The dense eyebrows of the minister danced furiously in accompaniment to the rapid-fire mixture of French and Swahili that spat from his mouth. Sweat poured from his wide, bald pate – and from the bodies of the 1,000-strong congregation folded into the 20x20m “Église Evangéliqué” in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Archie and I had been walking down a narrow back alley when we heard what sounded like a lively rally. We followed our ears towards the chanting and found the simple church (iron girders, breeze blocks and corrugated metal roof) with a woman lying in the dirt by the open door…retching. We slipped past and joined the fracas of faith within.
The microphone clutched in the minister’s hand was backed up by an extensive speaker system, a heavily equipped sound desk manned by two technicians, and another junior minister with second microphone who howled ‘Amen’ every third or fourth second in a ceaseless call-and-response relay with his colleague. The assembled faithful, all stood with their shaking hands held aloft, chiming in with each and every ‘Amen’ and simultaneously thrusting their palms skywards, as if shunting that particular prayer to heaven.
The hoarse-voiced leader was followed by a camera crew and the resultant live feed was projected on the wall above the altar and displayed on several LCD screens around the room. Men stalked through the crowd with containers into which the mesmerised audience stuffed handfuls of filthy banknotes. The minister began chanting “l’argent” repeatedly – each chant followed by the inevitable amen.
As well as the technicians, on the altar/stage was a choir and band (drumkit, guitars and keyboard set to ‘organ’ mode). All these individuals stood calmly, in smart clothes, playing with smart phones and with the latest fashionable hairstyles, utterly unaffected by the proceedings. Opposite them, on the other side of a two meter gap, stood the closely-packed, yammering front row of poor, less-educated, more raggedly dressed Congolese, fiercely competing with one another in their displays of zealousness.
The space between the frenzied congregation and the businesslike stage-dwellers was a writhing mess of limbs: when the proximity to their god’s might became too much, various attendees (exclusively women) would start flapping their arms, yelling and generally making it abundantly clear that they were on the verge of collapse from religious ecstasy. The throng would part and they would be dragged to the gulf at the front just in time to do any of the following: scream glossolalically (the “gift” of speaking in tongues), collapse, roll around on the floor, pound said floor with all limbs, vomit, hit themselves in the head or have one of the helpers (exclusively men) aggressively splash holy water (blessed bottles of ‘Desani mineral water’ – bottled by Coca Cola) in their face and scream encouragement, or perhaps attempt impromptu exorcism.
We sidled out after 30 minutes and noticed the minister’s CDs and DVDs on sale by the door. The person behind the desk shouted over the din that there would be twelve more of these services during the following two days, each two hours long, each with sales and collections. Money never sleeps.
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Copyright © 2014 Charlie Walker