Global Flows, Local Contexts: Pentecostalism in Australia
Podcast with Cristina Rocha (16/11/2020).
Interviewed by David McConeghy
Transcribed by Savannah H. Finver
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/global-flows-local-contexts-pentecostalism-in-australia/
David McConeghy (DM) 0:04
My name is Dave McConeghy, and I’m delighted to share the studio today with Professor Cristina Rocha. Professor Rocha is a cultural anthropologist and director of the Religion and Society Research Cluster at the Western Sydney University. She’s the former president of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion. She co-edits the Journal of Global Buddhism and the Religion in the Americas series for Brill. She’s been a visiting research fellow at the University of Utrecht, King’s College and Queen Mary College, the CUNY Graduate Center and the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity. Her publications have been translated into Japanese, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Her latest book, John of God: The Globalization of Brazilian Faith Healing, won the Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion at the American Anthropological Association. It’s our delight to welcome her today. Welcome.
Cristina Rocha (CR) 0:58
Oh, hello, David. It’s really wonderful to be here today chatting with you.
We’re really privileged to be able to continue the conversation that we began with your student, Dr. Kathleen Openshaw, who we featured in an earlier episode about stasis and mobility and the anointing oil of the UCKG church. This opportunity for us to talk is really a way to continue the conversation about Pentecostal and charismatic communities in Australia that are global, and in particular, tied to Brazil. Do you think you could explain a little bit about the connections and the relationship between these communities in Brazil and Australia, and perhaps how you came to study these transnational groups?
Okay, I’ll start by how I came to study them. I’m originally Brazilian and 20-some years ago, I moved to Australia. And when I moved, I realized that there were more and more young Brazilians moving to Australia in the beginning of the 21st century. And there were more and more Australians going to Brazil. So, this is a connection that was really under the radar for many, many scholars. People were talking about movement, flows, you know, of globalization between North and South, the global north and the global south. But they were not talking really about the–in the southern hemisphere, flows in the southern hemisphere, in between peripheral and semiperipheral countries. Australia is part of the global north, but it’s also a semiperipheral country. It’s not really a central metropolitan country. It’s a country that has been colonized. So that’s what I started hearing people asking me, “you are Brazilian, you must know John of God.” And I would say, “who is John of God?” They would say, “well, he’s a famous healer.” And I would say I’d never heard of him. And then they would say, “well, you must not be Brazilian, then, because he’s very famous.” And that piqued my imagination.
What an accusation!
[It’s] “you are not because he is,” right? So, it was so important to people, and people were traveling to central Brazil to see John of God. So the next time I went to Brazil, I booked a week at the Healing Center in central Brazil where he used to work, and I was astonished when I went there because it was literally a global village. So, you had people from all over the world in a little village that–nobody spoke Portuguese but the cleaners and the cooks in the guest houses. Even the menus in the cafés were in English. You know, it had a feel of being this alternative Global Village like Dharamsala, where the seat of the Tibetan government in exile is in northern India, or any other alternative community. So, that was really interesting.
But at the same time, I could see that there were more and more international students from Brazil coming to Australia, to study in Australia, and they were establishing their own churches, but also going to this big megachurch, Australian megachurch, called Hillsong. So, that’s how I started this research looking at the global flows and the transnational connections between Brazil and Australia. What I could say is that what I found out–Well, first of all, you know, when we talk about mobility, we’re not talking only about mobility of people. Of course, migrants, spiritual tourists–so you would say, Brazilian migrants in Australia and spiritual tourists going to Brazil, Australian spiritual tourists going to see John of God. You have religious leaders, pastors, moving around. Then you have these international students. So, mobility of people is very important. But as Kathleen has demonstrated in her work with the oil, also religious artifacts–things, moving things, right? Sacred objects are very important for the connection between two cultures. And also old and digital, new media, social media is important. You can be stuck in one place, but really connected to the world. Your world opens up. Your mind opens up when you are…in the beginning, was about radio, newspapers, people traveling, bringing photos, talking about places, but also now it’s social media.
But I think what is really important and not many people talk about is the work of imagination. How you imagine another world out there, what kinds of images come to you and how you portray them in your imagination, what kinds of emotion you attach to that–you look up at a picture of, I don’t know, Bali or Tahiti, and what kinds of things come to your mind and your body? So, it’s the work of imagination that prompts mobility. And this work of imagination is historically constructed, right? There is a global power geometry, as the geographer Doreen Massey talks about, in which the flows from the global north are much more powerful than the flows from the global south. What comes from the global north are more powerful and are constructed differently. So, for the south, for the global south, what comes from Brazil, what’s coming from America, from Europe and from Australia, it carries with it power, excitement, modernity, flows of modernity there, and a desire for these people to be cosmopolitan, to adopt these flows so that they are cosmopolitan.
Now, on the other hand, for people in the global north, how we imagine the global south also prompts their mobility. So, how they imagine the global south as deeply spiritual, where people lead authentic, pristine lives, we could say. So, what I found out is that Australians have moved in people from all over the world. Americans, and you know, going to see John of God, they are moved by this sense of nostalgia, I would say, for a pre-industrial world. And this imaginary, of course, is reinforced by the objects, the sacred objects, moving around. The crystals that John of God sells, the books about him, the movies about his healing methods, all these reinforce this imaginary of Brazil. So, you can see that these different imaginaries are diametrically opposite, right? But they are really correlated; they fit with each other. So, Brazilians imagine Australia as a First World country. So, a place that is perfect, that the streets are clean, people are not corrupt as they are in Brazil. The public transport works well. There are no class divisions because class is so important in Brazil. So, all good things. So, in a way, the John of God Center is sort of a Shangri La place as much as Australia becomes this mythical Shangri La for Brazilians.
I’m really intrigued for our audience to really think about how powerful that movement of people is. That folks that are in Brazil are thinking about Australia, and then they’re acting on that by sending their children to school, that they’re visiting Australia for vacations, and that likewise, Australians see the spiritual promise of this. And that those–you place them in contrast as a push and a pull across time and space in these communities. Can you say a little bit more about the way that, perhaps outside of these particular communities, that Australians and Brazilians see those connections? Do all Australians have that kind of imaginary? Is there a cultural sense about the relationship between Australia and Brazil that moves beyond John of God? Or Hillsong, which I’m sure we’ll talk about in a little bit?
Well, things change quite a lot. So, when I started doing my research, Brazil was becoming an emerging power in the world; of course, never as the metropolitan powers, but there was this excitement about Brazil. And Brazil has this…I think, this mystique of real beaches, the carnival, and the Amazon, and all these things. So, I think for the larger population in the cities, the idea of Brazil was an exciting place to travel to. A lot of young people started, you know, some young people started learning capoeira, which is this martial art from Brazil, and wanted to go there. That’s another thing that I wrote about: wanting to go to Brazil to train with the masters of capoeira. Some young people started dating Brazilians who were in Australia, meeting them at the beaches in Sydney and other places, and then visit Brazil for, you know, to meet the family. Or just going, instead of going to England, as they used to do in their gap year–that’s the year after high school that many Australians used to take off before going to university to see the world–traditionally, they would go to England because of the colonial connections. But in the past 20 years, they started going to Brazil.
So, there is a bit of movement, there has been a bit of movement, between the two countries outside the religious communities. So, the religious bit is one more thing. But, you know, Brazilians would come to Australia as tourists, as you mentioned, but also as international students to study English and to travel. So, the idea is that it’s very much a middle-class movement: that they study, and then they have enough money to go around Australia, to go to New Zealand…so going to America is, you know, it’s what everybody does. But in the 21st century, I guess, Australia was the new frontier as much as New Zealand. And from Australia, they would go to Bali, go surfing around the Pacific, Thailand, all these places. They were very far away for Brazilians.
I’ve heard you speak about this, or at least write about this, in your work as “tropicalization.” Should listeners be imagining that as a parallel to Orientalism in the sense that you were using Shangri La as a comparable example? That perhaps Bali and Tahiti and these kinds of places are comparable in that sense?
I think so. I think so. So, you homogenize the whole country or a whole region as you’re doing Orientalization. You put them as, you know, all as pre-modern, and that they are deeply, either corrupt or they are deeply spiritual, and they go hand-in-hand as well. So, they’re not touched by the flows of modernity. And, of course, this is a huge fallacy because even in the developed world, in the global north, you have pockets of poverty and so much more. So, in, you know, in your country now, in the past years, isn’t it? There’s a lot of poverty. There’s a lot of poverty in Australia too, you know, in central Australia mostly. But in the global south, you also have a middle-class that are in big cities and have lives very similar to the lives of middle-class people in big cities in the global north, right? They have access to technology. And, yes, very much leading lives that are similar. So, you have these pockets, and we can’t homogenize a whole region. So, tropicalization would be a fitting concept to [show] the ways in which the media portrays the global south, but also in Brazil, in the tropics, in Central and Latin America, as much as travelers, what they’re looking for in the global south.
For those middle-class, potentially those middle-class Brazilians that find themselves as migrants in Australia: one of the places that your research directs us to is the activities of the Hillsong community and the way in which this strongly resembles, to my eyes at least, the kind of seekerism of evangelicalism in the United States and the megachurch kind of construction. For you, how does your research on Hillsong help you explain what class’ role is for Brazilians who find themselves in Australia joining an Australian-born charismatic community?
Yeah, so, what I found is that more and more Pentecostals are becoming middle-class. And this is, you know, more a generalization, but you can see that very much in Australia. So, they are, more and more, trying to get educated, establishing colleges for their pastors, for training their pastors, going into university. So, what was a very working-class phenomenon in Australia is becoming–it’s always aspirational, but it’s becoming more middle-class. Now, when middle-class Brazilians come here–so, there have been two waves of migration, of Brazilian migration, to Australia: one in the ’70s of working-class Brazilian migrants, and they established their own Pentecostal evangelical churches, right? These people don’t necessarily go to Hillsong. Their kids do. So, Hillsong is a megachurch, just like American megachurches; it’s very similar. The services are more like concerts or more like clubbing. Probably many people know that you have a big band, big screens. It’s a short service compared to services in Brazil; it’s an hour and a half. There’s a lot of entertainment: music, worship music, is very important. Hillsong became famous because of its band.
And so, for the new wave of Brazilians coming here who are coming from the big cities in Brazil and their middle-class students, Hillsong is a very fitting church because it’s very different from Pentecostalism in Brazil. One of the things I am arguing in my articles and in the book that I’m writing is that these young Brazilians desire to socially distinguish themselves from the Pentecostalism of the poor in Brazil. So, in Brazil, Pentecostalism is associated with the poor, with corruption, with now Bolsonaro because the far-right, and Pentecostals–not all, but the majority of Pentecostal churches have supported Bolsonaro in the elections. So, this in the media is seen, you know, there’s a lot of stigma in being Pentecostal.
But then there’s this church that is really cool, right? That has incredible production values. That is really middle-class and really open to everyone. It’s not a judgmental church. Anybody can come to Hillsong, and they will not look down on you if you’re wearing a miniskirt or whatever it is, if you have tattoos, piercings. “Everyone is welcome. Come as you are” is their moto. So, they come in and they finally find that they can be young, they can participate in youth culture, with music, with tatoos, with whatever. And it’s sophisticated. It’s a beautiful church. They have this thing about excellence. Everything is done perfectly and meticulously so that everything is really beautiful and excellent. Which is very different from what we see in the culture in Brazil. So, they find a place to be, and to be proud of, their Pentecostalism, their Pentacostal choice, at Hillsong. So, they don’t feel diminished or inferior or, you know, the stigma anymore. So, does that help you clarify…?
It does. It sounds so much like the kind of long history in the United States through the ’70s in the ’80s and into the ’90s of evangelical communities in the United States. And less so Pentecostals until you get into kind of more of the ’90s and the 2000s. But these early angelical communities experimenting with megachurches as community centers. They’re full-service churches. You come to them to get coffee, you come to them to shop, you come to them to find a date, you come to them to go out with the date and have your date at the at the church. And it sounds exactly like what I’ve read about in the same period, but in Australia. So, the differences that I’m hearing are really interesting, that this is a community that takes advantage of the familiarity of some of the theology of what’s going on. So, prosperity-driven kind of focus and an emphasis on signs and wonders. But the mode of their worship, the mode of the performance, seems so evangelical in character, to me, in its megachurchness. Is that a fair comparison?
Oh, yeah, yeah. I think it’s, very much so, it’s a megachurch. So, megachurches have this idea that they have to be relatable, right? They have to be open to the world. So, Hillsong is one of these, what [Kimon Howland] Sargeant has called a seeker church, a seeker-friendly church. And so they establish the bridge between the church and a Christian way of life and a secular way of life. So, they build this path so that people can come in. One of the things that Brazilians were pretty shocked [about] in the beginning, is that outside in the foyer, for example, you do have the café and you have the shop, you know. But also the music that plays. One day I was there, and it was Katy Perry playing, you know. So, I asked, “but what is this?” And they go, “oh no, it’s fine.” So, it’s the idea that you don’t frighten people and you don’t judge people. Let them feel that it’s just the same as in their everyday lives so that they can come in and they will feel that they belong.
Even the architecture of these churches, as you know, they’re more like corporate buildings, right? They are. So, it’s [like] the place you work is very similar to the to the church itself. You don’t find many crosses anywhere. It’s all very beautifully, you know, full of plants and glass and steel. And it’s an incredible place that Hillsong has as their headquarters. But of course, outside Australia, they established branches or campuses in global cities, smack bang in the middle of global cities. So, in London, they hired a Dominion Theatre in the evening on Sunday. And it’s right there on Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street. So, it’s really in the center. In Paris, the same. In New York, the same. And in San Paolo, they established a branch in 2016. And it was a nightclub. So, they hire the venues on Sunday, because nothing’s really happening on a Sunday. And they have their services there. So, it’s the place that these kids go, you know, on a weeknight to go dancing and go clubbing, and they can go to the church on Sunday. So, you see that overlapping and integration of the secular world, the blurring of the borders of the secular and the religious worlds.
I imagine that that makes them quite successful, as many of the megachurches in the U.S. have been. One of the challenges in the U.S, that we know that we’re facing right now is the rise of the religious “nones,” N-O-N-E-S. I saw a tweet today from an American sociologist that says the latest polling data that’s out about them is that they are potentially 34% now of America–is no longer identifying with a religious affiliation. And so that when you ask them whether they’re Christian, or what kind of Christian they are, or if there’s some other religion, they’re now answering “none” on all of that. And so, among youth, however, in the U.S., it’s much higher than 34%. Is Hillsong, among the Brazilian youths that are there, are they bucking the trend that we’re seeing in the U.S. about such things, where the youth are not coming to the churches like they used to?
Well, you can see this double movement. I don’t think the one thing, you know, negates the other. Here, too, you know, the largest single group is some 30%. They are “nones,” right? So, it has increased quite a lot. And in Brazil, also, you know, I think it’s 8%. That was 10 years ago, the last census [was] 10 years ago–they’re going to have a census next year. But at the same time, Hillsong is trying to attract, and they do attract, a lot of young people. We know also that these “nones” are not necessarily not spiritual, right?
So, the idea that, so they could, you know, dabble and go a little bit to the church, because these mega churches are open, so you don’t have to get involved. They are all-encompassing churches. As you said, it’s a, what we call a total social fact. That you can go on a Monday, you have classes about leadership and business and youth meetings and band practice and you go skating, skateboarding in the car park, as I see at Hillsong. You know, the kids are safe there; the parents feel that the kids are safe. And I’ve been doing research with African Australians going to Hillsong now. And one of the things they say is that “oh, you know, I was Anglican in Kenya, my wife was Catholic, but we came here. And the kids really want to go to Hillsong. And you know, it’s a wonderful place. We go as a family. So, it’s a place we can go as a family. But also they have business groups, so I can meet people.” So, these people are older than the Brazilians, so they meet at the business group, and then they find jobs.
And so, the church is open to that. And what Hillsong does really well is that they have community groups. So, you have the Brazilian group within Hillsong in each campus. You have the African Australian group. So, you have a leader of the group, and then they have Connect groups that they meet at people’s houses. So, it becomes a community, and that’s very important. Then they have the multicultural evening or services once a year. And then they have food, you know, that the communities cook and sell for fundraising. They have the services with the music from the community. They lead the service. So, it’s very exciting and very open. And I interviewed many African Australians, and they said they had never felt racism, even though they feel race/racism all around them in Australia, not in the church. They were accepted in the church.
What I would like to say, of course, is that they have, you know, the Brazilians and the Africans have their own churches, own Brazilian churches, and these churches are even more directed at the diaspora in the sense that they cater for their needs. The services are in their own language. They do have again, food, you know, they have fundraisers with their own food. They support each other finding jobs. The pastors have been here longer, the Brazilian pastors, so they can help them, you know, write a C.V., learn about the rules of the country, how you pay your taxes, how you do things in your own language. So, they are very much catered to the diaspora. And what I found is that many Brazilians, they arrive here, and they want to go to Hillsong because they will learn English, they will meet Australians, which is very hard, you know, local Australians, very hard to do in their own everyday lives. They feel that there is a way of integrating themselves in learning more about the country. But they get, you know, tired because it’s the language issue. It’s all new. So, they also love going to this church that I was doing research in. So they have–one pastor told me it was more of a “trampoline” phenomenon, that they go to Hillsong one Sunday, they come to our church the next Sunday, and they go back and forth, back and forth, you know, until they decide where they’re going to go. But they could go for years with this. So, it’s very hard for the Brazilian pastors to be able to plan to have really a community, a congregation, there that they can count on.
As we come to the end of our time today, I want to end on kind of a methodological note. I’ve noted a couple of times when you’ve said that your information comes from interviewing or from direct fieldwork at these sites. Can you speak a little bit as an anthropologist about why ethnography and fieldwork is the right way, for you, to figure out what’s going on in these communities and to explain what kinds of things are valuable to them? Why is that the method that seems most appropriate here?
I think it’s the way of hearing their voices. And, you know, humans are very logical. They can be very emotional and all this, but they are very logical as well. So, if you dismiss any religious group, or any group, and say “oh, you know, they’re lunatics, they’re mad, and why would they do that?” you’re not paying attention. So, the ways in which you can be with them, and listen to them, but also have the experience in your body.
So, it’s not only–ethnography is not about interviewing people. You interview people. And mostly, as in any conversation, you meet somebody new. This person comes from the university. You don’t have a university degree, or you are at a university, but you feel like you want to please this person, to impress this person, right? So, interviewing is very much about what, you know, how people react to you as a social persona, you know, like, being a university professor and all this. Now, when you are with people in on a more daily basis, people start relaxing and being themselves. And you start, you know, there are chats and silences and things people say when they are relaxed that you don’t get in interviews. But you also, as an ethnographer, you live the things that people are living in your own body.
So, you spend, you know, an hour and a half in the service, in the dark, with the lights going and music going, and you understand what kinds of aural experiences, physical, visual experiences you have. So, you learn with your body. And I think that’s very important so that these two things–finding out the logic of this commitment to these churches or these spiritual movements, but also learning in your own body what people feel. So, it’s not only that you learn rationally, but you learn with the body. And I think, you know, this is very important and gives me an edge on how to report, and being very respectful of these people and how you report their logic.
Well, I’m so grateful for your time today, Dr. Rocha. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you. And I know that we are going to have a great time sharing this interview with all of our listeners as the second piece in our look at Pentecostal and charismatic communities and transnational charismatic communities in Australia. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Oh, it’s been wonderful. I really enjoyed it, and I hope it helps start a conversation or continue a conversation on transnational movement, transnational mobility, and religion. Thank you.
Cristina Rocha. 2020. “Global Flows, Local Contexts: Pentecostalism in Australia”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 16/11/2020. Transcribed by Savannah H. Finver. Version 1.0, 16/11/2020. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/global-flows-local-contexts-pentecostalism-in-australia/
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