Friday, May 20, 2011

From Used Cars to Private Jet: The Story of the Pentecostal Movement

As I sat to tea, ‘Ms. Olutola’ said to me, I remember when we started the ministry somewhere around Surulere. Bishop drove a beetle then, a used Volkswagen. One thing I remember is that despite the challenges we faced as a small fellowship, he always preached the Bible undiluted.

Most people can relate with ministers with used cars, some getting late to church because the rickety vehicle broke down on the highway. We can look back to the years between 1985 and 1990, when worshippers took refuge in not so sophisticated buildings which had become a place of refuge as we cringed from the terror by day masked as Chief of Staff. Those from the shacks of Ajegunle and the shores of Alpine took the battle against the junta in one accord to God. At that time, I would say there were neither Christians nor Muslims, only worshippers with a common enemy. Worship by the leaders and followers at that time could in my opinion be rated genuine.

Time travel from 1985 to 2005 and you’ll see a mind blowing transformation especially in the churches. Wooden benches gave way to high quality upholstery, berets gave way to hats as milliners churn out creativity to outdo one another, cloth banners gave way to large flex prints, wooden altar boards stepped aside for artistically decorated backdrops and of course used cars gradually became accursed amongst men and women of God.

It is easy for many people to zero the transformation down to the high-handedness of Pastors who lord it over their congregation; compelling members to spend beyond their means to give the place of worship a befitting face lift. Some would even go as far as condemning men and women of God for luring members to give their all so that they can live large at the expense of unsuspecting parishioners. But, for a second let’s look beyond the few negative indices at the value that the transformation in the Pentecostal Movement has brought to our nation.

Let’s start with entertainment. The need to turn to praise in the late 80s was a survival strategy. The melancholy that wore down the nation spread into the churches. To give a glimmer of hope most churches saw the need to re-engineer praise in order to keep the gloom out. Naturally the choir was thrown the challenge of giving people a reason to come to church. Today, many entertainers especially singers trace their beginning back to when they were choir or youth group members. To celebrate the exit of the junta, praise got even better which opened the door to better equipments leading to a boom in the music industry with dealers and sellers smiling to the banks.

Rev Jackie McCullough, a native of Jamaica and the Senior Pastor at Betha Rapha Church, recanted to her congregation in New Jersey, the story of how she received a gift of Maxima. This was at a time when she was merely one of the Pastors in a church where she served; long before she started her own ministry. A sister who had been blessed through the occasional sermons she shared walked up to her and handed over the key to the car. Was the sister forced? My guess is no. In my opinion, the lady was merely reacting to the impact Rev. McCullough had created. What the sister may not have known then is that Pastor Jackie had sown her own vehicle to the work of the ministry. Today, she has a ministry that birthed a mission that supported Jamaica with medical assistance and leadership training.

I once gave my pay packet to a Pastor. Yes, I was motivated by a sermon I heard but the truth is I came to a decision to do it weeks or months after because I realised I had benefited tremendously from the wealth of experienced I garnered from the Pastor. I was also motivated by the need to sow into a life that had become a trail blazer for excellence. I made the donation as anonymous so it wasn’t to curry favour of any kind. If the trainings – leadership, financial management, wealth creation, social interaction – I received were given a price tag; I would not have been able to afford it. So for me, parting with my pay packet was the least of the many ways I could say thank you to a man of God who has given so much.

As a tutor in America, I remember a day when one of my students walked up to me with a handmade card with these words: Ms. O, thank you for guarding us! That means a lot and I don’t think your language is funny! Thanks! On the paper she had a huge heart shape decorated in green and red. It was her way of appreciating my effort; her reference to language was in condemnation of her classmates who had laughed when I taught them how to greet in Yoruba. I have no doubt that she would have written the words on a cake if she could afford or make one.

How much do you think Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF Chief would have paid to avoid the shame he has come face to face with? If a man of God had given a revelation that would change his story, how much value would he have placed on the revelation and how would he have rewarded the gesture? Perhaps with a new car, a new church building or even a brand new jet! The Holy Book did say to whom much is given; much is expected.

The Pentecostal Movement despite the claims a number may have about high-handedness, corruption, extravagance etc, which I daresay must not be swept under the carpet, has given the Nigerian economy so much and it is high time we commended that sacrifice. I’ll name some of the industries that have benefitted from the transformation – the media and advertising industry. Before the 80s, how much advert or airtime did churches pay for? Whether it is used to celebrate the gospel or celebrate the gospel bearer, one thing we can all agree on is that these sectors have benefitted from the largesse especially with almost all churches now having media and publicity units. The fashion industry: the creative hats, handmade ties, seamless shirts, well designed shoes and bespoke suits… have upped that industry such that even the Okrika sellers and Aba folks had to rethink quality. Have you ever seen the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) Mass Choir, or indeed any mass choir, in their beautiful ankara? You would agree that some tailors smiled to the bank. The aso-oke and george weavers have not been left out as church events often call for one aso-ebi or the other. Fans have given way to air conditioners and “I better pass my neighbour” generators have given way to high powered diesel engines. Bulletins have taken the backseat to well-designed newsletters or even magazines; no doubt the printing business got a boost, not with the specially crafted fliers and invitation cards be it to announce programmes or celebrate weddings. Unschooled cleaners have been compelled to sign up under corporate organisations as garbage collection translated to waste management businesses. How can you leave out the catering and events management sectors? Where an eatery is not located by a church, you can be sure a church member has signed into the business to cash in on the many functions and events that take place in and around the church.

You may still find it hard to comprehend the value of all these to Nigeria’s economy. But, let’s look at three major areas – education, health, human development – and how the transformation in the Pentecostal Movement has positively affected these important areas.

It is a known fact that those in the Nigerian corridors of power have no articulate plan for our children. Ask the incoming President what plans he has for children born last year who will in 4 years be expected to sign into primary education and he’ll send for the Minister of Education who may likely send for the Commissioners and the masquerade dance comes alive. Okay ask an easier question, “How many spaces will be open in tertiary institutions by the end of the next school session and how many students leaving secondary schools can be guaranteed a place?” And he may just be lost in the maze. But one thing most churches have done to bail Nigeria out was to create schools. Catholic, Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, Winners, Seventh Day Adventist, Redeemed, etc can all boast of schools. Unfortunately some schools previously taken over by the government have been driven to the brink of collapse. While the government had no plans whatsoever for children who were forced to stay at home during the registration process for the 2011 General Elections, most churches organised tutoring to ensure the children are kept busy while their parents went to work. A number of churches also organise lessons during holidays. Millions in Nigeria’s work force have the religious bodies to thank for their formal and informal education.

I never felt the impact of the Catholic Churches in the area of health until I was rushed some years back to the St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital in Ijebu Igbo where I was promptly and nicely attended to by I guess a Nun. I remember Ms. Anita Roper, a Baptist Missionary, who taught me so many skills including research skills as a member of the Girls Auxilliary. This was ever before my classroom teachers mentioned the word research. One of the projects she guided me through was the comparison of religions; this saw me visiting an Imam, Herbalist and Prophet just so I can know the difference and strengthen my faith. Ms. Roper gave up her own country, her own people, to sign up for a life of mentoring in Nigeria. What money could have been given or what brain washing could have been done for anyone to sign into celibacy just so she or he can be dedicated to a life of service? But over and beyond that, what value can we place on the millions of lives that have been saved by the hospitals or millions that have been guarded aright by the sacrifice? Many churches today carry out free weekly or monthly medical services, not only for church members but to those within their immediate community.

The contribution to human development is PRICELESS! To start with, churches have become employers of labour. Another way to look at this is the building of personnel. The man that has come to be known as “The Walking Bible”, Rev. George Adegboye of the Rhema Chapel International Churches is an extraordinary human capital expert who has mentored pastors locally and globally. He hardly spends one month of the year with his own family. Look around you and you’d find that most churches in building their workforce through rigorous leadership trainings have provided a ready pool for corporations, civil service, politics etc. Not only have most churches floated training institutes; they have through sermons continued to teach the virtues and values needed for nation building and democratic governance. Initiatives like the training of street urchins, known as Area Boys by the RCCG or rehabilitation of prostitutes by the Real Women Foundation birthed by Pastor Nike Adeyemi or guiding of singles and married by the Bimbo Odukoya Foundation or counselling of prison inmates by The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM) has had a multiplying effect on our economy as those who would never have been able to contribute to the nation have been transformed and equipped to do so.

I am not saying that the church is perfect but more effort should be made to harness the benefits that have accrued from the progressive transformation. If all the churches were under one umbrella as a business entity; the entity would have been recorded in the top echelon of the Fortune 500 list. But the church as a place of worship where worshippers strive to give their best in the spirit of excellence should not be overlooked as a worthy business model.

Many more continue to give their widow’s mite not because they are coaxed but because they have benefitted or in religious parlance, they have been blessed. Last year the 1984-1990 Alumni of FGCO Odogbolu decided to give back a N2.5M project to the school. Why? The set members came to the conclusion that the school gave them so much more than they could ever afford to pay back. The students went further to appreciate their indefatigable Principal – Mr. Tunde Adefolaju – in a way that left him speechless. It would not have been enough, if Mr. Adefolaju got a new car or even a jet; after 20 years, we agreed that his contribution to our lives was priceless.

So people give back to churches, pastors, principals, teachers, employers etc but the question is, how well have Nigerians been blessed by Nigeria? Will there come a time when our children will think of giving back? Or are we propping them up to plunder Nigeria for abusing their childhood?

By now my cup of tea was empty. As I made to leave, I asked Ms. Olutola, was he called a Bishop then? No she said; we called him Pastor. Who would have imagined that in just a few years the small fellowship venue would be transformed to an estate and his used beetle given way to a jet? Indeed God is good, she concluded. Well, if a title is all it takes to celebrate a life of service, he deserves to be called an Archbishop.

Omolola Famuyiwa is Project Director of Cares Global Network and Editor of Willows Magazine.


Anonymous said...

I congratulate the writer for a thoroughly engaging write-up. The language and style is fluid and extremely readable. However i beg to disagree with the writer on the substance of the piece. For me the Pentecostal movement in Nigeria has 'ignored the leprosy and instead concentrate on treating ringworm'. Ours is a dysfunctional country and it behoves on people of conscience, especially the theocratic class, to act as moral checks on the excesses of our leaders. The Pentecostal movement has ignored this and instead concentrates on 'prosperity' as its core message. If we start from the standpoint that the ruling class has continuously pauperised the working class thru their actions and inactions over the year, it follows that the church that gives succour to them is not on the side of the working class but on the side of the ruling class. Thus every time Pastor Adeboye or Oyedepo welcomes the Iboris, the Gbenga Daniels, Goodluck, Alao-Akalas etc, they wittingly are giving them vote of confidence. I know some will say that Jesus supped with the Pharisees and as such a man of God should not turn away any one. However the Bible also states that Jesus personally physically drove away some folks using the temple for commercial purpose, didnt he?

The writer also highlights the benefits of Pentecostal movement to Nigeria. What benefits? Move around S/W Nigeria, all the factories and warehouses have turned to churches, yet our country remain one of the unsafest in the world. Our apparent religisity does not reflect in our behaviours- we are religious without being Godly. The writer mention education; yes there is proliferation of church-owned universities in Nigeria but can an honest civil servant, police officer or secondary school teacher afford the school fees being charged by Covenant university and other Pentecostal Church owned Varsities? Or to one of the Church Secondary schools? If the Baptist, Anglican, Catholic etc had charged similar fees in the 60s, 70s and 80s, maybe some of us would not have had the benefit of education. With due respect to the writer, it is ridiculous to list increased commercial activities as benefits of Pentecostal movement. A church is not a capitalist movement; it is a movement to redeem the damaged moral fabric of a society; and to the extent that morals have gone radically worse now than pre-Pentecostal movement, one can safely say that the movement has failed. Of course if you judge the Pentecostal movement from the laisses faire capitalism point of view, the movement has actually done very well, with the likes of Oyedepo now owning {as i read} 3 private jets; the leadership of the movement have collectively done extremely well for the. Wether the people in the country has done commensurately well is another matter.

Divine Connection said...

Thanks! You should have put your name behind such an eye-opening insight. I appreciate your sincere comment. The angle from which you looked at the issue is a welcome one yet individuals not saints make up the church. As such the church unfortunately has become a microcosm of our society. My alumni group is presently discussing "Charity Financed Educational Institutions". I hope to do more research on that. Let's keep taking out the log in our eyes so that some day we can give direction to the blind.