Christ my culture, Christ my home

In a land foreign to your own, where do you turn? Who do you call? Where do you belong?

HURRYING across the streets to assemble inside various buildings and shop-like structures on Louis Botha Avenue on a Sunday morning are families of African migrants. They are making their way to their respective houses of worship. There is something distinctive about the way they navigate their way on the street; a magnetic pulling that makes the movement routine, effortless, easy and natural. Almost as if they are instinctively being called… home.

Belonging: A woman and her two children linger outside, waiting for their church service to begin. Photo: Sisanda Mbolekwa

The men are in crisply ironed buttoned up shirts and the women are adorned in long, layered dresses that just about sweep the pavement as they sashay by. Behind them are children frantically trying to keep up with the pace of the adults, as fast as their little legs can carry them. With a quick glance to left and right they hurry past speeding Toyota minibuses and overloaded taxis in the road, and with a brisk walk they step onto the pavement. 

Just a metre or two from where the pavement meets the two-door entrance are four elderly men in suits. They stand arranged, pamphlets in hand, interacting with the passers-by on Louis Botha. Almost in sync, they monotonously mutter the words “come in my sister”, “join us my brother” to the pedestrians walking past, and their wrinkled faces light up with a “God bless you” as soon as their invitations to join the service are accepted.

Pastor Blessing Oggini of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries ushers congregants inside the makeshift room he has converted into a church, into what he calls a session of blessing and salvation. Bible in hand, he hands out purple flyers detailing information about the church and its daily services, while casually having conversations with members of the church and hugging them as they enter.

As the congregants make their way to the neatly placed rows of plastic chairs, from two of the four corners of the room come the sounds of a euphoric melody carried by a commanding voice booming from the speakers. As the singer jolts from side to side in sync with the rhythm, microphone in hand, he continues to lead the worship and praise from behind the glass podium stationed in front of the room.

Pastor Oggini (second from left) stands with church elders outside the Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries branch in Louis Botha Avenue.     
Photo: Sisanda Mbolekwa
An elderly woman stands outside the New Eternal Covenant Church after the Sunday service has ended.Photo: Sisanda Mbolekwa

Brother Jonathan, as he is fondly referred to, belts out the phrase, “This is the day of joy, the day of joy, that the Lord has made”, and the congregation responds in harmony. As the pastor ascends onto the stage from the front row, Jonathan Jise hands over the microphone to symbolise that the time for song has come to an end and he has prepared the congregation for the sermon. 

“My role in the church is an important one, and everyone has a space in the house of the Lord,” says Jise. With a look around the room, he adds that everyone is here because of some reason or other.

“We did not come because we simply love the church. When you face difficulty in a foreign country you have no option but to turn to what feels normal: what you grew up with and were raised on from a young age, and that is the church and faith in God,” he says with glistening eyes and a piercing stare, so as to relay his heartfelt relationship with the institution enclosed by the four walls that make up the room we sit in.

Stretched across approximately 9km of tar, is Louis Botha Avenue – one of the city of Johannesburg’s major streets. Known as an area where immigrants and migrants have settled in, historically the neighbourhood had been populated by people of Italian descent, and as a result had been dubbed “Little Italy”. Now that is but a distant past commemorated only by the remnants of an Italian deli called Super Sconto and an abandoned building that used to be an Italian machinery shop. Looking at the pedestrians on the street and the bodies that have made Orange Grove their home, it is evident that the area continues to be an immigrant hub, however, but now of African descent. 

The simplified narration of African migration is ordinarily one that sees desperate and vulnerable refugees fleeing from conflict, war and collapsing economies to try to make a living in a country foreign to their own. This industrial narrative exists and is vividly visual on the street, with the avenue being overpopulated by not so adequately spaced out corner shops, congested fruit and vegetable stores, tailoring services, upholstery businesses and – surprisingly – a high number of Christian religious places of worship. In this street alone, one will come across more than 15 boards of bright and colourful signage advertising church branches and services behind doors that seem abandoned on any odd day during the week, but that definitely comes alive on a Sunday morning. 

The decision to open a branch of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries in Louis Botha was one that was necessary, as Pastor Oginni describes it: “The people of Orange Grove are suffering, living under undesirable circumstances, and are in need of healing. Our ministry is here by virtue of calling, to help the despondent people of God in this area and restore their faith in times of adversity,” says the pastor.

“We opened this specific branch this year, but our church has existed on the African continent and in South Africa for years,” he says.

With the first branch having been opened in Nigeria in 1975 by Dr Daniel Olukoya, their mission statement of “propagating the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ all over the world” is one that is evident through their expansion to regions such as Europe, the United States, Canada, Africa and Asia – boasting visibility on every continent.

Adewumni Eze, a young man in a black leather jacket who walked in through the gates of the church, says he did so seeking deliverance and a spiritual breakthrough. Initially hesitant to open up to a relative stranger like myself, he reveals that he owes his life to the church.

“When I first came to South Africa, things were very hard for me. I was hopeless and helpless. I did not know how to survive all by myself and I was becoming more desperate by the day.”

This feeling was brought about by the fact that even as a master of science graduate he struggled to find employment in this country, subjecting him to survival in poverty stricken circumstances, sleeping on the streets and not knowing where his next meal was going to come from as every door he knocked on asking for employment was shut in his face.

“When I was homeless in Orange Grove, I was at my lowest. The church opened its doors for me, gave me a mattress to sleep on and food to eat. I was scared that I would always be treated like a stranger, because I am a foreigner. I lived in fear. I was then prayed for by the pastor, who gave me hope that by placing my trust in God, He would help me overcome my challenges.”

Through his journey with the church, he developed a relationship and fellowship and now not only lives at the church, but is an active participant and assistant in the mission.

“Nothing can harm me now in the house of the Lord,” Adewumni says as he looks around the room, smiling as he reflects on the impact the church has had on his life.

Pastor Blessing Oginni stands next to his podium, where he delivers a sermon every Sunday at Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries.                                                Photo: Sisanda Mbolekwa

Adewumni’s testimony provides a glimpse into the level of hostility directed at foreign nationals. A competitive city such as Johannesburg exposes migrants to vulnerability, as would any unfamiliar surroundings. Among migrants there is an air of desperation, eagerly seeking opportunities to make the means of survival for one more day. And there is wariness of the potential threat of intolerance and violence that their presence may bring about. It is as almost as though one can capture the change in dynamic simply from watching the transition from the brisk and hurried walk on the pavement to the gentle settling into seats once they are inside the church. There is a sense of feeling comfortable when they collectively come into the presence of fellow believers in the house of God, where there is “space” for them. 

There are three observed trends of behaviour in relation to migrants and religion, according to a scholar by the name of Orobator, in a journal titled ‘Refugees and Poverty’ (2005). Firstly there are migrants who have persevered in their faith in the midst of trials and tribulation; secondly there are those who have abandoned their faith; and thirdly there are those who have newly identified God as their only comfort and solace in exile. The latter is the interweaving theme along Louis Botha Avenue and its many churches, clustered not so far from each other.

The flaking paint on the walls that enclose the buildings where the religious gatherings are held sheds a little light on the deterioration of the avenue. Despite the many hubs of worship and upliftment in the churches located on the pavements of Louis Botha, the tale of the once highly revered avenue is now a sad one. What was once conceptualised in 2014 to serve as a game changer in the transport sector as a prominent transit corridor is seen as many to have been affected by urban decay that characterises many other neighbourhoods in the city. 

There have been issues that have been sites of contention over the intended nature and current state of the avenue. There are the alleged driving of unroadworthy taxis overflowing with unsuspecting commuters, coupled with the non-completion of the Rea Vaya project, to mention just two. Following recent protest action in April 2019 when the residents of suburbs surrounding Louis Botha ordered the mayor of the city to conduct a clean-up of all the alleged illegal businesses and hijacked buildings, it seems there is yet to appear a consolidated view of migrants, their livelihoods and incorporation into the area. 

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34).

The Bible says that one day the divisions between citizen and stranger will be erased, when the Promised Land will be assigned for ourselves and the strangers who dwell among us. Some deem the efforts at supposed restoration to be xenophobic-related, as a result of placing the blame for decay on foreign nationals. Some view it as law enforcement. What it fundamentally means is that Louis Botha is yet to get rid of the underlying tension among locals and migrants.

Despite the intricate dynamic between the migrants and the locals, the church remains a place to turn to. Not only for those who have found solace within its doors, but in the community as well. Stacked in the corner of Pastor Oginni’s office is a heap of groceries and non-perishable food items and snacks. He explains that the tinned cans, boxes of milk and rice, among other items, are the church’s monthly collection of donations in the form of food and clothing towards its outreach program – for an orphanage in Orange Grove supported by the church.

“Our mission is to not only help those who come through our doors looking for a breakthrough, but also to share our blessings with the community and people of Orange Grove,” the pastor says. The congregants visibly do not have much, but are committed to sharing the little that they do have. “Both in the spiritual and physical realm, this call to unity in the face of division is what brings the community together,” The pastor says. 

Pastor Oggini ascends the podium yet again to convene everyone to kneel for the closing prayer. The booming voice emerges yet again from the speakers to reassure the congregants that “all will be well”. The men pick up their Bibles and stand up tall, while the women hoist their children onto their backs and secure them with a towel.

He raises his arms and the congregants close their eyes to signal the end of the prayer. Everyone in the room shakes hands and exchanges goodbyes as they leave the house of the Lord.  As the doors open for their exit, the sound of the hooting taxis rushing by remind them of their return to reality. 

The atmosphere is one of hope: hope for survival, hope for restoration. Hope that their lives will take a turn for the better. Hope that their prayers will be heard. Bible in hand, like soldiers, they are armed. Ready to face the hustle and bustle of Louis Botha Avenue.

FEATURED IMAGE: Men of God: Pastor Oggini (second from left) stands with church elders outside the Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries branch in Louis Botha Avenue.     

Photo: Sisanda Mbolekwa