When the story of Ese Walters and Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo of COZA broke out back in 2013, I posted Ese’s story and the story of another woman by the name Franca on my blog. You can read that post here. I remember how quickly people came to the pastor’s defence, not on my blog, but on Facebook, stating that he was a man of God and those who believed Ese’s story were bound to be mercilessly judged by God. An acquaintance from college took the pain to write me a personal message of how deeply she believed Pastor Biodun was innocent.
It’s six years later and new allegations of rape have come up against the same man. As usual, church members are out in droves on social media defending him. Some have claimed that women throw themselves at the pastor because he is ‘just so fine’. In spite of his display of ‘terroristic bigmanism’ (a newly coined Nigerian slang that describes the brute show of power by well-connected men in the country), many church members remain steadfast in their belief that the pastor is innocent, and is simply being attacked by the devil for doing the Lord’s work.
Here’s what’s interesting. This was the exact same thing church members chanted back in 2013 when Ese Walters posted her story. They praised Pastor Biodun in a frenzy of worship for his ability to teach the word, inspire the youths and well, for other things I cannot even remember. Now they are doing the same, as though they are reading from the same script from six years ago. You may see it differently, but it all sounds a little ‘cultish’ to me.
It made me think back with zero nostalgia to when I was a child and my parents decided to uproot our family from a well-established church in the metropolitan Lagos area to what I can only refer to as a religious start-up in one of the annex suburbs of Lagos. The church had one pastor who had the vision, the fire and the knowledge of the word, and us, the followers.
At first it all seemed great – a small church where everyone felt like family, not because we were really family, but because it was just so hard to hide your business from the prying eyes of everyone else. My parents reveled in it. We the children just went along with it. It didn’t take long after we joined for the rules to start falling from the pulpit.
- All children had to be in the choir. Yes, you read that right. Every child in the church, including those who were unable to blow their own noses had to be in the choir. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how the choir sounded. Drunk bees sounded way better than we did
- There was a special covering over everyone in the church due to the anointing of the pastor. Leaving the ministry meant leaving the special covering of protection, in which case we would be vulnerable to the darts of the enemy. So guess what? No one was trying to even leave for fear that the enemy was right around the corner.
- We were like the Israelites and we were heading to the Promised Land physically and spiritually. Leaving the church meant missing out on the joy of getting to the promised land of the church and the promised land of your life. In fact, for this rule, the pastor openly considered himself to be Moses and appointed my father (yes my dad!) as Aaron. Both of them were to lead us, the Israelites to the promised Land.
We needed a really good shaking but we stayed put. After a while, visions started to pop up from prophets in the church, stating that the wrath of God was going to fall on anyone who dared to think of leaving the church. We were stuck. No one wanted to be the first to leave and test the prophecy so we all showed up religiously at church, even when the pastor and his family were kicked out of the building and we had to hold our services, including vigils outside in pouring rain.
We often left the church on Sundays to pray over the promised Land – a vast piece of land in the area which the pastor claimed God had shown him will be ours. We went there as a group, held hands and prayed with enough fervour to scare all the angels of Heaven into doing our bidding. It took years and a lot of bravery for us to discover that the so-called promised land belonged to families who were already planning to erect structures on it. Thank God we were not arrested by the police while we were there shouting proclamations over land we did not own.
We defended the church. We defended the prophecies and looked forward to their fruition. In fact, every Sunday, there were prophecies and visions of evildoers falling at our feet in the spiritual realm. When the pastor’s daughter testified that she successfully wrestled two witches in her classroom, exposing them in their black and red regalia, we broke into frenzied dancing! God was doing wonders in our midst, exposing witches and using overlooked members of our community like the shockingly slender daughter of the pastor to bring witches to their knees. Of course, her revelation was followed with a stern warning to parents to ensure their children did not have friends, for fear that the children would be initiated into witchcraft and used to attack the church. So, for a long time, friends were terribly frowned upon in our family. In fact, happiness and peace were feelings I personally only started to experience once we left that church. I remember baking a cake once in the pastor’s kitchen and being labelled a possessed child for doing so. I can’t explain how exhausting the torrent of prayers that followed after was.
The first disturbance to the status quo came in the form of a woman called Mrs Akintayo. Mrs Akintayo and her husband had four strapping boys and were punctual at every single service, including weekday services. During one of such services, one of the prophets was in a trance, prophesying and stating visions of things that were happening in the spiritual realm. By the way, this was a prestigious gift to have in the church so many people often went into ‘trance’ and ‘prophesied’. On this fateful day, Mrs Akintayo was standing behind the prophet in case she missed her step (because in trance, you are walking in the spiritual and might not see stones, steps or even poles in the physical). The prophet suddenly turned to Mrs Akintayo and said:
“You must never leave the church else the wrath that falls on those who leave will befall you and your family.”
Mrs Akintayo immediately fell to her knees in subservience. “Me? Leave the church? I would not dare! My allegiance is pledged to this church and the vision of the pastor.”
From his seat in front, the pastor nodded satisfactorily. We all did. No one wanted to experience the wrath that befalls leavers and we certainly did not want to lose Mrs Akintayo to it. However, on the following Sunday, as the service commenced, the absence of the Akintayos was noticeable. My dad decided we would visit them at home after the service. Perhaps one of their children was ill. We arrived at their home and were surprised to meet everyone in high bubbly spirits. “We woke up late and the car was not working”, they said. My dad prayed for them and prayed for the car to miraculously start working.
Yet, throughout the week, the Akintayos were missing in action. Weeks went by and their visible absence from church could not be ignored. The truth finally dawned on everyone – the Akintayos had left and were not coming back. Something had shaken them awake and caused them to look again at this ‘ministry’. It took another year for my parents to leave. I was living in Ibadan then so I was not there to experience the ugliness of what led to their exit.
Now, as I watch and listen to people jump to the defence of their pastor without first checking for the truth, I am reminded of the agonizing years my family spent in what we thought was a church, but was really a cult in the making. I am reminded of the belief we had in this ‘pastor’ and his ability to ‘teach’ the word even though I can’t recall any impactful message he taught and I bet my dad, his ‘Aaron’ can’t recall any either. But even if we could, is the ability to teach impactful messages enough to absolve one of criminality?
From my experience, I have come to realize that very often, when we seek churches we find cults; not because we are foolish, but because we are seeking manifestations of God that meet our expectations by feeding our fear. We want to be told not to wear certain clothes, eat certain foods, or even wear certain hairstyles because for some reason, we think those rules make God real. We believe in human shepherds and their man-made laws which they turn to doctrine, but forget the one true shepherd – Christ Jesus. We forget that God is already in the beauty of our skin, in the curls and coils of our hair, in the steps of our feet and even the waves of our hands. God is in us, hearing us, seeing us, and walking with us. We need not trust in the special gifts of others, but trust in the name of God alone.
Have you also had a ‘cultish’ experience? Please share. I would love to read about it!
And yes, the Akintayos were all still alive last time I checked.