Evangelicals say they use power of God in Africa; critics slam 'cultural conversions'

Aler, Uganda - "Telephone to Jesus. Hello?" the children of Aler refugee camp sing, their bare feet thumping the ground as they dance wildly in the concrete construction that serves as their ministry.

Most of the camp's poverty-stricken inhabitants have never used a phone, but they have been taught about Jesus. Franklin Graham, son of U.S. evangelist Billy Graham, smiles as he watches the children who are members of a club run by Samaritan's Purse, the Christian organization he leads.

"We want to bring these children to Christ," Pastor George Purkweri tells Graham, who's smile broadens.

"You have a Pastor's heart," he tells Purkweri, slapping him on the back.

Purkweri explains that the war in northern Uganda has exposed the children to many horrors.

"This generation is our hope for the future," he adds, looking out over a field of mud huts. "They are seeing lots of bad things that divert them from Christ and can corrupt their hearts. We bring them back."

Elisabeth Wood, a Samaritan's Purse program manager in Lira said the children are often overlooked.

"We play games with them, we sing songs with them," Wood said. "And we teach them about the Church."

Graham — one of the best known and influential evangelical preachers in America — has flown his private jet to East Africa with a 20-strong delegation, including former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, to check up on Samaritan's Purse programs.

Christian evangelicals have been coming to Africa for centuries and critics accuse them of taking advantage of vulnerable communities, forcing them to abandon their traditional beliefs and customs in exchange for the material goods and medicine they so desperately need.

Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University, says the conversions can go beyond religion.

"One of the most common criticisms of evangelicals is that they are looking for cultural conversions as well as spiritual ones," he said. "They want to change the way people dress and behave."

Graham, however, is adamant that his organization helps the world's sick and suffering regardless of their religious beliefs. Humanitarian assistance only earns the Christians a hearing for the gospel they teach, he said.

"As a minister, I want to help people physically, I want to help them with their hurt, with their pain but I want to do that so I can tell them about God's son Jesus Christ," he says. "The conversion we do is through persuasion, through reasoning ... it's not being forced on them or pushed down their throats. It's by their free will. They will receive material help from us regardless."

Samaritan's Purse receives the vast majority of its considerable funding from private donations which enables Graham to operate independently and quickly.

"Financially I'm not dependent on government which is why I'm free to preach the Bible," Graham said. "Our money comes from Christians who believe what we believe ... an average gift would be under US$100 dollars a year, but we have millions of people who support us."

"That gives us an advantage because when there is a crisis, I don't have to wait and write a proposal."

This dynamism helps make Samaritan's Purse so popular and powerful in Africa.

During his brief trip, Graham held meetings with President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, President Salva Kiir of southern Sudan and even President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, a Muslim. Graham has political connections in the United States too; he read the invocation at U.S. President George W. Bush's inauguration in 2001.

Nevertheless, he insists Samaritan's Purse is apolitical.

"I'm not a politician, I'm not a military person, I'm a preacher," he said.

Samaritan's Purse is running six major programs in northern Uganda, a region ravaged by a brutal rebel group for the past 20-years. Two million people have fled their homes.

While Christian teaching and Bible distribution overarch all the work done by the group, many of their programs focus on the secular. The group works with the United Nations to manage refugee camps, conducting assessments and coordinating the work of other non-profit organizations.

In the blazing midday sun at Agweng camp, Graham witnessed his organization coordinating the distribution of 600 tones of World Food Program food supplies to over 30,000 people who stood patiently in lines.

Another program run by Samaritan's Purse focuses on AIDS — a delicate subject for the religious right. Samaritan's Purse receives some funding from the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The U.S. government has been criticized by rights groups for channeling money through religious organizations who denigrate the use of condoms in favor of abstinence.

In the early days of the epidemic, some evangelicals described AIDS as God's punishment on sinners, particularly homosexuals.

Samaritan's Purse has been active in organizing counseling programs that encourage people living in Uganda's refugee camps — where prevalence of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be as high as 30% — to get tested. The staff visits HIV sufferers; eating and drinking with them to help reduce stigma, as well as providing them with blankets and food — and sharing their love of Jesus.

"You are the most important thing that has happened in my life," HIV sufferer Sipriano Ojok, 54, tells Graham. "I was too weak before your staff came to visit us .... I accepted Jesus Christ into my life and now I feel good."

"One day you and I will be together in heaven worshipping God together. You will have a new body and be strong and healthy," Graham told Ojok before saying a brief prayer with him.

The encounter has powerful symbolism for Ojok and other HIV sufferers because they are normally shunned.

"It's important to show people that we're not afraid," explains Graham. "When a person has AIDS you can give medicine — many agencies do — but what hope do people have if you don't show them love?"

In Yei, southern Sudan, Graham and his delegation are met by a rapturous crowd of women dressed in immaculate white shifts, ululating, singing hymns and waving tree branches. Graham is visibly delighted with his welcome.

Yei became an epicenter of the war between Sudan's Muslim-dominated north and mainly Christian and animist south.

Yei residents tell of pastors being crucified upside down, their churches reduced to rubble and Christians turned into slaves for the Muslim elite. Evangelical Christians in North America took up the cause and lobbied the U.S. government to get involved. U.S. diplomats placed enormous pressure on both sides and a peace deal was reached in 2004.

Today, the people of Yei live in huts with no access to electricity and face a seven-mile walk to the nearest hospital. In spite of the evident material need in Yei, Graham's welcome is for his organization's work rebuilding churches.

The organization has pledged to rebuild every church deliberately destroyed during the war, an ambitious goal given the logistical nightmare that southern Sudan presents after decades of devastating fighting.

Graham proudly inspects the large church his organization has erected — the only stone building as far as the eye can see. Its mahogany shutters and immaculate stonework look markedly out of place among the mud huts. Though designed for worship, the new building will double as a school.

Graham is clearly passionate about this project.

"You go into these remote communities and the church is the center of that community," he explains. "And when the church was destroyed, the people feared and became discouraged. Now the war is over and for the church to come back is a symbol to them. It's a symbol of hope, a symbol of independence."

Graham points out that Samaritan's Purse also built the hospital and drills water wells. "But now the time has come when we need to bring the churches back."

And Graham is not afraid to spend his cash where he thinks it matters.

When a Samaritan's Purse official says progress has been slowed by lack of vehicles, he says: "Well, we'll just buy more. How many d'you need?"

Graham acknowledges that Christian evangelical organizations like his have many detractors, but he asks that Samaritan's Purse be judged fairly.

"They may not agree with me. But do we feed people? Yes. Do we clothe people? Yes. Do we provide doctors and medicines? Yes. Do we have hospitals? Yes, we do," he says. "If they want to look at the work I do, they can't complain because the work is there."