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Heaven is in Bushwick, Brooklyn

Worship so buoyant that every hip and knee in the sanctuary is swaying as though floating on a cloud

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The Celestial worship at sanctuary in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


The worship is so buoyant that every set of hips and knees in the sanctuary is swaying as though floating on a cloud. Nigerian hymns played on guitar and keyboard, accompanied by a small choir and a percussionist on a full drum set, swell to the vaulted ceilings of what was formerly a Catholic church.

The multitude of people in the carpeted sanctuary is dressed in white, floor-length robes. Some of them have gold or blue sashes tied around their waists.

The Celestials emphasize that all their church services are windows onto the same Heaven and the One God. The Shepherd-in-Charge of the Bushwick congregation, Superior Evangelist Solomon Yusef, says, “How we worship is the same all over the world.”


Toddling in Heaven. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


Church chairs are stacked on either side of the room, and the floor is open. Men stand to the right of the sanctuary and women to the left, while the handful of toddlers in the service ignore the partition and swim between the bodies on both sides. Everyone is in their stocking feet, dancing and singing along with the music.

On the left side, almost underneath the stacked chairs, flickers a white candle affixed to a silver platter.

Towards the front of the sanctuary, jugs of water are blessed as they sit before a framed portrait of Jesus.

On the altar, there are seven white candles in a golden candelabrum, their flames reaching up towards heaven. Heaven and earth are entwined in the heady musk of incense and body sweat.

This is Sunday morning at the Bushwick branch of the Celestial Church of Christ, a church that sees itself as the hinge between the heavenly realms above and the mortal world outside its doors

Their mantra? Trade the brutish, fearful struggle of life for the sweet blessings found in God’s will.



The origins of the Celestial Church of Christ

The African-Initiated denomination, which means that it was started by Africans and not by missionaries from another continent, fuses some ritual styles from traditional Yoruba culture with the beliefs of Christianity to make a sublime worship service.

Founded in 1947 in Porto Novo, Benin, the Celestial Church grew out of a Yoruba worldview of a universe that is competitive and dangerous. In that view, the supreme god Olodumare created the cosmos in two parts: the orun, the heaven or sky that is home of spiritual entities, and the aye, the world that humans inhabit. In the aye also live the paranormal powers orisa, that may be benevolent to those who offer them sacrifices and pray to them, and the ajogun that want the annihilation of mankind. Many Yoruba believe that humans must struggle through this landscape of contradictory powers to achieve their individual destinies.

Benjamin C. Ray, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, labels this an “intentional” world—a world where everything that happens has a cause and a meaning. “Explanations must therefore address the question 'Why?' and answer it by appeal to human or spiritual agency of some kind,” Ray argues. Participants can reveal those meanings and purposes through divination, and by ritual means can control circumstances and achieve their own God-given destiny.


Hallelujah! Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


Holy! Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

Oh, thank Heaven! Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


Transcendent intentionality

However, the Christian doctrine of the Celestials supplants the human manipulation of the powers through rituals with a belief in a Supreme God’s transcendent provisions. The Celestials turn their ritual supplications toward God and yield their prayers to his will. They see a loving God as a power that surpasses all human and spiritual manipulations.

This does not mean they become passive in their rites. Rather, Celestial congregants double down in their prayers, trusting that God will not ignore their persistent pleas. The difference is that at the end of the service, the congregants believe that God, rather than their own control, will work their prayers to fruition, and that answers will come to them in this life rather than waiting until after death.

So, the congregation resists any type of ritual that would try to take control away from God. Yusef explains, “We don’t go to herbalists or consult palm readers. We have prophets and prophetesses” who “pray only to one entity.” The prophet or prophetess goes into a trance, and they receive a message from God or from angels, which they then share with the rest of the church. Being a prophet is “a gift from God. Nobody can make someone a prophet or prophetess.”

He sums up, “This is one-on-one, if you want to consult God about what you don’t understand about your life: past, future, or what to do.” The Celestials do not look for answers outside of what is revealed by God.


Before the altar. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


The founder of the Celestials

The Celestial Church was begun by a carpenter named Samuel Bilewu Joseph Oshoffa who feared a trend of Christian churches falling into cults and witchcraft. On a trip to harvest ebony wood, Oshoffa heard a voice that told him it was “The Grace of God.” He felt a change come over him, and his supernatural calling scared his canoe paddler, who left him in the forest. For three months, Oshoffa wandered, lived off honey from empty bees’ nests, and saw visions of his mission.

He returned proclaiming that an angel had commissioned him to bring Christians who had slipped into the Yoruba spiritism back to the true religion of pure Christianity.

“Many nominal Christians there are who, when confronted by difficulties and problems of this world, they run after fetish priests and other powers of darkness for all kinds of assistance,” the angel warned Oshoffa. “Consequently, on their death, they cannot see Christ because, by their action, Satan has left his spiritual mark on them.”

The angel told Oshoffa that he would receive spiritual gifts to “testify to the fact that God sent you.” Subsequently, he gained his first followers by miraculously healing the sick, raising the dead, prophesying the future, and speaking in what Celestials believe to be angelic language.

He called his church “Celestial” to signify its closeness to heaven.

He established headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria. The denomination is one of the most widespread African-Initiated denominations in the world. The church spread globally and now self-reports more than 5,000 parishes worldwide and millions of members.

Founded in 1977, the Bushwick parish is the first Celestial church in New York City and is the largest in the city with 300 members attending tri-weekly services.


The Celestial Church of Christ, Bushwick, Brooklyn. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


The Heavenly Sanctuary

The sanctuary and services of the Celestial Church are set up to reflect what heaven looks like here on earth. The congregants wear all white and remove their shoes to enter the sacred space of the sanctuary. Men and women enter through different doors and stand on opposite sides of the room.

After everyone has entered, tall wooden beams are placed diagonally across the doorway to barricade the space from any unholy spirits, as well as people disrupting the service by entering and leaving.

The service began with songs of worship that get every congregant on their feet. Using a Yoruba language hymnbook, the congregation filled the sanctuary with a joyous sound. During the singing, women collected an offering on large plastic trays. They then danced to the front of the room and put the offering on the floor. There, a younger leader dressed in purple prayed over the gifts.


Heaven is as sweet as sugar and honey. Paulilne Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

Jesus gives the blessings. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions


The congregation kneels and the shepherds of the church pour blessed water out of plastic jugs into their hands and fling the droplets above the crowd.

Then one of the pastors leads the congregation in a call-and-response style prayer. Most of the congregation remains on the floor, their upper bodies bowed down to the carpet and their feet tucked under them. Some remain motionless, keeping their heads down, their hands clasped, their eyes closed. Others churn with full-body shudders as they respond to the prayer.

Yusef points out their style of prayer. “We pray like the Muslims: hands up, hands down, kneel down, stand up.” This is to show proper humility. “Most people praise God but don’t worship God. When you praise, you are happy. [But] when you worship, you kneel down and worship God in reverence.”

Two more rounds of hip-swaying hymns and prostrate call-and-response prayer precede Yusef taking the microphone. He is an older man who converted into the church in the 1960s. He came to the United States with his mom and became the shepherd of the Bushwick church in 1977.

He leads the congregation, both halves of the room standing and flanking the central aisle, in a slow hymn. Raising his left hand, he directs the congregation to “pray as the Spirit directs,” and a tempest of voices fills the room.

The congregation ends their prayer with the pronouncement, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” Repeating this praise, the room turns to face the four cardinal directions.

A male congregant shares the week’s announcements and then the congregation lines up in two queues. They file to the back, where a woman holds a white tray. On the tray is a bowl of honey and a bowl of sugar cubes. As each person passes, they take a sugar cube, dip it in the honey, and eat it. “It’s a blessing from God,” explains one man.

“People come to church looking for salvation,” Yusef said. “Salvation is eternity. You have to believe in God and heaven—so pray for the redemption of sins, be rational, do things right. You cannot go there if you do not do things right.” The rituals of the service teach people the right way to worship and encourage them to bring this purity with them into the world after they leave.

Yusef continues, “Love is a salvation. If you don’t love your neighbor, no need to go to church. Turn from wrong to right. Do charity. Feed the poor. Do what the Bible asks us to so that we can be saved.” Through action, the Celestial Church of Christ truly can embody heaven on earth and lead wayward Christians back to a holy life.

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