Sunday, August 24, 2008

"And the Devils that have Cheated You Will Not Cheat You Anymore"

Today we went to church.  I think.  When we arrived, I wasn't really sure if we were at church, the zoo, or a carnival.

Loud speakers blared the in-progress service across the gigantic parking lot.  Despite the recent rain, passing motorbikes kicked up puffs of red dirt.  A trail of cars maneuvered over ruts and around puddles, past rows of already parked cars.  A pack of goats sat together on a high mound in the middle of the lot.  Gleaming Beemers and Mercedes, polished Hondas and Toyotas, rows and rows of Peugots sat parked in the muddy dirt lot.  We exited our taxi and joined the swarm of people on foot heading across the paved street.

Just opposite the church grounds, ladies sat with tables piled high, selling little bottles of cooking oil.  Being used to seeing people selling cooking oil on the side of the road, I only thought it odd that the bottles were so small.  Little did I know, I would soon find out why.

The expansive church compound  seemed like a maze as we wove around people, under passageways and through buildings.  We passed through a large concrete structure with partial walls and a metal roof, like a gigantic park shelter.  The overflow area.  Rows of benches filled with people, their attention mostly on the flat screen television high on the far wall.  Other people moved in every direction, and we continued to push our way through the shelter.

On the other side, more buildings, and long lines of people.  Contained by ropes and church assistants linked together to form human fences, crowds of people winding around corners, up and down stairs, waiting to enter the church, or a rock concert.

The first service ended.  The ushers opened the doors and the throng of people burst through.  Running to find seats, skirting around chairs, dodging under others, everyone rushed into the building.  Swept along with the giant tidal wave of people, we entered the church.

The room was very large, like my high school gymnasium.  The high, slightly arching, ceiling had those familiar square foam ceiling panels.  Rows and rows of white plastic lawn chairs filled the rectangular room, now a see of colorful fabric and bobbing heads.  On each end, the chairs faced center; in the middle, the chairs faced front: a raised platform, a glass pulpit, and a bright orange microphone.  The choir looked to take up half the front area.  In every corner of the room, all over the compound and every building, in the parking lot, everywhere, gigantic speakers blaring the good news.  When the choir began, I rather wished there were not so many speakers.  One lady, quite near the microphone, preferred  yelling to singing, and unfortunately, out of tune.

Today was the second week of the seven weeks of harvest.  This week, the church was harvesting children.  (Next week is jobs.)  At first I didn't realize that this was the special topic of the day.  People from the congregation got up to give testimony.  Every single testimony was about being married for 5, 6, 9 years without having a child and then praying, etc. and having children.  I thought, "what is in the water that so many people in this church have fertility problems?"   And as the stories were told, I began to wonder which was the bigger influence in this version of Christianity, the Old Testament, or the original tribal religions of Nigeria.  One man's story may give an example:

The man and his wife had been married nine years and had yet to conceive.  They both very dearly wanted children.  His in-laws were threatening his wife, telling her she could never have children with this man and that she should leave her husband. 

He came to the church and heard testimonies of people who had also been barren for nine years but had children.  The pastor said to pick names for the children.  So the man picked four names.  He went home and built a house for each name.  He went to a place called Shiloh (I have no idea what this is, but it was mentioned often) to pray and leave offerings.  From there he took some dirt and rocks and used them in the houses he was building.

His wife was soon to travel to America.  Before she left, she became ill and went to two different hospitals.  At both places, she was told she was sick and had a disease.  She went to the States, and again became ill there.  Her brother-in-law took her to a hospital.  The doctors there told her, you are not sick, you are pregnant.  The husband flew immediately to the States.  He and his wife now have two sons and two daughters; the wife had quadruplets.

After the testimonies, the service proceeded with songs and prayers, all of which were exceedingly lively.  People danced, threw up their hands, talked to themselves, shouted and cheered.  At the end of every prayer or song, the preacher said, "let's give a hand to Jesus," and the congregation clapped and roared.

Everyone seemed eager to give to Jesus, whether a hand or a bill.  When time for the offering came, the massive crowd stood and waived white envelopes in the air.  The ushers passed around wastepaper baskets, which were soon filled, and emptied them into large plastic garbage cans.  The congregation listened attentively as the preacher began speaking.

The main preaching portion of the service was based on Deuteronomy 28:4, which names fruitfulness of the body and of the livestock as blessings from God for obedience.   The pastor talked of how this book is part of the covenant with God.  And as a covenant, it is a legal agreement, like a land use deal.  The agreement is: we serve, and God blesses.  Therefore, he said, we have a right to blessings by this legal (pronounced "lay-gal")  agreement.  We should plead our cause (pronounced "course") before God and say "look what I have done, and how I have served you.  Now, give me the blessings I deserve."

I do not want to judge anyone else's religion, but I simply can not agree with this view of our relationship with God.  I felt very uncomfortable sitting, listening to the prayers for prosperity, wealth and success.  They sounded selfish and hollow to me.  Sentences like "all the devils that are trying to stop you, I curse them in the name of Jesus," made me uneasy.  Can you curse in the Lord's name?  Isn't that like taking the Lord's name in vain?  I felt so confused.

The service continued, and the preacher announced it was time for the anointing.  From pockets, purses and bags, appeared those little bottles of cooking oil I saw being sold outside.  Kevwe grabbed my hand and poured some oil into it.  I had no idea what was going on.  Everyone stood with their palm up, and then the preacher instructed, "place your hand on top of your head."  What?!  I was glad for the weave, no matter how much it itches in this humid heat.  Pure oil is the last thing I should put on my hair!  Plus, I didn't really see how it made sense to anoint one's self.   Guess it's one of those things I just don't understand.

As a welcome to all first comers, the preacher had us stand while he said a prayer and the ushers handed out welcome packets.  When they handed me the cassette tape, I thought, "now what I am supposed to do with this?"  There was also a booklet filled with information about the church and more testimonies.  To close the service, the preacher highlighted two books from the Books of the Month list in our bulletin, both on special in the bookstore.  "This one is by our Bishop.  And this one is by my wife."

When the service was over, we had to sit and wait a bit.  The baby in our party was hungry and so her mother was feeding her, right there, in the middle of the big hall.  By the time we were ready to get out, the next hoard of people was already running for the chairs.  Pushing and shoving against the flow of traffic, we made it to the side door.  "Come on, come on, come on, hustle, hustle, hustle," the ushers urged as we headed down the stairs.  Having to wait for the other children in our party to exit from their service, we took seats in a different outdoor overflow section and watched the beginning of the next service on the flat-screen monitor above.

After what seemed like ages, the toddlers appeared, and we all headed towards the parking lot.  Vendors lined the roadway, canvassed the crowd, poked their heads in car windows.  Selling everything from food and beverages, to socks and windshield wipers.  Oranges, yogurt drinks and gala sticks (hot dogs wrapped in dough) piled into the small car, along with the 3 children and 5 adults.

One of the boys, Miles, almost 3 years old, sat by me in the car.  He noticed my tattoo.  "They have drawn on you.  They have marked me, too.  Yours is blue.  Mine is red."  He showed me his left pinky finger.  It had a thick red line down the nail and some redish tint under the nail.  "Did you do that?"  I asked him.  "No.  They did it to me."  This caught his father's attention. 

"What did they do to you?"  "This."  Miles shoved his finger into the front seat, his father turned back to look.  He was obviously disturbed and started asking Miles questions.  "Did they give you a shot?"  "No."  "Did they prick you with something?"  "No."  "Did they put something in your mouth?"  "Yes.  They put something in my mouth like this."  He opened his mouth wide.  "It was bitter."  Miles's mother and father started talking to each other.   Miles had been given a polio immunization, without the knowledge of either of his parents.  They were not pleased, but they didn't head back to the church.

Leaving church took almost as long as the service.  Cars were double-parked, triple-parked, or worse.  It looked like a junkyard the way everything was crammed in.  We waited in the hot car, everyone dripping sweat.  Slowly, inches at a time, as other cars moved, Miles's dad nudged his way through the mess.  Balancing the baby on his lap, switching gears with the stick shift and maneuvering the car, I know not how.

Yet, we made it home safely.  Next week, I hope Kevwe's sister Kess is home.  I might like her Catholic church better.

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