a sermon by a pastor, a blessing for babies, and the first of two money collections, the faithful pop open umbrellas of every color to block the fierce mid-day sun.
Old, young, many in long, bright African dresses or shirts, a few in Mickey Mouse T-shirts, they are shoeless (a church custom at services). They listen as, one by one, the well-disciplined choruses and bands perform their numbers.
Then it's time for the current spiritual head of the church to speak, His Eminence Diangienda Kuntima, a son of Simon Kimbangu, who also spent years in jail under the Belgians.
His energetic performance of church duties from dawn to midnight belies his years. With confidence and modesty, he takes the cluster of microphones in hand as a small guitar ensemble strums beautiful background music.
"The Bible is our book," he says, speaking in Lingala, the local language. Later he says, "I'm just a transmitter. It doesn't come from me.
"We're using umbrellas to protect ourselves from the sun. What's our spiritual umbrella?" he asks, referring to the need to love everyone, obey the Ten Commandments, and work hard.
Then, just before the final collection, he tells the crowd that a large group of Americans want to visit the church here. But he says he told them not to come because there aren't yet enough guest cottages. The crowd hollers back -telling him they will provide more cottages.
Almost immediately, dozens of green plastic bowls are laid out to receive donations. And like some evangelical fund-raisers in the United States, an announcer calls out a running tally over the loudspeaker.
SUCH giving is "a good thing," says Protestant theologian Ekofo. But, he adds, Zaire is a poor country. "When you ask them to give, they give all they've got and they have a problem to survive themselves."
Ekofo says that "the Kimbanguist is recognized as a political force" close to the president, Mobutu Sese Seko. The head of the Kimbanguist church is one of the people Mobutu calls on occasionally for advice, Ekofo says.
After the service, His Eminence Diangienda sits down for an interview in a formal living room filled with large stuffed chairs. In one hand he carries a small portable tape recorder, which is playing soft music.
His Eminence Diangienda says he will not choose a party in Zaire's emerging multiparty political system, approved last year by Mr. Mobutu. He confirms, however, that when Zaire had only Mobutu's party, he aligned himself with it. Mobutu recognized the Kimbanguist church as a legitimate one in Zaire, after its many years in government disfavor.
"We're all Christian, but in practice, there's a certain difference," Diangienda says. "We want to apply, in the true sense of the word, love. And we want jealously to guard the Ten Commandments of God.
"We are a church born in Zaire, but with a universal calling."