As told to David Odunlami
When I try to picture what the practice of cultism looks like, I imagine people dressed in red wrappers, gathered around a T-junction, sacrificing goats and speaking incantations. Maybe I’ve watched too many Nollywood movies or maybe I just have an overactive imagination, but after a conversation with an old friend who is convinced he almost joined a cult a few years ago, I decided to do some research about what cultism really is. I found that a cult is a religious organisation with unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, and “with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guardian of an authoritarian and charismatic leader.”
So I called my friend and asked him to tell me about the story of his church-cult experience. Here’s how the conversation went:
“I grew up in a Christian home and all through my formative years, I went to religious schools. In university, I had a period where I was skeptical about religion, faith and God. That period led me to have a lot of questions that I couldn’t ask because of the type of environment I was in. You see, I went to a university where if I asked a question about tithing, for instance, people would rather judge me for not wanting to part with my money than open the bible with me and show me what I needed to know.
A few years later, I was serving somewhere in the North, and I met this really cool guy, Peter*,who was also doing his NYSC there. We became friends almost immediately. He was fun to be around and whenever we talked about spiritual stuff, he always had a bible verse to back his points. He was a spiritually sound guy. He’d also always quote a Pastor Michael* whenever he spoke and so, one day, I asked him who this pastor was and why he hadn’t taken me to his church. I was tired of going to my own church, and I thought it was time for a change. He obliged.
The first thing I noticed when I got to the church was that there were only about 10 members around for service. I thought, “Okay, maybe this is just a small, close-knit church.” The service was good. After church, the pastor and his wife came to say hi. They were really cool people, so at that point, I was thinking, “I could really get used to coming here.”
After a few services, I got my first red flag. This man started bad-mouthing a member who had left the church. He got on the pulpit and started insulting someone because they had the audacity to leave. I didn’t have any context, so I decided not to think too much about it. And then other issues started springing up. I realised that every single service ended with two things: fund this ministry and honour me. Every single service. Even if he was talking about something unrelated, he would find a way to bring it back to those two things. That seemed really weird to me too.
A woman in the church was taking these instructions very seriously. You see, Pastor Michael didn’t have a job, and his wife just sold small items, but he had a nice car and lived in a nice neighborhood. How? One church member funded his livelihood. She basically paid for everything he wanted and so, he made her the church secretary.
Then all the brainwashing started unravelling in front of my eyes. I wish I could explain how bad it was. The thing is, the people being brainwashed, like my friend Peter, didn’t even know how bad it was until they left. You know what? I’ll call Peter now.”
“Right now?” I asked.
After a few tries, we successfully reached Peter. They caught up on old times and laughed about the days of Pastor Michael. And then, Peter spoke about his experiences. Here’s what he had to say:
“I met Pastor Michael at a bible school I was attending. He told me he had a church and invited me.he first service was good. I invited my girlfriend at the time, and we became steady members. He wasn’t so old, the pastor. He’d always talk about how he was a cultist before he met Christ. He was a cool guy.
My first bad experience in the church was when my girlfriend and I got to a workers’ training meeting about three minutes late and he told us to kneel down, raise our hands and close our eyes. Omo, as we knelt, I was just quoting scriptures about honouring one’s leaders in my mind to justify the madness that was happening. He always made his sermons about honouring him.
A few months later, my girlfriend started making plantain chips and they were really good. She took one to him during one service and just like that, it became a tax. Whenever she didn’t bring one when we came to church, he would call her and scold her. I remember thinking, “We’re NYSC corpers earning N19,000 every month and trying to survive. How can you demand so much from us?” It was getting really weird, but we stayed.
Whenever I remember my time at the church, I try to convince myself I wasn’t brainwashed. But then, I remember the time here was a program coming up, and he told us to contribute some money towards making it happen. I told my girlfriend, “Let’s drop N10k each”, and she looked at me like I was crazy. This feels like a good time to point it out again that we were earning N19,000 and that was all. I eventually managed to beg her to drop the money and when we gave it, he looked at us, and the reaction on his face was like, “Is this all you could bring?” He managed to successfully make us feel terrible about giving almost all we had. And here’s the thing: I didn’t give all that money, or convince my girlfriend to give all her money because I wanted to contribute to the program. I did it because I knew that if I didn’t, he would be disappointed, and I didn’t want to disappoint him. Look how that turned out.
I remember the guy who played the piano in the church. He had no money, and he was just struggling to get by. This pastor treated him the absolute worst and spoke to him so poorly. It was terrible seeing someone get treated like that.
When my girlfriend left and my other friends left, I realised I was going to be there alone and so I left as well. I heard from other church members that he was saying terrible things about us behind our backs too. It’s people like this that make people lose faith in God and leave Christianity. I hope he’s no longer there brainwashing people and making them fear him, but I’ll be honest, he was really good at it.”
*Names have been changed for anonymity