By Vincent Favier
People who come there on Sunday morning spend most of the time singing and dancing, but it is neither a nightclub nor a radio station. It is a church. Starting at 8 AM, the service could be an exciting afterhour for the Christians who spent their night in one of the few Niamey’s nightclubs. Usually held by Christians, they are frequented by expats and Nigeriens from diverse religious affiliations, if they have any. This suggestion may sound out of place, yet one shouldn’t downplay the energy that preachers and worshippers put into creating an atmosphere of joy and celebration every Sunday morning in this church. MFM stands for “Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries”, a name that says it all about the Church’s style of worship. Originally founded in Nigeria, it has gained an international reputation through its usually loud, heated, and highly demonstrative services. One of the most notorious Churches on the African Pentecostal landscape, it opened branches in several African countries, including Niger, as well as in Europe and in the United States.
Located in Niamey’s poor and popular district of Boukoki in which a majority of Nigerien Muslims live, the Church was run by a Nigerian couple until the Charlie Hebdo’s riots broke out in Niger in January 2015. After stealing or destroying what they could, mobs of youngsters set several churches in fire, but in a few areas, Muslim neighbours spontaneously constituted vigilantes’ groups and managed to protect Christians and churches. Nevertheless, the Nigerian couple, traumatised, moved back to Nigeria and a woman from Benin was appointed pastor of Niamey’s MFM church. In a spirit of forgiveness, the new pastor tried to make a fresh start with the neighbourhood by offering food and goods to the families and sweets to the children when she comes back from the market. The relationship is rather cordial now, yet she deplores the fact that kids in the hood still throw stones into the church’s yard sometimes, pointing at their lack of education. She decided to level-up the walls surrounding the church. The memory of the riots remains painful for many Christians. In this context, it is thus not surprising that worshipers’ behaviours are noticeably less exuberant and the noise generated by the services is overall lower compared to Pentecostal practices in Nigeria. In all cases, the sixty or so members of the congregation meet regularly again, sing and dance freely, especially on Sundays.
On this Sunday morning, the church is almost full for the special ceremony dedicated to offerings. Once a month, members bring goods of their choice, according to their financial capacity. A Bluetooth headset in his ear, a young security guard wearing a T-shirt with the MFM logo stands at the entrance and keeps an eye on the streets. Inside the church, all the goods were dropped in a corner, waiting for the pastor to start the ritualised offering ceremony. Worshipers must be patient. They know this kind of service usually lasts up to six hours. Instead of young partygoers, the participants are rather families dressed in their best Sunday cloth. Many men and boys wear either the traditional riga or casual jeans and shirts. Women picked their most elegant dress in African wax fabric often matching their huge headscarf, but some wear cocktail dresses and sophisticated hats that would provoke sideways glances in any posh American wedding. Some little girls are dressed like princesses with multicoloured plastic hair clips. A small group of school teenagers – hand-clapping experts –, a few students of the Université Abdou Moumouni, men and women coming alone or with their children, form the rest of this mixed congregation. They are mostly from Nigeria, but also from Togo, Niger, Benin, and Burkina. They are a Christian community like many others on Sunday in Niger’s capital city, praying in the name of Jesus, seeking to feel the Holy Spirit’s breath inside them, imploring God to bless and to reward them on this earth, here below. And if it’s not in this life, then it will be in the hereafter, a student told me.
In fact, the pastor likes to remind that the MFM community stands apart from other Christian churches: “We are at MFM, we have our own way of praying!” Indeed, I witnessed practices that I never saw elsewhere in Niamey’s churches, not even in Nigeria. The pastor continues: “Standing like a tree is not praying! Satanic tree! Break it!” And the assembly would start mimicking the pastor’s gesture, moving their forearms up and down frenetically, like machetes cutting the air, and repeating in chorus: “Break it! Break it! Break it!” Performance plays a central role in the sermon as it helps mediating a spiritual sensation.
During another service, the participants were asked to bring cooking oil in a small bottle and to spread it on their head during the sermon to chase the evil spirit. “My hair” said the pastor, “reject the bewitchment! Bewitchment attacks me through the hair. My hair, take fire!!!” – “Fiiiiiiiire!!!” people shouted in response as they were vigorously spreading the oil on their head.
But before doing such practices, church members need to warm up. The Sunday service always starts with gentle singing and dancing during almost an hour, as members keep on coming. A student plays a synthesizer next to the bassist, a few women sing. A father seats down on a chair, gives his Bible to his 4 or 5-years old kid, and, while the kid holds the Bible seemingly absent-minded, the father closes his eyes, lays his hands on his son’s shoulders and starts praying. Joyfully, the singing goes on and on, increasingly louder, until the pastor makes her apparition on the stage.
The sermon is bilingual. The pastor preaches in French and a second pastor, a man, translates it consecutively into English. His proficiency in translation is crucial to the whole performance. It is not only about finding the right words quickly but rather being able to reproduce the pastor’s tone, fluidity, eloquence that gives the sermon its theatrical dimension and strength. Based on the metaphor of the tree, the Pastor drew a parallel with the umbilical cord that connects to the ancestors, and that one must cut, or burn. African Pentecostals emphasize the need to radically break with the traditional past because satanic forces inhabit spiritual traditions and keep preventing Christians to access health and prosperity here and now. During another sermon I attended, the pastor declared annihilating the power of all fetishes, voodoo, and satanic powders through the fire of God. In fact, Muslim reformist discourses may equally reject ancestral social and spiritual practices during public preaches, yet they don’t perform it as symbolically as the Pentecostals do. Often, it becomes a cacophony when church members repeat words after the pastors: “Pouvoir !!” “Power!!” “Feu de Dieu !!” “Fire of God!!” The service shortly reaches a hypnotic, if not epileptic, climax. Like in many churches, the pastor brings everyone down and takes back control of the ceremony by saying the magic words: “In Jesus’ name we have prayed”. Like a class of disciplined children, everyone is suddenly quiet again and ready to listen. The sermon goes on:
– “People subscribe life insurances, but our life insurance is Jesus! With Jesus, a radiant light will shine on your life!”
– “Amen!” the assembly answers.
– “God will surprise you! We see others with a big house, a pretty car. Jesus will make you an important person!”
After hours of singing, praying, dancing, mimicking, listening and shouting, time has come to perform the final offering ritual. The pastor even apologizes for exhausting her congregation so much today as she begs for one last dance. Before bringing the several goods to the front, members are called to contribute to the financial effort of the church with giving tithes and offerings. Like the Islamic Zakat, tithes are supposed to be around 10% of a member’s income. Offerings may then come on the top. How much one should give remains at the discretion of each individual. For that purpose, the pastor distributes envelops to participants who require one, while he encourages them to give more: “What’s your offering plans for this year? Are you going to keep on giving 500-500 [FCFA] or are you gonna raise to 1000-1000?” Once the members have put their offering or tithe in the envelop, they fold it and hold it in their hand raised over the head, and close their eyes for the benediction. The pastor begs God to bless the offerings and to make individuals’ wishes come true. She then calls them to stand up and, as the music starts again, people come to the altar and drop their envelop in a box. The closing procession can start now.
Bringing the goods to the altar is performed as a ritual. The papas, the mamas, and the youths are called to gather the one after the other, to pick some goods and to bring them to the altar. Ananas, bags of rice, oil bottles, yams are shaken up and down over the heads, left and right, carried by the members of each group walk and dance towards the stage. Joy, hilarity and communion soon spread all over the place. Once they dropped the goods, every group dances some 15 minutes before the altar, and goes again.
It is almost 2 PM and worshippers eventually receive meals prepared by the church. The whole ceremony ends up in a frenetic atmosphere of singing and dancing, although visible sweat on faces and shirts betrays the participants’ exhaustion. But everyone seems to enjoy the celebration and spending a long part of their day within their community. And the pastor doesn’t miss the opportunity to make them feel good and unique when she says: “Lose yourself when you give thanks! If you’re normal, you’re a fool! Do something exceptional during the procession! You are distinct.”