The Church in Crisis
Daily Nation (Kenya), 17 December 1997.
By Ken Opala
Leadership squabbles, graft and mismanagement have raised questions on the credibility of some sects and religious groups.
The conventional way to pray is by either kneeling or standing head bowed. And then there are those who do it standing on their heads. Some devotees love it. Others consider it heresy. Should there be laws to regulate religious groups?
According to lawyer Kiraitu Murungi, it would be “pretentious and arrogant for the Government to decide which church is good for the people and which faith should exist”.
The Religious Bodies Registration Bill was withdrawn amidst intense opposition from politicians and clergy, but the issues it sought to resolve remain contentious.
“We do not want to stop people worshipping, even if they want to do it standing on their heads,” the chairman of the Law Reform Commission, F.J.H Hamilton told critics. “But you do not want them doing so on Uhuru Highway.” He might have been referring to street demonstrations.
Certainly, the Bill drafted last December sought to bring sanity to the muddle that religion is slowly turning into. The Church is in a crisis. Leadership squabbles, graft and financial mismanagement have raised questions regarding the credibility of some sects and so-called inter-denominational groupings.
At least three people died this year in religious gang warfare. Such deaths are symptoms of a serious malaise tearing up the Church, as leaders transform the hallowed aisles into a cut-throat business venture. “Religion is now a major industry in Kenya,” says a local journalist.
Many of the so-called apostles and bishops, some observers argue, have their sights set on the wallets of their gullible followers. But they must first tame the soul and mind. Unfortunately, the “faith healers” are mainly outsiders who only require visitors or student visas to set up local chapters of foreign sects. Groups accused of either unorthodox teachings or diverting finances from the Third World to finance operations back home have devoted branches in Kenya.
In other words, they are cults, a tradition defined by leadership, hierarchy and control of adherents’ minds and souls – and their wallets, too.
America, more than any other country, has been devastated by cults. And, like Americans, Kenyans are easily taken in. Christian cults are hardly new in Kenya.
The Nomiya group founded by “messiah” Elisha Adet in 1920s is perhaps the oldest. But the largest was Dini ya Musambwa of Elijah Masinde, known for violent brushes with the authorities in the 1940s through to the 1960s.
Its teaching defined its sinister character. “I have spoken to God on several occasions. He assures me that I will be the only person to remain at the end of the world,” the cult guru is quoted as saying by journalist James Shimanyula in the book Elijah Masinde and Dini ya Musambwa.
Masinde never lived to see the world end, having died in 1987. Nonetheless, in his prime, Masinde lived off a deadly religious concoction which he fed hungry “disciples” who regarded him as a messiah with powers to prophesy and heal.
More recently, millennial doomsayers in Kisii and Tharaka – Nithi districts asked followers to discard earthly possessions, including food, and wait for Jesus Christ on January 1, this year. Two lives were lost.
Their leaders were the Kenyan apostles of weirdo Jim Jones, the US cult leader, who induced the deaths of 913 followers after luring them to his camp and promising “heaven”, which turned to be utopia.
The US is thousands of kilometres away, but religious groups with roots there spread like wildfire. Reputable denominations in the West run syndicates in the Third World to raise money for the operations back at home.
The London Church of Christ, which has a faithful sister in Kenya, is allegedly one such society. “The London Church of Christ … planned to divert money from Third World missions to fund its British operations, according to a secret tape recording obtained …” the London-based Independent newspaper reported last September.
The article, disputed by the church, further claimed Third World followers were asked to contribute a tenth of their earnings to this church, described by the British Broadcasting Corporation as “Britain’s fastest growing cult”. In fact, it is banned in several UK campuses.
At the moment, there is not much to doubt its Kenyan sister, the Nairobi Christian Church. “Not one shilling is sent to any of our branches outside the country from Nairobi,” says the church’s leader in Kenya, Richard Alawaye.
Critics are not convinced. Last June, disillusioned faithful demonstrated over its teachings, leadership and financial management.
A member’s attempt recently to petition the Attorney General over the church’s problems failed. “It is not possible to schedule any appointment with (A-G) regarding a church leadership problem. The AG cannot involve in disputes within churches or societies … In this regard, the subject of the matter you want to discuss with him is not within his jurisdiction,” said the AG’s letter to Joe Mwangi.
But such official response is hardly surprising. Despite reports of devil worship countrywide, Kenyan authorities have done little to arrest the situation.
A report by a presidential committee to expose satanism is under lock and key. Now, cynics say the Government, fearing the report’s incrimination of top officials, is jittery about making it public three years since the committee was set up.
The law also is helpless. Relevant legislation allows individuals access to any religion, regardless of its credibility. But just as laws are made to create order, people give order to laws. The Bill providing for “registration, regulation and control” of religious organisations failed following protracted opposition from the clergy and politicians.
Mwai Kibaki, chairman of the Democratic Party of Kenya, said the Government was drunk with power “and now wants to usurp God’s role as the head of the Church”.
CPK Archbishop David Gitari said: “We are worried that the Government can draft such a Bill. We cannot accept the Bill whatsoever. The Church will rise up and say no.”
Kenya has 600 registered denominations and several hundreds others unregistered.