Feature

Vigils of sorrow

Religious services at night are supposed to be periods when men seek to be in solemn union with their Creator. But, such hitherto pious endeavours appear to be bringing grief to homes in recent times, so much so that questions are now being asked as to the motive of the organisers, reports ISIOMA MADIKE

On April 16, a Facebook user, Stella Okoro, shared sad news on her wall. It was the brutal murder of a pastor, Rev. Emeka Evans of Goodnews City Church, inside his church in Abuja. The pastor, it was gathered, was murdered while having a lone vigil. He was said to be barely alive when help came but gave up the ghost on the way to the hospital. Before then, a pregnant woman and three others were also said to have been crushed to death in Aba, Abia State, while 15 others sustained serious injuries during a vigil when an articulated vehicle lost control, smashing over 10 vehicles, including tricycles, in the process.

That was on July 27, 2014. In another tragic development, 15 persons collapsed as a result of suffocation caused by fumes from a generator during an inter-denominational fellowship at the Young Peoples Christian Fellowship located along Eziukwu, by Millerton Road Aba, Abia State.

In November 2017 a reported stampede also left at least 28 people dead in the Holy Ghost Adoration Center in Uke, in Anambra State. Similarly, a Redeemed pastor was reportedly knifed to death in a Port Harcourt parish vigil on September 27, 2019. Police in Rivers State, which confirmed the death, said that the pastor was stabbed during a vigil at one of the church’s parishes in Port Harcourt. According to Vanguard’s report, the Redeemed Parish on Danjuma Street, Off Odili Road in the Rivers State capital, was having a vigil when about 3am on the said Friday, a strange man walked in to stab the pastor. Just like the Danjuma Street incident, seven ladies, who went for vigil for deliverance in another new generation church, located at 2nd Cemetery Road, Benin-City, were allegedly raped by armed bandits, who stormed the church about 4am on March 15, 2015. What was supposed to be an all-night marathon prayer session, tagged ‘Koboko Night’, meant to cast out demons tormenting some members of the church, turned sour as the masked armed robbers, numbering six, shot sporadically, ordering the members to go back to the church shortly after they said the final prayers to depart the church. The above narratives are some of the reported sour incidents during vigils in Nigeria.

There are many more awful happenings during such gatherings without being reported. In recent times, Nigerian churches appear to have redefined aggression against Satan, the devil through vigils. Though Biblical, vigils have been elevated to high heavens in this clime, as many now believe more than ever before on the efficacy of vigils as if it is a new addition to the Holy Bible. Pastors are quick to quote sections of the Bible to support the claim that vigil is a Biblical injunction.

They easily make references to Jesus Christ, who they say the Bible recorded to have performed the first known vigil in Matthew 26:36- 46. Other references are: Paul and Silas, Acts 16:25, Hezekiah, 2 Kings 20: 1-10, Nehemiah 9:3 and Mary Magdalene, Matthew 28. It has also become fashionable to see these pastors talk about cleansing, casting and binding.

They often would ape the prophets of old. They quote passage after passage of the Bible, engaging verbal punches, and supposedly casting out lecherous evil spirits, knocking them, as they say, senseless into nothingness. As they reel off the word of God in incredible speed, the devotees, most times in circle formation would respond with shouts of Amen, Holiness, and Alleluia, much in the manner of those caught in the terminal throes of death, muttering unintelligible, perhaps, celestial words.

The Muslim faithful are not totally left behind as they have also joined the scramble to hold vigils. Indeed, religion has become big business for some church and mosque operators and an irresistible pastime for worshippers, most of whom go to churches and mosques in search of miracles to solve their various problems. Little wonder, Karl Marx, the German popular for his socialist writings, who, in one of his works, ‘Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Rights’, stated: “Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature.” Marx did not stop there. In another instance, he also saw religion as “the Opium of the Masses.”

There are other philosophers, who equally view religion as a belief in the worship of some powers greater than mortal man. They believe it to be a bridge to the supernatural realm and an expressive measure of human, spiritual and material science as well as a continuation of wisdom by systematic approach. Yet, a few others believe there could be glaring cases of hypnotism in all of these. Incidentally, Marx’s statements, some say, are beginning to make sense in Nigeria.

For proof, there is hardly any newspaper, television or radio stations in the country today that are not swamped with religious advertisements, giving notice of either the formation of one church group or the other, or handbills and flyers announcing crusades and special healings by churches, and recently, mosques.

It is, undoubtedly, an everyday process of supplication, praying and worshipping by members of these religious sects. Many have come to believe, however, that the Nigerian style of worship can only be tolerated in a society stretched on the rack of ignorance, disease and poverty, which they believe to be a common characteristic of today’s Nigerian society. According to this school of thought, the pastors and Imams have desires and goals for “their” ministries. But, those goals and desires, they say, are often much different from God’s.

They desire good finances, good numbers (members), glamorous buildings, and even national recognition. Yet, God’s ultimate desire, according to the Bible and Qur’an, are people ready to turn away from sin and live holy to make Heaven.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) led by its General Overseer, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, a former mathematics lecturer at the University of Lagos, triggered off a kind of revolution in Christendom back in 1999. Adeboye had started a kind of vigil that is now known as “Holy Ghost Festival” at the church’s Redemption Camp Arena, located at kilometre 46, Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. The camp is a small town with many auditoriums for worshippers, offices, guest houses and residential quarters. It was later expanded to accommodate more worshippers. It is always a beehive of activities. RCCG is one of the Pentecostal churches in the country with a large population of “miracle seekers”.

It is also regarded as the fastest grow ing church in Nigeria with a network of branches in foreign countries. The vigil is usually a three-day spiritual festival. The yearly event, according to the worshippers, provides the opportunity to solve whatever problems they may have through Adeboye’s miraculous powers. Like everything Nigerian, the bug of Holy Ghost Festivals has caught up with several other denominations, especially among Pentecostals.

A large number of religious leaders now hold the enlarged vigils mostly at monthends either in their churches and mosques or relocate like the RCCG to the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. And most Nigerians have come to align with the vigils believing that the God of miracle resides along the ever busy highway.

Dr. Daniel Olukoya’s Mountain of Fire Ministries (MFM)- Prayer City, Deeper Life Conference Centre (DLCC) at kilometre 42, shepherded by Pastor William Kumuyi, Love Word Camp Ground (LWCG), Christ Embassy’s flamboyant Chris Oyakhilome, and Nasrul-Lahi- Fatih (NASFAT) are the most prominent.

They use their sites either temporarily or permanently as abodes for vigils at the Expressway. The Holy Ghost vigils are crowd pullers any day. They have all kinds of people in attendance, including but not limited to the highly-placed in the society. The presence of a large number of traditional rulers at the services is also amazing. At any given service, the monarchs in their full regalia, accompanied by their wives, comfortably sit in the front rows of the church. A trip down to these Camps in Ogun State always remind one of the Biblical exodus and what Moses must have gone through in leading the Israelites to Canaan – the proverbial land flowing with milk and honey.

The multitude in Moses’ time was a great one but it could pale into insignificance when compared to the large mass of people that descend on the Camps during the vigils. And, as in Biblical times, the Lagos- Ibadan Expressway multitude also seek their own Canaan, going to God with legions of problems confronting them in a nation where almost everything that makes life worth living, has gone wrong.

The situation has left a stunted and battered economy, poor infrastructure, bad value systems, corrupt governance with leaders, who are supposed to give succour and hope to the people ending up being their oppressors and task-masters, just like Pharaoh in Moses’ days. Non-members and even unbelievers troop out on such occasions to be in God’s presence and hope to get some anointing that would break some of the heavy yoke on their oppressed shoulders.

Humans of different shades pour in. It is, indeed, an endless stream of humanity, in a continuous flow as if they are coming out of a bottomless pit. Cars sometimes are stopped from entering the venues as the roads often would have been choked with traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian.

Yet, people would come, all walking up and down, milling around; many with their luggage on their heads or carrying mats or mattresses in their hands. Others with their families – children and other relatives, bring with them household items like pots, pans and plates as well as rice, garri and other foodstuffs. But, RCCG is not the only camp ground that people flood in. Participants also seek God in all travails at Deeper Life Easter vigils. Twice every year, Nigerians come from far and near, in their tens of thousands, repentant in supplication, prayerfully seeking God’s succour in all aspects of their lives.

They seek spiritual renewal, which, since inception, the Deeper Life Bible Church’s yearly retreat is said to have offered participants. The church started the retreat at its international Bible Training Centre (IBTC), Ayobo in Ipaja area of Lagos State. However, the vigils Nigerians would not forget in a hurry remain that of Lekki ’99 organised by Adeboye’s RCCG and the Easter night vigil by Oyakhilome’s Christ Embassy in 2006. From the repeated announcement of the church programmes on the airwaves in the build up to the events, Lagosians knew there were going to be real treats at those weekends.

But, what gospel revelers and other road users never bargained for was that the roads would be clogged to the point of forcing people to spend over 12 hours on one spot. Indeed, thousands of people, who left their homes on the two occasions, could not get to the venues of the services 24 hours later. Neither could they return to the comfort of their homes. For the Oyakhilome’s vigil, it was motionless. In a word, Nigerians were stranded in the middle of “a no man’s land” without water, food and other conveniences of life. People were exposed to the elements even as the fear of men of the underworld gnawed at their hearts.

There was nothing like that in recent memory. Not even the famed monthly revival service of RCCG that usually jam the Expressway compared to that weekend gridlock, stretching over 20 kilometres on both sides of the revival venue. The traffic snarl from Lagos end started from Berger on the outskirts of the metropolis, while the Ibadan axis of the hold-up extended beyond the diversion to Lagos-Ore-Benin road.

The near absence of traffic controllers worsened the chaotic situation. The predicament affected social and business activities of residents of Lagos and its environs. This, also, is the situation in the service tagged Good Friday miracle, organised near Ibafo on the Expressway by the Cherubim and Seraphim sect. Passengers that were leaving Lagos for other parts of the country for that year’s Easter holiday ended up spending a greater part of their holidays on the road as there was a total standstill for many hours. Emmanuel Nwaghodoh, a Lagos- based lawyer, narrated his experience in that hold-up: “I left Delta State on Friday and got to where I joined the queue around 4 p.m.

I slept there and could not get to Lagos until Sunday. It was terrible. In fact, it was indescribable.” But, Nwaghodoh was not alone in the distress occasioned by that Easter vigil. Ambrose Osunde, another Lagos resident, has this to say. “It is a lawless country. I was there with my family for hours and the so-called pastor that caused the hold-up allegedly flew out in a helicopter. People missed serious appointments and functions while in that glitch.” An anonymous fellow, who witnessed it also thundered: “The irresponsibility of the miracle pastors is becoming unbearable. How can someone bring people here to block a major highway? I missed the appointment I was travelling for. Since then, I swore never to follow anybody to such programmes again.

I trekked for more than hours, yet, I did not reach my house.” For Muslims, the month-end vigil sessions usually start by 9 p.m. By quarter to midnight, the chief Missioner (Imam) would ask everybody present to go and perform ablution (washing of hands and legs). He would then start praising God and beseeching His blessings upon Prophet Muhammad, urging those who have left the comfort of their homes to observe the night, seeking the bounty of Allah here in the ephemeral and His mercy and forgiveness in the hereafter. The shouts of Laa ilaaha illa-llahu, Muhammadu Rasuululah (There is no other God but Allah; Muhammad is His messenger) will then take over the night.

By the time the vigil takes off by midnight, the shouts of joy of those present could literally be heard in Mecca and Medina. This is followed by the recitation of the Holy Qur’an and chanting a range of Qur’an invocations from Istighfar, Tahzil, Talunid to Salaat alan- Nabiyyi. The congregation, led by the Iman, also observes a number of rakats (prayers). It is believed that such vigils allow for the dispatch of thousands of angels into the world to say Amin to the supplicating prayers being offered. The Muslims also observe a special vigil every last 10 days of the Holy month of Ramadan, known as the Holy Night of Majesty (power), called Laylatul-Qadr. It is done to seek the face of Allah for blessing and forgiveness. In Islam, vigil is usually referred to as Tahajjud. The Holy Prophet Muhammad was said to be specific when he instructed Muslims to observe it, but not a must for everyone.

But, the agony experienced on the Lagos- Ibadan Expressway where there was a cluster of religious congregations in 1999 and 2006 is still evident today. In fact, the first and last Fridays of every month remain dreadful to those who ply that axis. Those that live within that neighbourhood and travellers in and out of Lagos are usually held up on those periods in a total standstill for many hours, spending a greater part of their journey on the Expressway. The gridlock usually stretches to the metropolis, locking up all access roads and making life of both Lagosians and other Nigerians alike quite miserable. These vigil venues of miracle workers have, indeed, been causing sorrow to people because of problems of congestion, stealing of property and loss of life.

Many have died in road accidents on their way to the camps or on their way home after the prayers. Others have lost highly valuable and precious property to robbers. Cars are also stolen on the campgrounds. Stealing has, indeed, become the hallmark of many of such vigils. While prayers are going on, the women in particular, will leave their bags, handsets and even their toddlers. It is in this hectic period that those who come to steal would perpetrate their act. There have equally been streams of stories of missing children at the vigils.

But, are these Pastors and Imams truly miracle workers? Or is the presence of eminent people up the faith of the lowly in the Pastor’s and Imam’s ability to heal them of their illnesses or solve their problems? Some people say yes, while others say no. It is really hard to say. Try as this reporter could, he was unable to meet anyone, who was prepared to dismiss as fake or fraud, the men of God’s claims of providing miracles and succour to those that are in need. However, there are people who allege that some hide under the shadow of attending vigils to sleep around and have caused cracks in many marriages.

It is equally alleged that women, who are barren, use that avenue to sleep around, especially if they suspect that their husbands have been confirmed impotent. Same goes to men, who, according to investigations, tend to be more interested with things under the skirt than the true word of God. The fear of others about these programmes stems from poor security, accommodation, transportation and health facilities. In fact, it is being feared that over-congestion could cause a repetition of the stampede, which resulted in loss of many lives during the Reinhard Bonnke crusade by the German evangelist in Benin City, capital of Edo State in September 1999, which was attributed to poor planning by the organisers. The media is replete with other tales of woes. Some time ago, an incident was reported in the Maryland area of Lagos State where a group of Nigerians were said to be having a vigil.

The participants of the ill-fated allnight prayer were found dead the following morning with no one to explain the cause of the incident. But, investigations later revealed that the victims suffocated to death inhaling poisonous carbonated air emitting from the generator that the church left on till morning. Samson Togun, who worked with Parmadeko, a pharmaceutical company also in Lagos alongside 25 other Christians from different denominations were equally reported to have cheated death when armed robbers attacked them during a vigil. Four armed young men had invaded the prayer house located in Agbado Ijaiye by 2 a.m. after gaining entrance through the store.

On hearing a heavy sound while the vigil was going on, the pastor had to stop the prayers and instructed one of his members to check who was by the door. His fears were confirmed when the messenger returned with the news that the visitors were robbers. “We quickly made contact with the police but they did not respond till the robbers gained entrance. After gaining entrance, they made away with five wristwatches valued at N150, 000 and N300, 000 cash.

They also wounded three members of the church by hitting iron rods on their heads,” said a source close to the church, who said he was at loss as to why such should happen to Christians. However, Sheik Habib Abdullahi, Rector, Murka Arabic and Islamic Training School, Agege-Lagos does not seem to believe in the gathering of Muslims in a place or Mosque for Tahajjud. Abdullahi is of the opinion that Tahajjud should be done individually and quietly.

But, Alhaji Abduluwahim Ibrahim, the Imam of the Oluwakemi Central Mosques along Onibeju Street in Shangisha Magodo GRA, Ketu-Lagos, tend to disagree with Abdullahi when he told our reporter that vigil issue is a command from the Almighty Allah and it has a divine connotation in Islam. Like Ibrahim, Venerable Olugbenga Oniye, Vicar of St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Abule Egba, Lagos, also said there is a spiritual expectation by every church to keep a vigil. Yet, His Eminence, Dr. Ola Makinde, former prelate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria, had said: “All that glitters is not gold.” Though, agreed that vigil is Biblical, Makinde believed it should not be taken to the level of putting on a show that glorifies man instead of God.

 

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