The African experience with Global Christian Forum: the vibrancy of faith, the vulnerability of colour

Fourth Global Gathering: “That the World May Know,” hosted by the Global Christian Forum (GCF). (Photo: Screenshot/Global Christian Forum)

Inspiration from Accra Gathering

The 4th Global Christian Forum (GCF) gathering in Accra, Ghana, from April 16-19, 2024, inspired this article. Rev. Dr. Casely B. Essamuah, Secretary to the Global Christian Forum, organised the event, anchoring it with the theme "That the World May Know" (John 17:23).

Throughout its existence, the GCF has carved out a unique and inclusive space where every major stream of Christianity converges for encounter and prayer. This forum stands as the broadest expression of Christian faith, reflecting the significant shift of the majority of churches from the global north to the vibrant, growing communities of the global south. This inclusivity mirrors the Imago Dei, where every person is valued and honoured. The Gathering was more than a mere conference; it was a vibrant display of hospitality and generosity revealed by the Triune God.

Experiencing Faith and Historical Pain

Participants witnessed the vibrant faith of the Church in Ghana and embarked on a poignant pilgrimage to the Cape Coast Slave Castle. This site, where Africans were enslaved in dehumanising conditions for nearly 400 years, underscored the misuse of Reformed theology. Proponents of slavery often cited the curse of Ham (Genesis 9:25-27) to justify the subjugation of Africans, distorting scripture to deny their status as bearers of the Imago Dei.

A Call for Renewal

The paper calls for the local and global church to renew its identity and mission in today’s interconnected world. It stresses the importance of embracing the meta-narrative of the Kingdom of God, Imago Dei, and transformative discipleship as foundational sources of meaning and experience. This narrative is crucial for the church's mission and identity in the modern era.

Recovering the Church's Calling

The church must recover and reinvigorate its calling within these meta-narratives to remain relevant. The paper underscores the active role of God in local contexts, urging believers to recognize and engage in God's ongoing work.

In-Flight Experience

Resonance with the Spirit’s Guidance

My journey to Ghana, airborne through Ethiopia, evoked profound memories of the Spirit’s guidance in the biblical narrative. Just as the Spirit led Philip, initially appointed as a table keeper to care for widows, to witness to and baptise the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 6:1-6; Acts 8:26-39), my journey resonated with a similar call to bear witness and facilitate transformative encounters within the global Christian community. This mission reflects the Kingdom of God, where discipleship transforms lives and communities, embodying the Imago Dei in every interaction and, in this case, an Eunuch.

Inspiring Moments

I savoured reading the airline's magazine, Selamta, March-April 2024, issue during the flight. The strides and highlights it showcased were impressive. The magazine invited readers to experience the beauty of Mount Kilimanjaro, also known as the ‘Roof of Africa,’ standing at 5,895 meters above sea level. It also showcased the power of the pen of Noo Sar-Wiwa, who chronicled the lives of African economic migrants living in China. These narratives remind us of the transformative power of storytelling.

Flourishing Black Creative Work

Another highlight emphasised the rise of filmmaking with a message to African women that we see them and love them, underscoring the flourishing of black creative work. When black artists depict the black form, race becomes an idea—a lived reality, but not a biological one. This flourishing of Black creative culture, spanning fine arts, music, and literature, exemplifies the diverse expressions of the Imago Dei. High-profile figures like Beyoncé winning Grammys reflect this heightened cultural relevance.

The Paradox of Visibility and Vulnerability

However, this visibility coexists with sustained vulnerability for Black people. The tragic example of George Floyd illustrates that despite increased visibility, cultural relevance does not “defend the gates”; it does not offer protection against systemic injustices. The juxtaposition of high visibility with ongoing vulnerability is a critical area of interest, highlighting the paradox Black communities face. This paradox challenges us as transformative disciples to confront injustices and strive for a Kingdom where the Imago Dei is honoured and protected in every individual.

Celebrating Unity and the Kingdom of God in Accra

Upon arriving in Accra, the gathering resonated with the essence of the Kingdom of God, celebrating the Imago Dei in each person and fostering unity through transformative discipleship. The warm hospitality of our hosts created an environment that was both welcoming and inspiring.

This gathering held special significance as it marked the 25th Anniversary of GCF.

A Charged Atmosphere

The atmosphere was charged with reverence and unity as we celebrated the silver jubilee of the GCF's formation. Archbishop Nicholas Duncan-Williams of Action Chapel International delivered a powerful exposition on the imperative to love God and all His creation during the pinnacle of our celebration, a lively worship service. This was followed by a sumptuous banquet that transcended mere physical nourishment. The feast symbolised our shared spiritual journey as we broke bread together, reflecting on our collective path and the unity that binds us.

Building Bridges Through Stories

Dr. William Wilson, chair of the Pentecostal World Fellowship, emphasised the importance of connecting with fellow Christians. He noted that these tumultuous times also present exciting, spiritually exhilarating opportunities. His reflections highlighted that the message of the cross and the hope of the empty tomb are more critical than ever, given the growing world population and the increasing need for hope. These stories reflect the diverse expressions of the Imago Dei.

Emphasising Unity in Diversity

Archbishop Prof. Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher, outgoing secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, focused on unity within the global Christian family. He stressed the importance of studying shared aspects of faith and suggested using the term "witness" instead of "mission" to emphasise the collective foundation of the Holy Scriptures. This approach fosters a sense of unity and shared purpose among Christians from different backgrounds, embodying the Kingdom of God.

Love that Breaks Down Barriers

General Lyndon Buckingham highlighted the theme "That the World May Know" (John 17:23), which calls for love that transcends barriers. Commissioner Paone likened the gathering to an international testimony period, illustrating how participants returned home inspired by God's grace, ready to share their experiences and break down barriers in their communities. This love that breaks down barriers is a core aspect of transformative discipleship.

Building Connections Through Faith Stories

Rev. Danielle Dokman of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Suriname described the gathering as “building bridges through the sharing of our faith stories.” She emphasised that focusing on a shared identity in Christ, rather than doctrinal differences, was particularly effective in uniting Pentecostals, Charismatics, and mainline churches in Suriname. This approach is a model for other communities striving for unity amidst diversity, reflecting the Imago Dei and the Kingdom of God.

Spiritual and Moral Renewal

Rev. Prof. Dr. Jerry Pillay, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, articulated the need for spiritual and moral renewal. He called for Christians to speak prophetically and with one voice to contemporary challenges. Pillay's emphasis on discipleship and allowing the Holy Spirit to work through believers underscored the importance of personal and collective transformation in reflecting Christ’s love. This renewal is vital for advancing the Kingdom of God.

Pope’s Message on Unity and Love

Pope Francis sent his "heartfelt greetings" to the assembly, praising the global diversity present, which he described as "a beautiful mosaic of contemporary Christianity." The Pope highlighted the shared identity as followers of Jesus Christ and emphasised the call for Christians to embody the unity and love of the Triune God. He urged them to witness a world scarred by division and rivalry. Archbishop Flavio Pace echoed this message, appreciating the global diversity and stressing that while resolving doctrinal differences is crucial, exchanging faith experiences and strengthening the Christian fraternity are equally vital. The gathering fostered a profound kinship and brotherhood, manifesting a common belonging to Christ across denominational lines.

Lessons from Accra

Accra taught us that shared faith stories, unity in diversity, love that breaks down barriers and a commitment to spiritual and moral renewal are essential in addressing global challenges. The event demonstrated that by focusing on commonalities and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide our actions, Christians can work together to transform the world and advance the message of Jesus Christ. This unity and transformative discipleship reflect the essence of the Kingdom of God and the Imago Dei.

Pilgrimage to Cape Coast Slave Castle

A Transformative Encounter with History

In a profound and unexpected turn, approximately 250 delegates from around the globe embarked on a life-altering visit to the Cape Coast Castle, built as a trading post by European colonisers.

The transatlantic slave trade was carried on for approximately 366 years, from the early 16th century to the mid-19th century.

Visiting the underground dungeons, participants learned about the appalling conditions in which hundreds of thousands of men and women were kept before being shipped across the Atlantic, many dying before or during those perilous journeys.  

This historical site, steeped in the sweat and blood of millions of enslaved African men, women, and children, served as more than a mere historical excursion—it was a visceral, haunting reminder of humanity's darkest injustices. This pilgrimage highlighted the need for the Kingdom of God to break into the darkest places, bringing healing and reconciliation.

Walking in the Footsteps of the Oppressed

Walking in the footsteps of those who suffered dehumanisation, we felt the heavy weight of history pressing down upon us. The journey took us into the harrowing depths of the dungeons, where enslaved individuals were held captive in conditions that defy comprehension. Rev. Danielle Dokman reflected on the emotional impact of seeing the blackened floor where her ancestors suffered, emphasising the resilience that led to the birth of a nation and her existence.

Lessons in Resilience and Acknowledgement

Rev. Dokman said, “That was quite an emotional visit for me, as we walked with one another through the door of no return. I knew what had happened because we learned about this in school, but what caught me off guard was seeing the blackened floor where my ancestors were kept, sitting in their blood and faeces – I could not imagine even animals being treated like that. I don’t know how people survived in such conditions. But at the same time, a nation was born, and I am a part of that. So, while I mourn, I am also evidence of their resilience, and I value being here because I know the price paid for me to exist.”

Breaking Bread and Remembering

As they broke the bread and read from the scripture, reciting the words of Jesus—"Take, eat; this is my body broken for you. Drink from this cup, the new covenant in my blood"—they seemed oblivious to the dehumasing suffering inflicted on innocent enslaved Africans below. This ritual, meant to commemorate Christ’s sacrifice, starkly contrasted with the horrific injustices committed in the name of commerce and civilization. The call of the Kingdom of God is to bring true justice and compassion, honouring the Imago Dei in every person.

Where Was God?

God, while Suffering

We were confronted with a haunting question: “Where was God in all this?” The fitting reply echoed through the ages—He was in the dungeon with the enslaved people, suffering alongside them. This revelation starkly reminded us of the Cross, where Jesus, abandoned by the Father, cried out in anguish, "Why have you forsaken me?" Jesus was not in the chapel with those who were supposed to worship Him—the so-called educated whose hollow rituals He detested. It was no wonder He condemned the Pharisees' righteousness as whitewashed graves. Jesus was in solidarity with the oppressed, not in the sanctuaries of the complicit. This powerful truth calls us disciples to stand with the oppressed and embody the love and justice of the Kingdom of God.

Confronting the Complexities of History

Towering above all was the governor's house, a stark testament to colonial power, with its sixteen windows overlooking the horrors beneath. This layering of oppression and sanctimony painted a chilling picture of the past, forcing us to confront the complexities and contradictions of history. The call of the Kingdom is to redeem and transform these historical injustices, bringing hope and reconciliation.

The African Voices

Wisdom from African Leaders

The voices of African leaders posted on the walls of Slave Castle resonate with the call for unity and dignity. Thomas Sankara said, “We must learn to live the African way. It’s the only way to live in freedom and with dignity.” Marcus Garvey declared, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” Frederick Douglass noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Dr. Kwame Nkrumah proclaimed, “The forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart. If we do not approach the problems in Africa with a common front and a common purpose, we shall be haggling and wrangling among ourselves until we are colonised again and become the tools of a far greater colonialism than we suffered before.”

A Call to Transformative Discipleship

These leaders' words emphasise the importance of unity, education, and collective action in addressing the challenges faced by African communities. We must embody these principles as followers of Christ called to transformative discipleship. We work towards a world where the Imago Dei is honoured in every person, and the Kingdom of God is manifest in justice, love, and reconciliation.

Service of Lament and Reconciliation

The message of "That the world may know" was made more poignant with a visit to one of the Cape Coast slave-trade castles. Prayers of lament and reconciliation were offered by the GCF gathering in the Wesley Cathedral. All denominations present were saddened by the magnitude of this inhumane operation, aware that modern slavery continues even today. This service was a powerful reminder of the Kingdom of God, where the Imago Dei in every individual calls us to transformative discipleship that seeks justice and reconciliation.

Prayers of Lament and Repentance

A Jamaican female preacher, Reverend Merlyn Hyde Riley, used the visit to remind the delegates to act with integrity, aware that one day each person will be called to give an account to God (Job 31:13-14). In a moment of lament that we had not treated our brothers and sisters as those made in the image of God, various church leaders led a time of repentance and heartfelt prayers. This collective lament and repentance highlighted our call to honour the Imago Dei in all people and seek the Kingdom of God through transformative actions.

The Theme: "That the World May Know"

The theme, "That the World May Know" (John 17:23), reminded delegates that unity is not the end goal of the High Priestly Prayer, but that we are all sent out into the world to show love that breaks down barriers. Within our fractured earth, we are living witnesses to the fact that opposites can attract! Through the Spirit’s power at work in us, we join together to act for the restoration of the world. Those looking on become curious to know more about the One who reconciles. This theme emphasises our mission as transformative disciples in the Kingdom of God, demonstrating the reconciling love of Christ.

Bridging Divides with Shared Faith in Accra

The gathering underscored the transformative power of shared faith in bridging divides and inspiring collective action. Participants from diverse backgrounds shared their faith journeys, illustrating that despite differences, a common belief in Jesus Christ unites people and fosters a global Christian community.

Their stories demonstrated that the journey of faith with Jesus Christ continues until the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness and a new heaven and earth are ushered in by God (Revelation 21:1-5). This shared vision invigorated the delegates, reinforcing the message that unity and transformative discipleship are vital for the church’s mission in today’s world.

The Abuse of the Imago Dei in African Slavery and the Caste System

The Imago Dei, the belief that all humans are created in the image of God, stands at the core of Christian anthropology and theology. This doctrine, when rightly understood, upholds every person's inherent worth and dignity. However, history reveals how theological misinterpretations have led to grievous abuses, notably in the contexts of African slavery and the caste system. These historical injustices underscore the importance of critically examining past abuses to foster a contemporary theology that affirms human dignity and promotes social justice.

African Slavery:

The transatlantic slave trade was a brutal system where African men, women, and children were dehumanised, exploited, and treated as property. This atrocity was often justified using distorted theological arguments that denied the full humanity of African people. The misapplication of biblical texts and the suppression of the Imago Dei in Africans led to immense suffering and a profound moral crisis.

Caste System:

Similarly, the caste system in India has perpetuated social stratification and discrimination for centuries. Theologically justified by specific interpretations of Hindu scriptures, the caste system has relegated Dalits and other marginalised groups to lives of servitude and indignity. The tragedy is that caste discrimination is still practised even in the church in India. This system contradicts the biblical affirmation that all humans are made in God's image.

A Call for Critical Reflection and Renewed Commitment

Addressing Historical Abuses

To confront historical abuses, contemporary theology must engage in critical reflection and repentance. This process involves acknowledging past misinterpretations of scripture and the harm they have caused. The Church must recommit to a theology that affirms the Imago Dei in every person.

Concrete Actions of Repentance

Repentance requires a change of heart and concrete actions to rectify past wrongs. The Church must lead efforts to dismantle systemic injustices that continue to devalue human dignity. This includes advocating for racial equality, economic justice, and the abolition of caste-based discrimination.

Grounding in Imago Dei

A renewed commitment to justice and equality must be rooted in the recognition that every person is created in the image of God. Transformative discipleship calls for actively seeking to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. This involves educating believers about the true meaning of the Imago Dei, encouraging them to live out their faith in ways that promote justice, peace, and reconciliation.

Education and Awareness

Churches and theological institutions must prioritise education on the Imago Dei, highlighting its implications for human dignity and social justice. This includes revisiting historical events and teachings that have misused this doctrine and offering correct interpretations that affirm all people's worth.

Advocacy and Action

Believers are called to be agents of change in their communities. This involves advocating for policies and practises that uphold human dignity and challenging systems of oppression and discrimination. Practical steps include supporting anti-racism initiatives and engaging in interfaith dialogues to address caste discrimination.

Community and Fellowship

The Church must model the inclusive and egalitarian nature of the Kingdom of God. This can be achieved by fostering diverse and inclusive communities where everyone is valued and respected. Inclusive worship, community service, and solidarity with marginalised groups can help embody the principles of the Kingdom of God.


Overcoming Contradictions

The contradiction of belief that promotes the vibrancy of faith alongside the vulnerability of colour can be overcome if the Church community actively obeys God's word and upholds the principles of the Kingdom of God, Imago Dei, and transformative discipleship. By doing so, the Church can truly embody the transformative power of faith, promoting justice, equality, and the inherent dignity of every person.

iEthopian Airlines, March-April 2024. P. 066.

iiThe response to the GCF gathering are taken from the Global Christian Forum website.