19 July 2024 | 06:52 AM

Inside Mogoeng’s house of God

Key Takeaways

‘Winners’ Chapel’, the sign reads in big red plastic letters above 440 Louis Botha Avenue. This is the Johannesburg branch of an international congregation. Mogoeng Mogoeng, our new chief justice, is a lay pastor here.

I find secure parking diagonally across the road. Cars are parked bumper to bumper, side by side. A friendly security guard ushers me into a parking space.

Beneath the big red letters an alley leads to the Winners’ Chapel — not so much a chapel as a large congregation hall.

I stroll apprehensively towards it with other churchgoers also dressed in skirts and blazers. We are greeted at the edge of another car-packed parkade by a wall of smiling, suit-clad men and women.

They are explaining to latecomers to the 10am service that the main hall is full. We are being directed to a smaller building, marked “overflow”.

“I’m new in Johannesburg,” I say to one of the suited men. “You’ve come to the right place,” he says.

Warm smiles

He smiles warmly, shakes my hand and explains that I can attend the service in the main hall, since I’m a newcomer.

I’m passed from suit to pencil skirt to suit, effortlessly, until I’m ushered into the main hall. It is filled to capacity.

There must be a thousand people here, give or take. Not an open seat in sight. But with military precision I am guided to a space halfway to the front of the hall.

A man in his 40s, dressed in a cream suit, shakes my hand and smiles. He beckons to me to sit down next to him, as if showing me a seat at his dinner table. “Welcome, welcome.”

Like everyone who caught my eyes as I made my way into the hall, he shows nothing but respect.

The woman next to me also shakes my hand timidly and smiles. There is a genuine sense of warmth here. No one is discriminated against.

Buzz

There’s a buzz in the church. A sense that something is about to transpire. Something unusual. Something fantastic. Something really, really big.

But we have to settle down first.

Then people are summoned to the stage to give testimony about the Lord’s mercy. A master of ceremonies of sorts stands behind a lectern on stage. He is framed by two large golden drapes. Where they are tied to the wall, red plastic flowers with green plastic leaves decorate the knot.

A woman comes to the front. She says she was diagnosed recently with depression. But shortly after coming to church, she says, she was healed.

She can scarcely contain her excitement as she starts to sing into the microphone. The master of ceremonies quickly pulls it away from her and thanks her for her testimony. The woman next to me laughs. More testimonies follow. Of illness and difficulty brought to an end by the grace of God.

Collection time

The choir and band sing jubilantly and collection time dawns. “With this seed in your hand, God will bless you,” decrees the master of ceremonies. There is a roar from the congregation as envelopes containing notes are held high and hands are thrown in the air.

Mothers quietly hand coins to their children. Suddenly, what must be a 10-litre bucket is pushed into my hands. The kind man next to me in the cream suit deposits his envelope. A few minutes later the skirts and suits manning the aisles collect the buckets — one, two, three, four — I stop counting.

Then something big does happen.

Pastor Isaac Oyedepo takes the stage. He is a stout, strongly built man with a square face. His suit crisply delineates his angular shoulders. He announces, emphatically, succinctly and with utmost certainty: “Today is your day.” The congregation cheers.

If I had read the flashing message on the church’s website, I would have known that the main aim of today’s service is an “Anointing for Career Breakthrough”. Instead, I wonder why bottles of yellow liquid are scattered under the chairs. I’m about to find out.

Anointed oil

“A touch of the anointed oil is a touch of the supernatural,” Oyedepo decrees. Congregation members are told to put an item related to their business or career on the floor. Something will happen, they are told. Something to bring a breakthrough in their working lives.

The man next to me holds in his hand a faded picture of a young woman, smiling in a garden, a curriculum vitae and a worn business card for auto repair services. I wonder what Mogoeng would put under his seat. A gavel? Perhaps his car keys?

Again, I scour the stage, where I presume lay pastors to be seated, to find Mogoeng. He is not there. Perhaps he is in the crowd.

The sermon is simply yet carefully constructed. We flit from verse to verse to drive each part of the message home. Hebrews, Psalms, Proverbs, Kings, Zacharia.

The message, as I understand it, is this: Through God’s grace alone can you achieve success in your business or your job. A man who has received God’s grace will always exceed the achievements of a man who has qualifications and relies on his own skill.

This could explain why Mogoeng is so confident about his appointment as chief justice, despite heavy criticism of his competence and his questionable rulings. Because grace gives you the divine torch that will ensure you never lose touch.

Finite grace

Some practical hints from the pastor: grace is received through prayer. But grace is finite. It can be stored, and it can be used up. Thus, grace must continually be prayed for to replenish it.

There’s the disclaimer: You have to pray enough —

But today, we, the congregation, are making contact with grace. “With the next job I apply for”, says the pastor, “I won’t even need an interview. I will simply be told to take over at my new place of employment. I’ll step in as a senior without an interview.” Sounds good. The congregation agrees and cheers wildly.

Finally comes the anointment. We pour oil into our palms. People put it on their heads and rub it into their hair amid mumbling and groaning. We have been assured: This is the touch of the supernatural. This is the touch of grace. This is the touch of career and business success.

After the service newcomers are asked to come to the front of the hall, just below the metre-high stage. I make my way to the front, my hands still drenched in oil.

Three months

Here, the pastor says, we are welcome. But we have to come again and again. We have three months. If there is no change, then we had best leave, says the pastor. I am not sure what he means by change. He does not explain why and how the church has set the deadline at three months.

The group of newcomers in the front is a microcosm of the greater congregation. Look at the floor and shoes tell the story. Shiny heels from local chain stores, polished leather and, right behind me, a mother in broken, worn-down Chinese-store sandals struggles with the weight of her baby.

I feel the heel of my expensive shoe piercing her toe — too late. I swing around. “I’m sorry,” I mumble. She forces a half-forgiving smile, racked with fatigue.

The pastor blesses us as we are herded out of the door towards the rest of our lives. Mogoeng, I imagine, disappears in the crowd.

Blessed with wealth

David Oyedepo is the founder of Winners’ Chapel International. Worth a cool $150-million, he’s also the richest preacher in Nigeria.

According to his website, sporting the banner “David Oyedepo International Ministries Inc”, it all started on May 2 1981. Following an 18-hour “visionary encounter”, Oyedepo was “moved by compassion” for the “afflicted”. Shortly afterwards, God told him to help out. He did so with great enthusiasm.

Winners’ Chapel Johannesburg is but one of hundreds of church branches.

Today Oyedepo’s realm, which he originally founded as the Living Faith Church, spans Africa and much of the world, including the United States, Britain and the Middle East.

According to a glossy church pamphlet, there are 364 churches in 42 African countries. This excludes Nigeria, with more than 2 650 churches.

The church’s world headquarters, in Nigeria, is known as the “Faith Tabernacle, Canaanland” and seats 50 000 congregants.

In South Africa Winners’ Chapel has branches in Johannesburg, Soweto, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban, Bloemfontein, Polokwane, Rustenburg, Kimberley, Port Elizabeth and East London.

The church offers many “blessings”, including “job provision”, “peace in the family”, a “miracle car”, “financial blessings” and “56 years of singleness”.

Churchgoers testify to being cured of illnesses, including “14 years of bilharzias”, “lump in the breast”, “seven year cancer” and “20 years of pneumonia”.

Oyedepo and his family appear blessed too:

According to the Forbes website:

    • His estimated net worth is $150-million;

 

    • He owns four private jets;

 

    • He has homes in London and the United States; and

 

  • Dominion Publishing House, a publishing arm of the church, has released more than two million copies of Christian books.

Educational institutions started by Oyedepo include Covenant University, Faith Academy High School and the Kingdom Heritage Model School, a primary school for children up to 12 years old.

As far as the Mail & Guardian could establish, Oyedepo’s wife, Faith, and two of his sons, David junior and Isaac, are also pastors in the church.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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