In Nigeria, where Jacob Olupona was born, there are more Anglicans than there are in England. There is also a growing Pentecostal movement as well as a large Roman Catholic presence. In 2005 when the College of Cardinals met in Rome to choose a new pope, one of the leading contenders was a Nigerian, Cardinal Francis Arinze.
Olupona, who was hired in July 2006 as professor of African and African American Studies in Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and professor of African religious traditions at the Divinity School, mentions these facts to illustrate his contention that Africa is no longer a marginal member of the Christian world community.
“Many people’s impression is that Christianity is still controlled by the West, but in fact, Africa has become very central to the conversation,” he said. “You can no longer say that we don’t matter.”
Even in England, he pointed out, the archbishop of York, second in the Church of England hierarchy to the archbishop of Canterbury, is an African — John Sentamu of Uganda.
Olupona is well equipped to comment on the impact of Africa on world Christianity. He has not only studied religion from a scholar’s point of view, he also knows African Christianity from the inside out. The son of a prominent Anglican priest, he was expected by many to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“There are still people who won’t forgive me for not being ordained,” he said.
But Olupona decided to take another direction. The recipient of a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nigeria, and a master’s and doctoral degree from Boston University, Olupona has studied a wide range of subjects, including African spirituality and ritual practices, spirit possession, Pentecostalism, Yoruba festivals, and animal symbolism. His focus has been on how the structure, content, and meaning of religious beliefs and practices permeate daily life.
More recently, Olupona has been studying the religious practices of the estimated 1 million Africans who have emigrated to the United States over the past 40 years. Among them are what Olupona calls “reverse missionaries,” Africans who have come to the United States to establish churches, African Pentecostals in American congregations, American branches of independent African churches, and indigenous African religious communities in the United States.
There are African priests and nuns sent by the Catholic Church to serve parishes in the United States, which themselves may be ethnically diverse.
“I have been to parishes in Florida where Nigerian priests give homilies in Spanish,” Olupona said.
Africa’s burgeoning charismatic movement has had an impact here. The Redeemed Christian Church of God, founded in 1952, is now Africa’s largest Pentecostal church with branches all over the world, including the United States.
Indigenous religions of Africa as well have had a significant influence on the American religious landscape. While most African immigrants are either Christians or Muslims, a number of traditional African priests have established themselves in the United States, and have attracted disciples.
The religion of the Yoruba people of Nigeria is the basis of several New World religions including Vodun, Santeria, and Condomblé. In the United States, these priests have attracted not only African Americans, but people of European and Latin American origin as well.
In some cases, Africans practicing traditional religions in the United States have encountered problems with the law. In New York City in 2006, for example, police intercepted an illegal shipment of “bushmeat” — smoked meat from various wild animals indigenous to Africa — that had been shipped to a Liberian woman on Staten Island. Government authorities charged that the meat was a health hazard, but the African immigrants for whom it was intended insisted it is essential to ritual practices.
Olupona said that he is regularly contacted by African immigrants dealing with similar legal difficulties who need a recognized expert on African religions to explain the significance of these practices.
“They call me because these cases relate to religion, tradition, and rituals, and it occurred to me that one of the consequences of this research is that you become drawn in to issues of law, immigration policy, and human rights. As a scholar you are trained to be objective, but you find that as a result of your research you touch people’s lives.”
At the University of California, Davis, where he was director of African-American and African studies before coming to Harvard, Olupona organized the first international conference of African religious leaders, a group that included Christians, Muslims, and members of indigenous religions. The proceedings of the conference are due to come out soon in book form, and Olupona has received urgent requests from these leaders to help establish a network of African religious leaders in America to keep the dialogue going.
Olupona supports such a dialogue, declaring that the religions of Africa have much to say to each other and much to contribute to the world.
“Religion is still at the core of this society and this culture,” he said. “There is still the notion that the world is still spiritually active, that the world of spirit and the world of matter are still continually interacting.”
That uniquely African religiosity has transformed the character of Christian worship over the years, Olupona said, a point he makes in the course he teaches on “Christianity, Identity, and Civil Society in Africa.”
The unique character and significance of African culture and spirituality are among the many reasons Olupona believes that a center for African studies should be established at Harvard. As the current chair of the Committee on African Studies, he has set this as his goal.
“Africa is the only area of the world that doesn’t have a center here. We cannot afford to neglect a very sizable portion of the world. It is too late for that.”