I was already sweating as I darted through the path of cars and tro-tros whizzing down Labadi Beach Road. I was in an appreciative mood thanks to the warm sunshine on my face, and the sound of sing-song humming coming from women dressed in impossibly tailored dresses as they made their way to church.
I had been attending Gospel Pillars Church for 4 consecutive weeks. My friends and family in Canada would tell you this is completely out of character for me. With the exception of a couple of years of Sunday school, and a handful of tag-along expeditions to a smattering of services in my hometown, I do not attend church. I am not religious. For all intents and purposes I am agnostic.
I don’t know why I suddenly felt the urge to attend a service in Ghana. Perhaps it’s the repeated questions from taxi drivers and phone credit retailers on where I attend church, and whether I believe in God that pushed me to test the waters. I wondered why this African nation was so much more open, and dare I say pushy about their belief in a higher power.
Gospel Pillars is a Charismatic Christian fellowship. It services often open with enthusiastic prayer whereby the pastors, and the congregation hold hands as they bounce on the balls of their feet, yelling in tongues as they praise the power that has given them all the blessings they enjoy.
As a westerner, my initial reaction to this kind of unbridled enthusiasm for God was discomfort. I certainly wasn’t going to throw myself into this kind of professional-style praying but I could feel their eyes watching me- begging for me join them and be enlightened.
I joined hands with the man next to me, closed my eyes and prayed for this part of the service to end so I could sit and stop pretending to be a part of something I wasn’t sure I even believed in.
I will say, the services are uplifting and empowering. Pastor A. Michaels paces back and forth across the stage. The church is tucked away in the third floor of a concrete building. The walls are freshly painted, as this ministry is brand new. A keyboardist plays an accompaniment as Pastor- as his parishioners call him- performs his message with a rollercoaster of dynamics. His voice roars through the make-shift church as he bellows into the microphone asking pointed questions like “do you love your job more than your God? Do you love your family more than your God?”.
The keenest members of the congregation shout their answers to the Pastor. Their responses sound almost desperate.
“I love nothing and no one more than God, Sir”.
The Sunday morning service regularly ends with the chanting of the Gospel Pillars confessions. Pastor reads them into his microphone and the church echoes the affirmations back.
“I am a success! I am a man of God! My soul is on fire for Christ!”
Anticipation builds within the rows of plastic chairs and as Pastor calls the ministry’s motto.
Church members yell “UNSTOPPABLE!!!” as they enthusiastically hive five their neighbors.
Sunday October 9th was a special service. 2 Gospel Pillars ministries met to celebrate Exodus; the end of 3 years of war, and the beginning of 3 years of blessing.
In a desperate attempt to end an earlier conversation where I was asked how I planned to serve God, I agreed to video tape this service.
As I scurried up the stairs of the “the old Chick’n Lick’n building”- as the locals call it- The heat of the conference room hit me like a brick wall. The room was filled with a hundred people and the air conditioning wasn’t working.
I set up my camera with one hand while mopping sweat from my forehead and chest with the other. Ghanaians who passed me as they made their way to their seats paused to give me sympathetic looks and apologize for the heat as if they were responsible.
The service was powerful and inspiring. The pastor promised 3 years of prosperity for those who followed the Lord’s path. Once the service has concluded, Pastor began a ritual I hadn’t seen before. Divine Healing.
Divine Healing, or Faith Healing is term largely connected with Christianity. Many churches and followers interpret the bible, and specifically the New Testament as record and proof of the power of faith healing. Stories that the laying of hands have cured various ailments span the globe. Testimonies tell of diseases like AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis being banished from a believer’s body upon the completion of the ritualistic prayer.
The belief in this power of prayer was especially evident as faithful Gospel Pillars walked slowly to the front of the room. Some of them were called. Some of them took it upon themselves to ask for blessings. The reasons ranged from a prayer for prosperity to blessing someone who planned to submit a Visa application.
One by one the believers held their hands out as the pastor placed his own on their heads. He prayed for them, sometimes in English, sometimes in tongues. He cast demons out of their bodies and called on the lord to guide them. Then with a gust of wind from his mouth the subject would fly backward, epileptically flailing their arms and legs, screaming and calling for Jesus before their bodies came to rest on the floor.
At this point a church elder would come around to pull the women’s skirts down to a modest level and I assume, make sure she was breathing.
To me, the reactions from this sort of divine healing or blessing seemed too much to be authentic. I questioned the shockingly physical performances, and wondered to myself if this was in fact God’s work, or simply a lavish production for faith’s sake.
I had taken my seat, and put my camera away when I heard Pastor call my name. He welcomed me to the front and asked the congregation to thank me for filming the service in the name of God rather than money.
Everyone clapped, and then as if being cheered on by his fans, the Pastor placed his hands on my head.
My heart stopped and my palms sweat as I dreaded what he was about to do next. Not only was I uncomfortable because of my ambiguous stance on religion and God, but also because I was a westerner in center of a congregation of Africans and against my wishes, I had become a spectacle.
He told me to raise my hands and pray with him.
The agnostic in me wants desperately to say that I felt nothing, but that’s not the truth.
My body grew increasingly hot. This may have been due to the fact that my cheeks were becoming red with embarrassment, but maybe not.
Pastor closed his eyes and called on a higher power. He spoke in tongues, his hand still connected firmly with my forehead. He opened his eyes and let out of the kind of slow breath that would be used to cool hot cocoa. Anxious church members gathered behind me. I felt their hands on my back as they anticipated this soft breeze would cause me to fall backwards in a faithful faint like it had the done to the lineup of people before me.
I was shocked by how my body reacted to his breath. I did indeed feel like it could knock me over. For the sake of my agnostic pride though, I planted me feet and commanded my knees not to give into the process.
Pastor asked into the microphone, “how do you feel?”
I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t ready to admit that maybe I had felt something. I looked sheepishly up at him and around at the congregation anxiously awaiting my North American perspective.
“Thank you.” I said and I rushed back to my seat.
Since that Sunday morning I have recounted this experience over and over again in my head trying to find a scientific reason for the way my body reacted to Pastor’s words of prayer.
I compared his performance to Hypnosis and the uninhibited feelings and reactions to often ridiculous suggestions while in a trance like state. I told myself it was the pressure of the audience waiting for a North American to conform to the practice of an African church. I even tried to convince myself it was the stifling heat.
I left the church quickly after the program, happy to finally be freed from the stuffy conference center. In the increasingly warming air of a Ghanaian Sunday morning, I shook hands with church members and wished them a good day.
I smiled to myself as I darted back through the traffic on Labadi Beach Road.
Whether or not I had indeed played witness to the power of prayer and divine healing, I felt especially vibrant and strong that day.
Gospel Pillars Ministry, South La, Accra