I suspected that trouble was brewing when my mother changed all of a sudden. She would no longer read us stories as often as she used to do. Her laughter was no longer spontaneous, and it was far less hearty. I would later learn that adults called it sadness while others preferred the word anxiety. An unexpected visit by my aunt confirmed my suspicions. She only came when there was deep trouble or great success. My mother had not bought us any toys of late, so I knew it was the former.
Nobody told us anything it, but we all knew it had to do with money. What else could it be? No one was sick, and no one was missing. I never worried about such things. “What is money?” I always asked, “We are a happy family with or without it.” I considered problems that have nothing to do with health or missing persons as trivial. To me, they were nothing but worthy challenges. You see, figuring arithmetic and science was easy, but understanding life was something else. Troubles gave me an opportunity to simulate scenarios in my mind while analyzing the adults around me.
My aunt had come to tell us about a miracle cure for our troubles. She called it, ‘Winners Chapel.’ She said that at this chapel lies our salvation. Even the name sounds like victory, does it not? I almost laughed at her solutions. How do you solve money problems by changing churches? Adults get sensitive when you question them so unmistakably, so I decided to keep my mouth shut. I also thought that it would be an interesting experience to meet new people and see a different church. I immediately volunteered to go with my mother to Winners.
We cut through Kibera from Highrise, followed the railway line and then made a detour near the bridge. We made our way to Makina, breathed some air, crossed the road, went through Toy Market and finally arrived at Winners Chapel where we breathed in fresh air. It was a fascinating journey. You would see the posh Magiwa Estate on one side of Line Saba and the overcrowded shanties on the other. You would also see a golf course on your right with no one in sight just before you turn to head towards the bridge and a million people struggling for space on your left. We live in an ugly country whose beauty is beyond comparison.
The people were so many that we had to watch the Church service on a screen in one of the tents. I counted about three tents or so. It felt nice being in a tent and the people look refreshed. They all had their Bibles ready just waiting for the sermon. The level of enthusiasm on their faces was remarkable. They looked like they were about to burst with joy. “Who knows?” I thought, “This church could be it.”
The preacher started his sermon oddly dressed. He did not wear any liturgical vestments. I especially liked the red ones. I always thought of myself as a miniature priest when I adorned my altar boy attire during mass. It made me feel special. I felt as though I was part of something unique, dignified and historical. I looked around, and there were no altar boys in sight. “How do little boys take part in this church service?” I asked myself, “and the girls, no dancing as the priest walks in to deliver his sermon.” I moved my eyes across the room, and I noticed that I was the only kid. I would later learn that the other kids are in another tent doing Bible study.
“Wow,” I exclaimed internally, ‘this Church gets straight to it with no ceremonies or traditions.” I turned to my mum, and she seemed equally intrigued yet sad at the same time. Winners Chapel was so different from what we know and maybe, just maybe, it had some salvation for us. Personally, I did not feel troubled at all. The world could not be better than it was right then, but my mother knew more than I did and things might not be going well after all. “Perhaps this preacher has something that will see my mother turn back into her old self,” I said to myself.
The sermon began on a high note and these people shout and praise at high volume. It was noise to my ears, but I was not in Holy Family Basilica. I will not do as they do. I will sit quietly and endure it. “Maybe the spirit will hit me next” I joked to myself. The preacher was on fire sweating uncontrollably with the hand towel totally wet. It had refused to soak up water, so an usher had to get him another one so that the water dripping from his head does not get onto the mic. The sermon had been impressive thus far, but the shocker was about to come.
“I prophesy today that something bad is going to happen to your enemy,” the preacher shouted with conviction. It caught me by surprise, and I had to take a moment to absorb that statement. At first, I thought I had heard it wrong until he repeated the same thing again without correcting himself. I could not believe I was in a Christian institution, so I started looking for signs of Christianity. These people had no crosses, no pictures of saints and no statutes of Mary, nothing. “Maybe that is why this man is talking so carelessly,” I told myself, “it is easy to forget Christ with no representations of Christianity to remind us of him.”
The person holding the mic now had my full attention. I was waiting for him to redeem himself before I would call him a preacher again. He did not. Another shocker had come before I had recovered from the first one. “You will be a millionaire by the end of this week,” the man on the podium roared, “the Lord spoke to me, and I see it in your future.” What surprised me was that he said it without batting an eye. “Madness,” I whispered to myself, “Utter madness.”
The intrigue that I had first felt flew right out of me and anger took its place. I felt as if I would jump out of my seat, stand on it and then tell this insufferable man what a fraud he is. I did not. Adults would not take kindly to it even if it were the truth. I tried to look at my mum. She looked away. She knew that this Church is not for us. We are Catholics. I never heard such reckless preaching from a Catholic priest. I had no choice but to keep quiet and listen. Troubles can make you search for answers where none exists and my mother was searching for answers.
Time for the offering came, and the fraud adopted a greedy tone almost immediately. He reminded the congregation of few Bible verses that emphasized the need for giving so that they could receive. It was a classic set-up. Make them believe that a million is on the way and then ask them to give you a few hundreds. “How naïve can adults get?” I thought, “This ‘preaching’ is nothing but daylight robbery.” Then I started seeing ushers handing envelopes to everyone. My mother got one and I got one. I opened mine quickly to see what was in it. It was empty.
“Put your sacrifice to the Lord in that envelope and shake it proudly,” the robber said, “The Lord gives to those who sacrifice in his name.” I laughed silently and then I asked myself, “Why steal with a gun when stealing from such people is so easy? Thieves need to reconsider their strategies.” Nobody would dare put a coin in that envelope. Shaking coins would make a conspicuous jingling sound while shaking one coin would still be noticeable, as one end of the envelope would swing from side to side. No one wants to appear poor or selfish, so it is putting either nothing inside the envelope or a note. He was a genius. The crook delivering the sermon was the greatest hustler I had come across by that time.
We got home, and I could not wait to tell my siblings what I saw. The summary of my story was that the Chapel was not a Church, and we should thank God that we are Catholics. My mother said that she would still go to Winners, and that was okay, but I said that would no longer go with her to that place. Eventually, she would accept that salvation was not to come from there, and if it was, we did not want it. As for my aunt, well, that is another story for another day.