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Bheki Goes to Church

by Bheki Mthembu 


My memories of going to church take me back over three decades. Indeed this is a long time for any single activity. In fact an activity would have to be extremely interesting for one to be involved in it for over thirty years. Or of course there must be a reward of a rare nature for anyone engaging in that activity. The truth about this particular activity is that when I started engaging in it, it was not of my own volition. My mother, whose long list of pastimes included going to church, had successfully coerced us into joining her Sunday visits to the local Catholic Church. There was actually nothing wrong with it as every child our age was doing the same thing. So Sundays became special days for us children on which we could flaunt our latest pair of bell-bottomed pants or a new cardigan. Those whose parents could afford such lavishness.

I remember our going to church used to make my mother very happy as she would receive accolades for her well behaved boys on her way to church. Naively we would follow her along the way oblivious of the intentions behind the long weekly journey to emaRomeni. The confirmation mass still seems like yesterday to me. There were many young children of my age on this particular day and they were all, in their varied unique ways, dressed to kill, to say the least! The ceremony was actually the epitome of a long process that involved a litany of lessons on biblical stories and the doctrines and the dogmas of the Catholic Church. For anyone to be confirmed a true member of the church they had to have been already fully christened in the church. So there I was…a full member of the congregation who could now partake in the receivingof the Holy Communion.

My mother was particularly ecstatic on the day of confirmation. It was a few years later that I began to understand why…why my going to church meant more to her than it did to me. Subsequently I learnt that my going to church had been meant to gratify one person…my mother and nobody else. Nonetheless the church gradually managed to become a significant part of my system and before I knew it I was already a committed alter boy who could recite all the litanies of the vulgate even in my sleep. As an altar boy you got a privilege of sharing the altar with the priest each time it was your turn to serve or help him during a holy mass. This made it easy for us altar boys to memorise every single word the priest read from his many books during the service. There was no better form of indoctrination than this. As a result it became every altar boy’s ambition tobecome a priest one day. Some indeed tried but I cannot recall one who made it to the final year.

At this stage of my life church had become a personal issue. I had grown beyond doing it just because my mother expected me to do it. I was now doing it because I wanted to do it. Or did I really want to? Somehow the church had been turned into a very potent kind of opium whose intoxicating power had groomed many a teenage child into acquiescent uncritical imbibing minds. My mother’s mission had now been accomplished. It was really up to me what I would do with the church and all its promises. I chose to stay on. Better still, the church beckoned and I could not resist. How can anyone resist when a master has commanded?

Little by little I began to feel guilty each time I failed to go to church. I would feel empty for the whole week whilst looking forward to the next Sunday. My ignorant dedication to church got even worse when I was sent to a catholic boarding school for my high school education. This was total immersion with priests, bishops, nuns, and dubious monks all around me for the better part of every day. There were many other students who were just like me…mesmerized by the mysticism of the life we were made to lead behind huge brick walls and barbed steel gates. The confusion seemed to be more pronounced in our behaviour than the mesmerism we were experiencing. One could easily trace the origins of our confusion to the manner in which our role models within the school and the church jurisdiction were treating us. The boundaries between the two were deliberately blurred anyway! As a mesmerized teenage who was trying very hard to impress those in authority you would constantly find it difficult to distinguish whether you were a student, a young intern in the monastery, an ordained monk or a priest for you were at all times, expected to behave like one or all of these eccentric characters. The school yard and the dormitory precinct were always spotless. Thanks to our early morning cleaning shift that was always preceded by a compulsory one- hour-long prayer ritual called holy mass.

The similarities between what the monks and the priests were putting me through and what my own mother had been exposing me to at home became more and more striking now that I had learnt to question things. The beauty of a boarding school was that you got exposure to a wide range of people whose thinking patterns and general outlook of life was as varied as were their backgrounds. By the time I was doing form three (your grade 10?) I had grown up to be a rather rebellious young boy whose wit no grinning nun or cursing monk could relate to. It was difficult to remain the same after you had been introduced to the black consciousness philosophy. The Steve Bikos and the Che Guevaras of this world began to make better sense than the imaginary Joseph, Mary, or their mysterious son.

This was the beginning of a long insubordinate journey that saw me changing schools as a result of a well deserved expulsion early one year. Suddenly it had dawned on me that just like my mother’s interest; the Catholic Church’s interest in me had never been about me. It was about them. The Catholic Church. There were many incidents and experiences that continued to bear testimony to this, my rather preposterous assertion. Well, call it whatever but that does not take away from what some of us have learnt and experienced in the hands of those who claim to be working for some superior being high in the heavens above.

It has taken me some time to finally acknowledge a rather tough truth to swallow about religion and going to church. Going to church can never be primarily about anybody else but you. When a pastor or priest proclaims his dedication to the spreading of the word of God it is well and good but it is what he has to do according to his covenant with his God. Thus it is, on his part, first and foremost about him accomplishing his mission so he can stand good with his God. If this is not a clear selfish agenda on the part of the pastor and priest than I need an intensive lesson in common sense. Simply put, when an ordinary person becomes a priest or a pastor or as they say, gets called to become a pastor, what does this have to do with you? A lot, some would say. Indeed a lot for there would be no need for pastors if the likes of us did not want to go to church. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make! What I’m saying is, right from the start the idea, dream, or vision to become a pastor is between two parties; the dreamer and his God.

For survival and prosperity businesses need people who will buy into the concepts that they are. So does the church. It is therefore the responsibility of the pastor / priest to see to it that his vision does materialize without resorting to trickery or some voodoo and hoodoo. Or could it be that trickery, voodoo and hoodoo are sometimes the very basis on which some churches are founded? Contradicting isn’t it? No…It’s actually interesting! Pastors need followers like a teacher needs learners. Not the other way round!

So, the enterprising element of churching makes it a pastor’s inalienable right, responsibility and prerogative the recruitment of new candidates for the growth and sustainability of the venture. So when pastors go out of their way to found new churches it is not for the love of the people per se. When pastors travel the world on a mission to spread the word of God it is not an altruistic gimmick strictly meant to save poor souls. On the contrary, when all of this happens, it is a fulfillment of a promise…an honouring of an erstwhile covenant between the priest and his God. Or so it should be.

Sometimes pastors resign from their daily employment in order to pursue a personal religious ambition that only they and their God are privy to. When a pastor takes this quantum leap into the unknown it obviously cannot be based on the trust he has in the congregation that he hopes to have. Such a daring move should never be the yoke of the unborn congregation. It has to do with the pastor, his religious dreams, the covenant he and his God have entered into andthe trust he has in his God. It is clearly a selfish mission on the part of the pastor. You and I as part of the congregation have nothing to do with this initial arrangement. The only time we get involved is when we present ourselves on a Sunday morning for our own selfish reasons as well thus making it easy for the pastor to accomplish his selfish Godly mission as well… If indeed Godly it is.

Undeniably, there are individuals in any church whose presence will always bless the lives of others. Simply put, some people feel good in church when they see those they regard as inspirational to them. These may be those that do certain special things such as praying or singing in a way that you can relate to…a way that inspires you. Some of these may be elders in the church whose mere presence automatically commands order and solemnity in the church.  However, we cannot claim that these individuals are there for us. We cannot blame them for our failure to focus in church if they could not make it to church on a particular Sunday. Furthermore, they do not owe us any explanation about their absence from church if on certain days they decide not to attend. If anything, they owe their God for they, like everybody else in church, are there for their own selfish redemption or for reasons best known to them and their God.

Just the other day as I was reflecting on my life as a practising Christian I got to a point where I realized that believing in God does not necessarily equal going to church. In fact, I have realized that going to church or belonging to a particular denomination sometimes makes believing in God a bit difficult. When people become members of certain denominations they, invariably, begin to channel their attention more on the pastor of that church than they do on God. Pastors generally are aware of this weakness among their followers and they, without fail, are able to use it to the best of their ability for their own personal gain.

It has become evidently clear that the covenant that pastors are believed to have with their gods may be more than the mere spread of God’s word. For most pastors there is undeniably a personal self enrichment agenda whose fruition depends on the trusting hearts of their poor followers. Going to church is fast becoming an expensive pastime specially reserved for and enjoyed more by the rich than the destitute. Most so called charismatic churches these days are making more money than the busiest tavern in your neighbourhood.

Millions of people around the world are being defrauded of their meager income by churches in the name of God. There is something seriously wrong with the manner in which most of the new churches operate these days. There is a disturbing trend among their leaders to want to become instantly rich. The bible is their potent weapon to help them accumulate as much wealth [from their unwary members] as possible.

It is a disheartening fact that wherever you go the most people you will find warming up the pews in many churches are the indigent and the hopeful. The church has a way of speaking to the destitute. Every Sunday the poor, both in spirit and materially, are deliberately made to believe that things will get better for them if they give to God what belongs to God. The poor congregants are inundated with scriptures whose main purpose is to intimidate them into giving to the church the very last cent they may have to save them from the pending starvation.

I have been a member of one particular church for the past five years or so now. This church happens to be in one of the poorest townships in KZN. Most of its members are visibly poor people.  They are mostly the elderly, the physically infirm, the docile youth, the unemployed and the desperate. Of course there is a small cabal of the rich…the elite that the pastor gloats about to his counterparts from time to time. Over the past five years I have witnessed the fruition of a well coordinated plan by the leader of this church and his family to siphon every cent, every rand and anything of value from the poor trusting members. Every Sunday service features a slot which lasts for not less than thirty minutes during which the poor congregants are literally bombarded with well selected scriptures meant to persuade them to happily part with their money. Of course most of these new churches excel when it comes to this part of the Sunday service. Sometimes this part of the service takes more time than the actual sermon of the day.

I am sure that everyone who has ever been to church will know that it is part of this interesting ritual to make [some] financial offerings whenever you can do so. Contrary to this, in these new churches members are coerced by well chosen eloquent tricksters who select relevant verses from the bible that are sure to intimidate even the thriftiest of the members into emptying their wallets into the church brimming offering buckets. This happens every Sunday. Don’t ask me why. The bible says so.

Over the past five years I have watched many of the openhanded people in this church become poorer instead of the opposite that the bible promises. It’s common sense anyway. How can you hope to become rich if you always give away the least that you have and you are left with nothing but the false hope that someday you too will be given…what…and by whom?…nobody ever ventures into that. Common sense: you are not going to have more cars by giving away the only one you have. Period. Windfalls from nowhere are a stupid illusion of course.

Interestingly, I have also seen, in the five years, the life of the pastor and his family grow from strength to strength in all respects. Miracles eh! These days pastors gloat about the number of the rich they have within their congregations. They know what this means for them. Millionaire believers are sought after and canvassed and once won over they are handled with kids gloves. The special relationship they enjoy with pastors is reserved only for those with purses as big as theirs. They are the reason the pastor is driving the latest German sedan. So they deserve the pastor’s attention. Not you. After all, what has the pastor got to lose even if he does not greet you or greet back when greeted if he knows you are just a poor worshiper? Sometimes you realize much to your humiliation that you are being purely ambitious…he doesn’t even know you! Why should he?

Some pastors keep strict lists of who has offered how much after how long. You are as good as your last offering…tithe or whatever you call it. Pastors will hence relate to you in terms of the value you bring to their churches. No. To their lives! They do not like people who only expect them to give service. They believe the congregation owes them. But how? If anyone owes them anything it should be their god…whoever he is. When grown up men decide to leave their day jobs because they believe they have been called by their god to serve him full time why then should it be my responsibility to enrich them and their family? Why really?

It has become somewhat fashionable for pastors to do it on a full time basis. It would seem that somehow you are not considered serious enough by other fellow pastors if your church cannot take care of you on a full time basis. So many pastors leave their day jobs and blindly run into full time ministry when their churches are either too small or too poor to sustain them and their families financially. So the wily pastor is left with no choice…

Pastors too do need to make certain statements. This could be in the way they dress up, the cars they drive, the suburb they live in or the location of their offices. It has always fascinated me to realize that some pastors who have their churches in their neighbourhoods with most of their members coming from the same neighbourhood end up having offices in town, far away from where everybody lives. Why? Why should the poor people travel to town when they need the services of their pastor when he lives just next door to them and when he could do his consultation work from the very church in which they lose their money or in his house towards whose bond they contribute anyway? Why should the poor people be made to pay for expensive offices in town when the church building could be used to provide the same service? Not only should the poor people pay for the rent of the office, they should also hire the unnecessary services of the pastor’s personal assistant and foot the bill for filling up the tank of his car which they were made to buy him some time ago.

Pastors, just like everybody else, have their own responsibilities as husbands, wives, mothers, fathers or whatever they are called in their own families. Like any Dlamini or Mkhize who does not own a church, pastors too have to provide for their families without resorting to exploiting their churches. As pastors they should earn a salary so they can take care of their responsibilities. However, if their salaries from their churches are not enough to cater for their needs they should find employment elsewhere and only do the ministry on a part time basis. This is sheer common sense unless the pastor plans to resort to some unfair and ungodly ploys for his every bill to be paid for by the poor congregation.

Sadly, I have seen very audacious pastors demand money for their own family affairs from the poor congregation. I have seen congregations [not of their own volition] finance scholarships, weddings, cars and houses for their pastors and their expectant families. Why should a poor widow who does not receive any form of material assistance from her church, whose own twenty one year old son could not afford university, pay for the education of the pastor’s daughter who has enrolled for a diploma in fashion design in Jo’burg when she lives about five kilometers away from a local university that offers the same course?

Why really should a young man who is trying to save money for his own wedding be made to give it for somebody else’s wedding…someone who themselves earns a salary? And why should an old man who has failed all his life to buy his own house due to the vagaries of life be made to pay for another man’s house in the name of Christ? Why don’t those who feel rich and enjoy the pastor’s special attention buy him houses and cars and expensive gifts if they so feel without involving the poor or without making those who do not have the wherewithal feel bad about it? It can be done without any need for display, show-off or self aggrandizement. Also, pastors should never be personally involved in trying to coax their flock into giving them money for any personal benefit lest they will be perceived as being manipulative, to say the least.

I strongly believe that when pastors found churches it is solely between them and their god. Unfortunately when these churches become real in the form of a physical structure and people inside they become the pastor’s own personal achievement. Interestingly, churches only belong to God whenever the poor congregation is hoodwinked into making endless financial donations over and above the usual Sunday offerings and tithing.  Otherwise everyone knows what the pompous pastor always says whenever he feels the need: “This is my church…no one can tell me…”  Indeed it is his church. All is between him and his god. Most probably not one member in his congregation may have requested him to establish a church or was part of the initial plans for him to do so. So why rob the poor congregants when you fail to run your thing?

Some of these pastors become incredibly antagonistic when meager offerings are made. There is nothing as vulnerable and vindictive as a desperate pastor. He will know all those who have not paid their dues for the last six months and he has a way of making each one of them realize that he knows they have not been paying. Going to church becomes a real burden when the pastor has a way of making you feel like you owe him money when you really owe him nothing.

I remember one particular Sunday when the poor congregation was made to pay for more than five different activities or things in the church: First it was the usual offering which is not supposed to be in coin form, then some money for the construction of the retaining wall, then some more money for the general upkeep of the church, then another donation for another sister church whose pastor happens to be friends with the pastor of this church, and then a separate donation for the pastor’s this and that, then another for the pastor’s wife’s birthday present, etc.

The last donation in the list above is the most interesting of them all. Every year the pastor’s wife has to pretend she is not aware the church is planning to give her something for her birthday. So just before the church service is over she is requested to excuse herself whereupon her husband does the same as well. The poor congregation is then made to believe that they owe the pastor’s wife an expensive gift for her birthday. This is done by some of the pastoral family’s close cronies within the congregation. It is needless to mention that most of the people who are made to pay may themselves have never, in their entire lives, been bought anything, let alone [the luxury of] a birthday gift. Sometimes the speaker who is chairing this particular session of the service will go on to say that they (the pastoral cabal) have already done their window shopping for this special gift. So everyone is requested to donate not less than fifty rand. Fifty rand is a lot of money when you do not know where the next one will come from.

It is important to mention that in some of these churches pastors’ wives are simply glorified members of the church who have no special role to play except basking in the shadow of their cunning husbands. Some of them have at least mastered all the requisite trickery to hoodwink the poor susceptible souls into believing that they too (like their husbands) have some special relationship with God. Whenever they are called upon to pray they can get lost forever in some weird language that I’m sure not even God understands. Tongues they call it!

Well, worshippers are not fools…they are usually aware of this entire gimmick but because most of them are trying to stand good with the pastor they will donate the last rand they have. Again, mysteriously the pastoral couple will know who donated and who didn’t. Praise to the power of revelation through the Holy Spirit!

The actual day of the handing over of the birthday gift always fascinates more people than just the cynic in me. So the pastor’s beautiful wife (that’s how pastors refer to their wives irrespective of the truth) gets invited to come in front so she can receive her gift. Then a stack of gift parcels, one after the other, is handed over to her as she watches in utter awe. A brilliant performance worthy of an Oscar! You would swear she really had no idea she was going to receive this! So each of the parcels is neatly opened so that its contents are shown to the people who have paid for it and even those like me who are not easily fooled. So we watch as the latest designer names in clothing are brandished about.

Then she makes a thanksgiving speech which has remained the same at least for the past five years that I have spent there. Sadly, these speeches never get concluded as emotions always get the better of her and she is escorted, as she sobs hysterically, back to her seat amid a tumultuous applause from the hypocritic congregation in the background. A similar rigmarole is repeated when it is the pastor’s birthday as well.

The pastoral couple is incidentally the best clad in church. Almost every clothing item the pastor dons bears some famous designer label. Not that there is anything wrong with pastors being fashionistas. If people can afford expensive clothes let them indulge in them. Of course no one wants to have a shabby looking pastor.

However, it is perturbing that pastors should continue to live a suburban high life which is deceitfully sponsored by unsuspecting followers who themselves continue to live in shacks and two-roomed government houses as they are made to pump cash and throw their last coins into their pastors’ bank accounts. Ideally churches were meant to provide sanctuary to their deprived communities and not turn their state of indigence against them for the church’s own selfish prosperity. Pastors are supposed to build God’s kingdom on earth…not their own.