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A Letter from Josh Heikkila, serving in Ghana

March 2018

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In churches across West Africa, including our Presbyterian partners, you find very vibrant and popular deliverance ministries — deliverance being the term people use for casting out demons. On occasion, I myself have been asked to help with these ministries.

In deliverance, West African Christians see themselves following Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, as in Luke 9:1-2, where “Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” In the Western world, while much of this healing work has been transferred to medicine and psychiatry, it remains an important ministry for the churches in this region.

The congregation in Minnesota where I worked prior to Ghana occasionally held services of healing and wholeness, where we would lay hands on people, anoint them with oil, and pray for God’s loving and powerful presence in their lives. Because I’m comfortable with this style, I’ve continued using it for deliverance in Ghana. But it’s very different from what’s practiced here.

When I first arrived in the country nine years ago, I assisted a pastor with deliverance in Sunday worship after the sermon. As I was quietly praying with those who came forward to me, he was commanding demons to leave people — pointing at them, naming them, and shouting at them to come out. With one young woman in particular, the deliverance went on for quite some time. She was on the floor writhing before finally sensing the demon had left her.

Because I’ve been exposed to deliverance for quite some time now, I’ve become accustomed to it. But I’m still not fully at ease with it, nor do I even feel like I understand it all that much.

Although the term “demon” is common in the New Testament, there’s nothing in my own culture or experience that helps me know what a demon is. I’ve heard West African friends speak in detail about their experience with demons, but despite this testimony, demons remain a foreign concept to me. I struggle to understand this notion of an independent, malevolent spiritual being that can come and take possession of you and afflict you.

Personally, I have a much easier time wrapping my head around the idea of sinfulness and its consequences. When Galatians 5:19-21 lists things like hatred, greed, envy, anger, divisiveness, and lust, this is something I can more easily relate to.

I’ve known people who were so consumed by hatred – almost even possessed by it — and I’ve seen the tension and division that results from it. I’ve known people so singularly obsessed with money, that they’d do anything to accumulate it — from lying and cheating on one hand, to pushing for laws that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, on the other.

Maybe in the big picture, demons and sin are not all that different from one another. But the gap to me still seems substantial.

When dealing with demons — these evil beings which possess and afflict you — the solution is to cast them out. The Biblical Greek word for this is “ekballo.” However, with sinfulness there is personal complicity to it, and the solution requires repentance, change, and transformation into something new. The Biblical Greek word for this is “metanoia.”

I need to talk with more people in West Africa, to listen to and learn from what they think of the relationship between casting out demons and the repentance and transformation from sin.

Most residents of Agbogbloshie come from towns like Saboba, in the poorer and less developed Northern Region of Ghana. In this picture, members of the Saboba congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church Ghana partake in the Lord’s Supper. Opportunities for work and school have led many northerners to migrate to Accra, where they settle in informal neighborhoods like Agbogbloshie. A video of this can be found here:

Since I am an ordained minister, I sometimes preach and celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the Agbogbloshie neighborhood of Accra, where the Evangelical Presbyterian Church Ghana has a congregation. Agbogbloshie is an informal settlement — probably the closest thing Accra has to a shantytown. The neighborhood is completely lacking in government services, like health, education, water and sanitation. It sits on the floodplain of the Odaw River, and all the garbage dumped upstream makes its way down to this community.

When you look at the problems afflicting people in Agbogbloshie — lack of education, no jobs, poor health — it’s mostly due to forces they have little or no control over. While I may not see these problems as the result of demons, this is how some people experience it. Perhaps when you have no control over these forces, one of the few things you can do is pray for God to remove them from your life. So this is what people do, and they do it fervently.

After going through deliverance, people will share with you their renewed feelings of hope. They will tell you of their fresh sense of God’s presence in their lives. While I might be inclined to call this experience anointing by the Holy Spirit, I don’t want to be dismissive of the fact that they see it as deliverance from demons.

One hope I have is that deliverance ministries learn to go a few steps further and find a way to link themselves with ministries of discipleship and justice in the church. I believe this is necessary because, using the example of Agbogbloshie, so many of its problems are the result of human sinfulness — but the sinfulness of other humans, from outside this particular community.

By the time the Odaw River reaches the Agbogbloshie neighborhood of Accra, it is so choked with trash, you can hardly see the water. This leads to many health problems for the people who make a home in the community.

Rather than building schools and health clinics in the neighborhood, people in authority pocket money meant for this. Rather than fighting for a fair and just economic system that would benefit all of society, the powerful fight to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Rather than paying to dispose of trash properly, residents of Accra dump it in gutters and streams, with no care at all that it flows to Agbogbloshie and sickens people there.

A ministry of discipleship would call for personal transformation, where the common good is at least on par with one’s personal advancement. A ministry of justice would call people’s attention to the need to change the structure of society, so even the poor and vulnerable are cared for.

I’ve been excited as the church in Agbogbloshie considers ways it can be a force for transformation in the community. In addition to worship, it’s considering opening a public school with the help of the EPCG denomination. It has begun exploring whether it can start a health clinic under the auspices of the Evangelical Presbyterian Development and Relief Agency. I’m eager to lend a hand to these efforts, in any way I can contribute my skills and resources.

I’m grateful for all the support you give, which allows us in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to assist our West African partners improve the well-being of their churches and communities. Thank you! The challenges here are great, but your support allows us to find where our strengths can meet the needs of our friends. At the same time, life in West Africa is always fun and interesting — I can’t say this enough, because the liveliness and joy here is incredible! As much as we help our West African partners, I’m convinced they are also teaching us and helping us in countless ways.

– Josh

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