Contributor: Brother A. Nonnymus
Trouble in the Amen Corner
It often happens that a good-looking plausible evangelist appears from no one knows where and is eagerly invited to speak to a small church. He causes such a sensation that he is reinvited. One day, the pastor finds that his or her flock has lost half its members to the newcomer who has started a church of his own, ready-filled with souls won by the first and now sorrowful pastor.
One such poaching evangelist, a handsome rogue, set hearts a-flutter in Sister Gingersnap's little independent church, itself a breakaway from the New Testament Church of Prophecy.
"The new evangelist seem so nice. How come him forty and never married?" Sister Gullible said to Sister Gingersnap one day. "I tell you, I love that man, and I want him for myself."
"Sister Gullible, that would be a terrible sin! I have found out positively that he is divorced and you must never marry a divorced man!"
So sister Gullible put the matter out of her mind until one day she found that Pastoress Gingersnap had married the stranger herself! The church fell to pieces over the affair, and in the new church the stranger created, poor sister Gingersnap is playing a very humble part as the pastor's downtrodden wife.
One evening, just after pastor Bean's congregation had prayed for peace in the Middle East, a sudden and terrible row broke out between the two church families over the allocation of church funds. At last it was discovered why sister Sylvia had not paid tithes or put anything into the collection plate for months - it had been a form of mute protest. Innocent members stared in amazement as the headstrong sister shouted at Pastor Bean. Hinted accusations flew between formerly loving sisters. Someone shouted, "Jezebel!" It was said that Pastor Bean was doing whatever he liked with the collection.
Mischievous little sister Topaz, aged nine, turned to me with eyes shining. "I can't wait till I am grown-up so I can take my place in Church and shout at people."
No matter that the following week, Pastor Bean laid out all the accounts on the church table for everyone to see, every penny correctly accounted for. Few bothered to look at the complicated figures, and the church was spoiled forever. To make matters worse, an ugly spirit of islandism arose, and the congregation split between Barbadians and Jamaicans. Anonymous letters were written. At the next business hearing, the whole row was solemnly reported in the minutes, adding a pickwickian element to the procedures.
However, in the long run, it scarcely mattered, as the church was merged with three others under the controversial new reforms organised by the new national overseer, bishop Izzie Orisinny. All four pastors, to their outrage, were replaced by an outsider.
Bishop Izzie Orisinny, a tall young man of Caribbean descent, born in Birmingham, was the first Black national overseer ever to be appointed by the white American hierarchy of the New Testament Church of Prophecy. With mixed feelings of fear and hope, members in Britain felt as if their self-contained "church-nation" had been granted independence.
Unfortunately, as in the case of so many Black rulers chosen and set up by white people to rule former colonies, good local men and seemingly obvious choices had been ignored. Good-humoured, responsible Bishop McCallaloo, a middle-aged man loved for his jokes and leadership qualities was passed over in favour of glib progress-crazy Bishop Izzie. Bishop McCallaloo received a transatlantic phone call in the middle of the night ordering him to go to the north of Scotland and "plant" a church there, far from the Jamaican people he loved.
The members of the New Testament Church of Prophecy looked forward to their national convention, held each summer in Brighton. Sun, sea and souvenir shops gave the convention a holiday atmosphere. Eagerly, they looked forward to hearing a speech by their national overseer, Bishop Izzie. To their horror, this is what he said:
"I have decided that we shall no longer hold conventions in Brighton, but in Birmingham instead. It is a lot of trouble motoring from Birmingham in the hot sun. For some, it has been an onerous pilgrimage. Lives are lost on the roads, you know. So I think Birmingham, my home town, is a better choice. Many won't have so far to go.
Those of the audience who lived in Birmingham groaned as loudly as those who lived in London, Bristol, Bradford or Cardiff. The Bishop then went on to attack "little churches", congregations which began in the `fifties as bedsit prayer meetings and evolved into churches of families and friends with a shared history of hardships overcome.
"Too many of these little churches have just stayed the same for thirty years, not growing, just remaining little churches. So I am looking at the possibility of large scale mergers in order to make these little churches into big churches. Those Pastors who must stand down can take consolation from thinking about the Biblical pruned tree...."
Nobody seemed to relish the thought of being pruned like a Biblical fig tree.
Finally, the Bishop's voice rose to an idealistic roar, his eyes flashed as he challenged the Christian faith of his murmuring subjects. "You call yourselves Christians! You pride yourselves on your so-called piety! How many of you would dare to wear an `I Love Jesus' T-shirt? Yes, I want every single person here to buy and wear an `I Love Jesus' T-shirt, with it's bold sign `I Love Jesus'. It is on sale in the auditorium for the very reasonable price of five pounds!"
Earlier on, the preacher had declared "No matter how much corruption there is in the Church, the Holy spirit saves souls!"
Even this consolation was denied the church for, as the convention closed, a big man in the audience leaped to his feet, flung his arms in the air and shouted "Praise the Lord!", followed by "utterances in tongues". As the church is Pentecostal, possession by the Holy spirit and speaking in tongues carries the pride of place in worship. Not any longer. At a word of command, an usher was sent to drag the offending Brother from the building.
"Get away from me, you foolish man!" the offender yelled, but to no avail. Three more ushers appeared and carried him like a struggling coffin at a funeral, almost shoulder high. Others who had begun to talk in tongues faltered and stopped. The Holy Spirit was stifled.
"Poor man. The drive down to Brighton must have unhinged him." Bishop Izzie remarked.
And so, once the convention was over, everybody in the church had to fork out five pounds apiece for an "I Love Jesus" T-shirt although nobody wore them! More than half the members were dignified old ladies in hats, and the thought of them wearing T-shirts was absurd.
Church money was wasted on endless seminars and "training weekends" for pastors, with compulsory attendance. Pastor Bean described to his church the rigours of sleeping in a dormitory, fourteen pastors to a room: "Those that were lucky went to sleep before the snoring started. When every pastor began to snore, it was a terrible sound! Each snore in his own key, you know. Boy, it was a contest!"
Small churches tearfully began to disband, almost as if Bishop Izzie's command were the voice of God. "The national overseer has given us one year in which to enjoy ourselves", a church sister remarked fatalistically.
Nemesis was to overtake Bishop Izzie Orisinny, for the hire of the hall in Birmingham almost ruined the church. The American hierarchy got rid of him by kicking him upstairs to a staff job at their Lynchville, Kentucky, headquarters. So he had to leave Birmingham after all.
Now for a digression about a real-life person, Nana Drobo. Until his tragic suicide in 1992, Nana Drobo was a much respected "fetish priest" in North Ghana, where he had charge of a shrine dedicated to pagan gods. Some called him a Shaman, others a witch doctor. He rose to fame after claiming that he had discovered a herbal remedy for AIDS. The news caused great excitement and rejoicing, not because anyone in Drobo's village suffered from AIDS, but because all the villagers hoped that Drobo would make Ghana, and their village, world famous.
Nana Drobo became a celebrity and was invited to go to Japan and demonstrate his cure. Well-wishers waved him goodbye at the airport. Within a few weeks, he was back at his village, angrily declaring that the Japanese had tried to take him prisoner! He had returned to Ghana magically, so he claimed, appearing in a flash at his shrine moments after being seen in Japan. No airline or shipping line could recall him being a passenger, and his fame seemed doubly assured. His local house of chiefs nominated him for an award for services to humanity. At this point, someone asked Drobo to demonstrate the powers of his medicine. Before the demonstration could take place, Drobo had shot himself, fighting off a friend who had tried to stop him. The chief and villagers bared all entry to outsiders, as Drobo lay in state. Perhaps they hoped for a resurrection. Sad to say, as far as I know, Drobo is still dead.
What has this to do with England? Only this - that Drobo's feat has been echoed by Archbishop Gruel, of Mount Ararat Spiritual Baptist Church, Cress side, Manchester. As well as being the Archbishop of his tiny church, Gruel is also called Bishop, Pastor and Father. Mount Ararat is a church in the pocomania tradition, with robes and dancing. Some local pentecostalists unfairly term it as a "devilish church", and claim that the members swear an oath of allegiance, after which they prick their fingers and drink one another's blood, mixed with the finest champagne. No one I know has seen them do this.
For all to see, Archbishop Gruel hung a banner outside his church, proclaiming: "We preach Against and do oppose witchcraft and Evil, and also those so-called Christians who do preach with evil in their hearts. An angel did appear to Archbishop Gruel and gave him the cure for the AIDS virus."
"I have rows of bottles of AIDS cure in the back-room of the church", the Archbishop announced during a service. "I will give a bottle free to any AIDS sufferer who caught the virus unsinfully."
No one stepped forward.
The Archbishop could afford to be generous as he received a council grant for his church, and also for the adjoining greengrocer's shop, run by his kindly wife, mama Gruel. To mama Gruel's dismay, her husband dubbed the shop a "community centre" before successfully applying for a grant. Yams and plantains were phased out, to be replaced by tins of uneatable E.U. beef, rejected by Russians and now distributed to those neighbours who were on income support. To add an ethnic touch, the Archbishop bought a black doll and put it in the shop window, labelling it "king Jaja's wife." Grants flowed in, and it was a pleasure to see Archbishop Gruel, smiling broadly and looking sleek, taking his council cheque to the bank each month.
One day, I was passing Archbishop Gruel's church when I noticed a bright floral archway at the gate. Sparkling-eyed bridesmaids, flowers in hand, frisked around, giggling, in magnificent eighteenth century-style silk dresses of brightest mauve.
"A wedding!" I said to myself. "Archbishop Gruel is marrying somebody!"
I caught sight of a ribbon-bedecked limousine and glanced inside. To my shock, I saw the bearded Archbishop, resplendent in a Moss Side Bros suit and a scarlet bow tie. He had married someone! Mother Twilight, the chief prophetess, sat by his side in bridal regalia. Off they went on their honeymoon in the Caribbean.
Mama Gruel is now a sad divorcee, expelled from the church she had helped to build. What happened was this: Mama Gruel's profligate brother had stolen one of the family cheques, the community centre grant. Somehow, he had managed to cash it. When Archbishop Gruel, in great passion, had complained to the Bank manager, he was told he could only recover the money if he brought a prosecution against his brother-in-law. Mama Gruel begged him to spare her brother, but he would not. The resulting rift destroyed the marriage.
An Irish ballad speaks of a "Twilight Gleam" in someone's eye. this is what Archbishop Gruel possessed. His wife was replaced but mama Gruel had custody of the community centre. Archbishop Gruel kept the church.
Upon his triumphant return, Archbishop Gruel described his Caribbean honeymoon to his church in detail. His wife, happy mother Twilight, had been seen in a vision by an old lady in Barbados, weeks before and was recognised anew with glad cries. The archbishop had baptised a cripple in a river, and the man had "almost been cured". Instead of being confined to a wheelchair, the cripple could now walk with the help of a frame.
Meanwhile, mama Gruel found herself unequal to running a community centre, so she turned the place back into a greengrocer's shop. However, as the sign outside read "Community Centre", and as she still received a centre grant, she was in a dilemma. This she solved by keeping the centre closed by day and secretly opening it at dead of the night to sell West Indian fruit and vegetables to cherished customers who came from afar. Delivery vans came and went before dawn. Strange to say, mama Gruel found herself running an illegal greengrocery or a vegetable shebeen! A light burned all night in the shop, and customers were admitted quickly through a crack in the door after giving a secret knock. By day, the place reverted to its legal status as a perpetually closed, grant-receiving community centre.
Once, a spy from the Archbishop Gruel camp in the church next door succeeded in taking a flashlight photograph of mama Gruel selling a bag of plantain. Threatened with blackmail, Mama gruel called the man's bluff. As I write, she still runs her centre, and long may she do so.
If all this is not trouble in the Amen corner, then I don't know what is. And so, as I take my leave of these erring pastors, I sadly sing a song based on the well-known hymn, "I'm getting ready to leave the world."
"I'm getting ready to leave this church,
I'm going to leave the brethren in the lurch,
Squabbling by day and night,
One day they'll have a fight,
I'm getting ready to leave this church."