Navigating stasis and mobility: The journey of anointing oil
Podcast with Kathleen Openshaw (14 September 2020).
Interviewed by Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulos
Transcribed by David McConeghy
Audio and transcript available at:
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 00:15
I’m Maxine Connolly Panagopoulos and it’s a Thursday evening here in Glasgow and a chilly Friday morning in Sydney. I’m speaking to Dr. Kathleen Openshaw today about her work within the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Australia. Kathleen, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.
Kathleen Openshaw 00:35
Hey, Maxine, and thank you so much for having me, thanks to the Religious Studies Project for having me as well. I’m an avid listener of the podcast. So it’s kind of great to be included in the catalogue of scholars that are part of this project. If you don’t mind, I’d like to start by just acknowledging that I’m speaking from the unceded Land of the Cadigal People of the Eora nation, and I just want to pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging, and to serve and to celebrate the diversity of Aboriginal people and their ongoing culture and connection to the lands and waters of Australia. And I also just want to pay my respects to any Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people who are listening to this podcast.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 01:24
Amazing. Thank you for that. Your work focuses mostly on African migrant experiences in the global north. And in this episode, I wanted to focus on your 2019 article, which I’ll of course link in the description, but you investigate the increasing spiritual capital around the single vial of oil as it makes an epic journey. And I must say I’m really, really excited for this episode, because my own research touches on similar concepts, but mostly I’m excited because even though you’re in Australia, and I’m in Glasgow. We’re both from Johannesburg, South Africa. And we’ve spent about half an hour before we’ve started recording, just reminiscing and all I want is rusks from South Africa.
Kathleen Openshaw 02:17
This is also me.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 02:18
Yeah, exactly. But it is such a great coincidence. But anyways, I thought we’d sort of start just kind of by outlining your research within the Universal Church, and really before moving on to some of the more theoretical contributions that you make. So just for context, can you tell me a little bit about the Universal Church of the kingdom of God and maybe outline their origins and how they exist within Australia?
Kathleen Openshaw 02:50
Yeah, absolutely. So as many scholars of Pentecostalism would know the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, or so I don’t have to say the whole name. The UCKG or the Universal Church is basically a Brazilian transnational mega church. It’s sort of considered to be part of the Third Wave of Brazilian Pentecostalism. So, Paul Freston writes a lot about this. Basically, this wave is associated with Prosperity Gospel, miraculous healing, and that kind of very sort of established spiritual battlefield, which kind of plays out a lot, or certainly did in my field work. But basically, the universal church had really humble beginnings in a bandstand in Rio de Janeiro. Edir Macedo, who was one of the founders literally would turn up at this band stand in a very poor area, with a microphone and a Bible, and he would preach the Word and basically the crowd sort of outgrew the bandstand. So, he moved into his first church, which was a funeral parlor. The first service was held in July in 1977. The church has basically just mushroomed since then. It kind of grew, and it was fitting sort of old cinemas, and then it started having sort of purpose built branches. And then of course, these huge cathedrals that they started building. In particular, for those of you who might be interested, they’ve just recently in 2014, so perhaps not that recently, opened this huge temple in Sao Paulo called the Temple of Solomon. And, basically, it’s a replica of the biblical Temple of Solomon. The church in the last sort of four decades has been exponentially, both in Brazil but also has exceeded the metropolis of Brazil. There’s about 7000 temples and about 128 countries. It’s pretty conservative and has really kind of played quite a prominent role in mobilizing sort of the evangelical vote in Brazil. For instance, the current mayor of Rio de Janeiro is a bishop in the church. And then, the leader Edir said, I mentioned earlier of the founder, and who is now kind of like the head Bishop also play quite an important role in supporting Jair Bolsonaro who is, as you know, Brazil’s newly what? Probably not newly elected now. He was elected in 2018, but [is still] Brazil’s President.
Kathleen Openshaw 06:00
It’s certainly a huge church. What’s really interesting is that the Australian branch only kind of started in 2006. So, it was a pretty late sort of church planting by the church. And it eventually became the Australian headquarters. The Australian headquarters of the Universal Church is about 30 kilometers outside of Sydney CBD in Liverpool. Liverpool is one of Australia’s oldest urban hubs. It’s also one of the most kind of culturally religiously and linguistically diverse places in Australia. It was established in a really cramped little rented room above a row shops and fast food joints. Then, as is probably kind of quite common in a lot of branches, it sort of outgrew that. Now it’s between a Vietnamese bakery and a GP’s office, just off the road. And it basically it’s moved into like an old insurance company. The building is very sort of corporate. You only really know that it’s a church, because it’s a very well-dressed pastor that is often out there handing out flyers. And then there’s a little white dove in a red heart on the glass. And that’s really common. You see that around in the universal churches. That’s kind of how you know that it’s universal church.
Kathleen Openshaw 07:47
You had spoken a little bit about how the universal church in the Australian context. Why do you believe that it’s so attractive to migrants from the Global South?
Kathleen Openshaw 08:01
So, the thing with the Australian church in particular is that it basically, it seems to attract people from the Global South. It’s a very strong cohort of [unclear], South Sudanese. There’s a lot of Samoans. In other countries like South Africa. And really, the thing with the Universal Church is that globally, outside of Brazil, the Universalist congregation tends to be non-Brazilian, socially disenfranchised, kind of poorer and darker skinned, and either sort of rural or international migrants. There’s a couple of ethnographies. So, for instance, when Wyk’s ethnography about the universal church in South Africa, where it will be more local kind of congregants. They’re still experiencing high levels of disenfranchisement. So I kind of have three ideas as to as to why it might be attractive in an Australian context to people from the Global South. And basically, the Universal Church’s congregation is a church of others. And, again, Ilana van Wyk writes, the title of her book is **A Church of Strangers**. What she’s saying is that you don’t get the usual sort of, sort of Christian fellowship and warmth that you would expect from a church, right? And I didn’t find that in the Australian congregation. In fact, I found that there is definitely that sort of like horizontal warmth and fellowship that takes place. But what congregation is, is rather a church of others. They are societal others. They are those who are marginalized in Australian society. So, what makes the Universal Church attractive? Well, I kind of think that firstly, in Australia where there is a pretty strong White nationalist voice and these kind of like anti migrant sentiments, the Universal Church places those who are geographically and socially marginalized, from Australia sort of centers of power, it sort of places them in a spiritual center of power, if that makes any sense? Where their access to power is not dependent on their migrant status or their skin color. One of the other things that I think really draws my migrants from the global south to the church is that the Universal’s Cosmos Vision is easily translatable. So that kind of embracing of an enchanted worldview. There is that sort of broad continuity with congregant’s own kind of cultural religious framework. So, the UCKG kind of creates a sort of magical space. But it’s embedded under the rubric of Christianity. That way, migrants are able to kind of be involved in this enchanted worldview. But, of course, it’s under the umbrella of Christianity.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 11:40
That’s so interesting. In my research, I sort of found a similar thing where my participants would celebrate Yaldā Night in church, you know, and that’s something that in a Glasgow sort of Christian context would not fly, right? It does seem to be the space where the sort of more magical cultural elements are allowed so that’s really, really interesting. And what was the third thing?
Kathleen Openshaw 12:09
So, the third thing. Just to speak to that point, actually. I want you to say, with these marginalized people, right? That kind of magical…. I use magical in a way that is, you know, I’m not pooh-poohing it in any way. These are really powerful things that are they’re taking place in this church, right? But what they’re doing is they’re using that kind of an embracing of an enchanted worldview to really address the challenges and hardships that they’re facing. Particularly the difficulties that they’re experiencing in Australia, as well. So, for instance, a couple of the South Africans in the church would be really concerned about like Muti. So Maxinne you know what Muti is. It is basically kind of like sangomas, or like, witch doctors would have this kind of Muti medicine that, you know, can be used for good or for bad. But often, in a Christian context, would be used for bad and they sort of like counteract the effects of that Muti or that curse by using like holy water, for instance.
Kathleen Openshaw 13:27
The third thing is, I think that the church really provides… And Linda van de Kamp talks about this in her work. She’s done a lot of work with Brazilian Pentecostalism in Mozambique. Incredible work. Well worth the read. She refers to pioneering techniques. So basically, the Universal Church teaches these techniques to overcome the life obstacles. So again, it kind of speaks to this engagement with the sort of spiritual battle that’s going on, but there’s sort of parallel as well with these life battles that are taking place. When you are living quite a precarious life as many of the congregants in the church do, not all of them, but many of them, and many of them experience marginalization. What the Church teaches is these kinds of tools of faith that they kind of implement that’ll help them change their physical lives. There’s a lot of emphasis on what– I mean, it’s quite neo-liberal in its approach– What can you do to change your circumstances? Here are some of the tools and of course a lot of these tools are our spiritual tools, right? There are tools because when you have done everything that you can to change your life. You know, you’ve stood in the queues. You filled out all the paperwork. You’ve gone to the lawyers. You’ve applied for a million jobs. There has to be something else going on, right? So, the Church doesn’t necessarily take into account kind of the structural violence that a lot of the migrants in this church or children of migrants in this church are experiencing. But what it does is it talks about kind of like, the sort of spiritual blockages that you can remove or circumnavigate by using these pioneering techniques. These are the tools of faith. So that’s why I think a lot of people turn up because the church is not warm and fuzzy, right? You’re fighting a cosmic battle. It expects a lot from. You’re sacrificing, sometimes quite huge amounts of money, your time. Like I said, it’s not warm and fuzzy, because you’re fighting a battle. So, it’s, you know, it’s a church where you go and you sort your life out.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 16:16
Yeah, this sort of leads quite nicely into my next question, you know, coming back to those tools of faith as you were talking about, and so the practical but also the more material tools. Your article speaks a lot, obviously, about anointing oil, and how that seems to be quite central to the church. And one of the great anecdotes that I loved in your article was when you spoke about the woman in the congregation suggesting that, you know, you put some anointing oil in your partner’s food to get him to propose to you. I really quite enjoyed that.
Kathleen Openshaw 16:52
Yeah, because he was taking his time. And every time I turned up at the church they were like, “Did you pop the question yet” Because, of course, it’s quite a conservative church. Like “you’re living with this man,” you know? I think somebody said, “why would he buy the cow if he was getting the milk for free?” Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if you want to cut that bit out, but I was getting the distinct impression that it was time that my husband hurried up and married: “made a good woman of me.”
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 17:22
Well, it seemed to work.
Kathleen Openshaw 17:24
You know, we did get married, and he did propose about six months after. I’m not telling you whether I put the anointing oil in his food or not, that’s between me and God.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 17:35
But again, even that anecdote just seems to speak to how widely the oil was used. And so, what is the significance of this oil within that congregation?
Kathleen Openshaw 17:51
This kind of speaks to the Universal Church’s embedding its practices in materiality. Anointing oil is a really precious thing in the universal church. Often, they would have these big events where the oil is either kind of consecrated in various ways or it’s come from Israel, as in the case of Halima’s story in the article that you are mentioning. It’s a really powerful thing and it has biblical significance both in the Old and New Testament. But essentially, anointing oil is this kind of spiritual panacea. It’s able to cast out demons. Heal the sick. If you rub it on your wallet it can help with your financial state of affairs. If you perhaps put it in your partner’s food, you know, he’ll hurry up and marry you. The congregants acknowledge that like the oil in itself is just plain olive oil, right? But what happens is that the oil undergoes this change. And that can happen in various ways, though it’s usually through sort of consecration. And if it comes from particularly, I write about kind of like the spiritual epicenter. For instance, you know, Israel or the temple in Sao Paolo. Those are really powerful centers where the presence of God is very close. You have this sort of spiritual capacity that’s almost kind of imbued in this oil. It’s through this anointing oil that there is really that kind of point of contact between congregants and God. It makes their faith tangible. For instance, it’s really interesting how the holy oil is used. They have these, and obviously after the pandemic they’ve kind of I think they’ve had to kind of scale back their services, but they used to have the service that you would go to if you yourself had an addiction or if a loved one of yours had an addiction. You would go and you would pray for them. But often, what you would also do is you would anoint a picture of them if you were praying on behalf of a loved one. It could be on your phone or it could be a physical like photo of them. You would anoint basically the site where they consume the substance with the anointing oil. And in that way, you are drawing God’s attention to this place, so that he can then get involved and sort out the addiction. It’s used for a number of things, and it’s really powerful. And when there’s these big events, you only kind of…. You’d be queuing up to get a vial of oil because you might be lucky and get two but, chances are, you’re only getting one, so you better use it wisely kind of thing.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 21:16
That’s fascinating and really speaks to the power of that meaning as well. And I just wanted to pick up you had mentioned, Halima’s story, you know. It’s that obviously one of your participants that the article sort of surrounded. Could you briefly explain sort of her story and how it relates to the anointing oil?
Kathleen Openshaw 21:37
Yeah. Halima is one of the most incredible women I’ve ever met. We used to hang out on the train. I would always sit in the same sort of place, and then she’d get on the train and we’d like to hang out on our way up to church and then take an envelope. She was from Sudan, and she walked pregnant from Sudan to Egypt with her four young children to seek asylum. There was a lot of unrest. Her husband and her father were quite involved politically. She feared for her children and herself. She walked, and then stayed in a refugee camp in Egypt for a couple of years before she was then given refugee status, and then, sorry, like asylum, she sought asylum in Australia.
Kathleen Openshaw 22:49
I remember her saying to me, she didn’t realize she was black until she got to Australia. And then that’s all she was. And when she arrived, she had a really awful time. She was treated incredibly badly. She had real difficulties navigating the system. Although Halima spoke, I mean, she was a polyglot, she spoke a good number of languages. You know, she was still getting, getting her English kind of to a point where she would be able to kind of apply for a job. She had a really difficult time. In the church, like I mentioned, you know, it really teaches you how to use your faith. So, one day, we kind of mesh on the train and she was just looking pretty down and just wasn’t herself. She told me that she had got news that her mother, who was still in Sudan, was gravely ill with breast cancer and they kind of caught it too late. And you know, as Halima would say, you know, they only really had medicines of war. She was really concerned about her mother. She didn’t think that she would be able to visit her mother because not only is it you know, astronomically expensive for her to go over. Bear in mind, Halima was not earning a lot of money. It was supporting family members and that kind of thing. But her now Australian citizenship would also make it quite complicated for her to travel when she did get to the other side.
Kathleen Openshaw 24:30
So, Halima, the way she always does, she made a plan. And you know, like Maxinne, a **Boer maak n plan**. Halima was like, “Look, you know, I’m stuck here. My ability to see my mother is not…. My immobility here is not going to impede on my ability to help my mother,” essentially. She decided to do what she was taught in the church and use her faith. She fasted. She sacrificed for money. You know, she called. She upped her evangelism as well. She was doing kind of extra shifts on the evangelism front. And there was this event that was coming up. The event was a distribution of anointing oil that had come from Israel. And essentially, when she got that oil that was imbued with the spiritual power from Israel, but it had been consecrated in Israel by the UCKG pastors there, had been shipped over. Of course, it’s a big event. It received the consecration both by the pastors here in Australia but also by that kind of communal praying into the holy oil. But it didn’t stop there. She took her vial of oil, and she got other people to pray over the oil for her mother in particular, and she got the pastors to pray over the oil. And then the question was, well, how is she going to get the oil there? You’ll have to read the paper, which is a plug for paper. But she was able to basically get this holy oil that had traveled from Israel via the sort of transnational UCKG networks to her mother.
Kathleen Openshaw 26:37
And perhaps the outcome that she wanted, which was to cure her mother might not have been eventuated. But something else, according to Halima, more miraculous happened. Again, a plug for paper, you have to read it. But for her was really important that she used this anointing oil to overcome her own inability and to connect with her mother on her deathbed. And that’s how she did it.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 27:08
I mean, not that the paper needs any more plugging, but it really did a good job. It really is such an amazing story. Just to pick up on a couple things that you were talking about, you know, one of this really interesting takes, I think, that you had on this journey of the oil was that idea about material religion, and that relationship between, or how these participants or how the congregation used material religion to sort of collapse this binary between mobility and spaces? How do you sort of conceptualize that?
Kathleen Openshaw 27:49
So, I think this kind of, you know, mobility and immobility is a bit of a kind of false binary when we’re thinking about migration, right. It’s a really good complicated relationship. Who goes? Who stays? There’s this complex interaction between the individual in these sorts of big and powerful global regimes of mobility, where the desirable versus the undesirable migrant is sort of weeded out. Not everyone has equal access to mobility, and it’s not even just sort of physical mobility. It’s sort of that existential mobility as well. So a lot of what I was hearing from congregants during my fieldwork is that there are these kind of — and the UCKG would interpret this as kind of like the spiritual blockages, right? — that is inhibiting you from moving forward in your life. Because [El-Haj?] talks about the sense of stuckness and that’s really what my congregants were feeling. There are these obstacles in their path. That’s essentially stopping them from living this kind of imagined Australian dream, right? Where, you know, you can own a home and have a good job and be safe in your bed at night and where your family is happy and safe and well.
Kathleen Openshaw 29:20
I think what I was trying to understand is, what was it about the Universal Church and its spiritual networks and its obvious investment in materiality, that was helping people kind of navigate these blockages? They were using and they use the materiality of religious practice. A lot of the time to sort of generate spiritual capital, for instance… So spiritual capital. I like to define it as a sort of intangible supernatural asset, right? And you get it by your connectedness with God. And it’s by generating this capital, that you then have the capacity to use spiritual means to overcome secular obstacles. Because when you’ve done all you can in the secular world, you know, something supernatural has to step in, basically.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 30:32
That spiritual capital aspects of it is so important because as you mentioned, you know, this vial went from Israel to Australia to South Sudan and creates all of this capital as it goes along and changes all these hands.
Kathleen Openshaw 30:52
Sorry, I got really excited. Yeah.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 30:57
So, unfortunately, we have sort of come to a little bit of the end of my time.
Kathleen Openshaw 31:04
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 31:06
I know! There’s so much that I want to just dwell deeper into and just totally geek out on. You know, but I wonder if you sort of had a final or before the final words of, you know, maybe just thinking about this purpose of religious objects and, and what it brings to the lives of these congregants?
Kathleen Openshaw 31:27
I think what’s important is that these objects, as I mentioned kind of earlier, really make their faith tangible. In my research, I wanted to look at what it was about the global networks that were so important to local congregants. And try to understand that relationship between faith and materiality of spiritual practice. How is that used in really complex and incredible ways to facilitate migrant settlement in Australians multicultural context that is not always friendly, particularly to people of color. And I think that these objects, in various ways through accruing spiritual capital, for instance, by being tangible, really do help with the negotiation of those obstacles. Yes, yeah,
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 32:38
Kathleen Openshaw 32:40
It’s a conduit of faith, right? You’re connecting these kinds of local congregants to God and the power of God
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 32:51
Through this thing that tangible
Kathleen Openshaw 32:53
It’s a spirtual thing which has capacity, right? So, it’s not just kind of like this inanimate sort of object. It has the spiritual capacity to change. And, of course, that spiritual capacity is there because of all of the work that the congregation has done in order to be right with God. So, it’s really the conduit.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 33:24
Finally, I know you’ve recently published a book. Congratulations, by the way.
Kathleen Openshaw 33:30
Thank you. That was an edited collection with Christina Rocha and Mark Hutchinson.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 33:38
What’s that about right now? What’s the focus of your research currently?
Kathleen Openshaw 33:44
Okay. So, the book that was just recently published, like I mentioned, is a cross disciplinary book. Really what we were doing is we were looking at the incredible diversity of Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity in an Australian context. Christina Rocha, who’s over in Western Sydney University with myself, she was my PhD supervisor, as well as Mark Hutchinson, who is a historian and is over in Alphacrucis. Basically, the book was a combination of people from all different disciplines coming together, and just geeking out over Pentecostalism in Australia. It was loads of fun. I’m an anthropologist, so I always find it so incredibly, intellectually stimulating speaking to people who are in a different discipline to myself but find the same sort of stuff cool. So yeah, that’s come out. Is that another plug?
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 34:51
You should? Absolutely. It will be linked in the description.
Kathleen Openshaw 34:57
I’m shameless. At the moment, I’m working with Christina Rocha, again, and Richard Vokes, who is over at the University of Western Australia, and they won an Australian Research Council grant, a discoveries project grant, to look at African Christians in Australia. Our research has gone through some challenges given that both Chris… well, all three of us are anthropologists. So, we weren’t necessarily able to do kind of like the ethnographic stuff that we wanted to do because of all the restrictions in lockdown. But we’ve been able to do some interviews and stuff. We’re kind of really focused on African Christians, African Australians, and their understanding of faith. Again, that’s sort of like negotiation of the migrant experience and faith. It’s really common throughout my work.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 36:03
Yeah, no, I’m it’s absolutely fascinating. And obviously I will link, you know, your bio and everything that you’re working on. And I just wanted to thank you so much, Kathleen. It’s been such a pleasure interviewing you. I kept interrupting you because I’m so giddy and excited.
Kathleen Openshaw 36:23
I had a great time. And can I just say it’s like 8:20 in the morning here in Sydney now and I am buzzing for the day.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 36:33
Well, it’s almost 11pm and I have to go to bed.
Kathleen Openshaw 36:38
Oh no! Thank you so much for staying up so late, Maxine, I really appreciate it. Amazing.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 36:42
All right, fantastic.
Kathleen Openshaw 36:43
Thank you. And thank you for inviting me on. I’ve had a great time.
Maxinne Connolly-Panogoupolos 36:49
Yeah, absolutely. All right. Goodbye
Kathleen Openshaw 36:51
Openshaw, Kathleen and Maxinne Connolly-Panagopoulos. 2020. “Navigating stasis and mobility: The journey of anointing oil,” The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 14 September 2020. Transcribed by David McConeghy. Version 1.1, 14 September 2020. Available at:
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