After making semi-permanent alterations to his looks, investigative journalist ‘FISAYO SOYOMBO visited four churches and four mosques/Islamic centres, pretending to be gay and in need of spiritual redemption. Six out of those eight centres fed him with a litany of fake prophecies before demanding cash and material possessions from him. In the sixth of this seven-part series, to be concluded on Saturday, he writes about the campground of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries (MFM), where all he was told to do was fast and pray, in a surprising turn from other places where he was given loads of fake prophecies/visions in exchange for cash.
But test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. — 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 (New International version)
My ‘brother’ and I pull over at Kilometre 12, the sprawling N50 billion prayer city of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry (MFM), on January 6, 2022, believing we had said goodbye to Lagos for another three days. The gatekeepers are noticeably polite. One gently waves us in to park just by the gate; another nudges us to disembark and register our details on the visitors’ book.
The former asks us the expected what-brings-you-here question.
“Prayers,” I answer in a subdued tone, desperate to evade undue attention.
“Deliverance,” he declares instead.
I am shocked by the correction but it does not matter. Maybe the spirit told him I am gay. Maybe the spirit told him my visit was triggered by secondary contacts of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) community who had supposedly been converted to heterosexual status.
Once he motions us towards the reception, a journey of roughly 500m and a right turn, we zoom off. I apply the brakes exactly opposite the reception entrance, and soon pick out two women from a horde of people huddled together on the other side. The duo were loosening their hair.
‘YOU CANNOT ENTER’
At the reception entrance, a soft-spoken, middle-aged man in a white, splotchy shirt and a pair of blue cotton trousers screens the entrants. Some he directs to their lodges, others he motions towards the open space where the two women loosened their hair: this was where deliverance seekers first had to fill a form. In our case, he bars us outright from entering.
“You cannot go in with this hair,” Pastor Olalekan — ‘Pastor’ for short — tells me. “You have to loosen it first.”
I had done some magic my hair into cornrows as part of the semi-permanent tweaks I had undergone to look gay, my final looks having been influenced by same-sex stereotyping gleaned from weeks of talking to LGBTQ people.
I insist I will not budge. “Do you know how long it took my family to convince me to come here?” I ask him. “I can’t guarantee I will return here if you excommunicate me just because of my hair.”
Pastor offers to prostrate for me so I can cut my hair but I wouldn’t have any of that. He doesn’t need to; we are soon interrupted by the guide of a French-speaking, deliverance-seeking woman. The baby-bearing woman could speak no language other than French. Her guide was hurrying to leave, but it would leave her stranded. A solution had to be found. Pastor momentarily shifts attention away from me to make some phone calls. But he soon returns.
“If I were you, I would do two weeks of deliverance,” he announces to me.
Well, you’re not me.
‘YOU MUST MARRY THIS YEAR’
“Tell mummy: two-week deliverance,” he continues. “If I were you, I would ask mummy to release me for two weeks of deliverance. You fast for two days, break for one day — dry fast. Then you fast for another two days, break for one day. On and on like that until you complete the two weeks.”
Pastor explains that all I need are a Bible, pen, writing pad, a bottle of anointing oil, toilet roll and a bottle of water, all available at the campground if I didn’t come with any.
“No chains, no bangles,” he warns, before adding: “As you are here, me I believe you have deliver already [sic].”
“But I am not ready to touch my hair,” I insist. “If you were that sure of my deliverance, then you would let me in. Once I’m delivered, nobody tells me before I loosen my hair; I’ll do it myself without prompting; shouldn’t that be the power of deliverance?”
Pastor reiterates that I have been delivered “already”. “You will even marry this year; you will marry a woman,” he says.
“But if I start liking women instead of men, won’t that be a sin before God?” I ask.
“No, it won’t. Anyone you like is the one you will marry.”
“So any man I like, I should also marry?”
“No, you can’t marry a man; it’s not allowed in Nigeria here. In Africa, it’s not allowed. It’s a great abomination. It’s a sin. It’s about culture, tradition.”
“I want you to cut this hair, do this hair and be married this year.”
“And if I don’t marry this year?”
“You must marry; God will do it. Is it not this God?”
Back in the open space, a woman offers to loosen my hair for N1,000. Three women join in convincing me as I ignite the car engine. “Please come back; don’t go,” one says, “Cut that hair and you will surely have a testimony.”
But I do not listen. I enter the car, instead. She tells me she thinks I won’t return but I know I will; after all, the story has only just begun.
FALL DOWN AND DIEEEEEEEEEEEE
Proceedings appear set to be smooth sailing when I return to the MFM campground on Thursday, February 3. I had gone for a haircut and passed up breakfast as advised by the pastor. As it turns out, on arrival, Pastor Olalekan is at the reception entryway as usual. His face breaks into a broad smile once he spots me, his excitement so perceptible.
Pastor asks me to sit while he fetches a form from one of the three receptionists on duty, waits patiently as I fill it, and returns it to ‘Uduak’, the only lady of the trio, who wastes no time in allocating me to ‘Room 002, Samuel Block’ after receiving the N6,000/day payment for a VIP room. I glance at my wristwatch; it’s 10:06am, 54 minutes before the commencement of the day’s deliverance programme.
By pastor’s explanations, deliverance sessions at MFM hold over two cycles per week and once a month. Per week, they hold Mondays to Thursdays, and only one Sunday per month. Those who want to run both cycles within the week are allowed to, and they can even extend it for as long as they wish.
Pastor leads my brother and me to Samuel Block, where we purchase the items we will need for the service: two bottles of anointing oil (N1,600), two bottles of water (N200) and two rolls of tissue paper (N200) and a Bible. From the range of Bible options presented to us, I specifically pick the ‘Dr. D. K. Olukoya Prayer and Deliverance Bible’, the ‘authorised King James Version’. Of note, if I came with all these items myself, I would not have been required to buy any.
We walk across the road and past an open space the size of a football field into the deliverance hall, where scores of white chairs are spaciously arranged in line with established COVID-19 protocol. The deliverance service kicks off at 11:32am, well behind schedule, with a male and female announcer spelling out the house rules: no audiovisual recordings; no conversations with unauthorised persons, as fake pastors and prophets could be in attendance; no hair attachments or skimpy clothings for women; no sleeveless tops or knickers for men.
This is followed by a worship session and, not long after, praise and dancing, then a sermon, then some rigorous praying. The prayers are pretty intense. The preacher starts by asking us to pray against generational curses. “Ancestral power tampering with my destiny,” the preacher screams, “fall down and dieeeeeeeeeee.”
The crowd scream to the high heavens in prayers. All around me, the congregants gesticulate as they pray. The man directly ahead of me, spotting a deep red polo and a black pair of trousers, catches my attention. His vigorous shaking of the head from side to side is as though he doesn’t mind if it falls off. Like many others around him, his hands vibrate to and fro, his lips parting intermittently to release words that were very quickly swallowed up by the cacophony of voices.
“Stand very well,” the female prayer warrior says as she draws this prayer round to a close. “Stand very well!” Her message is clear: the prayers have only just begun.
Meanwhile, the woman to my right isn’t standing but sitting. It is just past 1pm but she is already drained. Yet there will be no respite for her anytime soon. No deliverance seeker will taste food for three days. Just water. The ongoing 11am programme will not end until 2:30pm; another two-hour session will kick off at 5:30pm. From 11:45pm till 2am or thereabouts, there will be a vigil during which congregants are expected to scream “fall down and die” or “be destroyed by fire” and muster all the strength in them to send their prayers to the heavens with intense gesticulations.
FROM WITCHCRAFT TO VISA BREAKTHROUGH, THE 7 GROUPS OF DELIVERANCE SEEKERS
The male minister announces the separation of deliverance seekers into prearranged groups, six in all, depending on the nature and scale of their problems.
First is the witchcraft group. “If things are generally not okay for you, you belong to this group,” he says. “If you are always experiencing failure, if in your dreams someone fed you with fresh meat,” you belong here. First timers can also join this group, he adds. Prayers for group members are to be led by three pastors.
Next is the marine spirit group. “If anytime you sleep, someone makes love to you, you belong to this group,” he declares. “When you sleep and you wake up, you discover that you already have wet pants. Or maybe you do not have children of your own, yet in your dreams, you see children, you belong to this group. When you dream, you see yourself swimming in water, join them!” Another three pastors to lead prayers here.”
About Group 3, he says: “Beloved, you know that you are sick, you have taken all manner of drugs, and yet you are not healed. Or maybe you have been to the hospital, and they have conducted tests on you, and they said to you that there is nothing wrong with you, but you know you are sick in your body, you belong to this group. Healing.”
The members are to be led by two pastors.
Group 4, also to be led by two pastors, is for congregants at the campground on behalf of their children. In Group 5, again led by three pastors, are pregnant and expectant mothers, “and women experiencing delay in childbearing”. The final group is reserved for “all manners of breakthrough: “career breakthrough, business breakthrough, visa breakthrough”. Two pastors are in charge.
Seeing none of the group expressly caters to gay conversion, I approach the altar for clarification. The woman who listens to my complaint motions a male pastor over. While scores of other miracle seekers share two to three pastors, I end up getting one to myself: Pastor Bakare.
For starters, he tells me to “soak my body, soul and spirit in the blood of Jesus”, after which he tells me to pray: “O God my father, on this mountain, show me mercy, in the name of Jesus.”
I join him in the prayer, only to be cut short after 36 seconds. “Jesus Christ, the yoke breaker, break my yoke,” he tells me. “Do you understand? Are you getting me? It is only Jesus who has the power to break that yoke — because it’s a bondage.”
I start to pray. The pastor gives me more prayer points and I pray. Occasionally, he interjects my prayers with exclamations such as “yes, yes” or “ahah, ahah, very good, you’re coming up!”
OH YOU POWER OF PUNISHMENT, ‘YOU ARE MAD’!
After 11 minutes, the pastor and I are interrupted by the woman who introduced me to him. “You’re not praying,” she complains. “Where are you from?”
Before I answer, she continues: “Everything we ask you to do, you’re doing them physically but they’re happening spiritually. If you want to come out of this problem, you have to be angry in your spirit.”
The pastor tells me we’re starting the prayers afresh. “You said you’re from Ogun State, that’s the only state in Nigeria whose name starts with ‘battle’ [ogun].”
We continue praying until six minutes later when a female announcer on the microphone tells all groups to “round off their prayers”. Her announcement overlaps the pastor’s admonition for me to pray thus: “Any power using the sin of my parents to punish me, you are mad! Dieeeeee in the name of Jesus.”
I notice people from all corners of the big auditorium already trudging towards their seats, so I say my final amen and attempt to follow suit. The pastor dashes after me, handing three A4-size papers with printed matter: one containing 31 prayer points for ‘DELIVERANCE FROM ADDICTION’, another containing 21 prayer points on ‘PARALYSING SATANIC DECISIONS’, and the last bearing 12 points on ‘VIOLENT PRAYER AGAINST STUBBORN PROBLEMS AND FOUNDATIONAL ENEMIES’.
The announcer tells us to bring out our bottle of olive oil and water, and begin to pray on it. “Tell God what you want your oil and your water to do for you; speak to your oil and your water.”
She invokes the presence of the Holy Ghost into the water and the oil, and asks the power that resurrected Jesus from death to take them over. At the end of her prayers, the people chorus a loud amen.
Soon, it’s offering time.
“Bring out your offering; bring it out. Send your offering on an errand; tell that offering what you want it to do in your life,” she says as she leads the offering prayers before taking the announcement and “sharing the grace”, followed by 21 hallelujahs from the congregation.
The crowd disperses, scheduled to return much later in the evening for a vigil that would mirror the day’s proceedings. My guide and I depart wondering if other churches would follow the same pattern of fasting and prayers and casting and binding. Little did we know that at the very next church, we would be bombarded with multiple fake prophecies.
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