Caveat: This piece is neither fiction nor reality. It is a blend of both.
I was born and raised by parents who happened to be Christian ministers, so it’s easy for you to understand when I say I grew up on the bible. However, with my early immersion into Christianity came a certain kind of fascination, confusion, and remarkably, the unlocking of my imaginative prowess. While I was turning the first few pages of my life, I had been engrossed in the Pentateuch, reading amazing stories; and trying to make sense of those I thought needed verification.
Soon, I had begun to ponder on the possibility of having a mighty faceless entity showing up from nothing and commanding light and darkness to become day and night. I had imagined a massive blood-coloured sea cleave into two huge walls while a nation walked through, easing their way into redemption. I had imagined a wrinkly, old, mummified Methuselah celebrating his 900th birthday. These things were hardly ever imaginable, yet I had blurry pictures of them painted in my head. For my young mind, nothing was ever unimaginable – or impossible. And I remained oblivious of the existence of the IMPOSSIBLE word, until I stumbled on it for the first time while trying to subtract 5 from 2 in one of my earliest arithmetic classes.
Then I grew older. While I was at it – the process of developing – most of the stories I read back then began to shape my thinking. One story interestingly had the biggest effect on me. The story of creation, it was. Besides getting me to ponder on the many mysteries that were before time, I discovered in it several other figurative applications to our everyday living, starting with the line that still rings, “LET THERE BE LIGHT…!”
As if on cue, the preacher bellows, “Let there be light, and there was light…”
It’s way past midday and I begin to shift in my seat as the sermon wears on.
He roars: “God sent his son to be the light of the world. He came and conquered, so we, his children, can shine. You are the light set on a hill… It is your time to shine… Amen?”
“Turn your bibles with me to the book of…”
It is the umpteenth time he is giving that order today. I finger the copy in my hands as my mind drifts away from the stuffy auditorium for a bit. I’m a grown man now and it’s been over two decades since dad used to carry me in his arms into church. In those days, I recall there were less Christians in the world, and I could very well count on one hand, the number of churches on the stretch of road where our house stood. Those who claimed to be Christians at the time appeared to be sincerely so and somehow, many of them had hoped to win the world over to the cause they believed. Those were also days when strong moral values held sway. Parents were mirrors, living as models for their kids; never hesitating to swing the rod when the need arose. I was a witness to that. I grew up in that kind of environment. I lived in a house where it was forbidden to call white, cream; where it was binding on you to own up to every tumbler you broke. Now I won’t claim to be Saint Peter here; even if at some point, I had the honour of gleefully answering that name. I remember smashing tumblers, and telling lies; most of them butt-saving ones. I told other lies too; from the spontaneous to the carefully plotted ones. But each time I did, I lived with the guilt of a man who had murdered a household, and in some way, I found myself secretly paying penance for my iniquities.
My attention is back in the auditorium just in time for me to see my 8-year old second cousin get away with pinching an older woman’s butt. His mom, my distant cousin’s wife, apologizes to her, smacking her son playfully, and the lady smiles at him in return. I really don’t know why I think the woman enjoyed having an 8 year old pinch her sorry old arse.
Now the pastor appears to have taken the tempo a notch higher. The congregation responds generously with shrieks and howls of approval; pumping fists, jumping and screaming hallelujah to his latest bout of prophecies. I sit blandly, unexcited by the turn of events.
He proclaims, “You are the light of the world! You! Yes you!”
Pointing frantically, he addresses the guy seated just in front of me. That guy is the reason I brush the back of my hand against my nose every 10 seconds. The air around him – the air around us – smells funny. He produces a strong nauseating ooze of locally made gin every time he shouts, Hallelujah… Amen!!!
He is a regular fixture at the pool house, I have been told. The lady three seats away from him had been in a street fight with a married woman on the day I arrived. The woman had labelled her a slut, a whore, and a husband snatcher. She had gone ahead to strip her naked right in front of everyone. I think the slutty woman still bears mental scars from the fight. She looks it. But then she’s too busy claiming her blessings here to dwell on the embarrassment of the past – or the present. Her trouser hangs too low and she is giving those of us behind her a ‘free show’
At this point there is a little interference. It sounds like it is blessing time in the church two blocks away. I had noticed the church building, just as I noticed the dozen others on the short stretch of untarred road that branched from the highway, while we were on our way here this morning. There’s a husky voice over the PA system asking 10 people to come out and give generously to ‘God’s work’. The way it sounds, I can tell it belongs to some wannabe who’s trying really hard to sound like one of those established ministers out there.
“My God is not a God of small things! I urge those of you who plan to give less than N10, 000 to go back”
I almost explode in my anger-filled silence.
Then his call to ‘service’ suddenly takes me back a few years, to one morning during my service year. That cold morning at the orientation camp when I decided to worship at the Corpers’ fellowship. The visiting preacher on that day had been a feisty young man who couldn’t have been more than thirty years of age. I don’t remember the sermon he gave, but I remember the stories. He had spoken so glowingly of himself and how he came into the federal capital with nothing but an undying passion to succeed as a gospel minister. And then he told us how he had woken up one morning and taken a walk round the central business district, praying, possessing and claiming everything good; from the office of the Central Bank to that of the Ministry of finance. He had made an oath with God to leave Abuja richer than he came.
But hell! He was supposed to be a pastor. How did he intend to make money from the Central Bank?
I had stayed buried in my thoughts until he generously offered an insight. He made a ‘call’ to the congregation of Corp members. He had been relatively successful since that time, so he thought it nice to offer those of us who came in wretched like him, an opportunity to follow in his steps. All we needed to do was to pledge a $100 or an equivalent sum of N15, 000. Then he would put down our names, e-mail addresses and phone numbers. He would put us in his prayer schedule, begging God for a miracle on our behalf. But he unwittingly left out the part that he’d also be hunting us tenaciously to make sure we redeemed our pledges. The desperate, gullible ones who saw the need to step out did. But for my bunkie and me, it was time to reflect on the hopelessness of the times. The times that saw people like this young robust minister fleece ignorant stricken people like those. Most of us were fresh in service, and we hadn’t even received a dime as allowance, so we definitely couldn’t afford his service charge.
The young minister stood tall, representing a trend in our religious circles. A trend that had seen churches multiply, and the number of gospel ministers explode in geometric proportions. Now, ministers like the young man see pastoring as a career path and a means to fame and wealth rather than a calling. There is a church on every corner you turn; with signposts announcing some pretty ridiculous names. On every street, there is also an entrepreneur lurking, draped in a Luis Vuitton three piece (original or fake), or even a shimmering white, red or yellow gown, posing as a pastor or woli.
I sometimes wonder if it is a coincidence that the increase in the number of churches is happening at a time when unemployment figures are hitting the roof. Or if it is happenstance that success these days, is measured by the strength of your congregation in numbers as well as the sleek cars, the luxury mansions and the private jets you can afford.
So what if Jesus had 12 disciples and most of the prophets of old lived in abject poverty? So what?
In the gospel ‘industry’ today, some ministers don’t just stick to enjoying the financial and material benefits. They also love to enjoy the sexual. They screw the single ladies and the married women who are part of their flock – some of them, wives of their loyal right hand men.
Today, most churches around are, apparently, a falsehood planted on the foundation of truth.
The preacher is still sweating it out on stage and for the first time I think he’s on point. There has been an explosion – nothing like the IEDs that ring out of churches in the northern states of late. I mean there has been explosion of our numbers.
Nigeria is a well-lit country today, thanks to those of us seated under this sermon. We are lights and there are millions of other worshippers like us in the many churches spread across the geographical area of the country.
The man who reeks of alcohol is finding his way back to his seat after stepping out to ‘sow a seed’, and I’m here thinking about tomorrow. Tomorrow is the BIG day. The reason I’m in town in the first place. My host thinks I stand a very good chance, but I know I don’t; especially if I appear before those embassy officials in that crumpled suit of mine that desperately needs to be straightened out.
So I tell myself I will exercise faith once back home. I’ll say let there be light! And hopefully, the rusty PHCN transformer which exploded last night will come alive, power will again be restored, and then I’ll stand a better chance of getting the hell out of this religious deep fry called a country!