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The Halo Effect

A Letter from Josh Heikkila

June 2018

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The “Halo Effect.” It’s what one organization in the United States calls the many blessings that congregations give to the neighbors around them and the communities in which they are located. When I think of the churches in the U.S. where I have attended and worked, the services provided to the local community have been extensive: early childhood education, space for AA groups to meet, free access to music and the arts, distribution of food and clothing, just to name a few. While worship and Bible study benefit a church’s members, these other gifts are shared with the entire community.

“Congregations are community hubs,” the organization Partners for Sacred Places explains, making available “space that encourages neighbors to come together to solve their problems, serve and be served, and build social capital.” Although I first read this report almost twenty years while a seminary student in Chicago, I believe it still holds true today. The presence of churches improves the well-being of communities, making them healthier and stronger.

The way congregations are present in the social fabric of their communities also embodies the teachings of Jesus. “Love your neighbors the same way you love yourself,” and, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” For this reason, I believe it’s important for us to recognize and celebrate the wonderful asset that religious institutions are to their local communities, and even to society at large.

Over the past thirty years, as Christianity has become more widespread in Ghana, congregations have sprung up in even quite small and remote villages, and their presence has been invaluable. On a recent trip to the north of the country, I witnessed for myself this “halo effect” in a new and very different setting. In the north of Ghana, I could see firsthand the impact newly planted churches were having on their communities, and the positive transformation they are helping to bring about.

I think it all begins with the gospel message that is preached — that all of us are children of God, loved and cared for by our creator. This knowledge inspires a new confidence in people and gives them a voice, empowering them to become agents of transformation. To use a biblical metaphor, the church helps people in the community to become the yeast which leavens the bread and the salt which flavors the soup. Although small, they have the power to transform the whole.

Presbyterian congregations, in particular, are known for introducing education to their communities, as they work hand in hand with government to establish public primary schools. The presence of Presbyterian congregations brings awareness of and access to the wider network of Presbyterian educational, health, and development facilities, which become resources to improve the lives of people in the community.

The report from Partners for Sacred Places explains how American congregations “counsel, support, and make referrals for individuals and families struggling with a range of issues,” and the very same thing is true in Ghana. Pastors, evangelists, church elders, and teachers — living out Christ’s call to love and serve their neighbors — have a unique ability to connect with community members, encouraging them to recognize their gifts and strengths, and mobilizing them to bring about positive transformation.

When churches are first organized in small and rural communities, it’s common for them to locate a tree — often a mango, because of the wonderful, cool shade its branches provide — and begin to worship under it. When I see these “under-a-tree churches,” I’m actually quite envious of their beautiful and serene settings. But growing communities see them as only a first step.

You can’t worship under a tree when it’s raining, and it’s challenging to use the space for activities at night. When you speak with congregations that worship under a tree, they will share with you dreams they have for building a proper church structure.

In the north of Ghana, for about $3000, it’s possible to construct what people call a shed or pavilion — a metal roof attached to poles, with no walls or windows or doors to start. As more money is raised, a congregation can put down a concrete floor, and later walls and windows can be added to enclose the structure.

As proper chapel buildings are constructed, space is made available to the different groups in the church and community, such as youth groups, men’s and women’s groups, choirs, and Bible studies. Sometimes during the week, church buildings even serve as classrooms, kindergartens, and nursery schools, as the community looks for money and resources to construct the necessary school buildings.

More and more, support for these projects comes from within Ghana, especially from people with middle-class salary jobs in urban areas. It’s wonderful to see people stepping forward and contributing. But it’s a slow process.

If you feel moved to help, a donation of a few thousand dollars can construct a pavilion for a church meeting under a tree. In fact, it’s not only in Ghana where funds can be used. With all the partners in West Africa — in Ghana, Togo, Niger, and Nigeria — money is needed to construct simple church structures. Please let me know if you’re interested, and I can let you know how to give to the appropriate partner.

Let me close by saying thank you. It’s a great privilege for me to be in West Africa, a representative on your behalf and on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I hope that as I share with you stories of our church partners, I am giving you a glimpse of the wonderful ways the Holy Spirit is moving in West Africa.

In order to keep me in the region, we need to raise about $83,000 annually to cover all the related costs. If you have been supporting me, thank you. If not, I hope you will consider starting. Please speak of me to friends and neighbors who might want to receive these letters, or ask them to subscribe themselves by clicking here.  And above all, please keep me and our West African partners in your prayers.


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