Monday, January 5, 2015

The Wealth of the Prosperity Gospel

I arrived at Mission Rhema two hours into the four-hour Sunday morning service. An usher helped my friend Henri, who lives nearby but is not a member, and I to find seats in the full but orderly semi-enclosed space that the church rents from the Central African Women’s Organization. Bright pink and yellow cloth draped from the ceiling gave the place a festive, circus-like feel. From the front, a woman spoke into a microphone, her voice intense yet a bit flat, trance-like, in its cadence.

She told of how she’d had nothing and had no idea how she could give the church anything, but somehow she managed to give more than she ever thought she could. And lo, she was immediately rewarded: for her job, she was supposed to go en mission but when her boss saw her he didn’t even greet her. He just said, “You have been given a promotion!” And that promotion came with a huge raise, of course.

We had arrived in the midst of testimonials, the heart of the service at this evangelical church. One by one, men and women, most of them between the ages of twenty and forty, came up to recount how they had been destitute, or unlucky, and then gave some huge amount of money (referred to as donner les voeux, or handing over one’s wishes) to Mission Rhema. Having given to God so much “that it hurt,” he then provided for them.

One woman recounted how she had been scammed out of a house (she purchased the house not knowing that the person she bought it from was not the owner) and then, after having given her wishes to Rhema, she was rewarded with not one but two houses, each far larger than the one she had lost. Each testimonial was precise in the amounts of money spent, lost, and gained, the value of the houses acquired, as well as the terms of the “appels d’offre” and the “droits d’exploitation” received in return and so forth. The frankness with which those bearing witness rattled off these sums unnerved me, both because I’m not used to discussing personal finances so forthrightly in public and because I couldn’t quite understand how people with so little could give so much – on the order of a thousand dollars or more.

Everyone (except the young kids, many of whom napped) listened, rapt, to the tales. The entire body of a young woman sitting near me and wearing the sash that marked her as a church stalwart was joyful: she leaned forward in her chair, her expression open, as if ready to leap up at any moment. The stories were as satisfying as good Hollywood films. I could empathize with people’s tragedies all the more knowing that things would inevitably turn out better than ever in the end.

And yet they also made me uneasy. The helping hand these people received from on high after they handed over money to the church was more helpful than I could quite believe. Wasn’t this really some kind of pyramid scheme, in which people with very little give it all away and receive none of the expected material benefits in return? The witness accounts couldn’t possibly be true, could they? They must have been embellished. The whole affair seemed exploitative. And yet that was clearly not the experience of the congregation, which was, in a word, joyful, even despite the paucity of song that is usually my favorite part of a service.

Eventually the pastor recovered the microphone. He had laryngitis but told us not to feel sorry for him. And it was easy to do as he said – he was funny and had an easy rapport with the audience, teasing us about God catching us unawares in our bathrobes. He too had tales of having given far more to the church than he ever thought he could, and how it had so obviously paid off. He told of the Mission Rhema bus that had recently been purchased and was en route from Cameroon, of the parcel of land purchased for the Mission Rhema conference center, plantation, and school they were starting.

As things we winding down, the pastor began calling up the couples who would soon wed at the church, sweet-looking young pairs who he ribbed in a good-natured way, telling only-slightly embarrassing stories of their arrivals at the church. The clock showed that we were an hour and a half past the stated end time for the service, but I’d have gone on listening to him for a good while longer – the pastor made me laugh, and I liked him.

We had an appointment to chat after the service, so I made my way to the front and waited while he received people. He knew everyone’s name, and he inquired after their families and their affairs. When I’ve seen ministers or other Central African dignitaries interact with the populations they are meant to serve, the encounters have been marked by a profound sense of hierarchy, as if the big person and the supplicant are not just from different classes, but are rather different kinds of people, almost as if they are different species. That was decidedly not the case in the way the pastor interacted with his congregation. He was a kind, fun, and yet also wise uncle.

I was shown a chair to wait in. From behind me I sensed people busy with some task, and I turned to look. A man held a black plastic bag (the kind offered at the Lebanese grocery stores in town – thin but not ultra-thin) as wide as he could, and a woman reached into a blue barrel (the kind people use for rainwater catchment, larger than an oil drum) and scooped out fistfuls of cash and coins. The plastic bag was by now bulging, impossibly full, and as they closed it and moved on to the next I heard the faint tinkle of coins settling amid the bills. They noticed me noticing them, and I turned away.

As the pastor and I walked to his office one of the women who had witnessed during the service came over to say hello. The pastor asked how she was doing and she replied that she had never been better. Her face radiated joy. The pastor explained as we walked away that the woman had been poor but started a sewing business around the time she joined the church. Now she had eleven employees and supported an even larger circle of relatives.

The pastor could not find his key so we settled in the shade outside his office and chatted for the next forty-five minutes about how he had gotten into this line of work. After obtaining a university degree, he had expected to be integrated into the public service, but he graduated just a few years after structural adjustment ended the policy whereby all graduates received state jobs. He worked as a commercial lawyer for the Central African oil company, and when they were bought by Total he was told he could keep his job but the salary would be cut by 75%. So he returned to another interest: evangelical Christianity, which he had been active in while an exchange student in Romania. He was accepted into the Haggai Institute, a program that trains people to be missionaries in their own countries, and upon return to CAR founded Mission Rhema.

He claimed not to take a salary from the church and instead to live off the proceeds of his livestock businesses. (He raises goats and chickens, growth industries in this city of people who love meat, especially since the supply of cattle has declined now that the Muslims involved in that market have by and large left.) His attire seemed to back this statement up. It was fancy, but it was Central African fancy, not the kind of international fancy of someone who lives much of the year in France or Dakar, like so many Central African politicians. He explained that he wanted to help Central Africans learn practical business skills (investing, planning, accounting) so that they can succeed in the private sector and not see working for the government as their only option. Through the church, he would provide various services traditionally associated with the state to the congregation: transportation, jobs, health clinics, schools.

When I left, I didn’t know what to think. On the one hand, I was still uncomfortable with the idea of people giving so much money in the hopes that doing so would cause God to bring them vast material benefit. And yet I’d quite enjoyed the experience and was inspired by much of what the pastor had to say. Mostly I appreciated the rapport he had with his congregation, which violated what I think of as the norms of comportment governing relations between important people and the hoi polloi, which dictate formality, supplication, and a decided power imbalance (the supplicants have no recourse if they are in the end ignored). I’ve written articles about this political divide. And yet this church compound provided the experience of a different world, one in which God provided agency and efficacy for all.

Mostly, visiting this church was a chastening reminder of the fallacy of thinking about politics in Central Africa like a secularist, cordoning off politics and religion as if they were entirely separate realms. It also reminded me that however much mistrust and uncertainty I see in social life in CAR, there remain public places where you can leave a handbag unattended and not have to worry about it being stolen. Admittedly, that might be partly because all the money inside has already been handed over. But it’s not the only reason.

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