Inside the Mighty (mainly white) Men's Conference

GREYTOWN, South Africa — Tens of thousands of men sitting on plastic chairs and bales of hay suddenly jumped to their feet and cheered as evangelist preacher Angus Buchan finally appeared on a stage large enough to accommodate a full symphony orchestra.

Buchan’s appearance was by no means certain. He had collapsed twice the day before because of an irregular heartbeat and was flown to a nearby hospital. The seriousness of the incident was not lost on him.

“Jesus says, ‘Unless you’re born again, you’ll never see the kingdom of heaven.’ I saw, I glimpsed yesterday,” Buchan said, his voice loud but trembling. “You know what happened chaps? I’ll tell you what happened. They evacuated me with a helicopter out of my front lawn, and I looked and I saw all of you praying for me. And that’s why I love you! That’s why I love you!”

Buchan's Mighty Men’s Conference has grown in just a few years into a phenomenon, becoming one of the largest Christian gatherings of its kind. Close to 200,000 men flocked from all corners of South Africa in April to the rolling fields outside this small farming town in the eastern province of Kwazulu-Natal to hear the gospel of Buchan, a corn and potato farmer turned crusader for Christ.

Over three days, the participants — all male and most of them white — camped on land adjacent to Buchan’s farm and walked twice daily to his open-air chapel. Buchan's evangelistic message was broadcast on God TV.

Many men enjoy the event’s collegial atmosphere, but it is Buchan’s message that draws them. By urging them to surrender their life to Jesus and by promoting the importance of their role as the heads of their families, Buchan provides white males with the order and structure some crave in a rapidly changing South Africa. Many have been church-goers but have been captivated by Buchan's message special directed at them, telling them they can be Mighty Men.

“I’m a Christian, and I enjoy the message that Angus gives us, for me to return back to take my right position as Christian leader of the family home,” said Shawn Mackridge, a 40-year-old computer scientist from Germiston, southeast of Johannesburg. “It’s what’s needed in this country.”

Buchan is part of the revivalist tradition that seeks to instill new life into existing Christians, mostly Protestants, many of them white, according to Yolanda Dreyer, a professor of practical theology at the University of Pretoria.

South Africa's white males have had a tough transition since the end of apartheid. It has become increasingly difficult for them to find and hold the well-paying jobs they previously monopolized and which made them the unquestioned heads of their families, Dreyer said.

Under South Africa’s new employment equity laws, even white women benefit, but white men rank at the bottom of the barrel. That's why white South African men are particularly attracted to Buchan, who advocates that once men find their place as leaders of their families, the country will be better off, said Dreyer.

“Afrikaans culture still tends to be a little bit conservative as well as patriarchal so I can imagine that such a message would appeal to Afrikaner men,” she said. “It’s really kind of an identity crisis for Afrikaner males if the woman is the breadwinner.”

Born to Scottish parents in the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo, Buchan packed up his belongings and family in 1976 and moved to South Africa. There, he built up a new farm from scratch but was prone to anger and fits of bad temper. Close to a breaking point, he accepted his friends’ invitation to a small Methodist church. “A miracle happened. Jesus came into our lives,” Buchan wrote in his best-selling autobiography, “Faith Like Potatoes,” which has been made into a movie.

Many more miracles followed, according to Buchan, from bumper crops in the middle of a drought to rain putting out runaway fires. Gradually, Buchan transformed himself from a farmer into a full-time preacher. He built a home for AIDS orphans on his farm and took his  gospel to stadiums across South Africa and as far away as Britain and Australia.

While Buchan’s following is mostly white, he has also made inroads into black communities. He is fluent in Zulu, allowing him to convey his message to the local black population, with whom his healing sessions are especially popular.

The future of the Buchan phenomenon is unclear. He fills stadiums wherever he goes, and the magnitude of the Mighty Men’s Conference is growing quickly. But Buchan, in his sixties, is looking ever more mortal. The reason for his recent collapse remains vague, but his doctors have ordered six weeks of rest.

“There is no structure to back it up. He’s not starting a church, so in 10 years’ time who is gonna do this?” Dreyer asked. “If Buchan gets too old to do this, and there is no such charismatic leader who can carry the torch forward, it will fizzle out I should think.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to add more information.

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