Davenning at Borough Park’s Yoruba Shtiebel

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

(Will appear in The Jewish Week on 1/16/04)

This past Sunday morning I trekked through the foot of snow that recently visited the Big Apple to take an honorary seat on the bimah of the Christ Apostolic Church. This is one of Borough Park’s wonders - Housed in what once was a German Evangelical chapel is a church of Nigerian immigrants, whose service is mostly in the Yoruba dialect and whose band has no fewer than five onigangans – sacred drummers singing praises to the Lord on congas, djembes, and talking drums. From the moment that the band began to play every leg, arm, and head in the place began to move – men in finely tailored suits and women in magnificent hats and African dress swaying in their separate sections. This kept on for a full two hours, only briefly interrupted by a few short prayers and speeches. The energy in the room was electric – this was a house of God caught up in the throes of spiritual ecstasy.

Whenever I am called on to be a guest rabbi in a church I tell myself the following things- Smile, you represent the Jewish people. Stand up and sit down with the congregation. Don’t cross your legs or look at your watch. Pay attention to the speaker even if no one else is. Close your eyes when they have their heads down in prayer. Don’t try to sing something you don’t know. Nod politely with your mouth closed when they say ‘Amen’ to a prayer in Jesus’ name.

I tried my best to follow these rules, but let me say this – you try to go to Christ Apostolic and sit still – try not to dance when that choir begins to shout, try not to shout “Hallelujah!” when that bass line kicks in and the entire congregation is shaking like it was James Brown at the Apollo. You might be able to hold back for a few minutes, but after that, the ruach hakodesh is going to move you.

But I was moved by much more than the spiritual energy I felt that morning in Brooklyn. Chirst Apostolic is led by a charismatic seventy-year-old minister, Dr. Abraham Oyedeji, a man who received death threats for his stand against the military government that ruled Lagos up until 1998. His bravery in exposing human rights violations before the United Nations, along with the bravery of many others, has led to a time of great promise in Nigeria.

With all the talk these days about democracy or the lack of it in developing countries, we might look towards Nigeria to see if religious freedom and democracy are viable in a nation that is increasingly under the sway of Islamic law. In Nigeria, where the North is predominately Muslim and the South is Christian, the end of military rule has been marked by a rise in religious tension – with nearly 10,000 Nigerians murdered in various blood feuds between the two groups. In response, President Obasanjo has adamantly pushed forward a vision of the nation that is “multi-religious” – he has even insisted on a secular constitution. As a result of his recent re-election, there is relative calm now of these religious tensions – but they can boil over at any moment and they must be addressed at all times.

One of the factors that helps this “multi-religious” vision move forward is the strong voice of Nigerian immigrants in America who are well connected to the current government. In a private meeting after the service, the Reverend Oyedeji articulated a vision of Nigerian life that spoke to his own vision of religious tolerance:

“My uncle was a practitioner of African traditional religion but he was a righteous man – the most generous and loving man I have ever met. Could I tell him that he must become a Christian? And my older brother, he was the chief Imam of Nigeria. Could I tell my older brother what to believe? That is not done in an African family. So God will judge who has a place in heaven – not me.”

He then turned to me, and said “and this goes for my Jewish brothers and sisters as well.” At a time of global religious tension, it is reassuring to hear a personal vision of religious diversity.

So what I came away with from the Church was much more than a song in my head and a few dance steps, but a sense that we Jews are not as alone as we think. Among the new Americans, those who came after the 1965 immigration act, there are others who hold onto their traditions in the Diaspora and hold concern in their hearts for their homelands. There are also others who wish that the freedom of religious expression possible in America could be true in their homelands. More importantly, there are others who experience themselves as a religious minority, who live in regions where they are seeing a revisionist wing of Islam attempting to dominate the political and legal sphere.

After the Sunday service, one of the younger ministers who saw my enthusiastic response to their worship came up to me and said “This was different from what you are used to, I am sure!” –I smiled. “Yes,” I wanted to say, “the whole Jesus thing is noticeably absent in my shul!” But I also wanted to say “No. It is no different - I, too, sing ancient words to the Holy One, grateful for the blessing of religious freedom, feeling the wondrous irony of being blessed in exile.”