Hard-pressed Zimbabweans turn to religion for solace

Mutare, Zimbabwe - In Dangamvura suburb, an energetic young preacher is prowling the pulpit at the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, urging his equally youthful congregation to pray for “forgiveness, good health and prosperity”. It is standing room only during this Sunday morning service in the packed prayer hall. The congregants, who intermittently shout “Yes, Brother” and “Amen”, on cue from the pulpit suddenly break into prayer, song and dance. “You only have to ask God, through our Savior Jesus Christ, and your request for good health, a new job, a new home a better life will be answered through your prayers,” says the preacher to thundering applause and a chorus of “Amens!” Rewind a few Sundays ago, to the Gombakomba area of Zimunya, 30 km south-east of this border city. Nestled on the foot of Mt Dangare is the main centre for the Guta RaJehova (GRJ) Church, an indigenous Christian sect whose followers are believers and adherents of faith healing.

The church’s top leader, Ishe Ngaite Zimunya, is busy extolling members of his congregation to keep adhering to the tenets of the church and its founder, Buhera-born Amai Chaza, warning against being sidetracked by diversions and temptations that are inherent when a population is pushed to the wall by a debilitating economy. “I know life has become unbearable for most of us,” he says during his sermon in the open air on the church’s grounds. “But we must all be careful about false prophets and profit seekers who will take advantage using the name of God at times like these.” The GRJ Church commemorated its 50th anniversary in August this year with festivities here that drew more than 3 000 of its members from around Zimbabwe and a sizable contingent of new recruits from neighbouring Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa where it spread its gospel in recent years. Adds Ishe Ngaite, a member of the Zimunya chieftainship clan in Mutare South: “Remember you joined the GRJ to gain physical and spiritual healing. Your prayers will always be answered as long as you follow the church’s tenets and virtues.”

Zimbabweans today are turning to Christianity in spectacularly large numbers than before, whether they are joining denominations that offer services in large cathedrals and prayer halls, open air grounds in the bush or public parks in residential centres or tabernacles. As new members flock to their new calling, a question is asked: is this growth in church membership driven by social and economic desperation in Zimbabwe, which may be forcing many citizens to feel abandoned by their rudderless government and, thus, turn to the Almighty for salvation? Or, could it be that the new adherents to Christianity are being successfully lured by promises among the competing denominations of wealth creation and prosperity, especially among young converts, as some cynics have suggested? Still, others suggest that the booming numbers have their roots on a genuine desire by participants for salvation, whether they are joining the indigenous-led, faith healing churches of the evangelical-inspired variety. Either way, the jury is still out establishing the main catalyst for this growth in Christianity in recent years.

“Our church, I can confidently say, has been adding new members at the rate of up to 10 every month,” says a pastor with the Apostolic Faith Mission Church in the eastern border city. “It’s simple why many are joining,” says the pastor, who insists he should not be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the media. “Our church members see their social and economic lives improving with us. The word spreads and the evidence is there for all to see, so more join us.” While there is nothing wrong with one advancing his or her “economic score” through one’s church membership, a worrying trend seems to be taking hold among some of the churches mushrooming around the country in which wealth creation has been turned into the main gospel. Says a lecturer at Africa University, a Methodist-related institution just outside this city: “There is a disturbing belief among young worshippers, especially in these ‘Born Again’ sects, that the more one gives in weekly tithes, the more one should expect to receive in blessings.”

This growth curve in “Christiandom” has not been confined to Zimbabwe and its surrounding neighbours. Indeed, it has also been a dominant trend among a majority of non-Muslim countries in sub-Saharan Africa in the last two or three decades. Available data shows that Christianity in Africa has grown annually at the rate of 3.5 percent over the past 10-15 years, compared to a 2.5 percent growth rate in Asia and Latin America and a dismal one percent rate in Europe and North America. In Britain, for example, attendance in the Church of England, the country’s official church otherwise known as the Anglican Church, dropped among adults by an alarming 14 percent from 16 percent between 1980 and 1999, according to statistics on hand. This meant that only two percent among the adult population were regularly attending Anglican services, while the attendance rate for adults with all denominations factored also dropped in Britain from 10.2 percent to 7.7 percent in the period under review, the data shows. In the United States, which has also experienced a slide in attendance in the past 20 years, many church groups have taken to the airwaves, offering state-of-the-art graphics in their sermons, in efforts to build new membership and keep current worshippers from defecting. But these so-called “electronic ministries”, where the Lord’s name is spread through cable, satellite and digital television, the Internet and radio, have come under fire amid reports that they are raking in billions of dollars collected from unsuspected worshippers.

One published report calculated that in a one single year, practitioners of “electronic ministries”, most of whom are evangelical preachers, collectively made US$3.5 billion in their fundraising efforts. About 55 percent of the funds, the report said, came from elderly women while another 30 percent or so was donated by America’s poorest and neediest “who are poor and do it in the name of God”. In Zimbabwe, electronic ministries are still limited to delayed live broadcasts of church sermons. Yet, word-of-mouth and an aggressive door-to-door recruitment exercise can prove effective in building up a congregation. Local representatives of the US-based Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, can testify to that. In Dangamvura, the church is just completing construction of a new, additional prayer hall to accommodate the swelling numbers of new recruits in the suburb. The church’s young pastor, pacing up and down the pulpit, is requesting new recruits yet to be baptised to come forward. “Don’t be shy, don’t hesitate, get your baptism,” he is saying.