The morning was cool, the air refreshing, the sky layered with steel-grey clouds that blurred the sun. It was five minutes past seven. I was in my room, preparing to go to church. I had put on my check trousers and coat and was adjusting the nut of my red tie before a long wall mirror. Done, I took a bottle of perfume from my desk drawer, unscrewed the cap, and sprayed the liquid on my body. As I bent over to re-place the bottle in the drawer, a knock came on the door. I spun around.
“Chinedu.” That was Daddy’s voice.
Before I could reach the door, he opened it and poked in his fat head.
“Ah—ah,” he said and scratched his wide nose. “You went and bought again this expensive perfume? At fifteen, you still have not learnt resource management.”
“Daddy, it is not costly.”
“I know. It is as cheap as water, isn’t it?” He scratched his nose again and snorted. “Go to my room and take those cartons there into the boot of my car.” He glanced around the room, retreated his head and closed the door gently.
I put back the perfume in the drawer and went into his room. The cartons lay on the emerald rug close to the window. Each of them was neatly packaged with silver-coloured wrapping paper. I knew immediately what they were for—thanksgiving.
Before lifting the cartons, I ran my fingers around them, trying to guess what was inside. Each was the size of a twenty-inch television. I wished my eyes could turn into a scanner for a few seconds. After some minutes of vain attempts to surmise their contents, I took the cartons, one at a time, into the boot of Daddy’s car, a cream-puff Peugeot 505.
Six minutes later, we were driving to church. Daddy was behind the wheel and Mummy sat beside him. My eighteen-year-old elder sister, Amara, and I sat at the back.
As we approached the gate of the church, I remembered that today was set aside for the welcoming of our new pastor. Our new signboard read boldly in red and green lettering: THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY GHOST INTERNATIONAL. Colourful balloons on strings danced excitedly on the yellow compound walls topped with spikes of iron and green glass.
Daddy drove through and parked the car in the premises. I got off and ambled towards the gate, feasting my eyes on the environment. The conference hall on the right, formerly light blue, was now repainted a maroon colour, and behind it was a recently renovated general toilet. Standing at the centre of the compound, which could accommodate about fifty cars, was a big tree whose widely spread-out branches and blooming purplish flowers formed a big shade. The trunk of the tree was adorned with a ring of blue, white and green colours. Behind the tree, far back, was a yellow duplex. That was the pastor’s residence called “Mercy House.” A strip of clean carpet was spread from the front of this house to the main door of the church on the left newly painted emerald. A middle-aged man with a whip was standing by the carpet, seriously shooing people away who neared it, asking them sarcastically if they didn’t like something good. In one of his outbursts to some unruly children, he said the carpet was a sacred floor, and so nobody should tread on it. I wondered at that moment what it might be used for.
Since our Sunday school, usually taken inside the church, had not started, many people were outside admiring the extra cleanliness of the premises. A teen girl was enthusing about the new beauty and pointing at seven-coloured fabrics, the colours of the rainbow, with the end of each tied round the tree and stretched to another direction where it was also knotted to an upright bamboo. As the wind blew, their wavy movements and repeated buzz made the entire environment highly admirable.
“I wish our church could always be decorated like this,” the girl said to the man standing beside her. “See how everywhere looks so beautiful and smells fresh.”
The old man looked at her and said, “We parents paid dearly for this event. I starved my family because of it.”
“I know. My mum told me her women group banned some members for non-payment of their compulsory levy for this event.”
The man shrugged and looked away.
The Sunday school in the church was brief, about thirty minutes instead of the normal one hour. I guessed this welcome service contributed to the shortening the time. People left their classes to secure seats. Daddy and I sat in the middle pew, four rows away from the altar. Mummy went to the side reserved for married women. Amara moved to the area meant for unmarried women. The arrangements were deliberate, our former pastor once said. A bachelor could easily know which side to look at closely.
A tall young man with the microphone welcomed everybody. He introduced himself as Brother Amos. He looked smart in his light blue long-sleeved shirt, a red tie, black trousers and shoes. His elegant gait and the fluency of his words testified that he was not new to handling the microphone before a large audience. I had not seen him before. Maybe he was a visitor.
“As we all know,” he continued after a brief pause, “today is a great day. We have set it apart to welcome a great man of God to this glorious place where God’s presence never leaves.”
“Yes, oh,” some people shouted.
He strutted down the aisle, nodding and smiling. His broad incisors slightly pushed out his lips when he closed his mouth. A neatly groomed ring of dark hair lined from his temples down to his chin, giving his fair-complexioned face a remarkable feature. Getting to the back, he turned and stood still. We could not take our eyes off him.
“Can anybody see the altar there?” he asked, pointing.
“Yes, oh,” we responded.
I knew he was talking about the new life given the altar, for as other parts of the inside of the church were repainted and decorated with ribbons and balloons of different colours and sizes, so the altar was decked. Its previously cemented floor was now marbled, and the walls were beautified with fabrics of four primary colours. A new altar rail made of mahogany replaced the old one, and the marbled lectern substituted for the archaic wooden one. The high communion table was covered with pristine white cloth with a big cross embroidered in deep red. Its edge was rimmed with tassels of gold. Standing on the either end of the table was an attractive artificial tulip in bloom, about three feet high.
“Can you see what I have seen?” Mr. Amos asked, still pointing at the altar.
“Yes, oh,” voices chorused.
“Good, good,” he said. “We have done all these because of this day. A day we have all agreed to welcome our new pastor into this place called the Centre of Miracle.”
“Na so, oh.”
“As you can see, the three new seats at the altar are vacant. But they are not supposed to be so.”
“What shall we do?” a voice thundered.
“Good question,” Mr. Amos said. He swaggered back to the front and faced us again, his light skin radiant now from the glow of the florescent tube directly above him. “The Bible says we should give honour to whom honour is due.”
“Yes, oh,” we boomed.
“For this reason, we shall all now move out of this church to the Mercy House to usher in our current Elijah. A man from whom God’s glory shall henceforth rain upon our lives. He and his colleagues will occupy the empty seats at the altar. With his presence here, the blood of any Jezebel or Ahab around us must be licked by dogs.”
We jumped up and roared. Our enemies were in trouble now. Armed with this assurance, we started marching out of the church. Brother Amos then added that we should not usher in the pastor empty-handed. We should dip our hands into our pockets or purses and bless the man of God with something worthwhile. Otherwise, the new blessings he had come with would not reach us.
The majority of us were now outside, moving towards the Mercy House. Other people still coming to church joined in. The red carpet was still untainted and its caretaker was tirelessly doing his job. But as our number increased, some of us started jumping over it, defying the caretaker’s order, and soon we formed a thick wall along either side of the strip and began to wait for the pastor’s emergence.
While the waiting lingered, a boy of about five, seeing other people jumping across the carpet, tried to do so. Unfortunately, he miscalculated his take-off and his shoes left muddy prints on the sacred floor. The caretaker lunged to him, grabbed him by the hand and lashed his back. The boy squalled and darted to his mother who, seeing the way he was crying, asked what had happened. As he pointed at the man, the woman, stocky, did not ask more questions but rushed to the man and, as if by magic, snatched the whip from him and started slashing him. Although he was later rescued from the woman’s grip, most people agreed that the way he had thrashed the boy was unjustified, as if he did not know that bearing a child was not easy, that we were in church where some restraints had to be exercised.
Soon afterwards, our attention shifted to the Mercy House. Three drummers and a trumpeter were standing in front of the building, two boys and two girls. The fifth person, a boy, who later came out of the house, carried a tambourine. All of them were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, and each wore a black beret, a beautiful match with their short-sleeved, navy-blue shirts with epaulettes, and white trousers that contrasted sharply with their black shoes.
The trumpeter blasted some notes and stopped. We started shifting positions, craning our necks, and straining our eyes for a clear view. Shortly the pastor, in pinstriped grey suit, emerged from the house. The trumpeter sounded his instrument again, and his fellows began to beat theirs feverishly. We plunged ourselves into hand clapping and dancing to the harmonious beat now being garnished with the skillful sprinkling of the trumpeter’s sonorous melody.
The pastor approached the carpet, stopped and flashed a smile. Our cheers and applause frothed, surged and spilled over the compound walls. He was plump, dark-skinned, and approximately forty. He could be five-feet tall or more with smooth, puffy cheeks and small eyes like black beads pressed into a lump of clay. Following him was a fair-complexioned woman whose cat-like eyes darted about inquiringly. Taller than the pastor but less plump, she wore a light blue lace and black stilettos. The bunch of oil-palm leaves on her head almost shielded the next person behind her, a young man in a white shirt and black trousers and shoes.
“Why are you still looking at the pastor without doing something?” the voice of Brother Amos drifted through the horn speakers fixed at strategic locations in the compound. “Our new pastor cannot step on this carpet. This carpet is unholy for him to step on. But we can do something about its unholiness. We can make the carpet holy by dipping our hands into our pockets and spreading on it Naira notes. Our new pastor must march on money today till he gets into the church. I said our new pastor must march on money today. This is a fact and the inheritance of the servants of God.” He sweated all over as he gamboled and shouted his words.
An old woman beside me weakly and joyfully danced forward and threw a ten Naira note on the carpet and said, “Thanks be to God.”
“Stop it, stop it,” Brother Amos barked. He rushed to the money, picked it, crunched it and tossed it aside. “We don’t want anything less than hundred Naira notes here. Enemies of God!”
A little boy immediately threw out a five Naira note, and Brother Amos dashed again and picked it, squeezed and chucked it away, saying the same thing. The woman, seeing what Brother Amos had done, stopped dancing and stood motionless. For some moments, she gazed at her crumpled money lying outside the carpet. Then she shrugged and said, “A widow’s mite.” Before she coldly left the scene, tears were coursing down her wilted cheeks.
For about two minutes, people were scared of throwing their money on the carpet. I, too, was afraid. I had only eighty Naira.
Then the floodgate was opened. One huge woman, brushing people aside, pushed her way through to the front of the pastor. She swayed her enormous hips to the beat of the music and stamped hard on the carpet, shouting something. I laughed. I laughed because her tight skirt exposed the wrinkles on her bobbing buttocks. I laughed because her blouse was too small for her body. I laughed because she wore two big, circular earrings that were almost touching her shoulders. But when she unzipped her purse and brought out a bundle of money and started spreading hundred Naira notes on the carpet, I shut up. The music crescendoed. The pastor smiled happily. We clapped louder and louder, and I felt as though singing and dancing with angelic beings.
“That is what we want, that is what we want,” Brother Amos shouted, frisking like a lamb as the Naira notes landed on the carpet.
As if challenged by the woman, one short man shoved people aside and hustled to the pastor, like one possessed, and brought out also a bundle of money from the pocket of his coat. Raising the bundle above his head, he started spreading two hundred Naira notes. Some were falling on the carpet; others, outside it. The music rose higher and higher, competing with our thunderous applause. Other people now joined and before long, the carpet became a collage of paper money. As the pastor and his colleagues started marching kingly on the notes, even those restrained by the initial action of Brother Amos could no longer hold themselves. Denominations of all kinds flew on the carpet from different directions. The cool weather also responded with breeze, prompting the tree to shed its leaves and purplish flowers generously. I flung out ten five Naira notes, more than half of the money I had. It made you respectable when you changed the little money you had into smaller denominations and issued them out one at a time at calculated intervals.
When the pastor and his companions had marched to the door of the church, everybody scampered to get a seat inside.
The church was now brimful of worshipers, about two thousand or more. Some who came earlier could no longer resume their seats even though they had placed their Bibles or something there to reserve the space before moving outside. But many late comers disregarded the warning and pleased their hearts, provoking verbal clashes between them and the former occupants. Daddy and I, however, secured our former space.
After we had had some little prayers, Brother Amos called on our pastor to introduce himself and those with him. The pastor, with his companions, got up from their seats and ambled to the front of the altar. He introduced himself as Pastor Joshua Nkume; the woman as his wife, Josephine Nkume; the other man as Jeremiah Nnamonu, his special assistant. We rejoiced and thanked God for them. Then they went back to their seats.
“Time for thanksgiving,” Brother Amos announced.
Daddy tapped me on the back, and we went outside to his car. Amara and Mummy joined us later. I brought out the cartons from the boot, handed Amara one, and carried the other.
Inside the church at the back, two families stood ahead of us. The first family, with more than ten supporters, had five tubers of yam, two cartons of orange juice, and a brown giant goat with a beard as long as a bottle of Star beer. We call that breed of goat an Hausa goat. The second family, also with their supporters, had a bag of imported rice from Thailand, a carton of tinned tomatoes, a transparent plastic bucket filled with eggs, and a big white cock. We ourselves had two shiny cartons. Amara was behind Daddy, who was on the right; and Mummy, whom I followed, was on his left.
The first family spiritedly sang and danced to the altar and presented their thanksgiving items. Our new pastor prayed for them about five minutes. He also prayed at that length or more for the second family, but when it came to our turn, he cut short his prayer. It lasted less than a minute.
It was now time for payment of tithes, and Brother Amos had called upon our new pastor to come out and bless the tithers. Few people walked out to the altar with their envelopes. The pastor, standing rigidly with ruckled forehead, could not swallow his feelings about the small number of people that had come out. He counted them.
“Only thirty people,” he said. “What is happening in this church? Are you telling me that God is so wicked to you that you cannot pay him your tithe? Do you want me to believe that it’s only these few people before the altar that God blessed in this month that ended just few days ago? I can’t—I can’t under—” He swayed his hands and almost threw the microphone away.
There was stillness everywhere. In the silence, I could hear my own breath; I could hear that of Daddy, I could hear that of the other man on my left.
“When I tell people that they will not prosper, they think I am a prophet of doom,” the pastor continued. “How can you prosper when you cheat God? How can you prosper when you withhold your tithe?” His face twitched viciously, and he shot out his hand towards us. “You are robbers. I mean it. You are robbers because you eat your own share and that of God. What does the book of Malachi chapter three, verse ten say? ‘Pay your tithe and see if I will not open the doors of heaven for you,’ says God Almighty. Look, let me tell you something. As long as your pastor is hungry, you will always remain hungry. As long as your pastor does not have enough food to eat, you will always lack. Men of God should be properly taken care of so that when they mount the pulpit, they can prophesy blessings upon your life. We are blessing carriers. I came here with multiple anointing, but it is only those who are liberal to God that can tap from this oil of blessings.” He looked back at the thanksgiving items still on the altar. “That reminds me of something. Someone should bring those cartons to me, please. Experience has taught me a lot.”
Brother Amos carried the two shiny cartons, our family’s thanksgiving present, and placed them before the pastor. Everybody was alert now.
“Open the packages,” the pastor ordered, “and bring out their contents. You need not hide what you are giving to God. We can all see clearly the other items from the other families.”
As brother Amos started unwrapping the shiny paper covering the cartons, I wondered whether it was because their contents were sealed that the pastor had not prayed for our family up to five minutes, the way he had for the other families. When Brother Amos brought out the contents of the cartons, people started laughing, and many eyes turned towards us, or rather towards Daddy, who had been shifting on the pew uncomfortably after Pastor Joshua ordered that the packages be opened. That was it, our thanksgiving offering—a bag of sachet water in each of the two shiny boxes. Pastor Joshua started laughing, though mirthlessly. The congregation joined him. I believe they did so not only because of the sachets of water but also because of the laughability of his laughter. It was more than a cackle.
“Ancient of Days,” he said, pointing at the water, “as old as you are, people have not learnt to appreciate you. When will it come to the hearts of humans to always give something to God in liberality?” He started walking down to the aisle. Many eyes were still on our side.
“I’m going out of this church now,” Daddy said and jerked himself up. I held him by his trousers, begging him to sit down, but he seemed ready to swing his legs over the pew, to dash out of the church.
“Oh,” Pastor Joshua said to him, standing a short distance from us. “Are you the most generous man I have ever seen? Please sit down. Don’t leave the church. The matter is closed.” He went back to the altar and began to pray for the tithers, who kept standing after depositing their envelopes into a box.
Daddy sat down again, grumbling. I heard him say some words like ignorant, inconsiderate, greedy, pompous, impostor, money lover.
Afterwards, an interlude of songs followed from the live band after which Pastor Joshua preached. Although he said the caption of his message was “Reconciliation,” he did not dwell on it. He rather focused on “Giving.” The manner he talked about giving something to God made me imagine God as a Lazarus picking crumbs from a rich man’s table. After much harping on “Giving” he prayed and took his seat.
Brother Amos swung again to action. He said he would crown the welcome service of our new pastor with an exciting drama. We extolled him for the announcement. We blessed him earnestly. It had been long we had had such a thing in the church. Our former pastor was so spiritual that to him, church drama distracted people from “pure spirituality.” He had condemned as vile the last drama performed there—a drama where a female prostitute was converted to Christianity by a group of evangelists. “You don’t kiss a woman in the name of acting,” he had said. My friend who had participated in the play told me two days later that he had gone back home that day deflated because what had taken them months to perfect had taken the pastor just few minutes to condemn. He confessed to me that he had lost the zeal for church activities after the condemnation. So when Brother Amos announced that there remained a drama to top off the welcome service of our new pastor, we were exhilarated. Even Daddy’s face, which had never seen a smile after the temporary embarrassment, now had two buns on the cheeks.
“I promise that it will be an exciting drama,” Brother Amos assured us. “It involves fifty characters and you can act it without a prior rehearsal.” He enjoined us to come out voluntarily and take part, assuring us of being richly blessed beyond measure as we obeyed.
Thirty volunteers hurried out of their seats. He picked the remaining twenty, including me. I had never acted a drama and so had wanted to dodge him despite his assurance that anybody could act this one impromptu. We were all lined up in the glare of the whole congregation. I was not used to this kind of numerous eyes before and so felt them bore my body.
“Everybody, say kidnapper,” Brother Amos said.
Nobody responded. For some time now, there had been kidnapping going on in some parts of the country, and hearing someone brand himself a kidnapper in public was quite disconcerting. Additionally, our brother’s language – whatever treasure might be trailing it – was unfamiliar to us and too mundane.
“Everybody, say kidnapper,” he repeated.
Few people mumbled the word now.
“Ah—ah!” he said. “What is happening here? Everybody, say kidnapper!”
“Kidnapper,” the church said.
“Good, good. That shows you are still alive.” He turned to us standing in line. “Call me a kidnapper.”
“Kidnapper,” some said.
“Yes. That is what I am now. A smart kidnapper in the Lord.” He faced again the rest of the congregation. “Can you see these beautiful and handsome people standing before us?” He pointed at us.
“Yes, oh,” many shouted.
“Good, good,” he said. “They are now under captivity in the Babylon of the Lord.
“What does that mean, Bro?” a voice shouted.
“I have kidnapped them, and they will not return to their seats until they have paid their ransom. Praaaaaaaaise the Looooooord.”
But most people did not praise the Lord. They demanded clarification.
“Okay, brethren,” Brother Amos said. “This is what I mean. These fifty people standing before us have been kidnapped. Each person has to pay a ransom. But I won’t demand the ransom per head. The charge will be collective to make things easy. So ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters in the Lord, the good people of God, the collective charge for them all is one … hundred … thousand … Nairaaaaa.” He cackled and started capering, like an auctioneer during bazaar sales in some churches.
There were mixed reactions everywhere, both from those seated and from us standing. A girl next to me started grumbling. She said she shouldn’t have listened to Brother Amos when he called her out had she known that the drama would take this form. She complained bitterly about her pennilessness and said she had nobody in the church to bail her. She had lost her parents recently in a road accident, and this was the first time she had come to this church. She had come looking for a lasting source of consolation and had not expected to run into this financial drama. But I myself did not grouse. There was no need to. My parents were here to pay my ransom, after all.
Despite the initial apathy trailing Brother Amos’ clarification, the church started responding positively, and the plump woman collecting the money at a desk became busy. A man came out and ransomed his wife with twenty thousand Naira. The church extolled him. Some people called him Omemgbeokwaraike – He Who Does Things When They Are Hard to Do. A woman came forward and redeemed her husband with fifteen thousand Naira. Next came a sister with three thousand Naira to free her female friend. A mother ransomed her son of about six years with two thousand Naira. The church was now applauding, and the pastor and his companions were beaming with smile as many more people paid.
To my shock, only two people were now standing in the line—that bereaved girl, and I. Fortunately for her, a young man got her liberated with five thousand Naira. There remained only me. I stretched my neck, searching for Daddy. Although I knew his position, the sudden mist in my eyes and the shame of being the only person standing in front of the whole congregation beclouded my vision.
“Pay your ransom, pay your ransom,” Brother Amos teased me. “Remember our initial agreement. The last person will pay ten thousand Naira cash.” He gamboled and laughed wildly. And the whole church laughed with him.
I moved my hands and legs in anger, I moved them in disappointment, and I moved them in shame. I did not know that I would be the person to earn the MC’s heavy financial punishment. The worst of it all was the instancy of the payment. No pledge. I felt my pocket and came out with some notes. Brother Amos leaped towards me to grab them, but he was disappointed to see thirty Naira in my hand, the only money I had there. He flinched and whistled derisively. I became the butt of the church’s gibes. Bemused, I wanted to go back to my seat, but shame paralysed my legs. I prayed hard that Daddy would come and rescue me, but he did not. I turned to Mummy’s direction to spot her albino face, but could not see her. I knew she didn’t have such money, for she had been recently thrown out of her teaching job in a private school. My belly rumbled and I felt a sudden weight on my rectum.
As the riot went on, both in the church and in my stomach, a man unfamiliar to me came forward and paid one thousand Naira in support of my ransom. Another man came and dropped one thousand Naira. A woman donated one thousand Naira. Another woman gave one thousand Naira. The door was shut.
“Is your father here?” Brother Amos asked, after observing the lull.
I craned my neck, searching for Daddy.
“Where is he?”
I raised my hand to point, but already Daddy was struggling to get out of his crammed pew. I sighed in relief. I jubilated. At last he would complete the payment. To hell with my jeerers!
“Our handsome brother has come to redeem his son,” Brother Amos praised. “The Lord will bless him abundantly.”
But Daddy brushed past him and rustled up to me. “Come out, Chinedu! Let’s go home. Osiso, quickly.”
I got confused. Had he not come to bail me?
“I said come out, Chinedu.” Daddy yanked me by the left hand. But my weight was heavier than the force, so I remained unmoved.
“What is the matter, handsome brother?” Brother Amos asked him. “We are doing these things for the Lord.”
“God is not a shyster,” Daddy said, his black face intimidating.
“What are you saying, brother?” He wanted to pat Daddy’s shoulder, but Daddy evaded him.
“If you see my feet again in this church, cut them off and grind them. Let’s go, Chinedu!” Daddy pulled me harder now as a loving mother does to a child she suddenly discovers is nearing a burning fire.
We headed out of the church, straight to his car amidst the mocking of the congregation.
“Never you come to this church again,” he commanded me as the two of us drove back home.
Image: August Brill