Urban spirits
Beyond the Secular City

Dorothea Nold and Magdalena Kallenberger: “Raumtausch”, Videostill
Dorothea Nold and Magdalena Kallenberger: “Raumtausch”, Videostill | Photo (detail): © Dorothea Nold and Magdalena Kallenberger

The cultural and research project Global Prayers studies the boom of religion in the world’s metropolises.

Two cool young men in plaid shirts, a girl, a guitar on an improvised stage – nothing special so far. But then the love songs the little chorus is performing turn out to be somewhat different: “Love is stronger than death,” the three sing fervently, “Jesus, I cannot live without you.” The applause is rather sparse in the exhibition hall of the House of World Cultures (Haus der Kulturen der Welt / HKW). The band of the “Every Nation Church” had been invited to the Global Prayers congress by the artists Dorothea Nold and Magdalena Kallenberger at the end of February 2012. Normally, “Every Nation” celebrates its services in private residences in the Berlin districts of Prenzlauer Berg or Friedrichshain. The global church, which was founded in the 1990’s and has already expanded into 60 countries, has been advertising for contact with the Holy Spirit for only two years in Berlin as well. The city was long considered to be one of the world’s most “heathen” metropolises – and is a challenge for modern missionaries for this very reason. Global Prayer Congress 2012 Global Prayer Congress 2012 | Photo: Markus Lanz PK.Odessa

Revitalisation of religions

During one summer, Kallenberger and Nold had looked around here for signs of activity on the part of the new urban Christianity. Independently of the public commotion about Islamic “parallel societies,” dozens of evangelical “Free Churches,” mostly in youth-culture look, have taken root in the milieus of the creative class. They do not build new churches, but instead make use of existing venues of urban life – a club, a café or even a cinema. With just minimal interventions in the décor, a stand-up display by the door or a golden cross on the wall, a scene hot-spot turns into a prayer room. “We should avoid setting the sacred, the other, so far apart from normal life,”says one of the pastors of the “Berlinprojekt,” that holds services twice a week in the Berlin art cinema “Babylon.”

Little Berlin is only one station of the international research project “Global Prayers*Redemption and Liberation in the City.” It is studying the worldwide expansion of a born-again Christianity, in particular in the megacities of the global south. In Lagos, mega-churches are building gigantic prayer halls, in Rio de Janeiro Pentecostal communities are converting old movie theatres and factories into churches. But Islam and Hinduism are also taking on ever-new forms in mega-metropolises such as Djakarta, Istanbul, London and Mumbai. Each of the cities being studied is in turn a nodal point in a transnational network: diaspora and labour migration are scarcely conceivable without the churches, which provide a sense of community in alien lands. Today, it is estimated that there are at least 70 African church communities in Berlin alone.

New, hybrid forms of religiosity

The central thesis of the project – which was initiated by the Berlin Centre for Urban Affairs metroZones – is that the city and religion permeate each other: that not only do religious actors sacralise urban space, but that urban environments produce new, hybrid from of religiosity as well – often characterised by globalised pop and youth culture, as in the case of the Christian hip-hoppers from Lagos or Jesus funk from the favelas.

The project’s first aim is to zoom in close up on the phenomena, far from demonising or exoticising them. “It reminds me of our church congress,” said a woman visiting the House of World Culture when she saw the Nigerian prayer temple with its thousands of monoblocs, whose serial, IKEA-aesthetics had been highlighted by the artist duo Bitter/Weber. Such aesthetic cross couplings can only come about when not only national, but also disciplinary boundaries are crossed: thus, ethnographers and video artists, cultural scientists and photographers are at work in this international network. Here, new formats are being tried out, workshops and round-tables, the book “Urban Prayers,” the exhibition “Urban Cultures of Global Prayers,” and finally the “Congress Festival” in the House of World Culture.

The boundaries between the secular and the sacred

Preliminary findings of this trans-disciplinary “work in progress” reveal ambivalences above all. One thing is clear, though: today, religious affiliation is no longer necessarily determined by tradition or family ties, but is instead a product of consumer choice in a highly diverse market. But whether lifestyle and coping with everyday life, searching for spiritual meaning or ethical values are decisive here, cannot be answered in a clear-cut fashion. And what religiosity may have to do with the “right to the city” is also disputed. Nezar AlSayyad from Cairo warns against a fundamentalist city in which new dress codes and body politics strangle cosmopolitan life. By contrast, other authors, such as Abdumaliq Simone stress the right to religious and cultural difference that provides the foundation for urban co-existence of diverse cultures in the first place.

Nold and Kallenberger invited the global Christians to “trade rooms” in the House of World Culture, as palpable documentation for the fact that religiosity does not necessarily require fixed sacred sites, but instead lives above all in and through community. For their part, the Christians set up a buffet with noodle salad, cookies and gummy bears in front of the stage to break the ice. But the estrangement and contact anxiety persisted. The boundaries between the secular and the sacred have evidently not become quite so blurred as many researchers have noted - or feared. In any case, an exhibition hall cannot be evangelised all that easily.

Urban Prayers was Co-produced, among others, by the Goethe-Institut.