My mother blamed my recent bad luck on my refusal to go to church, and she harangued my friend Etor to do something about it. He wasn’t a Catholic, which I had been until four years ago when I stopped receiving Holy Communion. But my mother was so desperate to see me in church that she didn’t mind if I ended my hiatus by becoming a Pentecostal.
I grew up in a very religious home, with knights as parents, icons as birthday gifts, and an education in the five mysteries of the rosary as a birthright. I also went to a Catholic primary and secondary school, and after every college I tried rejected me, I ended up in a catholic university.
By the time I was done with school, I was also finished with religion, and so without any ceremony I mailed all my chapulets to an orphanage and tore my Ave Maria membership card. I had moved out of home by this time, and so my parents did not find out about my apostasy until I went visiting on a holiday. They were livid as you would expect, but no matter how much they yelled I refused to recant my stance on the matter, and soon they left me alone. But then I noticed a trend, they began to blame my church truancy for every mishap that befell me. If I caught a cold, my mother would say it was because I didn’t go to church anymore, and if I lost my phone, it was God repaying my carelessness in kind.
It was in this state that my mother put Etor on my case, and after that young man worked on me for four months nonstop, I decided to humour him and tag along the next Sunday.
The fateful day had an ominous beginning. I had slept late the night before, and so I was in a murderous mood when Etor woke me to begin preparing for church. I was still rubbing my eyes when he said, “Don’t worry champ, your visit to God’s Chosen Assembly would be divine.” That was the name of his church, which was also the one getting the most buzz in town as the ultramodern model of congregational worship that every Christian establishment should emulate. Their current membership was about a thousand and if popular rumour was true, increased by hundreds each Sunday.
I was able to get ready and make it to the car before him, denying him the opportunity to attack my usual tardiness. So instead he regaled me with praises of his church. I listened to this for a while, but then lost my cool and told him that churches weren’t supposed to be hyped. He chuckled and said, “I don’t listen to the opinions of lapse Catholics.”
We arrived at the gates of GCA, and it was unlike any church entrance I had ever seen. The gates were thrown wide open, with a matte black Dodge Challenger parked across the entrance. “Tell me this isn’t ridiculous,” I said to Etor. “Instead of simply closing your gates you guys are using a car to block the entrance. Big fans of The Godfather eh?”
I had meant this as a joke, and so I was bamboozled when instead of laughing he turned to me and said, “Yep, the CSO is a big fan. The car was his idea.”
I remained silent as the guards in black suits and earpieces checked the boot of our car and waved us through. I held back on the half dozen jokes I could crack about their self-seriousness, determined to give this Pentecostal project a chance.
We drove around trying to find where to park, allowing me to catch an eyeful of expensive, exotic cars. There were Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Fords, a few Mustangs, and some Lamborghinis. All this was rational, I presumed. When the Chief Security Officer of your church parks his Dodge at the entrance, the least you can do as a member is to bring your own turbo baby.
I looked through the window of our modest Toyota and my self-confidence slid away. Scattered in different areas of the parking lot were men, women and even children dressed in designer clothes. I saw Ray Ban sunglasses, Armani suits, Gucci handbags, and Prada shoes. I was wearing an okrika shirt, second-hand trousers, and a hand-me-down belt from my father. I looked like a page next to all these fabulously dressed people. I wanted to return home. But Etor found a parking spot and we got out and walked towards the church.
There was a small staircase at the front of the church, with a throng of about a dozen young women dressed in matching ankara print gowns arranged on either side of it. They were all smiling and as we approached them they called out to us, “Nice look bro, are you single?” “You killed that outfit, sister.” “So happy to have you in church with us today.”
One of them tapped Etor on the arm and said, “You look so good, can I take a selfie with you?” He grinned, brought out his phone and took the picture, then guided me into the church.
The interior was dark, almost pitch black except for some soft red and blue lights that broke the darkness from strategic corners of the hall. I noticed a bright light radiating down the hall, and after my eyes adjusted I could see that it was from a gigantic widescreen television on the altar that was playing a live footage of the choir.
We had walked in on the Praise and Worship segment of the church-day program, and it was Praise and Worship as I had never seen before. There were girls grinding on the floor, displaying temperate versions of the popular dance club moves, the red and blue lights cutting appealing swathes on their backs, colouring their arms, faces, and necks. Boys danced close to them, trying their best not to make actual skin contact, but getting close enough to simulate actual humping.
“What are they doing?” I asked, my pupils dilating.
“Offering thanksgiving to the lord,” Etor replied, before rushing to join a group of girls dancing close to us.
I stood there listless, glancing from Etor to the television screen, feeling the full impact of my discomfort.
The choir rounded up after twenty minutes, and left the altar to a garish applause. The lights changed to normal energy saving bulbs, and I saw the pastor take the pulpit. He was dressed in a well-tailored suit, his shoes shone on the widescreen, and I could see the sparkling diamonds on his wristwatch. “Good morning brothers and sisters in the lord,” he said in an American accent, which surprised me because I had read a newspaper profile of him before, and nowhere did it say that he’d had an American upbringing. “Let’s turn our bibles to the book of Second Corinthians, chapter eight, verse nine. Amen. Can someone in the house say amen with me?”
The entire congregation responded in a resounding chorus, irritating me a little, but I was soon to learn that this was only the beginning.
“Now I shall read from this passage. Amen.” The congregation responded with another shout of amen. “Though he was rich. Amen. I want you to pay special attention to that statement. Though he was rich. Your heavenly father was rich. Amen. I said your heavenly father was rich. You do not serve a poor God, amen. Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich. Halleluiah. Please can somebody shout halleluiah?” The entire hall rang out in one rocking ejaculation of assent.
“Amen. Amen. You did not come into this world to be poor. None of you did. Amen. God who was rich, allowed himself to become poor so that through his poverty you may acquire wealth yourself. So listen to me brethren, if you are suffering any form of poverty at the moment, then you are sinning. I say listen to me brothers and sisters, if you don’t have a minimum of one million Naira in your bank account, then your life as a child of God is an insult to the creator. I say somebody shout amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.”
As the congregation burst out once again in shouts of agreement, I lost it. This was one tic too many. Each proclamation of amen felt like a lance through the spleen of my composure. The irritation was genuine, it cast me out of the sermon each time it happened, and before I knew it my palm had curled into a fist. I was expending too much energy trying to stay calm.
It went on like this for an hour, and then the pastor, either running out of saliva or suffering an inflammation of the tongue concluded his sermon, and went to his seat. Another man took his place, who introduced himself as a minister, one step down from a pastor, and he asked us to bring out our offerings. “Yes brethren, we’re at that hour when we get to show our gratitude to God. Your generous creator has blessed you, he has showered you with grace and increased your bounty by ten folds, and now it is time for you to show gratitude. Be generous with God so that he can continue to be generous with you. You will find envelopes on your seats, where you can place your money. Our ushers would be going around with their offertory baskets, and you can drop your envelopes in them. Amen.”
I felt my blood curdle, as all the outrage I had been feeling simmered into a whimper. Shame. I had left the house without carrying money. Being a Catholic, I was used to processing through an aisle to drop money in the offertory box at the front of the church. This made it easy to dodge offertory on the days I didn’t have cash. But now that the offertory basket was being brought to me, there was no way I could handle the situation without the attendant embarrassment.
I turned to Etor for help, but he said he’d brought only enough for himself. And so I remained passive until a beautiful usher, wearing the kind of perfume that cost more than my entire outfit, came to my seat and presented a basket to me, smiling. I smiled back and made a move for my pockets, withdrawing my hands with the palms up to show that I was dry.
“Oh no problem there sir,” she said in a British accent, “we have an ATM at the back of the church. You can withdraw money there, or if you’d rather not, I can bring a machine so that you can pay with your credit card.”
My mouth almost dropped open as I considered her smiling face. Fancy a church with an ATM and credit card facilities. The shock gave way to shame again, a mourning of my exposed poverty. “Okay, I’d use the ATM,” I said, trying to smile.
“Great, when should I come back for the offertory?”
“Maybe you shouldn’t come back.” And as she stared at me, she came to a gradual realization of what I was saying, and her smile faded into a frown. She walked away, and I leaned into my seat, hoping that the service would wrap up soon.
After the offertory, another minister took the pulpit, a woman this time, wearing what I believed were six-inch heels. She introduced the next segment as Testimony Time, and called out the name of the first testifier. A tall, bald, bearded young man, wearing a vintage patterned suit climbed the altar.
“Praise the Lord everybody,” he said. “I am here to tell you about what God has done for me. Most of you are aware that I own a multimillion Naira company, oh yes. Well, two weeks ago, I was presented with an opportunity to win a contract worth a hundred million Naira.”
Members of the congregation broke out in screams of amen and halleluiah. The testifier smiled, cocked his head and continued. “I had one problem though, my competitors had eyes for the same contract. Do you know what I did? Let me tell you what I did. I said God, if you give me this hundred million Naira contract, I am going to donate ten percent of it to the church. And you know what, brothers and sisters? God answered that prayer, and I am here to give ten million Naira to our darling pastor because here at God’s chosen assembly, we are all winners. Can somebody shout a big amen?”
The church erupted again, and in the surrounding euphoria I took a moment to consider myself, the discomfort I had been experiencing since the time I woke up to prepare for church, to this very hour when I sat basking in my impoverishment and smallness, while a man who looked to be my age, stood humble-bragging about his wealth and success, and I decided once and for all that it wasn’t worth it. Salvation, fellowship, wellbeing – whatever they were selling wasn’t worth the psychological and physical distress I had to pass through to be here.
I stood up and began walking out of the church, Etor not noticing a thing. And as I left, I heard another testifier climb the altar, a slim outline of her speech catching me as I arrived at the wide open doors. “I am here to thank God for blessing my son with an admission into Yale…”
A Note about “A Sunday Excursion” from the author:
Nigeria is frequently ranked among the top ten most religious countries in the world, an accurate assessment seeing as it is that the only true way of lumping together a people of such varied ethnic and tribal alliances is by looking at their religious inclination. The country is split into two sectarian halves; the Muslim Northerners and the Christian Southerners. I am a Southerner, and have been part of a Christian denomination since birth.
Christianity has been split into denominations since the sixteenth century, and although each group has its own unique doctrine, what they all have in common is the power and influence they wield over the laity. This potency is all the more pronounced in a conservative country such as Nigeria. From the time of colonization in the late nineteenth century, down to the first decade of the twenty-first century, the clergy of Nigeria preached a message of damnation and diminutive salvation.
Pastors, reverends, and priests stood on their pulpits and hammered it into the minds of their followers that hell was a merciless, unforgiving place, and only complete devotion to their teachings and instructions could rescue the wretched laity from eternal suffering.
There’s a limit to what one can take. And by 2010 people were tired of being told to fear God, hell, and the devil. But because the relevance of religion was ensconced deeply in their minds due to years of ingesting rhetoric and propaganda, they did not consider breaking away as an option. Instead they sought a new message, and that was how the new-age Men of God (MOG) were born.
These men taught their worshippers that it was not wrong to desire wealth, and showed them how to increase their coffers. With this new capitalistic flock, MOG reaped the benefits of financial empowerment. Generous churchgoers gave huge offertories and massive tithes, turning MOG into millionaires, who owned private jets and lived in big houses. Religion was the new big thing.
As with all successful capitalistic ventures, competitors sprung up, and the question became how to make your brand more appealing than the other. MOG unleashed a raging torrent of marketing tricks and devices in order to attract worshippers. Indoctrinating architectural, IT, and hospitality skills into the theological system, and customizing them to suit religious needs. One could equate going to church with attending a concert or visiting a resort, only with much more self-righteousness attached. Nigeria became a shallow, morally bankrupt society without realizing it because everyone was still going to church.
This year I went home for Easter, and on Easter Sunday my parents requested that the whole family prepare and head to church, without considering if everyone was so inclined. To put it better, they could not suspect that anyone wouldn’t want to go to church. It was myopic of them, but not without reason. Fraudsters and high-class call girls go to church in Nigeria. It is part of our culture, an act we indulge without forethought, holding no spiritual significance whatsoever. We go to church because like the krill in Happy Feet 2, to go against the swarm is unthinkable.
From this arrangement I can see only one benefactor, the clergy. But people tell me there are two: God himself, who will be pleased with all the devotion, and the Christians too, happy to serve him in the right manner. For a writer, this is rich subject matter.
R.B. Ejue lives and works in Nigeria. His stories have been published on Red Fez Publications, Work Literary Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, The Creativity Webzine, Ragazine, and aaduna Literary magazine.