Some 50 churches jostle for space in Yeoville – physical as well as spiritual. In one case, three churches share a single garage and divide the hours for their Sunday services.
Divisions are not just physical as pastors speak of the differences between “money-making” churches and “a true church of God”.
“Your hands shall not be empty! Your pockets shall not be empty! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” The voice roars commands in a church on Hunter Street in Yeoville.
“May you not lose your business! May you not lose your prosperity.” The pastor’s voice is amplified by large speakers in all four corners of the room. “Holy Ghost! Fire!”
With his eyes shut, the pastor shouts: “Blood of Jesus Christ!” He holds tightly onto his microphone. The congregation echoes in unison: “Blood of Jesus Christ!” An emotive melody is being played by a man on the piano, encouraging some to sing: “You are alpha and omega …”
The pastor commands further: “You shall not be a beggar! In the name of Jesus!”
Towards the end of the service, the pastor asks those who have tithes to stand up and hold them in the air. “Come forward and let me pray for your testaments.” Those members with tithes walk to the pastor and drop their envelopes into a big wooden box with three open slots. After they have done that, he smears an oil potion on the palms of their hands, chanting: “In the name of Jesus!” as the congregation responds “Amen!”
Yeoville has a large number of churches facing challenges within themselves and against each other. Johannesburg Metropolitan ward 67 councillor, Sihlwele Myeki, said there were more than 50 different churches in Yeoville.
The late 1990s saw the arrival of new charismatic and Pentecostal churches, mostly led and attended by foreigners, preaching and praising in a different way from traditional churches. Churches such as Jesus Christ is the Lord, Jesus Mountain of Miracles Ministries International, Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Supremacy of God Church, among many others, entered a space already occupied by traditional churches such as St Marks Presbyterian Church and the 102-year-old St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.
“These new churches in Yeoville are a great challenge for us as a Catholic church,” said Ricki Mukaza, The right-hand man of the priest at St Francis questioned the motives of the new churches. “Some have made it a business where they try to make money by giving people a fixed amount of money that they have to contribute to the church.
“It’s a challenge for us because we are competing against businesses and we are just a church.”
Festus Anibuko, a congregant of St Francis Catholic Church, said: “They use certain types of strong words like ‘prosperity’ and you believe in quick miracles while they are just collecting numbers and money.”
“And that is what you call indoctrination,” said Henry Choguike, another congregant. “You apply for your job, you submit your CV, you pray with your pastor, and you get the job.”
A member of the Supremacy of God Church, Nobuhle Ncube, said she believed in the pastor, Prophet Elisha Elijah, and his works of miracles. Ncube was having problems with her husband a few months ago and went to see the pastor during his counselling sessions. “The pastor just told me to go and pray and wash my husband’s shirt, and he gave me a word and I spoke the word the whole time while I washed the shirt, and now my husband and I are fine.”
Goodnews Kazeem, also a St Francis congregant, said people went to traditional churches when they needed baptisms and weddings, even if they went to the new churches for miracles.
The Catholic Church is on Cavendish Street, and there is a new church in the same vicinity. Mukaza said they could hear the loud praise and singing from the new church when they were saying prayers, and could not focus properly. “We can’t dictate what people do, we don’t want them to say: ‘Catholic people think they’re all that’ but it disturbs our service.”
St Francis’s Father Johannes said: “They use loudspeakers to impress people and to show that they are many.” Johannes is from Indonesia and was sent to the Catholic Church in Yeoville two years ago.
On the corner of Cavendish and Muller streets is a house in which three different churches operate, dividing times and sharing the garage space. One of the three churches sharing this space is a Pentecostal church: the Church of Lord Jesus in South Africa. Pastor William Mpolesha, from the DRC, said the church opened in February 2014 but had been running in Kensington since 2009.
He said it was a challenge to run a church in Yeoville because “Yeoville is full of churches already”.
“On Sundays we start at 8am and at 10.30am we have to be out for the next church which starts at 11am. And then the third church runs from 2pm to 4pm.”
Mpolesha denied his church made a noise, saying it must be the other two he shares the garage space with. “People like worshipping loudly, so you have to pray and worship without being loud or people will call the cops.” He said there was a law which required churches to operate in noise-contained buildings. “Sometimes we use the microphone and speakers if we are many, but we don’t make a noise.” He said it was difficult because the garage was not built to contain noise.
“It is challenging to be in a facility where you cannot operate freely,” said Mpolesha. Earlier this year they asked but were not permitted to use empty rooms at the recreation centre in Yeoville. “There is a law which does not allow churches to operate under municipal facilities.”
He said the large number of churches in Yeoville did not deter him because “our target is changing the lives of the people”.
“We open branches in different areas because we struggle to provide transport for members who live far away and cannot afford to pay transport fare. We can’t let people fail to come to church because of their location, it pushes you to open another branch as we have this year.”
Mpolesha said, aside from the donations, tithes and offerings, the church struggled with finances. It used to get funding from an apostle in Canada, but he stopped this. “He said: ‘No, you are a church, you’ve got church members, they must support the church to operate,’ so I had to find a job to support my family and my church.”
Elder Butho Moyo of Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses church, which has been open for 10 years, said: “It is difficult to maintain a church as foreign people. We are trying to do something that brings purpose into our lives and the lives of the people we serve.
“We are treated differently from the older churches here, we have been paying high rates for rent, water and electricity.”
Councillor Myeki said “the difficulty with the new churches was that they operated in schools, flats or houses, and this meant they were not designated churches”.
He said there were only five designated churches in Yeoville on recognised premises, four of which were traditional churches and one charismatic.
“The consequences of not applying for rezoning are high municipal rates,” said Myeki. He said designated churches only paid for water and electricity while the new unrecognised churches were subject to water, electricity and residential rental rates. “If the city notices that you have turned your house into a business [church], the city has a right to penalise you. They may increase your rates because they can’t force you to rezone, but they can penalise you.”
Myeki said new churches were discouraged by the expensive process of applying for rezoning and the requirements of the application, which were: sufficient space, parking space, abiding by fire bylaws, and sweeping the building for noise control.
“So they keep up with the high rates because that is what their situation can maintain best.” He said rezoning could cost up to about R70 000, depending on the consultant used, so many new churches settled for high rates rather than the possibility of failing the expensive and extensive rezoning application.
“The majority of people living in Yeoville are very poor, and struggling to make a living,” said Father Johannes. He said the new charismatic and Pentecostal churches reached out to people with a lack of faith. “It’s a psychological thing. People like TB Joshua promise miracles, and I think it’s a sign of lack of faith to those who go there.” He said he did not judge the people and the churches, because they were satisfying their own “personal longing”.
Johannes said he believed people sought fast miracles because it was tough to survive without any source of income, especially for foreigners in a new country, so “they use church as an escape”.
“People must understand that the Pentecostal church is for African people,” said Mpolesha. “It’s the only time the Holy Spirit works through you. Churches like the Roman Catholic and the Baptists are just procedure, like going through a study programme and just getting your certificate, but Pentecostal is through the gift from God because you only become a pastor if you get a calling.”
He said he got his calling to be a pastor in 1993 when he was still at university but he ignored it while he qualified as a pharmacist and worked in an HIV/Aids antiretroviral treatment programme in his home country, the DRC. “I thought to myself that I am a successful pharmacist, what am I going to do in a church? I can make money as a pharmacist [rather] than as a pastor. But the calling kept coming to me.”
Sandra Elimiaga, wife of Prophet Elimiaga of Jesus Mount of Miracles Ministries Church, said: “The will of the Lord is a mystery. Scientists and researchers try to understand religion but they can’t. You cannot know God through your own ideas, you will know him through the word of God.”
Melekias Zulu, who works at the Wits Centre for African Migration Studies, said: “From my experience in working with Zimbabwean migrants, they find a church that speaks their language, and they look for a church they will be familiar with. It is likely that you also share the same cultural beliefs systems and practices with that church.”
According to Vedaste Nzayabino, in a study on the role of a charismatic church in Yeoville, published by Wits University in 2010, there were three levels of integration when a foreigner entered into a new community. The first level was achieved when a foreigner found a church where other people sharing “common foreign status congregate”. This was defined as a system of self-integration and was fully achieved in the new charismatic churches, where mostly foreign people congregated.
The second level occured when a foreigner felt spiritually assimilated into the church community and gained spiritual growth. And the third level was cultural integration, where one became integrated into a group or community which shared similar cultural backdrops.
Peter Kankonde, who also works at the Wits Centre for African Migration Studies, said the loose use of the word “integration” was a problem. “Can you call Johannesburg a community that is integrated? Is Yeoville a community that is integrated?” Kankonde said this was a problem because South Africa itself was not a cohesive community, with people from different backgrounds and places.
“South Africa is a transforming society after apartheid. With the notion of the rainbow nation, you have government bringing people together who were being kept apart. Migrants from outside come in and find South Africans themselves trying to find a national identity which is not there yet,” He said integration had to be understood not as a result but as a process for South Africans and not African migrants alone.
Mpolesha said: “I found that South Africa has little understanding of Pentecostal or as many put it ‘charismatic’ churches, but I guess the commercialisation of church on TV has given people the wrong idea.”
“Being a foreigner in a new space is not easy, and being a pastor is even harder,” said Pastor Princewill of the Jesus Mountain of Miracles International. “We know that there are some people who view us in the bad light, but we know also that our members believe in our church and that keeps us going.
“People might say we are trying to make money but we are only following a calling and serving God and spreading the word.”
“Let me tell you how to tell the difference between a church of God and that which operates as a business using the magic,” said Mpolesha. As an example, he said a church could not call only those people with R1000 to come forward for a blessing. “That is a revelation for you that something is not right, what about the man with R2? Are you not going to pray for him? People follow those who seem wealthy, with nice cars, through an idea that it means he is blessed.”
Mpolesha said prophecies, deliverances and miracles should be kept secret. “When Jesus healed people he said: ‘Don’t tell anyone of what I have done for you’.”
He said pastors should not take any glory for the work of God, referring to those shown on TV who took all the credit for themselves.
“And the third way to see the difference is to analyse the outcome, does the person’s life actually change? And, that may take a lifetime to determine.”
FEATURED IMAGE: Five men perform a church service on the hill behind Yeoville. Initially praying alone, the seated man later joined the service. The five men pray and sing for him, and the pastor twists his head from side to side, using his hands as a passage for God’s work to free him from evil and bless him. Photo: Bongiwe Tutu
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