Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Whiteness

Evangelical America takes its racist, irrational, and ignorant self-help crusade to Africa:

"In 2002 Bruce Wilkinson, a Georgia preacher whose self-help prayer book had made him a rich man, heard God's call, moved to Africa and announced his intention to save one million children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.

In October, Mr. Wilkinson resigned in a huff from the African charity he founded. He abandoned his plan to house 10,000 children in a facility that was to be an orphanage, bed-and-breakfast, game reserve, bible college, industrial park and Disneyesque tourist destination in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland.

What happened in between is a story of grand hopes and inexperience, divine inspiration and human foibles. Mr. Wilkinson won churchloads of followers in Swaziland, but left them bereft and confused. He gained access to top Swazi officials, but alienated them with his demands. And his departure left critics convinced he was just another in a long parade of outsiders who have come to Africa making big promises and quit the continent when local people didn't bend to their will.

The setback stunned Mr. Wilkinson, who had grown accustomed to operating on a larger-than-life scale, promising that God would enable him to achieve the impossible. "We're going to see the largest humanitarian religious movement in the history of the world from the U.S. to Africa to help in this crisis," Mr. Wilkinson predicted in June, when he believed his orphan village was about to sprout from the African bush.

Just a few months later, he found himself groping with his failure to make that happen. "I'll put it down as one of the disappointments of my career," he says.

Mr. Wilkinson's life has been all about miracles: He routinely asks God to perform them, and God, he says, routinely does. A solidly built 58-year-old, with silver hair and rimless glasses, Mr. Wilkinson led his nondenominational ministries to explosive growth over three decades, sponsoring thousands of Christian seminars and training battalions of Bible teachers.

But his life took a sharp turn after he wrote "The Prayer of Jabez," a 93-page, $10 tract published in 2000. It is based on a passage in the Bible's book of Chronicles, in which an honorable man named Jabez asked for God's favor. "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, and that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain," Jabez prayed. In the story, God granted his wish.

The lesson, Mr. Wilkinson says, is that God wants believers to ask for blessings. Those who ask -- by reciting Jabez's 33-word prayer -- unleash miracles. Those who don't ask, don't receive.

Squabbling couples should ask for happy marriages, he writes. Business executives should ask for more customers. Stuck in traffic once, Mr. Wilkinson says he asked God to delay his flight so he wouldn't miss a speaking engagement. He made his plane.

Mr. Wilkinson has recited the prayer regularly since he was a seminary student 35 years ago, and credits it for the fact that world-wide he has sold some 22 million copies of his books, including such variants as "The Prayer of Jabez for Teens" and "The Prayer of Jabez Leather Edition."

Moving to Africa

Riding his global celebrity, in 2002 Mr. Wilkinson took a three-week preaching tour of Africa, where he felt the tug of the continent's 20 million orphans, most left parentless by AIDS. As he told soon afterward: "God ripped open our chest, took out our heart, dug a hole in Africa, put it in, covered it with soil and said, 'Now, follow your heart and move down to Africa.' "

Within months, Mr. Wilkinson, his wife and their teenage daughter -- the youngest of three children -- moved from suburban Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa. He launched Dream for Africa, a Christian organization aimed at solving the problems of AIDS, poverty, hunger, orphans and spiritual emptiness.

"We asked the question, 'What does God want done with the orphans?' " he said in a June interview with this newspaper. "We don't set a goal based on resources, but on the need."

So he announced that Dream for Africa's goal would be to dramatically improve the lot of one million orphans.

The first step was intended to defeat hunger. Mr. Wilkinson consulted the Book of Genesis, noting that in Eden fruit grew on trees and grain sprang from the soil. "That's God's answer," he remembers thinking.

He recruited American volunteers, in public appearances and on the Web, who paid their own way to Africa to plant hundreds of thousands of vegetable gardens in people's yards. It was, he said, a simple idea professional aid groups had overlooked. "Because I don't come out of this arena of humanitarian aid, I have a fresh pair of eyes," he said in the June interview.

Mr. Wilkinson then turned his attention to preventing HIV transmission. He enlisted American bible-college students and young African volunteers to travel to every one of Swaziland's 172 high schools and hold weeklong film, musical and dramatic programs promoting sexual abstinence. These teams "are the answer to HIV/AIDS," say the group's recruiting materials.

Mr. Wilkinson felt a special kinship for South Africa's poor neighbor, Swaziland. Years earlier, while they still lived in Georgia, the Wilkinsons had sponsored the training of Bible teachers in the mountainous, nominally Christian country of 1.1 million people, more than two-thirds of whom live on less than $1 a day.

In 2002, a group of Swazi pastors arranged for Mr. Wilkinson to have an audience with the country's king, Mswati III. "How can I help you?" he asked the king, according to people who were there. King Mswati listed the country's woes: poverty, AIDS, orphans and joblessness.

The 36-year-old king is a controversial figure, whose 13 wives periodically draw international attention. Criticism of his polygamy stems in part from the fact that Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, a situation aggravated by promiscuous sexual practices. Researchers estimate 42% of Swazis ages 15 to 49 carry the AIDS virus.

In response to the epidemic, four years ago the king banned sexual relations among Swazis under 18. This year, he lifted the ban and selected a new fiancée -- a 17-year-old student -- at a traditional ceremony, in which thousands of Swazi women danced topless for him. Despite his unease with King Mswati's marital arrangements, Mr. Wilkinson felt he made inroads with the king over a series of visits.

Perhaps Mr. Wilkinson's most successful venture in Swaziland was a conference in June -- funded by a $108,000 grant his group received from the U.S. government -- aimed at engaging churches in the fight against HIV. He sent buses all across the country, to pick up ministers and deliver them to a fancy hotel near Mbabane, the capital city. Dream for Africa arranged for free medical care and eyeglasses for those who showed up.

The result was that some 400 pastors got together and talked about AIDS. In answer to Mr. Wilkinson's admonitions, several ministers stepped forward to repent their own sexual transgressions. The pastors sent Mr. Wilkinson off to a standing ovation, and the U.S. ambassador considered the event a breakthrough in harnessing the church's influence to fight AIDS.

The triumph reinforced Mr. Wilkinson's sense that his destiny lay with Swaziland. Soon afterward, he signed a yearlong lease on a house in Swaziland's Valley of Heaven, where jacaranda trees drop carpets of purple petals around their trunks. With Dream for Africa's guidance, he decided, the country would become the model for the rest of Africa. "We believe we're called to it," he said in June.

It was a moment of peak optimism. There remained just one final piece, Mr. Wilkinson thought, to complete God's plans for Swaziland: a massive tourist-orphan-industrial complex.

Swazi health officials estimate there are 70,000 orphans in the country, the vast majority left so by AIDS. The number is expected to grow to 120,000 in five years. Traditionally, orphans are cared for by relatives or others appointed by village chiefs. But AIDS has gutted entire families, and the 2002 drought left many so strapped for food that some grew reluctant to take in extra children. As a result, tens of thousands of Swazi children now live in households they themselves head.

In Mr. Wilkinson's view, he was called to step in because village chiefs and traditional aid organizations had fallen down on the job. He bypassed small solutions and came up with one on a grand scale, which he called the "African Dream Village." It would provide homes for 10,000 orphans, who would live 20 to a house, with a volunteer Swazi couple in charge and elderly widows as grandmother figures.

Each home would have a bed-and-breakfast suite where tourists would pay $500 a week to stay, combining charity with an African vacation. Fifty such homes would form a mini-village of 1,000 orphans, built around a theme -- such as Wild West rodeos or Swazi village life -- to entertain guests. There would also be a new luxury hotel and an 18-hole golf course. Orphans would be trained as rodeo stars and safari guides at nearby game reserves.

The idea, Mr. Wilkinson said, was to "try to bring experiences to the kids they could only get at Walt Disney or a dude ranch."

The village would have schools, churches, medical centers and a "Mega Farm" to feed everyone. Mr. Wilkinson also planned a bible college, a cannery, a chicken farm, a bicycle factory and a truck-reconditioning plant, with water supplied by a new dam. "They'll be self-sufficient from the day they move in," Mr. Wilkinson said in June.

A $190 Million Price Tag

Dream for Africa put the price tag for the project at $190 million. His group projected the Dream Village would generate $12 million a year in revenue, and would create jobs for five doctors, nine firemen, 12 masons, one entomologist, two wildlife specialists and 68 pastors, among many others.

To enlist support among Swazi power brokers, Mr. Wilkinson turned to Nan Jarvis, a devout Christian who had long run a local flower shop. She says she had prayed for business success and soon found herself supplying arrangements for the king's birthday, and for cabinet ministers and their wives.

A Prayer of Jabez fan, Ms. Jarvis, 52, put her connections to use to help further Mr. Wilkinson's plan. Her devotion to him deepened last year, when, she says, she died and went to heaven. Jesus emerged from a cloud, she says, and told her, "Your time has not yet come. You must go back...Take care of my lambs." It was, she felt, a sign to press ahead with the orphan village.

Ms. Jarvis and Mr. Wilkinson roamed the Swazi countryside until they found the right property: 32,500 acres near two of the country's best game reserves, home to white rhino, crested eagle, warthog, gnu, lion and other species.

Late last year, Mr. Wilkinson asked Ms. Jarvis to tell the king what he had in mind and what he wanted: a 99-year lease on the land and control of both game parks.

In the following months, Mr. Wilkinson pitched his plan to government officials and, he says, secured verbal commitments. In February, the king invited him to tour the small airport near the proposed orphan village. Mr. Wilkinson said an upgrade was imperative because he required an airport big enough to land Boeing 777 jets filled with Western volunteers and tourists.

It wasn't until Feb. 23, however, that Dream for Africa gave the government anything in writing -- a 34-page proposal.

Mr. Wilkinson gave the government five days to approve the plan. "They knew all about this for a long time," he says, explaining the short deadline. Mr. Wilkinson and his aides sent letters to government officials, threatening to take his orphan village to Zambia or South Africa if the Swazis didn't sign up.

In a letter to the prime minister, a project consultant with Mr. Wilkinson's group wrote, "Given the fact that Swaziland has been placed on the heart of DFA by God through devoted prayer, we believe the country has reached a major juncture in its quest to take ownership of its problems and to embrace God's divine will for Swaziland."

The government let the deadline pass. Mr. Wilkinson didn't make good on his threat to go elsewhere.

In April, Ms. Jarvis secured an audience with the king at the palace, where peacocks wander the grounds. As a sign of respect, nobody may rise higher than the king; Swazis approach him on hand and knee. Ms. Jarvis sat at the king's feet in a reception room, spread a map on the floor and pointed out where the hotel, the golf course and the orphans would be located.

"Your majesty, are you happy with this?" Ms. Jarvis recalls asking the king.

She recalls him raising his hand above her head and saying, "You have my blessing." It was, as far as she was concerned, the green light.

Roy Fanourakis, the king's chief of staff, who attended the meeting, says he doesn't remember King Mswati using those exact words. Mr. Fanourakis says that Ms. Jarvis didn't understand that the Swazi king is too polite to give a guest a definitive, "No." The king's response, he says, was a signal Mr. Wilkinson was welcome to help the orphans, but should consult with the government on how.

Mr. Fanourakis had misgivings about the Dream Village concept, shared by many in the cabinet. "You get to an age of 18 years, then what does Bruce do with those kids?" he says.

One problem, he felt, was that if the orphans were removed from their villages, the chiefs would give away the children's land -- their only security. Furthermore, Mr. Wilkinson was asking for big tracts, some of it already committed to other people, Mr. Fanourakis says. The Hlale game park, for instance, was managed by a Swazi environmental group that had run it for decades.

In May, Mr. Wilkinson tried to win the Bush administration to his side. In a convoy of SUVs, he took U.S. Ambassador Lewis Lucke to the proposed site of the Dream Village. Mr. Lucke had served in Haiti, Jordan and Iraq, much of the time with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He admired Mr. Wilkinson's enthusiasm and altruism, but was wary of groups with little overseas history claiming to know the answers for Africa.

A few days later, Mr. Lucke showed up at Mr. Wilkinson's door and told him he considered it unwise to move orphans away from their villages. "It's laudable that you're trying to do something about Swazi orphans," Mr. Lucke told Mr. Wilkinson, according to both men. "But do it in a way that doesn't conflict with Swazi culture."

Mr. Wilkinson felt the situation was so urgent that the time for cautious measures had passed. Mr. Lucke wasn't persuaded, and he didn't think the Swazi government would be either. "You'll never get the land," he warned.

The ambassador's words seemed prophetic a couple of weeks later, when a Dream for Africa draft plan found its way into Swazi newspapers, turning public opinion sharply against Mr. Wilkinson. Under the headline "British Colony or Dr Bruce Colony?" one op-ed writer in the Swazi News wrote, "Why can't he simply tell us that he wants to be given the whole country so that he can gloat to his friends overseas that he owns a modern day colony in Africa called Swaziland?"

Touching a Nerve

In a country where land ownership provokes deep emotions, Mr. Wilkinson's request for a prime tract touched a nerve. Colonizers offered previous royals mirrors and other trinkets in exchange for land. In the 1970s, a British evangelist won the support of King Mswati's father, promised do-good projects that turned out to be hoaxes and ran off with the money people had donated.

"Are We Really a Nation of Fools?" asked an op-ed in the Times of Swaziland, after the Dream for Africa plan surfaced.

The outrage spread to organizations that Mr. Wilkinson had accused of failing the orphans. "The history of these kinds of grand-scale 'social engineering' experiments is not very promising," Alan Brody, an American who headed the local Unicef office, told the Times of Swaziland. "So I have deep misgivings about Swaziland making itself the guinea pig for this kind of experimentation."

Unicef's strategy is to fund neighborhood stations, where orphans receive two meals a day, six days a week.

The criticism stung Mr. Wilkinson. He considered the attacks evidence that the aid establishment was too self-interested. "From my point of view, they aren't concerned enough about the kids who are living without anybody," he said days after Mr. Brody's remarks.

Swazis even became suspicious of Mr. Wilkinson's other, more popular endeavors. In one town, an American volunteer wore latex gloves while planting a Dream for Africa garden, and rumors spread that the group was intentionally planting seedlings infected with HIV. As many as 100 families ripped up their gardens. The agriculture minister issued a statement debunking the rumor, but it persisted for months.

The government and Dream for Africa continued negotiating in private. "Swaziland takes a massive amount of effort to do the simplest things," Mr. Wilkinson wrote in an email to this newspaper in July.

As Mr. Wilkinson's frustration mounted, Ms. Jarvis tried to arrange a decisive meeting between him and King Mswati during the monarch's visit to New York in September. Mr. Wilkinson, then spending a few months in the U.S., juggled his schedule and flew to New York.

The king's chief of staff, Mr. Fanourakis, agreed to set up the audience, but only at a time that would have required Mr. Wilkinson to wait in New York a few extra days.

The perceived snub was, Mr. Wilkinson says, his snapping point. He left New York without seeing the king and soon afterward let his inner circle know that he was done with Swaziland, done with Africa and done with Dream for Africa.

In October, Dream for Africa issued a press release in the U.S. under the headline: "Dream for Africa Expands its Leadership." It announced Mr. Wilkinson's resignation, and his replacement by a Toronto marketing executive. Dream for Africa would continue "its meteoric rise in popularity" through the gardens and abstinence training, the release said. It didn't mention Mr. Wilkinson's decision to abandon the orphan-village project.

"With the successful launch of Dream for Africa, my family and I feel our work in Africa is complete," the press release quoted Mr. Wilkinson as saying. In an internal email, he told his staff that, to his great regret, God had directed him to leave Africa.

A Dream for Africa spokeswoman estimates the group raised about $500,000 this year, most of it for the gardens and the abstinence programs. Mr. Wilkinson says he put his own money into Dream for Africa projects, but he declines to say how much.

Word of Mr. Wilkinson's decision slowly reached Swaziland, where it dismayed his followers. "I don't know how to handle this," said Rev. Zakes Nxumalo. "People won't understand; to them Bruce is everything," he added. "How can he leave everything in the middle of the road?" asked 22-year-old Gcina Mdluli, who has taken a vow of sexual abstinence and now volunteers full-time in Mr. Wilkinson's school anti-AIDS programs.

Mr. Wilkinson says that he blames neither God nor man. He says he weeps when he thinks of his disappointed acolytes, and is trying to come to grips with a miracle that didn't materialize despite his unceasing recitation of the Jabez prayer.

"I asked hard enough," he added, his gaze drifting upward. "All we can do is ask God what to do, ask him to help us in the doing of it, and work as hard and wisely as we can. Somewhere in this it's got to be all right to attempt a vision that didn't work and not to make it an overwhelming failure." (Michael M. Phillips, "Mr. Wilkinson Hits Wall Trying To Push 'Orphan Village'; Rodeo Stars, Safari Guides Feeling Snubbed by the King," The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2005; Page A1).


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