It had been months since I parted ways with the Roman Catholic Church of Mary. And the wounds I sustained from years of spiritual abuse in that affair had almost healed.
There remained no trace of withdrawal symptoms, but some emotional scars. And I'd say I had regained full control of my psyche and spirituality.
Moreover, by virtue of my daily devotion to Bible reading and meditation, I had noticed a paradigm shift in not only my personal affinity with God, but also in my consciousness about life. And it was all getting better by each day. Noble virtues such as love, faith, patience, perseverance, and humility had all hatched out in my heart and were now breeding across every facet of my personality like a cancer growth. But in spite of it all, I was every now and then haunted by some sense of vacuum and incompleteness. I felt less a Christian. And I yearned for a platform to help speed up the growth of my new found spirituality. Only a Bible-based church of Christ would fix all these, I thought. And before long, I had decided to anchor my soul back to a church.
That was early 2003 - a period when the city of Lagos was at the peak of a siege by different formations of Pentecostal brands. Every major warehouse was now occupied by these prosperity-mongers, and every wall fence on major roads bore an array of posters and banners advertising various forms of crusades and incredible miracles. About a score of them had already invaded the airwaves, seizing control of prime times of every radio and TV stations. Major stadiums and open fields had fallen to the superior fire power of their financial war chest. To say the least, only a few individuals would resist the motivating sermons, signs and wonders, and club-like songs that were in the menu of their services. And I was soon seduced to climb the bandwagon.
Christ Embassy would be my first port of call, chiefly for its proximity to my base, and the glamour of their popular telecast 'Atmosphere For Miracle'. Besides, the church appeared the most trendy and youth-friendly among the whole lot. Its alluring catch phrase - 'giving your life a meaning' emitted a high wave of curiosity value, and dangled at my gnawing sense of vacuum some antidote of the sort. And their Western-accented senior Pastor, Chris Oyakhilome, charmingly gave out an image of a thoroughbred man of God. But my mind would soon rupture to find out the sham that lay beneath the whole carefully packaged gimmick.
I would join the church formally around April 2003 and attend services at the church's headquarters then at the Campground (right beside the governor's office Alausa Ikeja Lagos). It was the senior pastor's major base, and expectedly the nerve center of the church's major operations. I would see and hear directly from him, and even stalk him afterward. Somehow too, I was able to within months chum around some of the church leaders, rubbing elbows with some of the workers and choir members. All these would help me into the church's real complexion in no time.
It's important to note though that I had sincerely set out to firmly pitch in with the Church on the conjecture it was a true church of Christ. Even as the church was then neck deep in many a controversy especially as regards the senior pastor's fraternity with TB Joshua, I had never gone in with the intention to probe or size it up. But unfortunately, my spiritual compass would keep pointing me to what the church was, and still is - the Christ Embassy church of Chris Oyakhilome and family, nay a business center.
Anyway, my first day at the church was ironically the precursor to my last. Right at the entrance of the church building were some large portraits of Chris Oyakhilome, and that of his wife. And on the gigantic photographs were some inscriptions that would poke at the bluntest of all spiritual sensibilities - 'Father, we love you!', 'what would we have been without you pastor?'. And if I was to think such bizarre flaw was only an aberration, I was in for a rude awakening.
I had barely gone in to take my seat, and to my notice came a creepy culture of indecency and impunity within the congregation. The ladies, most of whom were young, beautiful and single, had come adorning apparels so provocative and x-rated that one could easily mistake the service for some rock concert or an orgy party. In fact, I could literally see nude bodies only scantily covered for fashion sake. And about half the guys too made the scene in some weird costumes and hairdos only fit for pop musical videos or clown plays. I would eventually play blind, and soon reconcile with the new reality, but there were to be more spine-chillers per minute billing.
The service soon began with a prayer session. And to lead the congregation through the prayer points was a prayer coordinator standing at the pulpit. And we were made to pray so feverishly. Remarkably, however, of about eight prayer points that were raised, 7 of them was all about the senior pastor and the church. The first was for his safety, and the second was that he got more anointed. The 3rd was that his ministry would grow in leaps and bounds, and the 4th that more members be added to the church. We were only allowed few seconds to whisper to God our needs, and end came the prayers. My eyebrows couldn't help but shrink in discomfort.
Next after prayers was a frenzy session of 'praise and worship', trailed by a soulful rendition of a melodious tune by the choir. It was, I must admit, as blistering and entertaining as it could get. In fact, a floodgate of hysteria would prevail and charge the whole ambience as a result. And shortly afterwards came the Rhapsody of Reality time - a moment when a portion of the senior pastor's daily devotional was to be read. A sycophant image would read out the sermon of the day from the pamphlet, and pontificate therefrom, in such a manner that would leave the author (the pastor) idolized, and the whole congregation stupefied. He openly sang to the skies the praises of the pastor, and duly admonished us to hearken to him. If I had thought Christ only I should prowl after, now came a replacement - Chris Oyakhilome PHD.
No sooner, a big pouch meant for offering would find its way to my presence, and I did give as little as I could muster. And while the pouch hovered around, a little exhortation on the significance of giving abundantly to God emitted from the loudspeakers, alongside some endearing choruses. In matter of seconds, we would be mesmerized by some spell-binding video clips of the pastor's 'healing miracles'. We watched in awe as the lame walked, and the dumb spoke. And there were some powerful testimonies and adulation from a few individuals.
By now, the tempo of the whole delirium was boiling over. And suddenly, a thunderous yell ensued in crescendo, enveloping the whole atmosphere like a tsunami. It would last for about 3 minutes as everyone had stood up and played an imperfect Mexican wave. Some cried, yelled and screamed, and others jumped so convulsively as though they had won a huge lottery. I myself was a bit lost, as I had thought some popular European football club had just taken the trophy of the champion's league. But Alas, it was the Czar himself, Chris Oyakhilome that was being ushered in. He had appeared from behind the stage in an olympian glory adorning an angelic white suite, obviously lapping up the whole unalloyed hero-worship. In fact, I still doubt if Dictator Jong-un of North Korean could command such a worship from his enslaved subjects. It was about the purest form of human worship I had ever seen, the type of veneration only fit for the Immortal. But to my amazement, the 'man of God' grinned and soaked it all in while it lasted. For his security were some stern looking men who had already formed a circumference of guard around him. And we were ordered to be seated by him within minutes.
He would start off on a casual note, and oscillate between the vainglorious and mundane. Although he appeared to have a way of percolating those yarns in twisted Biblical injunctions. In some ways too, he sounded a bit plausible. But I would soon figure out he had no definite theme he had intended to dwell on. To my surprise however, everything that came out of his mouth elicited some screams and moans from the congregation. He was periodically interjected with choruses such as 'Amen', 'preach on pastor', 'glory', 'awesome'. In fact, the least of all the banal statements he uttered were all applauded to. And to my horror, some folks would leave their seats to drop at his feet some money and objects of choice, (an act I had thought before then was only permissible at local Afro juju concerts.)
Anyway, he would soon wind up his homily with another call for offering. And this time, the whole congregation would troop out to 'give generously to God'. To aid mass compliance was a cocktail of local and international electrifying songs played live by the church musicians. And everyone including the pastor danced to them. It was a prophetic dance I was made to believe. And soon afterwards came some announcements. The first time attendees were to be welcomed with some soulful song, and ordered to relocate to a particular section of the auditorium to be received specially. Being a first timer, I heeded and joined the procession towards the reception arena.
I must admit we were warmly received by a handful of the church assistants. We were then each given a bag that contained some copies of Rhapsody of reality, and 2 other books written by Chris Oyakhilome. Briefed a little about the church's wondrous mission, we were told the pastor himself would like to welcome us specially on the coming Wednesday by 3 pm. And on that note, we were dismissed. I hurried back home immediately, to reflect on the whole dramatic experience. For some reasons too, I would love to attend the meeting with the pastor.
On that fateful Wednesday, I was already at the venue by 2 pm, an hour ahead of the scheduled time. But some two and half hours would pass before I could see about a dozen of fellows converging towards a section of the venue obviously for the fateful meeting. I would later find out that half of them were actually church representatives feigning first time attendants. The monkey meeting would soon begin and end within minutes with no sign of Chris Oyakhilome within the vicinity. Nothing meaningful we discussed, save for some shallow prayers. And as I sat mulling over the whole drama in disappointment, the meeting coordinator quickly dove-tailed into sermons about 'giving', and ordered from us our offering, as in his words, 'no one should appear before the Lord empty-handed'. That came like an insult to an injury. But it would serve to strike home the true objectives of the church. I reluctantly handed to them the little I had on me, and left the meeting venue feeling duped, short-changed and lied to. And that was to spark the flame that consumed my goodwill for the church ab initio.
Well, I would still keep up with the phony church for another 8 months irrespective of the many red flags I had seen. Each day would throw up new dramas and new dimensions to the whole absurdities, but I somehow resolved to play blind to it all. I would only stay put in the delusion that my spiritual life would be better for it eventually. But I cringed to discover much later how short-sighted I was to have ignored those early warning signs, as the very spirituality I had tried to nurture would lose so much blood, and be hospitalized for my protracted stay in the church.
Now, within months, the major objectives of the church had become clearer to me, just as my sense of discontent had gelled. I would discern the thrust of the church's doctrines and policies to be money generation, membership growth, and branch expansions. These I was able to deduce from the church's disproportionate emphasis on 'giving' & 'seed sowing', 'soul winning', and church attendance. Of course 'giving' and 'seed sowing' simply denote donating money and other precious resources to the church. And 'soul winning' meant bringing people to church, or giving out church's literature to them. No other virtues were half as noble, and the church harped so much on that. Many a times, in fact, we were literally threatened of dire consequences for not 'giving' generously enough, and every misfortune we faced was deemed a testament to our disobedience. Money was never meant to be kept in the bank or invested, but to be brought to the church, Chris Oyakhilome once enthused. And there were many delusive benefits for the various types of 'partnership' and 'seeds' in the church. I would later trace to this devious scheme the fact that most of the church members were forever broke. For it appeared everyone found happiness in trading their money and resources for the many illusions the church sold. And I was no exception.
But then, nothing tugged my heartstrings more than the discovery of the brazen falsehood, illusions and deceptions that the church was founded on. I nosed out that the whole of Oyakhilome's miracles and people's testimonies, though plausible, were mere ostentatious demonstrations, and publicity-oriented, rather than being altruistic acts. And I discovered the whole promises of prosperity and meaningful life to be nothing but a charade, as majority of the members actually led a pitiable existence beneath the whole facade of glamour. Members were safely locked in some fool's paradise with various forms of subterfuge. And the church Establishment ensured the world saw little of these as every material that was put out to the public was thoroughly censored, and doctored to create fantasies.
Moreover, I flinched to discover the ignoble attributes that belied the pious character named Oyakhilome. Frankly speaking, no man on earth could be as narcissistic and materialistic, prodigal and selfish, Machiavellian and ruthless as he. As at 2003, he would never ride on the same car beyond a week. And he appeared to have some morbid weakness for vanity and theatricals. Worse still, I found everyone of his relatives, from the wife, to siblings, cousins and in-laws, answering to the name of pastors and deacons, and in charge of the many church branches and business entities he had founded from the money he amassed from the church. I would marvel to behold the life of flamboyance they all led amid the squalor that was the lot of most of the members.
Long story short, I'd say right from the day I set my foot into Christ Embassy church, my spirit was never at home. I had struggled to reconcile to no avail the realistic philosophies I was weaned on, with the stark illusive and shallow principles of the church. Coming from a background of a sober, austere and thoughtful approach to life, I was constantly caught up in a conflict between my deep convictions, and the carefree and flippant outlook of the pastor and the members. And hard as I tried to blend into their frivolous sub-culture, I failed and felt like a fish out of water. More so, so many of the church's policies wouldn't make sense to me, especially the huge billions that were wasted on needless projects and acquisitions in the face of an appalling indigence of most of the members that pooled the resources.
By late 2003, I would have taken stock of the journey so far. And to my regrets came the reality that the few months I had spent in the church had only taken a heavy toll on not only my spirituality, but also my psyche and finances. I had paid a price too many for staying far too long in a dungeon. And I even found out to my horror that I had grown desensitized to many of the anomalies I had earlier frowned at in the church. My spiritual compass I had so ignored to my peril.
And so by December of that year, I would pick what remained of my spirituality and alight from the sinking boat before the eve of 2004. I took off, and raced like lot's family, never thinking of turning back. But it would take another 8 years before I could completely purge my heart of the last vestige of hurts and regrets I took alongside. Perhaps, I was made to pass through it all so I could survive to warn people about one of the worst fraud syndicates ever in Nigeria - the Christ Embassy Church (of Chris Oyakhilome and family).
To be continued...