by Niyi Ademoroti
With God Evangelical Ministries—WIGEM for short—was founded six years ago. It has a membership of over three hundred and sixty people, fondly referred to as Flock of Previously Lost Souls by the emphatic and charismatic founder and senior pastor, Evangelist Olulana. Evangelist Olulana, formerly Mr. Sholana (when he was still in the world and under the tutelage and shackles of Satan), sees God every night. This is why, to him and he alone, WIGEM is short for With God Every Midnight.
It was God who instructed him to change his name, the very first night they met, to Olulana, which translates to God has paved the way, from Sholana, which just means Osho, one of the very many Yoruba indigenous gods, paved the way. God showed Himself to Evangelist Olulana and instructed him on that same night, like he now so often does, to walk the length of Alaafia Street, Onitolotolo. He told him he would find a land specially allocated to him and his flock. God told him He would deliver freedom to His people through him, just like He did through Moses. And just like God promised, right at the end of the said street was a little expanse of land that was the abode of a collective of mechanics, but after a little fire accident that claimed two lives, several cars, and a couple of skin cells, now laid fallow. He whooped. This was it.
It was also God who told him, this time on a stormy night that had his curtains floating and dancing like wraiths, three years later, to move from that half plot on Alaafia Street to the large one at Òbá Animashaun Road where big cars driven by big men often drove past. Evangelist Olulana was also sure it was God, but he must have been wrong, who commanded they acquire the land right beside theirs for their youth and children's church. Evangelist Olulana mounted the pulpit on that Sunday, dressed in his uniform white blazer, white shirt, white trousers and his favourite cream shoe that had its ridge pointing toward the heavens. Louis Vuitton padded bible and silk handkerchief in his left hand, a microphone plated a bright gold only he was allowed to use lying in his right. His black face tightened in an ugly frown as he shuffled the silky white handkerchief from his left palm to his right and wiped the wet creases on his forehead with it. He sighed. “God spoke to me last night,” he said. The church remained silent. He screamed, stomping his right foot on the tiled altar: "God spoke to me last night!" Cries of hallelujah filled the room as the muscled drummer banged on the drum and the tall cute guy with a hunched back danced his fingers on a few keys on the keyboard. Satisfied, he continued, saying God had appeared to him in a dream, walking in a snowy white robe, barefooted, on the fence guarding the church that had shards of glass sticking out its top (which was there to deter thieves), but remaining unharmed even though the shards dug into His foot. God held on to Evangelist Olulana's hand, who was walking on the cemented ground (with shod feet), which meant God had really long hands. God then swept his right hand toward the piece of land beside the church that belonged to the Celestial Church of Christ, telling the Evangelist it was theirs for the taking. Evangelist Olulana continued that the Celestial Church of Christ were obviously pagans and glorified idolaters, whose reckless dancing and lousy vernacular praises God was sick of, and He was ready to disgrace them and give unto With God Evangelical Ministries their piece of land. After seven days of fasting and intense prayer, which included a prayer ring which worked like a relay race but for prayers, where every member of the church had to pick an allotted time where they would come to the church premises to pray at the selected time, alone, the ownership of the land did not change hands. After seven more days of fasting and prayer, then fourteen more of fasting, vigils, and even more intense praying, and still the ownership of the land refused to change hands, Evangelist Olulana walked onto the pulpit, undeterred and in-control like, to announce that it must have been the devil in his dream; after all God would not walk on a fence, barefooted, like a common thief, eliciting nods and almost-silent hmms from the congregation.
It was for these reasons the church had no reason to doubt it, the day Evangelist Olulana announced that he had once again heard from God (the church remembering to scream and shout and dance). This time, the instruction was for them all, the entire congregation, to offer up animal sacrifices to God. That day began like any other Sunday: the choir had sang; love offering, seed faith offering, building offering, peace offering, and special collective offering had been collected; the evangelist had preached about the dangers of sin and the promise of prosperity for those who were obedient and gave regularly to God; then just before the Grace was said and after the announcements had been announced by the cauliflower eared youth minister, Evangelist Olulana screamed a thundering "Yes!" then raced to the pulpit, the congregation jubilant at the prospect of another promising prophecy. He danced a bit, right leg awkwardly shuffling behind left leg, before announcing that God told him the world had become exactly like Sodom and Gomorrah, that the church needed to go back to Abrahamic times, so He—God—required every member of With God Evangelical Ministries to save mankind and come to church the next Sunday with a live animal that would be burnt on a sacrificial altar which would be built specifically for that purpose. It was not compulsory, but it was necessary for the salvation of their souls and the souls of their loved ones, Evangelist Olulana added, papules gathered at the corners of his lips.
Sister Mary, formerly Fashogba, which she thought probably meant Ifa, the god of her hometown, was guarding her home, now Olashogba, which means she has handed unto God her safety, whose hallelujah was one of the loudest, has been a devout member of With God Evangelical Ministries for the past four years. Sister Mary was introduced to Evangelist Olulana and With God Evangelical Ministries after her only daughter, to whom she was the sole provider, fell seriously ill. Sister Mary visited several hospitals, always cradling her little girl in her arms, where she always got the same diagnosis – malaria, and the same drug prescriptions with injections. But nothing changed. The girl stayed ill. She continued losing a lot of weight. A co-worker whose love of gossip was a flaming coal and never an ember, to whom she complained of her tribulations, recounted tales of the wonders Evangelist Olulana often performed, and advised Sister Mary to go with her to church the next day, a Wednesday.
As Sister Mary crossed the threshold to With God Evangelical Ministries where the gate would have stood but instead stayed vacant, then still at the very end of Alaafia Street, she felt the power of God wash over her, resulting in goose bumps enveloping her entire body. She just knew her daughter's miracle had come and even asked her daughter who was seated on folded arms, front rested on her mother's chest, if she could feel it too. The child nodded, then laid her head on her mother's shoulder. As Evangelist Olulana made his way to the pulpit that day, Sister Mary found herself in tears but did not know why. She reasoned it must be the power of God in the man of God. Just before the end of service, Sister Mary's co-worker who was named Sola but called something that would probably be spelt Soley in the office, grabbed her by the arm and, as if in a sprint, dragged her to Evangelist Olulana's office a floor above the church auditorium. They were the second in line to see the man of God in a hallway outside his office door, where a pregnant woman with an abnormally large belly the size of two watermelons was seated on one of twelve metal chairs grouped in threes. As Sister Mary sat, the chair frigid against her buttocks which was wrapped in a threadbare skirt and a pair of black panties she had been wearing for more than a year; she rested the sickly child on her chest. Soley sat by her right and began making small talk with the pregnant woman seated by her left who she referred to as Mummy Twins. As they discussed, Sister Mary, who was seated between the two of them and was now forced to rest her back on the even colder metal back rest, realised that the woman had been pregnant for eleven months.
After the Grace was recited and seven hallelujahs were shouted, people began to troop in upstairs, and some had to stand because the twelve chairs available in the tiny hallway that served as the waiting room were not sufficient for everyone to sit. A small raucous began to grow steadily, and Sister Mary, pulling herself forward and stretching her neck to see, learnt it was because a woman had insisted her child sit on a chair while an old woman on crutches was left standing. Sister Mary's daughter began to cry although she seemed much too old for such puerility, and the room, which was stuffy and fraught with a variety of odours that combined to make one largely unpleasant one, grew silent, making Sister Mary wonder why this was so, then follow people's gaze toward the entrance. As she saw Evangelist Olulana's contrasting black face on white suit step into the waiting room, she immediately understood the reason for the silence and felt that same feeling of the power of God washing over her again. As the evangelist strode toward his office and past her, ignoring the greetings and salutes emanating from wonderstruck mouths, she felt wetness on her face again and mumbled something she thought but wasn't sure sounded like hallelujah. After about twenty minutes of more waiting consisting of a lot of chattering, a couple of frustration-induced insults, one fainting spell, and a teenage boy whose mother, seated three seats away, refused to permit to use the toilet so he would not miss his turn with the pastor, a mousy looking man with white hair perched at both sides of his head and a bald spot separating them from the front to the back like Moses' staff and the red sea came out of the office in what would have been a swaggered way were he a little more big-bodied but ended up looking somewhat handicapped. He announced that the Evangelist would see just seven people that evening, adding that the first person on the line should quickly go in, his chapped lips shooting out at every syllable. A quiet murmur which eventually grew into a loud argument began, with some people begging to overtake others seeing as their case and reason for seeking the pastor was obviously a lot worse than some of the people that made up the first seven, with all, of course, refusing to leave. Sister Mary's daughter began crying again and Sister Mary and Soley tried cuddling her, wrists and bones bumping into each other, and singing to her traditional songs in their native language which later changed to gospel songs because they both felt traditional songs were not appropriate in a church building.
A little over minutes later, the office door heaved and a clothed stomach first, then the rest of the body which belonged to the pregnant woman emerged. She wore a strange facial expression – not smiling, not frowning, but not blank either. Sister Mary stood to go in next, sighing and lifting her baby with her, and Soley also stood, which made Sister Mary's bent elbow almost collide with Soley's ribs. The room that was Evangelist Olulana's office felt as cold as how Sister Mary imagined winter would feel, which made her pull her child who had now quieted down against herself. She wanted to smile but tears just poured down her face. When the mousy man asked them all to sit, his breathe an evidence of the cons of chewing raw garlic, she stared for about four seconds trying to process what she had just heard but actually not being able to think at all before she came to and sat. Evangelist Olulana's voice sounded different—less powerful—In person compared to when he used the microphone, but that didn't stop goose bumps from washing over Sister Mary's skin, again, as he spoke. He told them, speaking a little too loudly, that they were there because of the sick child, adding a no at the end of his statement as if it was a question, but continued without letting them answer, that God had showed it to him in a dream that they would be here, making Soley mumble a low toned hallelujah. When he asked Sister Mary where her child's father was and she answered that the father never wanted the child and that she had the child before she got married, Evangelist Olulana screamed: "Ehnhen!" hitting his balled fists against the wooden desk, making his MacBook, his Louis Vuitton cased bible, and a little framed picture of him, his very light skinned wife and light skinned children–two girls–which were arranged neatly across the desk, and Sister Mary jump a little. The child began crying again. They all went silent as Sister Mary tried to quiet her child by pulling at her cheeks playfully and asking and telling her she was a good girl in a singsong voice. Evangelist Olulana continued that the child was sick because it was a product of sin. He also said all of Sister Mary's troubles were as a result of that sin, asking that could she not see that her life had become nothing since she became a mother. The tears that had stopped flowing from Sister Mary's eyes began again, this time with her making small whimpering sounds, which made Soley who was sat by her right put her left palm on Sister Mary's back and make circular motions on the back while whispering something that was intended to be sorry but came out sounding like sor. Evangelist Olulana told her her miracle had come but only if she was ready to give everything in her life to God, resulting in her saying yes like seven times without thinking. They prayed together holding hands, and after that Evangelist Olulana laid his arms on the sick girl's head who stayed surprisingly quiet as he shook rigorously while praying fervently. That night, Sister Mary gathered and disposed all of the drugs she got from all the hospital visits away into the bin at the corridor by her door, and by the next morning, the child was up before her, running around the corridor of their house with other children from different families from adjoining rooms, while Sister Mary prayed, kneeling and giving thanks to the God of Evangelist Olulana.
The clerical office where Sister Mary worked had not paid salaries in four months. Feeding herself and her child was already an issue, so she could not see how she could afford to buy a cow or a ram or even a small goat. But Sister Mary believed, praying for a miracle. Monday night came but not with money, still, Sister Mary stayed believing, praying. Tuesday night came and although Sister Mary's pockets and wallet and purse and every other place she could have stored money stayed empty, her faith did not waver. Wednesday was spent on her knees praying to the God of Evangelist Olulana for a miracle, and so was Thursday with Friday including a few hours of prostrating. She fasted all through Saturday, asking her daughter who could only fast until three to fast until six. Saturday midnight was the first time Sister Mary saw God in a dream. He was dressed in all white just like Evangelist Olulana described but had large bulging muscles the Evangelist must have forgotten to mention. He wore a bounteous white beard that made Him look like the men who wore Father Christmas costumes every Christmas season but His was not as long although it was quite long. He also had a full head of white hair that flowed well past His shoulders, and He was, of course, a white man like the portraits often suggested. Well, not man, white male God. God stood over her while she laid on the bed and told her He had noticed her suffering and was ready to bless her bountifully. Sister Mary did not know what "bountifully" meant but figured it must mean something good since it was God. God told her, bending toward her that she could see how incredibly smooth his face looked, almost like a doll's, and how he would have borne a striking resemblance to Evangelist Olulana if only he was black, and laying the awning of His hand against her forehead, that all she had to do was, going silent after the "was" then pointing to her child who was lying beside her, arms wide apart as if crucified. Sister Mary, looking puzzled with her mouth partly open, looked to her child's sleeping face, then back to God who had disappeared. She jolted awake, startling her child who sat up, mumbled gibberish, then laid back into sleep.
It was Sunday morning and Sister Mary understood what God commanded her.
It was a colourful day at With God Evangelical Ministries as everyone was dressed in beautiful and bright brocades. The church reeked of meat and the air was abuzz with excitement and houseflies. Service went as it always did with the choir singing melodious songs, love offering then seed faith offering then building offering then peace offering and special collective offering were collected, before Evangelist Olulana sauntered to the stage, preached for a few minutes about giving and givers never lacking, then instructed the congregation to walk outside where the ushers were waiting to line them up in an orderly fashion to escort them and their live animal to the special altar where they would be slaughtered then burnt.
One by one everyone made their way, and Sister Mary who sat somewhere close but not too close to the door was one of the first fifty on the line.
The Evangelist who sat a few meters from the altar on a swivel chair under an umbrella held up by the same mousy man who had been in his office the day Sister Mary brought her daughter for her miracle, announced that families who did not come with an animal because they could not afford one could now buy chickens being sold outside by the church gate, and those who did not have any money could buy the chickens on credit with a promise to pay in instalments in not more than four Sundays. Slowly but steadily, the line moved with a snail’s speed, the sweet smell of burnt offering wafting all over the church compound and to the heavens. The sun shone brightly mirroring God's delight as Sister Mary stood on the line in a dancing motion moving from foot to foot while holding her daughter by the hand, waiting for her turn.
Just over one hour later and finally her turn, Sister Mary walked toward the altar mumbling prayers underneath her breathe and holding on to her child who was now suckling on her thumb. The child remained oblivious to her mother's intentions as the entire church looked on wondering what this plain dressed and looking sister without an animal was doing walking forward. She did not understand why after she and her mother reached the altar, her mother pulled her toward her, left arm beneath her neck and the right behind gangly knees. She was too confused to thrash as her mother raised and laid her like sardine on bread across the stone altar blackened with ash and burnt blood. "Ah!" cried onlookers, as a wild murmur erupted, spreading its limbs across the crowd. The butcher who had a dagger in his left hand because he was a southpaw just looked back and forth with his bulging eyes housed inside his sweat drenched bloated face darting between the child who was now wailing and had her palms against her nose to shield herself from the stench of blood, and Sister Mary who was also crying and looking to the butcher, making strange and incomprehensible hand signals which was supposed to indicate for him to carry on, and Evangelist Olulana on his swivel chair that had been shifted a few more meters away to avoid the splatter of blood, who had his mouth partly open just like Sister Mary in her dream with God, with a housefly hovering dangerously close to it.