Kisumu, Kenya – “The Catholic Church is the apostolic church, the first religion of Christianity. And Catholics, they are very good men—I like them, you see.” I sense there is a “but” coming, as John Pesa taps his finger on a glass table for emphasis now, and throughout our Swahili-language interview, to ensure I understand his message clearly.
“But the modern Church does not know the gifts of the Holy Ghost. The saints of the past, they prophesied, they cured, and they expanded the Catholic Church. So I don’t know why the Catholic Church of today doesn’t like it. Someday,” he sighs, “they will have to come back to this belief.”
Pesa is nothing if not enamored of tradition and authority, though he was excommunicated in 1971. His office is festooned with pictures of saints—especially miracle-workers like Francis of Assisi and Anthony of Padua—as well as, oddly, a portrait of the Prince Consort and Queen Elizabeth. Few Kenyans would display the photo nowadays.
Pesa himself wears a white tunic and skullcap—though on close inspection, it turns out to be a variant of a driving cap and has the overlapping “NY” logo of the Yankees faintly imposed on the back. The garb is a little off, but Pesa’s imposing size and his flamboyant and often funny, but unmistakably authoritative, manner mark him out as unique—“a big man” as Kenyans are fond of saying, referring not only to one’s physical size but the talent and influence it denotes. This impression is helped along by the cult-like devotion of his followers, who refer to Pesa by the honorific “His Holiness.”
An outcast by birth—born of a Kikuyu woman in the province of another tribe—and then orphaned young, Pesa was brought up by a European priest, Louis Herzog, at an upcountry mission station in western Kenya. In his mission education, he excelled at Latin and was noted as a person with a vocation. It was at seminary in the late 1950s that Pesa “received the gift of the Holy Spirit,” he tells me over sodas.
During these years, he was visited by an apparition of Mary, he claims. Mary instructed him to heal the afflicted through prayer, and he set about doing so immediately, attracting large crowds around the southwestern Kenyan town of Kisii where he had been sent to train. For a time, his practice was indulged, but finally, both his seminary’s superior as well as the local district commissioner— sensitive to out-of-the-ordinary religious practices in the wake of the British colony’s violent Mau Mau rebellion— instructed him to halt his ministry.
For nearly a decade, John Pesa heeded that command. And as he obliged, Africa changed profoundly. In 1964, the Kenya Colony and Protectorate became the Republic of Kenya. Its president, Jomo Kenyatta, eschewed the khaki uniforms and plumed helmets of imperial executives, and donned instead a beaded fez and colorful hemp shirt and carried a flywhisk. In a colony where the gold standard had been to look and act like a European, here was the iconic first man of a new Kenya who—like many leaders of independent Africa—emphasized that his authority, his rule, his culture were African.
This “Africanization” was a state of mind that inserted itself not just into the realm of politics, but of religion too. Traditionally, most African tribes followed faiths that broadly conflated the spiritual and material realms. As early ethnographers discovered, any major occurrence, good or bad, was considered to have both a temporal and a spiritual cause. To give a famous example, offered first by the Oxford anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard in the 1930s, a villager might understand that his granary collapsed because termites had badly damaged the structure. But that left the question: Who sent the termites?
The tribal religions that were premised on this cosmology all shared a common practice of propitiating the spirits who controlled the rains, the fecundity of one’s wife, the health of one’s cows, really anything at all. The old mission religions made way for African culture through translation and music, but sought to de-emphasize the miracle-making that was the cornerstone of most African religions.
“Independence” was not a complete reversal to a past of disparate African chiefdoms and powerful witchdoctors. Kenyatta, Congo’s Mobutu, and Ghana’s Nkrumah—these nationalist leaders fashioned themselves and sometimes behaved like a larger variety of the old-time chief, but they were consummately modern strategists, obsessing over national budgets and playing the sides of the Cold War.
So too with African people of faith. Most of them did not backslide totally into traditional African religions. Instead, the independence era was merely an opportunity to mould the older onto the newer. As colonial authorities became resigned to losing their sweeping powers and loosened their control over the registration of churches, a different type of Christianity burst onto the scene. This was Pentecostalism, flowing as often as not from the United States, which, as Britain was losing its empire, was gaining a cultural one.
In the past fifty years, Pentecostals have staged a serious religious coup in Africa, winning over believers with their emphasis on divine intervention by the Holy Spirit in mundane matters of health and wealth. The message appealed to Africans, first because they were culturally inclined to believe it, and also because many were and still are desperate enough to seek spiritual solutions to temporal problems. While this so-called Prosperity Gospel has won itself as many skeptics as believers in the West, in Africa it has become utterly mainstream. Indeed, a recent Pew survey found that a majority of Christians in Kenya are members of independent Pentecostal churches or charismatic spin-offs, sanctioned or otherwise, of the historic mission churches.
Of the latter, the churches where episcopal authority lies within local hands have most often gone the way of Pentecostalism. Ironically, just as the absence of a controlling authority in Canterbury paved the way for US Episcopalian leaders to permit homosexual marriage and ordain women, the breakdown in authority also gave Anglican bishops in Africa a wide latitude in remaking their churches in a more “evangelical” manner. That, at least, is the term used in promoting African Anglicanism to the faith’s conservative North American allies—“Pentecostal” might, in fact, be more appropriate. At youth services these days in Anglican churches in Nairobi, parishioners break into ecstatic, incomprehensible prayers bordering on speaking in tongues; testimonials are sometimes given, and claims to miracles are increasingly commonplace.
There is also the belief, as in independent Pentecostal churches, that satanic forces curse even good people, and possess them. Such is the doctrine of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), whose current moderator, the Rt. Rev. David Githii, has authored a book called Exposing and Conquering Satanic Forces over Kenya.
A demonological treatise by such a major church figure has not been seen in the West since Reverend Mather’s or James I’s day. But in Githii’s tour de force, seemingly all Kenya’s social and political ills are blamed on idolatry and witchcraft— from the “bestial” colonial-era murals in the parliament chamber, “resplendent with Freemason imagery,” to the “counterfeit gifts” offered by witchdoctors to villagers inclined to local beliefs.
Dr. Githii, who holds a doctorate of missiology from the Fuller Theological Seminary, advocates a “mobilization of prayer warriors and intercessors” to fight these evils. And so the Presbyterian church, stodgy in its origins and conservative in its temperament, has become flamboyantly Pentecostal in its East African variety.
In the African religious landscape, it often seems that only Roman Catholicism has held the line against the rising tide of Pentecostalism. Catholicism, of course, can count on its size and residual missionary influence in many parts of Africa to bolster it against sects. Moreover, African priests, often educated outside their home countries, are no less devoted to Rome (and in many cases are more so) than a typical European or American cleric.
Even so, Catholics have strayed and, when they do so, schismatic Africans tend to embrace faith-healing, the casting out of demons, and speaking in tongues. Most notable among these schismatics is the former Zambian archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, whose faith-healing practice was, like John Pesa’s, permitted before being forbidden. Most clerics who went the way of Milingo did not enjoy the indulgence of Church authorities for so long. His faith-healing practice—carried out with great pomp, frequently in the national stadium at Lusaka—went unchecked for nearly three decades. (Milingo was excommunicated only after he married a South Korean acupuncturist in a mass ceremony conducted by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.)
In Kenya, purported faith-healers were tamped down quickly in the 1950s by bishops who were still mostly English, Irish, and Italian nationals. In response, many “charismatic” Catholics, as they are sometimes known, left the Church altogether and founded new orders. Today, there are at least three-tofour million such ex-Catholics in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda alone—as much as 5 percent of the total population.
John Pesa’s church is one example of a sect that fuses Pentecostal theology to Catholic ritual, even while including overt symbols of African traditional practice. By the late 1960s, Pesa decided he “could not ignore [his] gifts of the Holy Spirit” and resumed his healing practice. The Church “expelled” him, he says—a record of this could not be obtained from diocesan authorities— and he continued his practice in private homes and in thatched huts on the roadside.
He did, however, attract a following, and at one point was jailed by Kenyan authorities for running an unauthorized religious movement. (The first decade of Kenyan independence proved, if anything, less free in terms of religious worship than the last decade of colonial rule.) While in custody, Pesa claims to have healed the ailing mother of a Criminal Investigations Division officer, the Kenyan equivalent of the FBI.
Pesa was ultimately released, and set about formally founding and registering the church, as required by Kenyan law. While he could not be called a Catholic over the objections of the Roman Church, Pesa says the prospect of creating a new church out of whole cloth pained him. It came to him that, in his love of ritual, he was similar to a Copt—and in spite of the fact that Pesa appears to know little about the history of this Eastern rite, his church was nonetheless registered as the Holy Ghost Coptic Church of Africa.
Today, the church’s membership numbers a quarter of a million. Although this is only a fraction of the followings of larger African sects, Pesa’s congregation is no less devoted, and at times veers toward sycophancy. Indeed, at one point during the liturgy, the members of the church “swear obeisance” to the “Holy Father.”
A single man, Pesa lives in a convent on the outskirts of the Lake Victoria port of Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city. He leads a sequestered, almost monastic, life. When I first expressed an interest in seeing him, I was told by friends not to make an appointment, just to drop in, since he is always there.
Pesa is constantly surrounded by a number of bishops and the compound’s nuns, several of whom told me they had pledged their lives to his order after he healed a loved one. Pesa’s specialty is curing mental illness, and his convent doubles as an asylum. At his church services, the clanking of chains can be heard as the insane—typically still held in shackles in the Third World—fill the pews in the back. There are also two dozen or so orphans, most of whose parents were lost to AIDS, who populate the transepts of the church.
Taking in the “least of my brothers” is a primary focus of Pesa’s ministry. Yet not everyone in the church seems particularly desperate or credulous. A dapper medical doctor is the church’s secretary. On one recent Sunday he extemporized, in between wedding announcements, that the “Baba [Father] of the Faith can heal with just a touch.” Many of Pesa’s bishops are civil servants or retired military men. Later during the service Pesa called for a special collection from all government employees—“to give back to your people”—and about two dozen men in dark suits presented themselves at the front of the church. During another collection, a shopkeeper sitting next to me gave 30,000 Kenyan shillings (about $400, a small fortune in most of Africa). He would not say what he had been suffering from, but said that no hospital had been able to cure him.
Despite their seeming theological similarities, including the pay-to-pray theology of the Prosperity Gospel, John Pesa is venomous on the subject of Pentecostals. The informality, booming sermons, and televangelism—Pesa despises the stylings that African Pentecostalism has inherited from the American movement. “These Africans,” he declares, “they love to talk about America, their travels to Oklahoma and Texas. These Africans, they love to boast with big cars, these nice suits. But why?”
It is with a combination of high Catholic pageantry and African dance that Pesa conducts his services. On the Sunday marking the anniversary of his church’s founding, I beheld the procession through the nave of the church. Attended to by a generous helping of his episcopacy—these dressed in surpluses and replicas of the boxy pre-conciliar hats of their office—Pesa himself wears a miter and carries a shepherd’s crook, breathtakingly gaudy. His robes taper into a massive train some nine feet long, carried by two acolytes. Incense and holy water are in abundance.
Once the many bishops make their way to their seats, shielded from view by an eight-foot-high dais, the service begins—and for the moment is remarkable only in that it does not depart dramatically from the Catholic rite. Readings are taken from the Old Testament, Epistles, and Gospels. A homily is not included here—it is given separately, later, and takes up as much as two hours. The Apostles Creed is said without notable alteration. There is a great deal of Latin, though the Kyrie eleison sounds a bit inexpert, “ki-ray el-ay-son” as Pesa seems to pronounce it.
For most of the first hour, then, a parishioner might well be at a Mass celebrated in any Roman Catholic church in Africa or America or anywhere else in the world. But as the casual visitor invariably realizes, there are three or four hours remaining in Pesa’s service, and they are anything but somber.
The strangeness commences in earnest with the Eucharistic liturgy. While it would seem a mostly ordinary proceeding on a type-written transcript, as a watched spectacle it resembles a carnival. As the tabernacle is opened, the whole altar-face begins to strobe. Bare bulbs in red, blue, and white are attached to pillars behind the celebrant, and begin to flash intermittently. After the Lord’s Prayer, a bizarre orb on a pedestal is uncovered. Its ritual meaning is unclear, but the sphere rotates by some small motor and refracts light—there seem to be a dozen or so multicolored plastic rhinestones adding to the effect. And then there is the consecration, with all the imminence of a trapeze act: lights flashing, a rising drumroll, and finally Pesa thrusts the wafer into the air.
Communion over, a visitor—on one occasion, this writer—is called to the front, asked to say a few words, and then is told to flip a switch beneath the pulpit. When he does, a huge wail is unleashed—an ambulance siren. This concludes the Eucharistic liturgy.
Pesa’s sermons, which follow the Eucharistic liturgy, are long and winding, though very entertaining affairs. He speaks in Swahili or Dhuluo, the local language. Simultaneous translation into English or Swahili is undertaken by one of Pesa’s many bishops—in one instance, a high-ranking bureaucrat in the region’s administration. Pesa playacts with the bishop, at one point pretending he is a demon and putting him into a headlock. At times he breaks into song, singing hymns that are, in their simple rhythm and exhortatory manner, quite moving.
Sermons invariably focus on themes of piety and humility, a disavowal— however ironic, considering the pageant one has just gone through—of the flashiness of so much in African Christianity. He is at times ecumenical, though he takes every opportunity to attack Pentecostals, who “walk around aimlessly in town” carrying briefcases, and try only to raise their profiles while engaging in business and politics on the side. “These men are drunk!” Pesa shouts from his pulpit. “Oh, they have taken and eaten, that is for sure.”
Hymns follow, but the interlocutions of a large, cow-hide drum grow ever more persistent. Known as an ngoma in Swahili, this kind of drum has been associated with magical rituals and healing dances long before Christianity ever appeared in East Africa. Pesa makes no attempt to depart with tradition on this point; he once ribbed a visiting clergyman for “not returning one of my best drums, which has so much power. I’m telling you, my head shakes with the Spirit when I hear it.” By the end of a half-hour, everyone—the nuns, the insane, the bishops, Pesa himself—is jumping in unison with the drum’s rhythm, as more drums are added on.
The singing seems, at some point, to cross a line—moving from a hymn in a church to a full-on healing ngoma, the type that gave colonial officials a fright when they heard it. Parishioners, and especially women, have stopped dancing and are now in convulsions, throwing themselves about frantically (there are ushers on hand to restrain them). Finally, they collapse on the floor, writhing. This is one side of Pesa’s healing— a kind of general upkeep of his congregation, it seems there are always demons to be expelled, and the drums bring them to heel. Outside of his services, in his daily work, Pesa heals his wards through silent prayers, and even with recitations of the rosary.
Pesa’s services stretch from four to five hours, on special occasions longer, as well as one all-night service he hosts once a month. On the three occasions I have attended this exhausting spectacle, which combines Pesa’s oversized ego, a Catholic-inspired rite, and a curative African dance, I have wondered afterwards how one classes John Pesa—or if he is simply unclassifiable.
It is tempting to group Pesa and those like him with those of the wider Pentecostal movement. These erstwhile Catholics became obsessed by the Holy Spirit only after it was introduced widely in Africa by non-Catholic missionaries, mostly unaffiliated or Assemblies of God missionaries from the United States. These missions began arriving in large numbers in the 1950s and only in the next decade did the first rifts in the Catholic Church begin showing. Yet, unlike the African Pentecostals who idolize T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen, these Pentecostalized Catholics look and act a great deal different in furthering their ministries. They may have appropriated the language of the Holy Spirit, but it can often seem a by-word for some comparable force in African religiosity, which in the case of John Pesa’s drums is barely concealed.
Legio Maria, the most powerful quasi- Catholic sect in East Africa, was founded in 1962 by a Luo tribesman who is now revered as the “Baba Messiah”—God the Father, no small title. It claims two million members, mostly in Nairobi and around the Lake Victoria tribal homeland of the Luo.
Since its inception, Legio Maria has established missions throughout the region. In these mission posts, priests and their most devout or needy of members live together. The church even has its equivalent of Rome—the village of Got Kwer, near the Tanzanian border, which is known as “New Jerusalem” to believers. (Baba Messiah is buried there, at the foot of a hill named Mount Calvary.)
In the high ritual and idiosyncrasies of Legio Maria, members of the order often seem like something out of another century, or another reality altogether. Priests in the order wear what might pass for Renaissance Fair costumes in the United States. The outfits are reminiscent, in their cut and color, of the garments that might be seen in an Arabesque painting of a biblical scene.
In Ugenya, a small town in the region, I caught up with Raphael Otieno, the “head of church and holy pontiff” of Legio Maria, as his business card reads. He was visiting his parishes there, and was willing to give an interview only after I had given him a letter of introduction from one of his archbishops, a former member of parliament for the area.
Otieno disputes that he has “Pentecostalized” his Catholicism. He sees his church as “returning to an original way of preaching that emphasized the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially the casting out of demons and praying to heal those ailments that hospitals do not treat. We are not in Vatican II. We are still in Vatican I.”
In fact, Legio Maria does in some ways resemble pre-conciliar Catholicism. To receive Communion, parishioners kneel at a rail and hold out their tongues. (In some parishes, they even put their hands under cloths as they kneel at the altar rail.) Like Pesa, these priests live an almost monastic life. “We don’t preach like those people [Pentecostals] with their crusades—not in the streets, only in our missions,” says Otieno. Clerics spend their time engaged in intercessory prayers on behalf of their mostly female congregations.
Many believers become instantly devoted to Pentecostal or charismatic Catholic groups alike when they perceive that the church has worked a miracle. Otieno himself was baptized a Roman Catholic in 1954 and became, “like Matthew,” a tax collector. In the early 1970s he became severely ill. “I went to several hospitals but was not healed,” Otieno says, “And then, because I had heard of his powers, I went to the Baba Messiah himself. He laid his hands on me, said a prayer, and I was healed all at once.”
James Ahero—a Kisumu resident whose family includes members of Legio Maria, the Catholic Church and the Seventh Day Adventists—says that when his formerly Roman Catholic mother was in a time of financial hardship, she visited a Legio Maria compound with a toaster-oven for the priest, who out of gratitude prayed for her throughout the night. Her fortunes appeared to improve, and she became a devoted follower of the order.
When I asked about how he compared Roman Catholicism to Legio Maria, James explained that the essential difference was one of power. That is, Legio Maria took seriously the role of priests as conduits of the Holy Spirit, as did the apostles in the book of Acts.
This is in contrast to the modern Catholic Church, which since the Second Vatican Council has tended to deemphasize the magio-religious ritual in her traditions: the relics, the exorcisms, and the High Mass. By marginalizing them, the post-Vatican II Church ironically did not fulfill its stated intention of better relating to its followers in Africa. Rather, it alienated many of them, for Africans expect their religions to be powerful, and the attendant priests to be a gifted, indeed anointed, class capable of incurring blessings on earth.
Legio Maria’s clergy is such a class— regarded as both mystical and powerful by followers, a sentiment that breeds enormous devotion.
As Otieno and I left the mud-andthatch house where we’d arrived only 45 minutes previously for our interview, we emerged to find two dozen Legio Maria followers in the courtyard. Immediately, they knelt down before Otieno. They had apparently heard of their pontiff’s visit, and had gone straightaway to see him. Otieno stepped out and he, too, knelt. They greeted each other in the way that Legio members do, crossing themselves and saying the “Our Father,” before Otieno made his rounds, praying for people to be healed, to acquire that new water tank or motorbike, to pass the Form IV exams, and so on. The spirituality was not quite Catholic, not quite Pentecostal—something all its own.
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