Any Ugandan who travels and lives abroad consistently for a significant period of time would be familiar with that awful feeling where, upon returning, most things seem annoying, disgusting, shocking, weird and unsatisfactory.
In 2008, I left Uganda to pursue some academic endeavor in Europe. Before I left, Pentecostal churches had obviously existed for several years. However, there wasn’t so much publicity of every wonder that went on in each church.
When I returned five years later, among the surprising things were: regular video records aired on major TV stations showing the major highlights of “miracles” performed by various men and women of “gaad.”
The video clips [advertisements] also included mobile phone numbers with an emphasis that they were registered on mobile money! Suddenly, all the major Pentecostal churches owned TV stations, radio stations and invested heavily in showcasing their highlights on the already existing TV stations, radio stations and social media.
In all the advertisements, two things stood out: an exhibition of the superhuman abilities of the men and women of “gaad” to instantly cure all kinds of diseases, followed by lengthy sermons that emphasized the importance of giving tithe or “planting a seed.”
To corroborate what I saw on television stations; I spent some weeks visiting all the major Pentecostal churches and what I saw wasn’t much different from what I had seen on TV. Typical of all people who have just returned from abroad, there is that tendency to think that there is something you can do to change everything deemed inappropriate.
So, I started talking to some socially well- placed people about what I thought was an injustice and broad daylight robbery from gullible and some unsuspecting miracle seekers. I wondered how some scams would continue without the intervention by government. A prominent journalist assured me that it is a very sensitive issue to write about.
A prominent and high-ranking police officer friend of mine assured me that there is no legal and moral basis for intervening in matters where one chooses to solely go to a church instead of a hospital for medical services. Subsequently, I had to adjust my thoughts and approach to some Pentecostal churches.
For instance, I learnt not to give a hoot even if: people buy one kilogram of “holy” rice at Shs 50,000; HIV/AIDS patients are convinced to abandon ARVs drugs and concentrate on praying and “planting seeds”; pastors unlawfully acquire big chunks of land and evict entire villages; men of “Gaad” rape and molest some of their congregations (including children) and infect some with HIV; officially registered companies/ businesses are presented as churches to avoid paying taxes; men and women of “Gaad” don’t separate personal properties from those of the church and I also learnt not to care about the often inflated and perpetual “church building fees”.
The nauseating picture of infallibility and superhumanness that some pastors have painted of themselves has misled many and several people have quietly suffered due to terrible losses.
Considering the amount of sacrifices and trust that some pastors demand and subsequently get from their congregations, common decency and respect would be expected. If flawlessness and inflated ego were out of the picture, the entire trending hullabaloo about Pastor Bugingo’s marital crisis wouldn’t have turned into a national discussion.
All relationships and marriages have their ups and downs and some inevitably break up. Thus, I don’t find it plausible to gloat over anyone’s marital turbulence. My concern, however, is when thousands of church members have to be debased to the extent of unnecessarily being dragged into an otherwise two-people affair.
Any church leader will know that the two best predictors of a congregation’s survival are budget donations and attendance. It, therefore, follows that while founding pastors like Bugingo ought to be credited for the effort, each church member rightly becomes an interested stakeholder.
After several years of operation, a church building becomes more than just walls, windows and doors; it is also a sacred vessel that stores generations of religious memories.
Every Christian can relate to the feeling of a serious concern when the church in which they were baptized or where their parents got married several decades ago is in a crisis.
If there was any pinch of respect and accountability, church leaders would temporarily step aside whenever faced with a significant personal challenge and would avoid recruiting church members into personal fights.
Also, the separation of personal property from church property would ensure that the continuity of an entire church is not dependent on the personal circumstances of one “man of gaad”.
The writer is a social critic and a social worker in Alberta-Canada.