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Longer, analytical article.  Governmental and political influence on Canadian missionaries and the Central Angolan church

Summary & Comment: Walter Currie was the first Canadian missionary to Central Angola. He joined American Congregational missionaries and there emerged by 1957 an indigenous church with extensive systems of educational, health, agriculture, and social services. The work was much influenced by governments and by civil war, beginning with the Portuguese colonial power, the liberation movements MPLA and UNITA, and the first Angolan government from 1975. The United Church of Canada was also influential. JK

Author: Jim Kirkwood Date Written: 28 November 2014
Primary Category: History Document Origin: Tubman Institute York U.
Secondary Category: Angola Source URL: http://www.africafiles.org/article.asp?ID=27467
Key Words: central Angola, church, Canadian missionaries, influence

African Charter Article #17: Every individual shall have the right to education, cultural life, and the promotion and protection of values. (Click for full text...)

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To examine this mutual influence I will examine and see how the following  players affected and were affected by each other and influenced life in Angola

1) Portuguese government and its colonial administration.

2)Canadian Missionaries and North American churches that sponsored them.

3) The Church of Central Angola, and its North American partners.

4) The liberation movements, MPLA and UNITA

5) Angolan government

1   -Portuguese government, and its colonial administration controlled everything in Angola as far as they were able, given their limited manpower in a huge territory.  Needing to fulfill the conditions of the Berlin accord and the economic hopes and needs of the `motherland’.

a)      Their understanding of the Angolans:– inferior, intended to be servants and labourers, superstitious, potentially devious  and dangerous; .to be controlled, disciplined, Christianized,

And to be played off one tribe against the other.

b) Their understanding of Protestant missionaries and emerging church:  Inferior, peripheral, representing interests of America;

. The Protestant church in central Angola– the missionaries were hard working and built community and influence. But officially they were low status, indeed a problem to the government who feared what they might report to USA government or international inquiring bodies about, and their occupation of the whole territory, and  labour abuse, and slavery.

However missionaries could normally be discriminated against with impunity to slow their rapid spread. Still, a remote Portuguese administrator  might need the missionary doctor’s services.

The Catholic Church was the official church, with power, status and it was supported by the state in its educational and health and other service, even in the support of priests.

c)- Angola- was considered an overseas province-part of Portugal -with Portuguese settlers; civil service;  soldiers and police, and the feared PIDE- secret police. Provincial governors and local administrators. Whose economy was meant to benefit European investors.

    d) Law and order:. (Missionaries and church were much affected by these- the systems for police, judges, property owners etc were straight from Portugal and very different from British/American systems) )

-Visas and re-entry visas – important especially in 60’s and 70’s when some missionaries were refused re-entry. So missionaries had to keep a good record and on good terms with the police and government officials.

-Customs and immigration and deportation –many supplies were imported for the missions, duties were heavy; discounts were needed.

-travel permission for missionaries’ movements and routes

-Regulations for new buildings and programs of the church for education, medical treatment, and agricultural and technical projects and training. E.g. there were state limits on higher education for Angolans, and overseas study.    Doctors, lawyers- higher professionals- Angolans were not allowed to work in Angola or to go overseas for study and leadership preparation. To make up for the lack of upper level Angolans, missionaries trained each profession over their level; e.g. paramedics to do some of the simpler surgeries and other operations  a doctor would do even though they did not have the rank.  It was the same in education and technical departments.

—maintaining law and order including complicated civil and land and legal systems. - A meager police force and army.  PIDE and informers system- much feared by Angolans- even Protestant missionaries - who figured out how to get around some of them.

2.          Missionaries; Mission Committees and North American church boards.

a) Missionaries  had vision of Angolans as free citizens ,potential children of God if converted.    Equal , though in paternalistic and discriminatory ways.

b)Goal to develop, educate and organize them, and some to be leaders and trainers and teachers, business people.

c)-Role: leadership, local regional and national –devolve leadership and power to the church and its extending branches into new villages, and into cities outside Central – wherever Ovimbundu went to find work or trade.

 i) Local work for the development  of the Christian Protestant community.  

-           in mission stations (Until 1957) power lay  in Mission Committees  led by missionaries on each of several stations. They planned and carried out programs, budgets, maintenance, construction,. For these they negotiated with the home churches for staff, grants and budgets.

-          ii) regional/provincial national:  petition , consult with, request with governors on larger policy issues; trade, property, business,  education ,marriage, inheritance,  e.g. John Tucker- Lisbon; Luanda , Dondi; later Larry Henderson.

c) protection:

Missionaries were much closer to the people through the church organisation of pastors and elders in their wide spread villages than the government  service people. Miss could be called on to interpret, guide and to defend their church members.  But even when the government – police or PIDE-  were dictatorial or punitive, e.g. demanding  forced labour, or being denied  services. had to reconcile and keep on good terms with governments, so they could be a buffer and protect their   members.

“The colonial domination in Angola was very detrimental. The missionaries were the balm on the injuries that were made by the slave trade and colonialism.IN our anguish the missionaries sided with us; they went to jail for us; they tasted put tears, and we tasted theirs in our sorrows, and they rejoiced with u9s in our happy times. The church had created a larger community  in which everyone felt at home and frees to move, more than that even of the extended family.” P.528. The torchbearers. Chela

d)      Leadership: Enabling potential national and international leaders to study and train overseas, not only church but in all fields. 2 examples out of a long list:

Portuguese opposed Angolans becoming professionals. To study overseas, candidates had to escape over borders unofficially to get to Europe or US or Caribbean to study, then returned to make their contribution in Angola ( Agostinho Neto, Jonas Savimbi). Some remained outside e.g.  Jose Chipenda. (see “Construindo Pontes”  The Bridge Builder. By Luis Samacumbi).

 His wife Eva and 2 children escaped dramatically  and separately. (see her story `the Visitor ’ )Both studied abroad. Jose made 20 years of contributions to the global church.-WCC Geneva (Program to Combat Racism)1975, which supported the 3 Angolan liberation movements., and antiracism movements all over the world including among the Dene in the Canadian North     Jose also headed the World Student Christian fellowship – Africa branch; and General Secretary of the AACC. (All Africa Conference of Churches – 136 Protestant churches) both based in Nairobi. He brought back to Angola global experience and contacts, as General Secretary of the Council of Churches and of IECA.  Eva worked with women and children using her skills in artistry, fabrics, and teaching. She is still active in schools she started in Lobito.

2 b). North American churches and Mission Boards/departments.       UCBWM, Disciples, UCC,  JACC-

             International  influences

           In the early 60’s, the United Church of Canada  began lobbying the Canadian government to        press  the  Portuguese government re its colonial policies and brutality.  Indeed to urge them  to lead move their colony toward self-rule/independence for its people, as  neighbouring countries were doing, Congo DRC- 1960; Zambia 1964,  etc.  (Portugal waited another dozen years.)

In Canada, Murray MacInnis former Angolan Missionary  founded TCLPAC, Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Portuguese African Colonies- included Mozambique) an NGO for public education and advocacy to break  relations with Portugal.. Portugal responded by refusing some visas and especially  return entry visas for missionaries.  Betty Bridgman stayed  9 years on a tour before going on leave(normal tour was 5 years then.) for fear she wouldn’t be allowed back in.

This political action by UCC had mixed support among missionaries and Angolans. Sid Gilchrist- author of the book `Angola Awake’ ,was perhaps the first to “ blow a whistle.” He publicly reported that  “slavery still lingers on” and forced labour was very common. Many Umbundu were carried off  to work on the plantations in the northern part of the country.

 Other missionaries warned their colleagues and the United Church that “ you will prejudice all the work we are doing – if they force us to leave.”

The Portuguese were furious with the Canadian government who made some clear  critique of their colonial policies and practises. They knew that liberation movements were in full flood around west, central  east and even south Africa. Independence came first  in Ghana – 1957.

The MPLA had won power in 1975 ,with the blessing of the Portuguese ,  and by 1976 all missionaries had left. The reasons included:

-          A)Marxist government policies- anti church- suspicion and intimidation was high; conspicuous and difficult to do normal work; just visiting Angolan church leaders could be incriminating for the leader who might actually be more militant  than the missionary. It was sometimes better if the missionary knew nothing , so they could not discuss politics.

-          B) MPLA government-  bitter foes of the Ovimbundu – UNITA- who were mostly in control of the central region  except for  Huambo area  and garrisons in some other cities .

-          In 1977- Dr. George Burgess, returned to Angola and stayed for a year, and then came back. Perhaps he was suspected of giving UNITA medicines /support;  or unintentionally prejudicing safety of church leaders by drawing attention to them.  The leaders  agreed with him that he leave.

-          There were no other Canadian missionaries until 1988- Murray and Innes MacInnis were invited to work with the Council of Churches (CAIE)  and Larry Ellis an agriculturalist from Alberta by IECA for 3 year terms .   Murray, on behalf of CAIE, assisted church delegations from abroad to arrange lodging and travel to the electoral districts where they were to observe the 1992 elections.

 3. Church of Christ of Central Angola.

1957- marked the founding of Council of Evangelical Churches of Central Angola. This was greatly celebrated in Angola and in Canada. Seen as great progress in missiological terms. The missionaries were working themselves out of a job, or at least out of some of the power.

. Jesse Chipenda was elected as first Gen Sec. . He gave strong leadership, but the Portuguese were very suspicious of this elevation of the natives. Chipenda was arrested , tortured and died in Sao Nicolau prison in Namibe. His remains were much later transferred to his home in Lobito by his son José.)

-          The church became a main functioning  Institution in cities towns and especially in villages; functioning better than the colonial government, and even than the up-and-coming liberation movements..

-          Pastors and elected leaders were targets of surveillance and suspicion if they got involved in liberation in visible ways. On Sundays most of the people in the pews were sympathetic to UNITA but could not speak about it openly.. Government infiltrated its  informers into the church, or bought off a member, even an elder; they monitored  Sunday sermons. Made arrests.  There was underground support for movements no doubt, but undocumented, and unspoken of in the open, unless one was very sure of the compatibility of the person you were speaking to.

 .    As a positive influence,  the new Church showed any Portuguese who were open, that their assumptions about Angolans as limited humans/savages were not correct, They could be full active church members, leaders and pastors, teachers and nurses.

 “The Church was  tremendously well organized. The main centres of the Protestant Church were mission stations [there were 8]. Each mission station was in charge of a number of pastorates served a number of deacons’ areas; each deacon or deaconess was in charge of a number of villages or communities. The main goal was to serve every member of the church as fully as possible…. The church produced great leaders who took the light of the torch to communities, villages, urban areas and elsewhere.” ´Chela p.523-4.

Indeed they could be missionaries themselves . the Francisco’s -Julio and Sofia -spent 5 years in Sao Tome as pastor to Angolans held there in forced labour.  Julio was a general secretary of the church, at the time of the trek to Jamba (UNITA headquarters), and during much of the time I was visiting the Church as representing their Canadian partner Church in the  80’s and 90’s.

I found church folks to be very democratic in their meetings and in their decision-making and in their parish work, a tribute to dynamics brought by missionaries.

              Church in the Bush in 1976/77- Church leaders left with, or were taken by retreating forces of UNITA guerillas from  central Angola to Jamba, in the far south east of Angola, near South African and South West African borders. There UNITA built a headquarters, for there they could be protected by the South African Air Force, and supplied with essential goods.

There the leaders formed up a church that was known popularly as the ‘Church in the Bush. It was ecumenical , including a couple of Catholic priests. They felt very isolated; it was too dangerous to exchange messages with fellow Christians and families in the government areas.

 In ‘79  they sent Pastor Ricardo Epalanga the General Secretary, and another pastor to establish an office and congregation in Kinshasa, Zaire (now DRC) for outside contact since they had limited or no contact to the church in  Government areas inside Angola.  UCC was one contact and supporter and I visited them in Kinshasa twice when visiting partners in Zaire.

We were able to arrange a couple of get-togethers with representatives of the Bush church  here in Canada- e.g. in 1979. Jose  Chipenda of AACC (All Africa Council of Churches) and UCC organized a meeting at Cedar Glen centre, American delegates came also.

In 1992.—  Overseas partners made a trip to Jamba. UCBWM,(Bonganjalo Goba)  CAIE (Jose Chipenda, and UCC (Jim Kirkwood). We met in Luanda and flew to  Johannesburg, 3 IECA delegates were to go too, but their seats were sold by TAP. They later made their trip. From JBG  to Jamba we flew at night in an old transport plane carrying goods to the settlement at Jamba. We were flying only at night- with minimum lights.

We were welcomed extremely warmly by the IECA pastors and leaders who had been there since 1977, 14 years.  And had talks with them. - we spent a week there. UNITA hosted us  in their all-thatch headquarters, and toured us around the communal villages and fields and institutions run by UNITA  to supply their needs.

The people were all living without currency, drawing their food and other necessities from the Party. They were independent  to some extent but other supplies came in on regular flights from South Africa.

Meanwhile back in Angola in 1976,  hastily chosen new leaders had to pull the church together with shortage of experienced leadership, and learn their positions quickly. Younger pastors had chances they would not normally have had so soon. The Church based in Huambo  was very much under surveillance by the MPLA govt. and there were no missionaries to assist.

4.      Liberation movements

-             1961- 1975- armed struggle was carried on sporadically or actively in various  parts of the country. Competition between them was very much worsened by the influence of the Cold War. 

-          Arms of all kinds from tanks and planes to land mines and pistols flowed in endlessly from West and East. Angolans died or were crippled by the landmines (some still remain up until today)

-There were

3 regions, North , Luanda , and Central;  

3 peoples: Congo, Kimbundu, and Ovimbundu

3 churches Baptist, Methodist, and Congregational 

3 Movements–FNLA, MPLA, and UNITA,

 “During the war of liberation the Angolans were split into three main parties with 3 different ideologies. The parties were mostly regional and denominational. Most missionaries supported or identified with the party of the people of their own denomination. This prevented the missionaries from being a bridge between the groups in conflict, and the church became divided along party lines as well.” Chela p.525

Loyalties were predictable. The loyalty of the missionaries to the church in central Angola was to their people the Ovimbundu, whose loyalty in turn was almost completely to UNITA, under Jonas Savimbi,. He was one of their members, and his father Lote Savimbi had been a church elder and preacher from the  early days of the mission

The UNITA school system was the one from the Central Angolan church; all trained and operated by missionaries and Angolan church staff, and operated wherever government forces had not reached. Eventually in Jamba.

Even after  all missionaries had left by 1977 the missionaries supported them through a Fund started as a kind of parallel mission fund in addition to the Church mission funds, the Gilchrist Memorial Scholarship Fund, (later AMSF )The fund was joined by American Methodist missionaries and a few Angolans living in N America.. Scholarship receivers were chosen by the Congregational churches, later  by IECA and CICA .To this day funds are raised from Canadian and USA congregations and groups and individuals , totalling up to $100,000 per year.

Political tensions in North America. As long as the liberation war continued, even after,  there was tension among N.American   individual supporters, support groups for the movements,  and the national offices of the UCC and the UCBWM.

Some of these primarily provided church support as always; others primarily the liberation struggle and their movement; the national churches here had to try to satisfy everyone, as well as their NGO colleagues in Oxfam CUSO, CIDMAA’ etc.. With the latter, UCC was involved with national tours of Angolan multi-party tours,, educational programs and materials funded by the Canadian government through Program Angola.


The Program to Combat Racism PCR of the WCC established a pattern of supporting groups regardless of ideology or politics., even violence. In Angola they gave to all 3 movements on the grounds that they were combatting Portuguese racism.)

Many Canadian and USA activist groups and the churches themselves were supporting MPLA even though  it was Marxist (to the great anger of the Readers Digest and other conservative media

.  UCC national felt pressure from WCC, and several Canadian  NGO’s. in an Angola coalition. Like them we were supporting  liberation groups ANC and SWAPO in South Africa and Namibia respectively, and they had been supported in  Angola redoubts by MPLA government.

Even if they were supporting the ANC in South Africa and SWAPO in Namibia. UCC miss were very opposed to MPLA for reasons mentioned above. The UCC staff who had to arrange budgets, and doing  advocacy programs within the church opposing South African apartheid., but not necessarily  UNITA who had some legitimate claims, even after MPLA became government. Thus, many Canadian and USA activist groups and the churches themselves were supporting MPLA even though  it was Marxist (to the great anger of the Readers Digest and other conservative media)

We basically stopped giving funds directly to the movements, and gave to churches and NGO's in their area.

5, Angolan Government,

    1975.  MPLA won battle for Luanda and became the government. 

 It declared a Marxist political regime and economy. It had had much support in the liberation war from the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc.   It also  declared an anti-religious anti-church position .

In 1976- two UCC missionaries got caught in the earliest days of the civil war. Dr. Betty Bridgman    and Nurse Edith Radley at Chissamba hospital east of Huambo, were arrested by new MPLA government police,  probably not so much for being Christian as for passing meds – and perhaps messages -to  UNITA medical staff now with the `people in the bush'  These would be people trained by them and so known to them. Indeed the congregational church health service became the UNITA health service to a large extent; similarly the educational and agricultural services.

Betty and Edith were flown to Luanda and spent 3 months in prison there, before being released and allowed to fly home to Canada. There was no trial.

Maria Chela lab director remained  in charge in  the Chissamba hospital but government soldiers came and declared it now a government hospital. They carried off some of the staff, and many were shot not far away.  Very soon after, UNITA soldiers came by night and took away Chela & as many Chissamba hospital staff as remained and equipment  and medicines  as they could. Chela  was given a companion to assist her, and no doubt to see that she headed for Unita territory. She walked two years to get to the new UNITA base camp headquarters  in Jamba.  in extreme south east corner of Angola

1975 until 2002. – 26yrs of civil war with a brief respite in 1992 for truce and elections. Then the war resumed until Savimbi was captured and killed in 2002. War and government hostility   helped  to bring Churches together.    

Reconciliation:  1992 -  peace and elections – euphoria-          reconciliations taking place

Church in the Bush returned – to reunite- or re-enter IECA  - there were well known names like Musili, Epalanga, Cinco Reis. In Huambo we waited several days for the church in the bush to arrive. Transport cross country was not easy. the reconciliation ceremony was a  most meaningful and passionate  experience;  hugs and tears galore,  Jose Chipenda spoke; communion was shared. taken.

People of different parties had started to work on reconciliation, MPLA had the power of incumbency and control of the elections.

The churches Today: 2014

Since the civil war ended in 2002, with the death of Savimbi , the church has fully reunited and grown in size and programs, even into new corners of the country.  Some programs are being revived on some of the former church stations; Much work has been done on reviving completely the Lutamo school for teacher training at Dondi, and on the Currie institute a kind of polytechnic. United Church men's groups in drumming circles raised money for that. New educational buildings and programs in Lobito.

Support for IECA  and CICA still go out from UCC, Congregational and Disciples Much  Smaller grants and only an occasional missionary go from our side. Challenges, and new ideas and reflections come to us from the Angolan church – (see a reflection on `Diakonia' sent for this workshop. by Luis Samacumbi; see how it emphasizes our service to have a major element of systemic change to meet more deeply a community’s needs – or a world’s.)

 We agree and work together for change in systems like `Capital Empire’ , , inequality in shares of the world’s resources; food security.. destructive mining processes…pollution and climate change. these need  be changed to serve all better.

 The Angolan government has through its  ministry of culture  a more positive relationship with the churches; wants them to share in nation building. It has a register of all the established churches and it does not recognize new sects or denominations, thinking perhaps that they might be getting started for political motives. At the same timed it has been aggressive In opposition to the Islamic faith.

 The churches fear to make major criticisms of government, for instance its theft of much of the oil revenue. Anti government demonstrations are not allowed It rules partly through fear and violence; it’s very dangerous for churches to be prophetic before an oppressive government;.  Leads to self-censure in sermons and in church papers. Who knows what changes may be being planned among the people?

“Question., Can we in Canada tell Angolans how to be prophetic?” Are they in any danger from whom they criticize? Are we? Should we be?

Question.  What similarities do you see in the church-state relations in Angola and Canada?

Jim Kirkwood

November 2014

Tubman Institute, York U.

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