Christianity in Africa is like....#3

PDH Ministries and the Mon of God, the Prophet W. Magaya
Having done three hours of church in the morning, in the afternoon we crossed Harare, and lobbed in for a four hour session of ministry madness at PHD Ministries, under the anointed leadership of the man of God, the Prophet W. Magaya. If the title and introduction seems overlong, I could have strung it out further. His warm-up speakers frequently did. He eminence gathers titles like your washing machine gathers lint.

Though our participation in PHD lasted four hours long, we actually left early, and had actually arrived very late. It goes all day, with some people sleeping there the night before to get good seats. They are needed, for upwards of 30,000 people stretch from the stage through two sheds that would house the mother of all battery-hen operations, and out into punishing sun down a slope and halfway back up a hill behind. It was utterly astonishing, and Tawanda will be both sad and glad that I have seen it. 

We were taken up to sit in the second row, which must have galled the people who slept out, and the masses of people in the sun to see 7 white guys ushered to the dress circle. They asked our nationality on arrival, and we seemed to get special treatment. Given that we saw only one other white guy among the thousands, this felt frankly weird and icky. They tried to work us into the front row, but we refused. This disappointed them, and I must have disappointed them further when I waved the Australian flag they gave me for the cameras with what can only be described as post-Cronulla-riots enthusiasm. I dropped it in my lap and they will have struggled to get the 'PEOPLE COME FROM EVERYWHERE FOR THE PROPHET' shot. The EVEN AUSTRALIA LOVES THE PROPHET grab. Needless to say, a team of people was managing us and after helping us seek the Prophet's blessing (and finding us refuse it) seemed just as skilled at helping the Prophet work out that he should give us a wide berth. But I rush on too fast. It all happened like a steam train. Here is how it rolled.

We entered through a special car-park and were ushered past a caged area where a women clad in a blue modesty-sheet was locked and exposed in the sun. She was frothing at the mouth, and pleading with us. She was, according to the church, 'manifesting' - ie. revealing her evil spirits. Seriously distressing to see. I almost walked right there and then.

We entered during two hours of testimony. Individuals were filmed and broadcast saying how awesome 'the God of the Prophet W.Magaya' was and how the Prophet was 'truly the man of God'. One man, Nicodemus, was shown on film two weeks earlier being delivered of a demon by the Prophet. Now he was up the front of church clothed and in his right mind, with his wife who he used to beat. She looked like it. He was a mad-men who used to fight people at a moment, and once took on a soccer team of military personnel single-handed. He testified to the help he had received from 'the God of Prophet W.Magaya though the man of God' and we were told the church, sorry - Magaya - had bought him a new house and would be late to preach today as he had only got home at 1am from helping clean the house up. (Marvellously, the whole story appeared as the headline on the H-Metro the next day - "Magaya buys Mad Man New House".) Magaya's left hand seemed to be well acquainted with his right.

An offertory followed with notes collected from the stage in six half-full rubbish bins, before the warm-up session began. My offertory was a small, but gracious note. Words, that is, not currency. The best jit-praise band in the galaxy outside the bar in Star Wars played through speakers that would wake the dead in China. 100 people ran to the stage and danced their socks off, and a warm-up preacher exhorted us loudly and at length 'Has there ever been a man as humble as the man of God?'. i did consider replying, 'Jesus!'. 'How lucky we are to live at a time when God has raised up a prophet such as the man of God for us.' Turn to your neighbour and say 'Today is your day!'. Turn to your neighbour and say 'the man of God is coming.'

You get the picture. 

Then he came. People knelt in prayer. To Jesus of course, my neighbour told me, not to Magaya. But we had prayed before, and no-one ever knelt then. Curious. Mixed messages would become a theme. He preached on 'Thy Kingdom come on Earth as in Heaven' and the Lord's Prayer generally. 

The guy can preach, in truth. He has the skills at least. He expounded the first verses well. Admittedly, he didn't know what 'Hallowed' meant, but given that he believes bible colleges teach heresy and should be ignored, this is no surprise. Amazingly, he owned the language of colonisation, and reminded us that we need to be 'colonised' by the kingdom of God. That it should possess us and own us. Fairly, if shockingly, put. I actually found this contextualisation challenging and frankly, really good.

And then he employed several moves to make a grown evangelical cry.

When speaking of God being our Father, he illustrated the point that he is father not judge (watch for false either/ors people), by an icky illustration of himself that implied he could be everyone's father. He said, 'People say to me, Prophet, can you be my Father? but they must decide. I can come to you as a Prophet or I can come as your father. but I cannot be both.' The logic was to illustrate something about God, but the meta-communication was that he was not only Prophet, but possibly your Father. His voice became warm and inviting. Genuinely cult-like.

It got worse, he interpreted 'kingdom' as being exclusively a reference to 'power' (passing over other options like 'love' or 'holiness', and then ceased preaching to demonstrate the coming of the kingdom not in Jesus, but in an hour-long show of his power to manifest evil and cast it out. His anointing oil was sprayed on people, and they writhed like snakes. They tried to put it on me but I warned them not too or the cameras would get nothing they wanted seen on TV in Sth Africa or Nigeria. Magaya's TV show is run across Christian Africa for everyone's benefit, or ruin, depending on your perspective. Magaya pushed people around. He shystered people out of wheelchairs and neck-braces. A string of now-useless crutches hang in pegs along the front wall. He added to their number. He went outside in the sun to slay rows of people falling backwards over each other and their plastic chairs. 

While he went outside, we exited stage left. We took the opportunity not to embarrass him in front of his own cameras and exited, fast. A walk of shame I will never forget. We must have passed 500 people to the nearest door. Our neighbours were shocked and the minders scrambled to fill our newly-vacated seats lest the cameras see any seats unfilled. 

My flesh crawled.

I was told later, to my sadness, that it is likely some of those members of our morning Baptist church were there too. Not to observe and mourn, like us, but to add to their fine teaching Sunday School some Magaya magic.

In the next week I ran into person after person after person who bore his 'remembrance bracelet' - a 'believe' bangle that has classic African-charm echoes. person, after person, after person. In teh Internet cafe. On the street. Sitting next to me at the sadza joint. The man has reach.

Apparently, thousands turned up at the airport at South Africa to greet him weeks before. The brother of a pastor friend of ours had just returned from South Africa himself, where he had purchased an appointment with the man of God. He has a newly discovered heart condition.

My heart bled.

Why does it work?
Firstly, it is no mistake that both Apostle cult and PHD and all their like sprang up revival-style in 1998. When the economy hit the skids, religious phantasy took off. Read church history. Vulnerable people are easy prey.

Secondly, I suspect the mainline denominations are 1950's time-warped. Ask Tawanda if this is true. Magaya called out denominational moralism. He called out church codes. He called out non-acceptance. He called out dry theology. He called out dress standards. He never calls out atheism, or immorality. They are not his enemies, not a credible target. They are beneath the radar. He calls out the 'church' and sets himself as its remedy. I think at least part of his significance is that he exposes at least the perception that the historic denominations are historically defeated. A persuasive argument in a country with a generation of young people looking desperately disillusioned and lost.

Thirdly, power. Oh, for power. In a powerless world like mush of Zim, power is the most precious commodity. Reuben, a student at a school near our home said to me 'I want to be an accountant, because I want to have pooooweeer.' His eyes lit up on the word. I told him an important function of an accountant was to restrain careless and hidden power. He looked confused. Magaya has power to burn. Power in his actions, power in his appearance, power in his building, power in the press, power in his political connections. There is power in his voice. I heard a lion roar at Harare Lion and Cheetah Park this week. I took several backward steps. But with teh magic of amplification, Magaya is louder and scarier. Seriously. When he gets to full volume you shake in your seat. Here is an exam question, "A powerful voice is a pre-requisite for preaching authority in Zim." Discuss. Go ask Tawanda.

In this town, the mega-prophets are everything. The super-apostles reign. So unfortunately, the biggest story in town proves the stereotype - if Christianity in Africa is a lake - it is a mile wide (the thousands stretched from hill to hill), and only inches deep.

Zimbabwe needs our help. I have heard this from my friend Tawanda with my ears, now I have seen it with my eyes. My heart followed.

We must take seriously the refuting of false doctrine (Acts 20:29-31; Galatians 1:6-9; Ephesians 4:14-15; Philippians 3:17-19; Colossians 2:8; 1 Timothy 1:3-4; 4:1-2; 5:3-5; 2 Timothy 3:1-9; 4:1-5; Titus 1:10-16). In Australia it is deceptive, in Zimbabwe it screams at you.

Give Magaya and his like an inch, and they will make it a mile. I say give them nothing.