Christianity in Africa: Kenya

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The other day my friends and I were talking about Christianity in Kenya and I decided to take a closer look at the scandals that surround the Christian movement in Kenya. About 80% of Kenyans identify as Christians in Kenya. There are various strains of Christianity in Kenya with the main splits being Catholics and Protestants. The Protestants have the highest splits with churches growing every week. My article will focus mainly on the Protestant churches, where they used to be as I was growing up, where they are now and what needs to be done about Christianity in Kenya.

I grew up as a Protestant and went to Church every Sunday as required by my parents. Aside from Church on Sunday we had youth groups and concerts and every now and then an international evangelist came around. Being young, I guess I never really knew about Church scandals but they were not as widespread as they are now. I heard rumours that the pastor in my Church had scandals but nothing was confirmed so I always wondered whether these were true. We went to Church, gave offerings and contributed to various Church projects many of which came to pass. Many mainstream churches remain this way and are rarely named in scandals.

In 2010 the scandal revolving around The Finger of God Church erupted. While many details of the scandal are not confirmed the effects of it resound in Kenyans minds to date. A jazz maestro (Hellon) started a Church which drew the attention of a popular TV achor- Esther Arunga- who joined the church. Before long the anchor quit her job, moved away from home and started living at the Church premises which also doubled up as the home of the maestro. A few weeks later, the now former TV anchor announced that she would be running as Vice President under a party called ‘Placenta’ in addition they started offering prophesies on the future of the country. Later the two were arrested as it turned out Hellon was keeping several girls at his house apparently for religious instruction. The party was disbanded and the church banned. Hellon still plays Jazz at various festivals; it is not clear where Esther Arunga is. It is said that some people still secretly ascribe to the Finger of God Church.

When I returned to Kenya in 2012, one of the things I found amusing were how many preachers there were and the kind of demands they made on their followers. A certain lady pastor charged her congregation to buy her a wedding dress – the wedding never took place. The number of televangelists has increased – each with an M-Pesa number (for accepting payments) promising all manner of things including healing, exorcism and riches as soon as the payment is received. The most amusing so far has been one preacher who says he has view of ‘The Book of Life’ and once you send him Kes 1,000 he will let you know whether you will go to heaven (or hell I guess). The troubling this is that these preachers have large followings and some of the poorest in Kenya flock to these congregations in search of peace and respite from the harsh realities of life.

The newspapers in Kenya are full of scandals of pastors sleeping with their congregants wives. There is not a week that passes that a pastor is not mentioned in some scandal or other. Amazingly, even after exposure the congregants themselves defend the pastor saying that the devil is somehow involved in the scandals. Many of the pastors keep their jobs and sadly their congregations. In 2012, a Miracle scandal was uncovered. A pastor in Nairobi was caught on camera hiring prostitutes to stage ‘miracle’ healings at his services. The pastor paid the prostitutes an amount of money then asked them to show up in church with an ailment which they would promptly declare healed after prayers. The prostitute caught on camera allegedly had a twisted mouth and could not speak well but was instantly healed after prayers. On confrontation, the Church congregation lashed back and defended the pastor. Very few chose to walk away; the pastor was ‘investigated’ by the Church board and later on reinstated. The elders went as far as prophesying that those who threatened the pastor would ‘eat grass’.

The history of giving money to the pastor is based on the idea that a pastor should not have to get a regular job to make a living so the congregation needs to provide for their daily needs. However, some pastors have taken this too far and now actually make their millions using the Church. Some of the richest people in Kenya are pastors and they own very lucrative businesses in the country. This means that they really do not need the support of their congregation to survive.  This year a certain pastor’s wife encouraged their congregants to purchase a helicopter for the pastor as they bought him a 4-wheel drive car the previous year. The irony is that the pastor is rich enough to afford a car and even a chopper should they choose to. Their congregants walk from miles to come to Church and some will probably never own a car. Being a pastor in Kenya has become a lucrative business and many go into it knowing that they can convince congregants to give in the name of ‘the church’.

On the part of the congregant I am constantly amazed at what religious belief can lead a person to do. Many people who ascribe to these new Protestant Churches are reluctant to leave the Church even when they see there are anomalies. People have given their meagre possessions to unscrupulous church elders even when they understand that there is something fishy going on. There is an argument that when you give with a clean heart then God still rewards you even if the gift is misused by another person. I will not argue with that however, there has to be a rational third party who can stop this cycle where preachers take advantage of vulnerable congregants.

The Kenya government has often used religious platform to further its own political agenda therefore I somehow understand their reluctance in calling out these rogue preachers. It is also in the interest of Kenyans to separate ‘The Church’ from ‘The State’.  However, I see a need for the government to intervene. The common man is being swindled in the name of religion and no one seems to be willing to put an end to the circus. I am taken back to the 95 theses written by Martin Luther King in 1517. I am afraid that what led the Protestant movement to detach from the Catholic Church is the same thing that may lead them to fall and Christianity in Kenya will evolve into a strange cauldron on religion, business, money and lies.

Religion is the opium of the masses – Karl Max

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