In an effort to engage with new and innovative research in the anthropology of Christianity, AnthroCyBib has invited Fred Klaits to explore a series of conversations he has had with a key research participant, a pastor of an African American Pentecostal church in Buffalo, New York, USA.
I am currently engaged in a comparative project on Pentecostal insight, focusing on how believers in majority White and African American congregations in Buffalo, New York understand knowledge derived from God as essential to their well-being. By comparing how Pentecostal believers in largely segregated faith communities attempt to foster well-being, I explore how specific sets of anxieties associated with Whiteness and Blackness lead believers to adopt distinctive methods for obtaining insights from God — what they call “discernment” — into their own and others’ life circumstances.
In November 2016, I invited Pastor John (a pseudonym), the leader of one of the African American congregations I am working with in inner-city Buffalo, to attend a roundtable at the American Anthropological Association meetings in Minneapolis entitled “Towards an Ethnography of God,” where I served as a presenter. Pastor John is a former drug dealer who was saved in 1999, at the age of 19. While serving as a minister under a series of bishops of African American Pentecostal churches, Pastor John developed a gift of prophecy whereby he receives words and visions from God about particular people in attendance at church services or revivals, or about others connected to them who may not be present. In 2011, he founded the nondenominational church I call Victory Gospel, most of whose members are from disadvantaged backgrounds. The church encourages enthusiastic worship and prophetic utterances in keeping with African American Holiness and Pentecostal styles.
Early in 2016, Pastor John called out in church that he was receiving a message from God about me that, he said, “I can’t even articulate. I see you speaking in front of a large group of people, making connections between academic work and God’s word.” Shortly afterwards, I received the invitation to participate in the panel and told Pastor John, whereupon he volunteered to attend the event with me. I felt that his presence and participation at the event would contribute positively to the politics of representation surrounding my ethnographic enterprise.
At the kind invitation of the AnthroCyBib curators, I subsequently recorded conversations with Pastor John about the panel, as well as about experiences of divine “confirmation” of the significance of events that I discussed in my paper. Below are partial transcripts of the conversations, interspersed with my own commentary.
Fred Klaits (SUNY, Buffalo)
Date: December 18, 2016
Location: Pastor John’s office, second floor of the church building (Buffalo, New York, USA)
Length: ~1 hour
Participants: Fred Klaits (F); Pastor John (J)
F: I’m talking with Pastor John about the “Towards an Ethnography of God” session. We really appreciated your presence there, and it was wonderful to hear your contributions to the event. I know that coming out of there, you had some questions for me.
Pastor John: I have some questions for many that were there as anthropologists, who I find to be very interesting people. But my question is: Is their goal to have the power of thought, or to have solutions to whatever they’re studying? Are they looking for truth, or are they looking to provide the power of thought? That’s my question, because I think that anthropologists can use the power of thought to help … lead to solutions for why confirmation is so powerful.
F: Just so I can understand where you’re coming from, could you explain what it was about that panel that makes you ask this question?
J: I sensed that people were intrigued by what you said about confirmation – how you’re walking in faith, hearing God, but allowing yourself to wait on that confirmation to know that God has been speaking to you the whole time. To me, that is a result or a solution to what faith is supposed to produce.
F: What you seem to be appreciating in what I said is that I am finding confirmation for what I’ve already thought in what people have been saying to me prophetically.
J: And that’s a solution. Just think about it — for people who are depressed, for people who are coming from an impoverished community, to have that peace, that assurance, to know that what I’ve heard or what I’ve received from the man of God – to know that some time in my week, it was confirmed what was said to me: that takes the mental stress off someone, to know that God is working on their behalf.
Just to give you an example: I was in a barbershop last night, and I shared with a young man who cut my hair. My usual barber was busy, and this young man was in a hurry to get out of there, but he said, “Come on, I’ll cut your hair.” When he was cutting me up, I began to talk to him about some things that he had been praying about. Now I didn’t know, I wasn’t in the prophetic, I was just talking. And some of the things I was sharing, about credit, about restoration, about some of the things I’ve been working on through the church. And he was like, “Oh my God, just last night I was praying to God, saying how am I going to do this? I need someone to help me with my credit.” And we end up talking for three hours after that. And he ended up stating: “This was God. This was God.” He said, “I’m glad I told you I would take you, because I normally wouldn’t have. I had to go, but something was telling me to stay.”
Then at that point, the prophetic kicked in. I began to tell him what the Lord had told me about him having his own barbershop. He said, “Oh my God. I’ve been looking to do my own thing. I’ve really been looking to do this.” It was like I couldn’t break free from him. He was in awe of two confirmations he received in one night. The first was the credit restoration portion, when he was praying for the Lord to help him with his credit: “I need to find someone to help guide me through this.” And here I am in the barber chair talking to him about credit, and the second confirmation was when the Lord showed me about his own barbershop. He wasn’t satisfied working where he was, but he didn’t know which direction he should take until he heard those words coming out of me. He knew then, this is God now.
The power in confirmation is that peace that can come from someone’s word when God has spoken through them. That’s the awesome part of it. And for me [as a prophet], me thinking that this is what I thought God was saying, but hearing from that person the confirmation is an assurance that this is what He said, that’s an excitement all by itself.
Once you get that confirmation, this is an assurance, so now I walk in more confidence that this going to get done. Now, faith without works is dead. So now I know I have to put that work in, and when I put that work in, I should see the manifestation, which is the affirmation of what He promised.
I have been struck by the profound emotional responses on the part of many recipients of inspired words. When word circulates that a prophet is coming to church from out of town, numerous people who are strangers to Pastor John arrive. I have witnessed many occasions when a prophet publicly tells someone about a circumstance in the hearer’s life and about the blessings God has in store for him or her. People are often moved to tears by the knowledge that God values their lives.
F: I understand. So let’s now talk about the panel, because there are some similar or at least parallel things going on. When I was speaking at the panel, I was also looking for a comparable kind of confirmation that what I’m saying is not just accurate but important. And I was also saying that when I’m in church, I’m always asking: Am I listening correctly? But of course, my work as an anthropologist is quite different, as I think you were suggesting at the beginning. We anthropologists are not looking for the same kinds of solutions.
One way I’ve thought about it is in terms of different anxieties. As you know, I’ve written about how people in the African American community feel that they’re not valued by society. So it’s very important to receive confirmation that in fact God does value your life. Now coming from a privileged background, I have different anxieties. I’ve been able to take for granted that institutions value my life, and yet I also want to receive confirmation. So I’m interested in your impressions of the panel, where people were discussing God’s presence and talking about finding ways of taking God’s presence seriously. But we’re couching that in terms of anthropology, which is basically about describing how other people live and how you might have been like them if only your circumstances were different. That’s a different kind of project. So I’m wondering what you think: Is it worth it to be an anthropologist about it?
J: I don’t know if anthropologists really know the power they possess to help people. God makes us all unique, but the purpose of being unique is to really help people, whether they’re rich, poor, middle class, it doesn’t matter. We’re called, and our giftings are there to help. I call them gifts to help the body of Christ. The revelation I’m receiving from this – I had a thought but it’s going to come back to me in a second – when you study something, certain things are going to stand out, you’re getting an understanding to solve something. And the power in that, is that you can help thousands, millions of people in the world who may not have the thought process – take an example of the impoverished individual. If you’re depressed, your thought process is off. You’re not thinking healthy. Just look at the community, people are doing depressing things instead of encouraging things, because of the environment. So anthropologists have the power to solve things through their studies that those impoverished people would never think of because of their condition. And the flip side is that the impoverished individual, coming out of his community, going to a more fortunate community, they could give insight into what they are.
F: I just read an article about people coming out of prisons and going to college. That’s the sort of thing there needs to be more of.
J: There has to be a plan, there has to be a solution. I think anthropologists have the power to come up with solutions – now whether they do that or not …. But I believe that should be a goal. And having testimonies of them getting involved and the results shown up. Because what’s the purpose, if we don’t help, if we don’t have testimonies on behalf of what we do?
I believe that if this the career path you’ve taken, you must have a love for people. You have to. And there are some connections to pastors who have a heart for God’s people.
F: Would you say that anthropologists should work hand-in-hand with pastors, but let pastors take the lead?
J: I agree with that. The pastors see and hear directly from what the Lord is showing, but there are some detailed things that anthropologists can break down to help the pastor. Visionaries tend to broadcast what they see; someone has to break that down in phases, make it operational. It almost goes back to Solomon, he didn’t build the Temple literally, he had the vision, but he got all sorts of builders from all over to do things he didn’t know how to do.
The Magi were not people of God, they were stargazers. These were not Bible scholars. But they found the Savior. I believe there were other Magi in the land, but these particular Magi recognized and knew what had happened. So I believe there are some anthropologists who will be like the Magi and will see the deeper things of God because of their faith. When I say their faith, I mean my faith in what I have studied has connected [them to God].
I regard these remarks of Pastor John as constituting a polite criticism of how the enterprise of anthropology appeared to him at the panel. Understood together with his earlier query about whether anthropologists are really interested only in exercising “the power of thought,” he is suggesting that the comparative enterprise seems to be a vain endeavor in itself. For my own part, I regard the comparative project as vital to the task of educating democracy; that Pastor John should not share this outlook comes as no great surprise.
In implicit competition with my efforts to encompass Christianity within an academic frame, Pastor John is attempting to encompass anthropology (or at least, my own ethnographic endeavors) within a Christian frame. He tells me that I am like one of the Magi who found Jesus through stargazing rather than by studying the word of God. Pastor John regards anthropologists as possessing the “power” to “help people” as a result of their “giftings,” for instance by lending their efforts to community development efforts. Significantly, it is pastors, the “visionaries,” who are to articulate the goals of such efforts; anthropologists may help supply the means.
F: I wanted to ask you about one point I made in the paper. I wrote: “to the very extent that Pentecostal talk about confirmation fosters certainty about the existence of God’s purposes, it can foster a sense of uncertainty about whether one has listened correctly.” Is that correct?
J: Yes, because that confirmation lets you know that God has spoken. Lot of times, I don’t move unless God confirms to me what He says. There is a place sometimes where I can get where I can hear it one time, and I just say what the Lord says, but that comes with experience. But normally, I don’t tell people stuff unless I hear it more than once. So God may say, “Okay son, tell this person this.” And sometimes in my head I’ll be saying, “Lord, I don’t know if this is You or me, reveal this to me that it’s not me.” And then I’ll see a sign somewhere to let me know, okay, I got to tell you this. You know what I mean?
So the guy in the barber shop yesterday, when I was sitting in his chair, and I’m talking about credit and he was telling me what he’s been praying for, okay now here it goes, God clicks in to me now. ‘Cause I’ve been talking and I’m just regular talking and he tells me “I’ve been praying for this.” Okay, well voom: In the midst of that conversation, God speaks to me. He says, “Tell him about his barbershop, that you see him having his own barbershop.” Now the confirmation for me that I’m correct is the fact that he says now, “I was just praying for that two weeks ago.”
At this point, one of Pastor John’s ministers, Minister Mike, entered and had a conversation with him about some fliers. Minister Mike had designed these fliers and was planning to make copies at a local store. Unbeknownst to him, Pastor John had already gone to the store and made copies, accidentally leaving the original in the copier. Minister Mike told him that when he arrived at the store, he went to a particular copier and saw the flier in the machine.
J: Now this might seem insignificant. Minister Mike thought he was tripping when he saw the flier. He went to the exact same printer – now there’s ten printers in there – he went to the exact one that I was at and found the flier that he made. That was a confirmation to him that I had already been there. But the Spirit works as one. I’m trying to show you how the Spirit of God works. It’s never misleading. It always leads you to the right place. And we laugh about it because we understand the process, we understand how the Spirit of God works. The Spirit is one: if I’m here and he’s over there, it’s still going to connect. The power of the Spirit of God is oneness. So if God that we serve be who He is, He would have none of us confused. The Spirit will connect. So it’s like a telephone that no one can see, it’s invisible. I don’t have to be where you are to be one with you in the Spirit.
F: Going back to the barbershop for a minute, you said that you heard God speak. What did you hear, and how did you know it was God?
This is a central question for Tanya Luhrmann in When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann documents how members of the largely middle-class Vineyard Church are socialized through various practical exercises to become “absorbed” in experiences of God.
J: Well, for me, it’s maybe a little different for me than for others right now. I’ve been trained in His service. … The man in the barbershop, when we were talking about credit, he didn’t tell me what the credit was for. I just saw him in a barbershop, literally in a little quick vision.
F: So you had a vision in your mind, of him being in a barbershop?
J: Yes, and when I had that vision, God told me: “Tell him, this is what I see.”…
F: Just so I understand what your experience of this is: when you say that you hear God’s voice, do you hear a voice, or is it like a thought?
J: It’s a voice. I hear it all the time. When I say, all the time, meaning that – when I’m in – . The best way I can describe it to you metaphorically, it’s like a light switch. I can have the light on as much as I want. It’ll click on whenever I get in tune. It won’t click off unless I decide to try to turn it off. At times of emergency that He wants me to do something I can’t turn it off, He will just turn it on to alarm me that I need to do this or that. It’s hard to describe because you will get a feeling in your body that is so unusual, the sensation is like a burning within you.
F: A burning?
J: A burning within you that says, “Get up and pray for this person now.”
F: A burning in your mind or in your body?
J: In my whole body. It’s crazy, ‘cause it’s like a cool hot rush. And these are the times when I’m just sitting down and doing my natural man things and my home things, and just trying to tune out that part of me. And if it’s something that I need to do, I won’t be able to tune it out. I will have to stay or do whatever He’s telling me to do at that moment. So with that three-hour conversation, I believe I could have just gave him what He said and just left. But the burning sensation came, so before I realized it, it was 12:00 midnight. I’m like, I’ve been talking with this guy for three hours! But I didn’t feel like it was three hours. The Spirit of God is like the spirit of acceleration sometimes. You’re not in time. For people who really have the gift of the prophetic, I believe there’s a supernatural thing that takes over which we know is God, and you’re really not earthly, I could say (laughs).
F: But you yourself are always asking yourself whether you’ve heard God correctly, right?
J: There are times, you’ve heard me in services, when I’ve told people directly: This is what God says. Sometimes I’m very clear on what He’s said, sometimes I’m not. When I’m not clear about what He’s said, I need that confirmation from that other individual that I’ve spoken correctly. Sometimes I’ll be like [asking a person in a service to whom he is rendering a prophecy]: “Is this true? Do you recognize this? Well then, talk, talk, tell me.” We need to have that dialogue to let me know whether I’m on it — or not. Because if I’m on it, then you need to let me know. You need to confirm that for me. Some people are so woo’d [overwhelmed] by it that they don’t say nothing. And then I’m like, is this correct? They’re in awe, like, “How can this be happening?” But that’s the power of God. But now I need you to communicate and let me know that God is talking to you. Sometimes God amazes even the messenger. He amazes and confirms the messenger: this is what He said. Everyone, even the messenger, needs the confirmation.
Unlike most of the believers described by Luhrmann who experience discernment, Pastor John lays stress on the necessity for dialogue, specifically between the prophet and the receiver of prophetic words. “Everyone, even the messenger, needs the confirmation” because the prophet might be mistaking his own thoughts for God’s thoughts. In my view, this dialogic pattern is an aspect of the call-and-response worshipping styles for which African American Christian traditions are renowned. God gives the call, and His people must respond: the pastor must respond to God’s call by issuing the call to worshippers, and worshippers are to “receive” the words of the pastor through vocal responses.
Over a month later, I had a follow-up conversation with Pastor John about confirmation. He told me about the words he had heard about his own mission from a visiting prophet a few weeks previously. Seven years ago, a different prophet had told him that he would minister not only to the African American community but to people of many different backgrounds. Pastor John had dismissed these words at the time, because he felt that he was called to minister to young people in the inner city like himself. However, at the more recent revival, the prophet told him that he saw him ministering in a mall-like facility to a diverse group. Pastor John connected this to a conversation he had had with his wife about a year ago while passing such a facility: she had said this would be a good space for a church, but he had not taken her seriously. Now his wife had written down the prophet’s words, and they would take them as a guide for action. Pastor John called her on her cell phone while she was driving, asking her to confirm for me what had been said. This was the background to the following exchange between myself and Pastor John about how one’s well-being hinges on discernment.
Date: February 5, 2017
Location: Pastor John’s office, second floor of the church building (Buffalo, New York, USA)
Length: ~30 minutes
Participants: Fred Klaits (F); Pastor John (J)
F: I’ve been examining my own faith lately. I’ve been thinking about what it means to have God as your source.
The African American pastors with whom I have worked often admonish congregations that “God needs to be your source, not just your resource.” In other words, believers should not approach God in a solely instrumental fashion but rather discipline themselves in order to serve His purposes.
J: Mm, powerful.
F: When I think about God being my source, I’m considering who is the source of my well-being, what are the sources of my well-being. Now I know intellectually that God is the source of my well-being, but I’m not feeling it. It’s not in me. I mean, let’s just take the past two weeks [since the inauguration of Donald Trump]. I’ve been so upset and so outraged by what’s going on. And why have I been so upset and outraged? Because democracy is under threat, not just in this country but the whole world. And democracy has been very good to me. It might not have been all that good to you, but it’s been very good to me and I have no reason to want it to go away. And when I’m feeling this way, I know that I’m seeing democracy as the source of my well-being. If I were really thinking that God is my source, I wouldn’t feel this – See what I mean?
Pastor John related how over the past two weeks he had been “going through a storm,” during which various people were saying negative things about him.
J: When I begin to ponder on what they were saying and not what God was saying, I begin to hurt in my heart. I’m like, “Why are you doing this to me? I love you, why are you doing this to me?” But when I think about what God has said to me, all that frustration, all that feeling – even revenge comes into your mind – God reveals to me: I would not have you disturbed by these things, because whatever trap the enemy has set, I’ve come before you and covered it. No matter what happens, I got you.
F: See, and that’s what I’m not feeling. Even if I know that God has got me, that doesn’t matter as much.
J: It’s because of what you have been comfortable with [i.e., democracy]. See, God will put us in uncomfortable places to make us comfortable. If you read about Jeremiah and all the prophets and all the men of God, you will find out that when they just thought they were comfortable here, something [happens]. And now like, “God, what’s going on?” Can you imagine Joseph, can you imagine Joseph in his situation, feeling totally the comfort: “I’m the baby of the family, Daddy loves me, I’m comfortable in this situation,” and now boom! Here comes —
F: He’s the head of Potiphar’s household, and boom, he’s in prison.
J: All this stuff comes after him. I’m like, “Where is the coat of many colors now?” But that’s the God we serve. Same as Jesus being beloved and yet then being hated, to the place where at that one moment at the time, the whole known world said, “Crucify Him!” The same folk who He’d blessed and was loving and hanging with.
African American preachers place a great deal of emphasis on what they call “the timing of God,” stressing that “God’s time” is different from “our time.” Very often, God does not act in ways we expect. In the Black experience, it is all too common for a person to be jailed, persecuted, or betrayed by erstwhile friends. The Bible shows that such suffering is part of a divine plan leading to salvation in the next world and in this one as well. In the case of Joseph, the persecution culminated in his receiving “favor” – that is, extraordinary, unexpected blessings – from Pharaoh, who made him the second most important man in the kingdom.
F: The point is, what I’m saying is that it’s not just me. It hasn’t affected my own comfort yet. It might, down the road, but it hasn’t yet.
J: The threat to democracy is upon us as a nation, because Donald Trump is a dictator, for sure, for sure. But understand, even if that is his mindset, God being our source has proven that He deals with kings. The people now that are His children being oppressed, God now — as He did with Israel — came down to see about their affliction and created a deliverance plan. At every point in history, God creates a deliverance plan for the oppressed.
The understanding that God has a redemptive plan for His oppressed people is foundational in African American Christian traditions. In direct contrast to the right-wing political orientation of the majority White church where I have worked in the Buffalo suburbs, all the African American believers I have met have an extremely negative view of Trump.
F: It’s one thing to know that, but it’s another thing to feel it, to have that kind of confidence and trusting faith.
J: Yeah, but that comes by – Once you know, you have to speak what you hear. It might sound crazy to you, but when I’m in my car I speak what He’s told me. I build myself up, I speak my world into existence (snapping his fingers). “Lord I know, You got this already.” I speak it, I speak what I hear Him tell me. So I just begin to speak what I know He told me, to tell myself, to reassure myself in my belief in what He said until I actually feel it. I won’t stop, I’ll keep saying it right through the day. People probably think I’m talking to myself, but I am. I’m not schizophrenic, I’m not crazy, I’m just now putting in the atmosphere what He told me: everything is going to be all right, trust Me. And I read the scriptures that pertain to trusting. I read Psalms 91, that’s one of my favorites, to get it in my spirit that He’s got me.
F: So you have to both receive and speak.
J: Yes, you keep stuff in the spiritual world if you don’t speak it in the natural. Your mind is in the spirit world (pointing to his head). If I don’t speak what I’ve heard in the natural, it doesn’t manifest.
F: It’s like it’s blocked.
J: It’s blocked. Now once I speak it, the more I believe it, and then when I believe it, I will start seeing the manifestation naturally of what’s in here (pointing to his head). You see, creation comes from the mind. You make with the natural hands, but the creation comes here [in the mind]. So when God said He created, He created here [in the mind], and then He fashioned [with the hands] what He created in His head.
F: So your advice to me would be to speak it.
J: Speak it. The more you speak it, the more you believe it. And the more you speak it, the more you will see the signs of the confirmation that it’s manifesting. That’s when you know. You will say: Oh God, I’ve been seeing this, now I see this [something else]. I heard it, I spoke it, now I’m starting to see: this is happening. You got to keep speaking. We create our world. God expects us to be creators. He made us in His likeness and His image. So how do we create? He teaches Adam how to do what? Speak, whatever you call them [the animals], it is. You know that He’s your source, now you got to speak that He’s your source, and then begin to see the manifestation of the source.
F: Well, I’ll work at it.
While Pastor John’s statements to the effect that “creation comes from the mind” draw on prosperity theology, the African American pastors I have encountered lay distinctive stress on how people’s capacities to speak creative words can be alienated from them. Oppressive institutions and manipulative or violent associates may discourage or prevent people from speaking their blessings into existence. These malicious external influences or one’s own sinful habits may cause one’s blessings to become “blocked.” As is indicated by the concerted efforts Pastor John has to make to overcome his frustrations, the process of bringing blessings into “manifestation” is fraught with uncertainty as well as trust.