Moved by the Spirit; Nigerians blend Catholicism, traditional beliefs

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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ENUGU, Nigeria – Ejike Mbaka is telling a story. The 20,000 Nigerians gathered around him in the red-dust lot have gone quiet.

“Last week, there was a man who was mad, insane,” he begins, standing on a rickety stage. “For years, the doctors attempted to heal him. But the infirmity continued. He came to me for help.

“I gave him some healing water” – and here, some in the audience hold up the small plastic packages of water he sells, 45 cents each – “and told him to pour it in his ear on Sunday. Then pour it in his other ear on Monday.

“He did exactly that. And on Tuesday, a large frog crawled out of his ear. And he was cured.”

Appreciative cheers from the audience. “Such are the things God can do,” he says.

It’s about 10 p.m. When the sun comes up in the morning, the crowd will still be here – except for those injured thrashing on the ground under the Holy Spirit’s spell.

What’s remarkable about the scene isn’t what Ejike Mbaka says. It’s who he is. He’s not a witch doctor. He’s not a Pentecostal preacher. He’s an ordained Catholic priest.

After sunrise, he’ll go back to his parish, Christ the King Catholic Church, and hear confessions. But for now, he’s promising the crowd hundreds of miracles on this night. If they’re lucky, he might even repeat a feat he says he’s accomplished four times before: raising a man from the dead.

Scholars say Father Mbaka and his brand of Catholicism symbolize the impact that Christianity’s rapid expansion in the Third World could have on the faith: pushing mainline religion toward the supernatural.

“That is what is defining the face of Christianity in Africa now,” said Jacob Olupona, a native Nigerian and a religion scholar at the University of California at Davis. “The church is discovering how powerful a phenomenon it is, how popular it is with the people. And now they can’t stop it. So they go along with it.”

Some within the church worry about this nudging of conventional Christian doctrine toward the mystical. But others, including Father Mbaka, say it’s a welcome return to the early days of Christianity, when earthly signs of God’s power were a regular and acknowledged part of the faith. He quotes Psalm 97 to emphasize God’s force: The mountains melt like wax before the Lord.

“I believe that, as a Catholic priest, I am a healing instrument of God to my generation,” he says. “The whole environment is charged for a miracle.”

Vatican approval

The teachings of Catholicism and faith healing are not diametrically opposed, even to the Vatican. Since the 1960s, the charismatic renewal movement within the church has advocated a more Pentecostal style of worship, including “charisms” such as speaking in tongues and healing. It has met, perhaps surprisingly, with general approval from church leaders.

In 1979, addressing the movement’s leaders, Pope John Paul II said charisms are “all part of the richness of the Lord. I am convinced that this movement is a sign of his action.”

When Pope Benedict XVI was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he wrote the foreword to a book on the charismatic movement. Criticizing “a world imbued with a rationalistic skepticism,” he wrote that charisms were “not just ancient history, over and done with.” He cautioned, however, against charismatic Catholics’ going too far and subverting the central role of the church’s hierarchy.

Dr. Olupona said that 10 or 20 years ago, the Nigerian Catholic hierarchy might have asked Father Mbaka to keep quiet. “But they realize that it’s a different story now,” he said. “If they did that now, they would be courting their own demise. People believe in him.”

Father Mbaka, a handsome 38-year-old, says he began his healing ministry in 1996 after discovering he had curative powers. “It is the work of the Holy Spirit,” he explains. “I can’t heal anyone as a human being. I am open to God as a channel. And the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk. Cancers disappear.”

He says those who doubt him will face God’s wrath. Three days earlier, a man in a neighboring state vehemently criticized his ministry. As punishment, Father Mbaka says, God struck the man blind. “If he repents, he will see again,” he says.

Every Wednesday, Father Mbaka’s all-night healing sessions draw thousands to the vacant lot he calls the Adoration Grounds, next to his Catholic parish. Around 10 p.m., after hours of preaching by his followers, he strolls in like a rock star.

The band at stage left blares – lots of drumming, blasts of trumpets, and occasional female vocalists. He holds a golden cross and wears the traditional finery of the Catholic Church; followers reach out to touch the hem of his gold and ivory robe.

A dozen priests and almost 30 nuns follow him. There will be a Communion service later, and Father Mbaka needs help distributing the Eucharist to the swelling crowd.

“In America, I would not see a crowd one-hundredth the size of this one,” he tells the cheering crowd. “But the spirit of God is in Africa.”

Father Mbaka rattles off passages in Scripture that support his healing ministry. Luke, Chapter 7: “But say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Matthew, Chapter 19: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Jesus’ own words, he says, are what will bring the miracles in a few short hours.

Father Mbaka’s flock is very poor, and he says he needs money to serve them. He wants to buy land in the country and build housing for orphans and the elderly. To support his dream, he made a fundraising swing though America a few months ago, including a stop in Dallas.

“In America, they have the money but not the worshippers,” he tells the crowd. “Here we have the worshippers but not the money.”

To raise cash, he has started selling his own private-label “healing water,” called Aquarapha. “God is using Aquarapha to heal a lot of diseases,” his newsletter says, next to a customer testimonial claiming that the water healed his swollen eyelids.

Father Mbaka acknowledges that most American Catholics would be skeptical of his ministry. It doesn’t bother him. “That’s the problem with the American church,” he says. “There is not enough faith. I believe the God of old is still the God of the present.”

Pushing boundaries

African Christians have, in recent years, pushed at the boundary between traditional beliefs and the version of the faith they were taught by Western missionaries.

In 2000, a South African archbishop, Buti Tlhagale, advocated adding animal sacrifice to the Catholic Mass as a way of venerating ancestors. “Animal sacrifice has a special place in the scheme of things and is celebrated in almost all African families,” he argued. “We have kept it out of the church of God for too long.”

Africans began to experiment with their Christianity in the late 1960s, when nations were gaining political independence from European colonial powers. Some people wanted religious independence, too, and left the mainline faiths to form what became known as the African independent churches. These churches integrated traditional beliefs into a Christian framework, emphasizing spirits, exorcisms and connections to ancestors. Many included the word “apostolic” in their names as a way of connecting to the early days of Christianity, when miracles were not considered uncommon.

A second wave of experimentation came in the 1990s, following the rise of Pentecostal churches in Africa. They claimed to offer a more direct path to the Holy Spirit, through tools like speaking in tongues, snake handling and healing. Pentecostalism remains enormously popular; one evangelist, the German Reinhard Bonnke, draws close to 2 million people to crusades in Nigeria.

Traditional churches were forced to adapt, Dr. Olupona said. “Their members were leaving, and they had to do something to keep them.” African cultural markers, like drumming and dancing, were introduced to previously staid ceremonies. So were elements of the supernatural.

As the Rev. Joseph Offor, a priest in Enugu, put it: “These other churches had something to offer people, and we needed to offer it too.”

Through all the changes, faith healing has been an important component. In places like Nigeria, access to quality health care is reserved for those with money. Diseases like polio, long abolished in America, persist here. AIDS threatens to wipe out much of the continent. So people turn to faith.

“We’re talking about churches that are responding to human suffering,” Dr. Olupona said. “Human poverty in the midst of plenty. An unpredictable, at times very violent society.”

“In the West, if you are sick, you go to a hospital,” Father Offor said. “Here we can’t. So we don’t put limits on miracles here.”

At one point in the evening, Father Mbaka says to the crowd: “Every person here is ready to die for this ministry!” The gathered thousands cheer wildly.

Some have already died. Father Mbaka has, on occasion, preached against the state government of Enugu. On March 7, 2002, 14 worshippers at one of his services were killed. A government inquiry said they died in a stampede, the result of the priest’s over-incitement of too many people packed into too small a space. Father Mbaka says they were killed by government gunmen.

Healing time

About 3 a.m., after Communion, a breeze kicks up. It’s been scorching hot all night, and people have been standing in place for up to 10 hours now. It’s time for the healing to begin.

“You are not at all free to leave here with your sickness,” Father Mbaka thunders to the crowd. “This is not a democracy. This is a theocracy. Under divine order, you are to be healed!”

The band gets louder. The breeze dies down. “I don’t know what the devil has done to you to put you in eternal tears,” Father Mbaka says. “But I am going to force it out of you. I am not here for jokes! This place is the new Calvary!”

He cites Mark, Chapter 16: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

Then he yells into the microphone: “Do you believe? Do you believe?”

A too-thin woman in a brown dress is the first to approach the stage. The crowd has created an open space, and she walks into it, eyes rolled back, speaking in tongues. She falls to the ground and begins flailing, arms extended and bent violently.

She has the floor to herself for a minute or so before others are similarly moved. One by one, they come out of the crowd, yelling or muttering, and begin convulsing like someone having a nightmare.

A man in dress slacks falls to his knees and shakes while looking up to heaven and screaming. Women fling off their sandals and headdresses and roll and kick and cry.

Father Mbaka comes off the stage to stand among them. He keeps up the chant: “Do you believe? Do you believe?” The number of people moved by the Holy Spirit climbs: 20, then 40, then 100. Women come out of the crowd to tie scarves around the legs of other women thrashing on the ground, lest their skirts lift, exposing their legs to the audience.

One woman starts eating dirt; another’s jaws chatter as if she were freezing. A powerful man stands and spins angrily, eyes closed, until he has to be restrained by a group of men.

“The wounds are opening! You can’t help yourself!” Father Mbaka shouts. “Receive it!”

Some of those convulsing are clearly injuring themselves – most with strains and sprains, but a few are bleeding. It’s hard to tell who’s crying in religious passion and who’s crying in pain.

The dozen priests on the stage look down on the crowd silently.

Then, after 35 minutes, the music stops. Father Mbaka lowers his voice. His assistants, wearing orange T-shirts and black vests, pull the injured away to the Christ the King parish house, where they’ll be tended to.

Rapid growth

African Christianity is growing at a cheetah’s pace. In Nigeria alone, the number of Christians is projected to leap from 50 million in 2000 to 123 million in 2050. As their numbers grow, so will their influence over the global church.

Many wonder how “African” the faith will become.

“A lot of more mainstream Catholics in Africa are very nervous about that,” said Philip Jenkins, a Penn State professor who studies African Christianity. “They don’t mind having the drums in church. But they draw the line somewhere.”

Some Enugu priests who refuse to condemn Father Mbaka nonetheless speak of him with a tone of confused acceptance. “Some people find that is the path they wish to follow, but it is not for me,” said Terkure Igbe, a seminarian.

Just before the sun rises, after the injured have been carted away and the crowd calmed, Father Mbaka calls out, “If you have been cured of blindness through this ministry, come up to the stage.”

About a dozen people come up and start dancing joyously. Joseph Osundu is one. Asked about his healing, he said he was never actually blind. “I am here to support my pastor,” he said. “My sister had cancer, and she was cured. He is a good man.”

‘Very sad people’

A few hours earlier, during a lull in the services, Father Mbaka had taken a few of his assistants to an area behind the Adoration Grounds.

This is where the truly unfortunate come: the destitute, the homeless and the crippled. They sit on the ground between parked cars. Many haven’t eaten for days. Father Mbaka walks among them, as he does every Wednesday. His assistants distribute bowls of rice.

Most of the men are missing at least one limb. One had the right side of his face melted off when his brother threw acid at him. Another has horrific burns over his entire back.

“These are very sad people,” Father Mbaka says. “They are here every week. Good Christians.”

Why, if Father Mbaka is such a powerful healer, are their ailments never cured? Why don’t these men regrow limbs, or fresh, clean skin?

Father Mbaka pauses for a moment.

“God must have decided he does not want to heal these people yet,” he says. “God is in charge.”