CHURCH: Home for the broken, the bruised and displaced

“So then, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.”     – Ephesians 2:19

“Fire! Fire! Fire!” screams the congregation after the man of God tells them to curse the demons out to get them.

“No altar having my name, having my picture, created to ruin me shall prosper!”

The exterior of Christ the Solution Ministries International with flags of various African states flying high. Photo: Anathi Madubela 

The three-story structure trembles with the shrill sounds of praise, and the creaking of wooden floors is audible as the pastor urges the congregation to stamp on the devil on a serene Sunday morning.

Nestled in industrial Wynberg, just a stone’s throw from the township of Alexandra, the words “Christ the Solution Ministries International”, written in bold blue letters against a white background, can be seen from miles away.

“The way to the church is through that door and up the stairs. It’s a bit dark, but do not be scared: this is the house of the Lord,” said the man in a navy blue uniform with his ‘SECURITY’ cap cocked to one side.

As I entered through the narrow door I saw my reflection to my right, a shock at first, but the mirror commands you to look at yourself, to practise introspection. A gentle pat on my shoulder urged me to continue into the blood-walled foyer and up the stairs. The steep climb to the church on the third floor evoked the imagery of climbing up to Heaven, and a mix of Igbo hymnals and the singing of “Jesus loves me, this I know” filled the narrow stairway.

The second floor houses the Sunday school, which doubles up as a crèche on week days. The third floor, a brightly coloured room with high windows almost the antithesis of the route to the church, is where the service is held.

Migrant Hub

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” – Matthew 25:35

 “Let us pray together-oo [Asithandaze ndawonye], everyone say your own prayer [wonke umuntu asho umthandazo wakhe]. The battles you are fighting-oo [lezimpi uzilwayo], you will overcome [uzozinqoba].

“Think of today’s scripture [cabanga isifundo sanamuhla]. You are Lazarus [nguwena uLazaru] and you shall rise again [uzovuka futhi],” preached the pastor, who was dressed in a navy three-piece suit with a red tie and brown shoes. The mixture of Nigerian pidgin and Igbo seemed so befitting that the isiZulu translation stood out.

Churches or places of worship have been known to create a home and a sense of community, belonging and family for migrant communities. The mushrooming of migrant churches on Louis Botha Avenue is testament to the cosmopolitan nature of the areas surrounding the road. This video tells a story of a Congolese community who have created a sense of family for themselves through the church. Video by Anathi Madubela

Since the late 1980s there has been a global wave of Nigerian migration, with an estimated 100 000 currently living in South Africa. It is therefore not uncommon to find a Nigerian church at the migrant hub of Johannesburg’s Louis Botha Avenue. The uniqueness of this particular church, however, is that in this migrant hub there exists a church that shows the cosmopolitan nature of the road. The church not only resembles a cauldron of melting, interconnecting and morphing culture, it is also a microcosm of the greater Johannesburg area.

A slight metallic swoosh could be heard in the tightly packed, 100-person place of worship. Now and again I could feel a cool breeze fan my face as the congregant next to me was kneeling and praying intently.

“My father! My God! I exalt you! Please deliver me from my situation,” she murmured, seemingly aware that I was listening.

To my left, a man dressed in a matching green isiagu top and trousers, with the vigour of a lion, had his eyes tightly shut, his hands balled into fists while he walked up and down muttering unintelligible sounds.

At the back were three women whose knees seemed to graciously kiss the carpeted floor, who were praying silently as if to keep the prayer in their circle.

This free display of religion, faith and praise created an air of oneness and understanding and this was of course aided by the occasional “Tell your neighbour that God is good” and “He will work out everything in your favour.”

  • A programme launched by the National Council of Provinces and Gauteng Provincial Legislature in 2018 looking at the effects of migration on service delivery in Gauteng found that 47% of international migrants settle in the Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipal area.
  • According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Nigerians are a population with a high record of migration.
  • Most migrations in Africa are intra-continental; that is why countries that have stronger economies, such as South Africa and Egypt, have a high number of immigrants.
Church as family

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” – Psalm 133:1

The cry of a hungry child signalled the length of the four-hour long service. The pastor prayed quickly over the offering basket before closing the service.

After the service the pastor led me to a door on which was written “Pastor’s Office”. I sank into the couch that took up most of the space in the bijou office. Behind the couch was a mountain of bags of rice.

“We donate these to church members who are less fortunate. Congregants contribute what they can and we divide it among those in need,” said Pastor Pascal Nwachukwu.

“As much as this church has heavy Nigerian influence, we do not see ourselves as a Nigerian church; instead we put emphasis on community, especially when someone comes into a new environment without having next of kin. They often find themselves in the church and that becomes their new family. We have some church members who are from and live in Alex but choose to worship with us.

“It was also these members who defended us during the [xenophobic] attacks, in as much as this church was not heavily affected,” said the 45-year-old preacher.

Nthabiseng Mooko a 27-year-old choir member who lives in Alex, said although her father is a pastor of a Catholic church, she still prefers to worship at Christ the Solution Ministries International.

“The vibe here is different,” she said. “We call it club church because it gives us the space to praise the way in which we want to, as the youth. My father’s church is very traditional and I had to be put together, but here I feel more at home than I have ever felt anywhere else.

“The fact that this church is a walk away from my house is a bonus. I really feel at home here. I feel included. I am even learning a bit of Igbo because of the songs,” Nthabiseng said.

Wednesdays are jam-packed, the pews filled with churchgoers waiting to consult the pastor on a first come, first served basis.

RIGHT:  Nthabiseng Mooko and Siziphiwe Mbokazi wait to see Prophet Ekene for counselling. Photo: Anathi Madubela
 “A family that prays together, stays together”

Wednesdays are jam-packed, the pews filled with churchgoers waiting to consult the pastor on a first come, first served basis.

“I need to hurry back to work, please put me in na,” said a panting churchgoer to the caretaker, Sunday Solomon, who was monitoring who went next in seeing the revered prophet.

“These people annoy me. They take leave for everything else but cannot prioritise seeing a man who will help them with their life. Now they come in here and want to jump in,” said the caretaker.

He is a tall man of a towering structure. He looks almost like a bouncer of the church.

“I joined this church back in 2009 and I have been an active member ever since,” says Sunday.

“See, I had come to one of these counselling sessions and the prophet shared something with me. I had just moved to South Africa and my brother passed away back home, leaving children that I financially had to take care of, and for reasons I wish not to disclose I could not go back home. I was drinking and very depressed. This church saved me. At a time I was feeling at my lowest, Christ the Solution became my support system,” said the 36-year-old.

As we were conversing, sitting on plastic chairs in the crèche and with children singing their ABCs in the background, facing the door so that Sunday could regulate who went next for counselling, a woman with a baby on her back walked in and handed him a R100 note. He excused himself and went into the pastor’s office, then walked out again holding a small 100ml spray bottle with golden liquid inside.

“Do you not have a bigger bottle? This small one runs out quickly,” the woman asked.

In an earlier conversation, Sunday told me that besides being a caretaker he sold perfume imported from Dubai for a living, so I assumed the exchange was for that scented product.

“You can buy your own and bring it here and we bless it for you,” Sunday replied to the woman.

Then I realised it was not perfume they were talking about.

“It is anointing oil. R50 a bottle,” he announced proudly after seeing the puzzled look on my face.

He went on to explain the uses of the oil, while quoting an unfamiliar Bible verse. He said it could be added to bath water for a proper cleansing, sprayed over pillows to ward off bad dreams and sprayed on door and window frames to repel evil spirits.

ABOVE: Sunday Solomon, caretaker of Christ the Solution Ministries, sits in the creche so he can have full view and moniter people going in for counselling with the prophet.                            Photo: Anathi Madubela
ABOVE: Anointing oil bought at the church and blessed by the prophet.                                      Photo: Anathi Madubela
The unwilling prophet

It was finally my turn to meet the much talked-about prophet, Amope Ekene. I was met with an unwelcoming reception. Perhaps the soothsayer sensed something I was not aware of. The muscular man, of short stature, seemed weary and unrelenting, but eased up once the conversation became more about him.

“As a young boy growing up in Nigeria, Lagos, I always knew I had the calling but I did not know what to do with it,” he said. “My father was a builder and my earliest memory was of when I was playing with cement and I built a cross and hung it on a tree. I was about six years old then.

“I moved to South Africa in 2002 and I used to gather the men at the commune I lived in to pray every night. Those are my brothers, and from there my congregation grew and now we are here,” said the 45-year-old, apparently chuffed with himself.

He proceeded to tell me more about the church and its different outreach programmes.

“People are important to us in this church,” he said. “We try to help out in any way we can. The point of moving to this space in 2009 from Berea was to realise all of the goals we have reached.

“Take the crèche as an example: Many of our congregants are unemployed or have informal employment, so need a safe place to ensure the safety of their children. We offer not only a safe but a godly environment that parents can trust. Most of the children you see in that room do not pay fees,” said the prophet.

Religious text stacked on an ottoman at the church. Photo: Anathi Madubela

I could hear the growing agitation outside, as I was taking longer than the average person would during counselling.

“We try to help out people as much as we can in this church. We are a family in Christ. For example, with family counselling: The family I just saw before you walked in are in trouble. The husband was on the streets and the wife is upset and cannot forgive him. She is now even withholding things a wife should give to a husband. I had to advise her not to do this because that will further drive him away, because what a man cannot get at home he finds on the streets,” he said.

“The anointing oil is honestly to build confidence and faith in our congregants. When people have a ritual they tend to be unwavering in their faith. Manifestation works and that is what we believe in,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, the children at the crèche continued to sing their lungs out, with their parents coming in to consult the prophet.

“A for apple, B for banana, C for cat,” could be heard from across the street.

FEATURED IMAGE: The exterior of a church. Photo: Supplied