Jesus has always been box-office.
He’s a superstar. He’s a celebrity. He’s the celebrity. He’s “hot”. He’s famous and popular—trust me, those are two different things, ask St Peter. But even the blind can see how the Church has recently been at odds with its heavenly and earthly masters, the former offering eternal life, the latter building heaven on earth. For a cleric, the hottest ticket in town is an invite to State House, or for State House to come to you.
Not so for my immortal soul. After a whirlwind teenage storybook romance, the Almighty and I hit a snag in our relationship. We are staying together for the kids—the kids being a wedding or a funeral, where He recently caught my eye across the room during a requiem and I looked away in shame, embarrassed that I hadn’t called.
Which is why I am surprised that He blinked first, showing up unannounced at my new residence. Indeed, I have moved houses to reflect my career trajectory. I now live somewhere off Ngong Road, shackled in between trees, with an eager and rather loquacious caretaker who I discovered has a penchant for rosemary (the herb). The rent is manageable, which, by “larger Kilimani” standards, is practically a bargain. I needed somewhere that was close to all the party scenes in Westy, somewhere close to the CBD and, more importantly, somewhere that has water because jerricans and mitungi on the balcony are just not giving. Thus, it was surprising when the landlord forgot the small matter of a Legio Maria church mushrooming right under the said balcony. And you know what they say: Shout your joyful praises to the Lord. Make noise for the Almighty.
Now, I don’t know if the Lord knows this, but I have been a captive audience, getting the brunt of the hallelujahs and the hosannas and the hail Jesuses in much higher decibels than reach Him. And if there are people who are brazen, it’s church folks.
I asked my landlord, James, why he can’t petition to remove the church from the residential place and, clearly speaking from experience, he flatly told me it was impossible.
I am no longer a religious fanatic. I am no atheist either. Nor am I a misotheist—I don’t hate God. Quite the contrary. I like God—or the idea of God. But why do His people have to be so loud?
And why is it always the ‘hoods that have the loud churches? And, ironically, still grapple with the highest crime rates (up to 60 per cent as is the case in Bondeni, Nakuru)? In the “larger Kilimani” area, within a square mile of Kawangware, Congo or Amboseli you will find no less than twenty-odd churches, assaulting every ear in their vicinity. If the Protestants don’t get you, the Adventists will. Contrast that with the posh areas where the hum of pearly gates opening is what ushers you in, where the cacophony of the city is kept out by terrestrial walls and signs of “Controlled Development” silencing even the most fervent of evangelists. Gentrification makes noise silently.
Perhaps this is why I find the religious experience underwhelming, akin to attending the world’s most lavish church when you are ambivalent about God. Church services that should take, at best, two hours, are extended to accommodate politicians who promise “sitaleta siasa kanisani”. They go on and on, castigating their opponents, bellowing their achievements, “leta-ing siasa kanisani”. The congregation, meanwhile, is cast under their spell, ululating and dancing and stomping their feet as the 100K, 200K, 300K or whatever amount the politician has donated hits the offering basket. The Church has chosen Caesar over God and, put on a scale, has been found wanting.
I know how I lost my faith: When the church and the politicians started speaking through one mouth. Politics and preachers make for awkward bedfellows, but when Christianity is politicised, churches transfigure into repositories not of grace but of grievances. The combination of religion and politics is an alchemy of pure evil, all in the name of God, an exemplar of taking the Lord’s name in a vain self-serving fashion.
It feels like the church is unwittingly behaving like the adamant prophet Balaam, from the story in the Bible, while the donkey—the congregation—keeps resisting the prodding, because they can see the angel with a drawn sword on the road. In other words, one can’t tell where the politician ends and the pastor begins. President Ruto got his political (mis)education from President Moi, perfecting his master’s tricks. President Moi was “God’s anointed”; Ruto is “God’s Chosen One”. Moi himself was said to be hyper-religious, an AIC faithful, waking up at 5a.m. to pray and read the Bible. Ruto, falling at the base of the apple tree, is presumably a devout man of God, a teetotaller, waking up at 4a.m. to pray, a behaviour that became a habit from his days as the Christian Union leader at the University of Nairobi sometime between 1986 and 1990. In June 2018, Deputy President Ruto took umbrage at his critics, telling off those criticising his frequent church harambees and stating that he was “investing in heaven”.
Politics and preachers make for awkward bedfellows, but when Christianity is politicised, churches transfigure into repositories not of grace but of grievances.
Ruto the salesman, who sells himself by his manner of speaking, quickly became a refracted image of the pastors who had started their churches with a handful of congregants before they “hustled” their way into becoming the moneyed leaders of mega-churches. Moi may have used the Church, Ruto weaponized it. Moi may have been the tsar, but Ruto is its star. He is not its hero, but he just might be its culmination.
Going to church presently is akin to fulfilling a social obligation. It’s hard to trust the Church, and we certainly don’t believe our leaders, so we have a society where we are checking out – the middle children of history with no purpose or motivation. This is as acknowledged if ignored as oxygen is acknowledged and ignored. Which explains the exodus from mainstream churches and their long-held traditions to the new charismatic evangelical churches that are flexible and personal. This is our great social malaise, and it is terminal. We are the damned, who no longer give a damn.
In the high noon of my youth, I gave a damn. Wallaahi billaahi. I gave so much damn I had a Sunday Best outfit. My Sunday best was always a shirt, crisp white, brown, or beige khaki pants and dress shoes, good manners tucked in my pocket. Now I wear my Sunday best on a Monday. Or a Tuesday. Any day, really.
In those days, walking the streets of Nairobi on the way to Sunday service you would lose money to either a hawker or a pickpocket. Or both. It didn’t matter. We just wanted to be in the house of the Lord. We seemed to live at church. We weren’t living in Roysambu but we were living our best life. Now money is the true Jesus. Tuchangie this, tujenge that, and of course, the pastor needs a new car to move around in (with the Gospel?), and could we make it at least 2500cc, preferably black, so that the devil cannot see him coming? Amen?
Somewhere along that road I lost my way and joined the multitudes on the crowded highway to hell. Somewhere along the way I lost my fear. I lost my reverence.
I am not hiding the fact that I have a love-hate relationship with the Church. My mother has never missed a kesha (night vigil). When she talks about Jesus, even Jesus sits down to listen. Her voice would tremble, her eyes would water, and I’d run away, because what is this Jesus that makes people cry when they think of him? My mother fears Jesus. We feared her. I have always been jealous of Jesus. He got the best half—we got the discipline. Presently, my particular beliefs commit me to think that those who call pastors “dad” or “mom” are mistaken. Heresy aside, a pastor cannot replace one’s parents. It says so in Matthew 23:9. Besides, Jesus himself was called “Teacher” or “Rabbi”, never “daddy”. It does not, however, commit me to think any less of them for their belief. That is a crucial distinction, which often gets lost in translation when talking about religion. That is what has made me disdain Sunday service. It is no longer about God but about men of God.
Somewhere along that road I lost my way and joined the multitudes on the crowded highway to hell.
When I was growing up in Kahawa Wendani, a popular fridge magnet slogan was “WWJD?”—What would Jesus do? I can’t speak for Jesus, so now I ask, what should I do? The Church doesn’t call out leaders; not in the way Jesus did. It merely suggests, barely instructs.
The politician has since replaced the Almighrrryy Gaaawwdd (as my twenty-something choirmaster says it) as the most quotable figure on the pulpit. My Sunday School teacher could never have enough of saying, “The Bible is not a storybook. It is a book full of stories.”
Stories—like the Sermon on the Mount or the Parable of the Rich Fool or the Tale of the Lost Sheep—illustrate this; Jesus, a buddy-leader, shooting the breeze with the scum of the earth, the prostitutes and the tax collectors, those on the crowded path on the wrong side of the narrow way. The Bible, full of stories, the grotesque and the passionate. In 2022, I began my own story: I set fire to the rain with my mother’s mainstream church, when during the “Friends’ Sunday” service, in the lead-up to the general election, the presiding pastor told us which side to vote for. Not asked. Not recommended. Instructed. His exact words: “Tumefikiria na tunajua serikali gani itatuumiza.” ‘Tu-’ in this sense was not the ordinary mwananchi, but the ordinary kanisa. I was simply collateral in an us-versus-them, the children of light against the children of darkness. Jesus hates the sin but loves the sinner. The church is naked but it wants to advise you which clothes you should wear.
The parable of my generation—those whose guide is no longer the Holy Word but Hollywood—is that we long gave up the ghost. The spirit that possesses us instead is bottled in 250ml, 350ml and mzinga bottles. But the church below my balcony has an unmistakable scent of hope. Visitors, I see, troop in for a taste. Some come out of curiosity, many come in desperation, prayer items in tow: healing, deliverance, blessings. Politicians come not to win Jesus hearts, but the electorate’s vote.
I stopped going to church after campus, in the year of our Lord 2018, but Covid was the final Pontius Pilate moment for me. I couldn’t relate to the message, and I certainly didn’t trust the messenger. The times I remember being in church were ecstatic. The preacher—part voodoo evangelism, part dramatic mastery, self-indulgence par excellence—calling himself the mighty man of God rather than the man of the mighty God à la the self-proclaimed “Prophet” David Edward Ujiji Owuor, whose record-breaking titles are enviable, who gets roads cleaned for him. My pastor was an emotional preacher. One who rouses the crowd, gets their blood boiling, their fists flying and their throats breaking. A teacher tells, a preacher yells? Indeed.
A preacher of fire and brimstone, with the audacity of a white suburban male on a humanitarian mission to change lives in Africa, his words swarming over you from every direction. The pastor would seem possessed, losing himself in a trance, the church members drinking the Kool-Aid in a continuous chant sung by tens of hundreds of small bands. It is adulation, hero-worship, and a welcome home all wrapped together and delivered in surround sound. The way it used to be and, some would argue, still should be. Maybe that’s what keeps the congregation in their seats and the coins in the offering basket. In a sense, it’s no different from the spirit in bottles—one numbs the body, the other numbs the soul.
The church means different things to different people. To some, refuge. To others, hope. To me? A noisy, insensitive place, nestled within an estate, forcing teachings down one’s throat. It’s very hard to separate the signal from the noise. But I can no longer fathom my place without that church below my balcony. They are my windvane for Sunday mornings. I even know one song: “Nikiwa shemasi mwema, nitapewa dhahabu, nitahimiza wenzangu kwa kuwatembelea, wasiporudi zizini nitawarudiaaaa…”
Religion is faith. Faith is strong belief based on conviction rather than proof. Faith asks you to believe and share without evidence. Faith has never been reasonable. Nor will I try to paint it as such. Because faith is not rational, it rattles us, it prods us; are you a coward because you don’t believe … or because you believe? Maybe that irrationality nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings, and strengthens feelings of loyalty. Its irrationality may even be the source of its power.
Church imetuwekea finyo
Like Prayerful Rachel and Honest Ruto, perhaps the Kenyan Church is a manifestation of our prayers getting answered, our very own Frankenstein’s monster. Perhaps, this government really is the chosen one. Isn’t it clear already in Romans 13:1? Isn’t this what you get when you put a hustler in State House? The girl I want to make my wife says, “We elected hustlers, only we are the hustle.”
We so much want to believe in the Church—that it will do good. But the scandals just won’t let us. Did you hear of the priest that was caught in a lodging with that girl? Have you heard of that pastor who asked his congregation to fast and die so they could go to heaven? And – whisper it quietly – the other one who is married but has knocked up a baby-momma?
I can no longer fathom my place without that church below my balcony.
I still periodically go to church. Wallahi. Mbele ya God. And I only go there because the service lasts as long as a Gengetone rapper’s musical career. Sometimes to pacify my mother—I still fear her. Sometimes because of a girl I like. Okay, most times. It doesn’t hurt that the congregation has a high net worth too. Have you seen the rich pray? They do not so much supplicate as they ask the Lord to do things. Chinua Achebe captures it perfectly in Anthills of the Savannah: “Charity, really, and not religion, is the opium of the privileged.”
Jesus used to be box-office. People obey Him, or they say they do. You know, Jesus is Lord. But ever since politicians climbed the mountain, saw churches in the promised land, and prepared to harvest, I silently mourn. Lord, I pray: please protect me from your followers. Or maybe I should just join the Legio Maria church under my balcony. Juu, otherwise, kwani nita do?
“I closed the huge doors behind me and walked softly towards the altar. I was in the opium of the people. The huge cross dangled from chains fixed to the roof. I stood looking at the crucified Christ. He looked like He needed a stiff drink. He looked as if He had just had a woman from behind. He looked like He had not been to the toilet for two thousand years. He looked like I felt. That was the connection.”
~ Dambudzo Marechera, Black Sunlight. ~