A certain phenomenon has gripped Zimbabwe recently. Actually, it has always been there, but only in the last few years has it exploded. Many small churches have been springing up everywhere, each usually led by an inspired, charismatic man – a prophet. The prophets bring messages that are very appealing to the people, especially to women, who generally attend church in greater numbers than men in Zimbabwe. The congregants/followers love to hear these messages, which promise personal prosperity and reveal the (mystical) sources of people’s problems and their solutions. So mesmerized are the congregants by the messages that they are willing to go to great lengths to do everything the prophets say. Sometimes with shameful consequences: 10 Church Leaders in Sex Scandals, the papers say.
I would like to say a few more things about each of these things – prophets, prosperity and promiscuity. Perhaps the reader may begin to pierce together a very curious picture of the new Zimbabwean churches.
For the purposes of this article, there are two types of prophets: one is strictly Christian (Christian prophet), while the other mixes Christianity with traditional beliefs and whatever else that is prophet-like (hybrid prophet). At the surface, the former is not unlike a prosperity gospel preacher. His message is that of healing, and deliverance – from poverty, disease, misfortune – all bad things. He also preaches prosperity – growth of businesses, promotions at work, etc. This is indeed a message that is found in many churches, but the Christian prophet offers more. He even goes beyond praying for people – he ‘anoints’ people with the Holy Spirit, and he casts out all sorts of demons from nearly every person he meets. So much spiritual power is displayed when he is working. All these things create an incredible aura of spiritual power and a mystical charisma around the prophet. He comes to be greatly revered, to the point where he is believed to be the real man of God. In fact, that is the title he usually assumes: “Man of God.” Eventually, it isn’t just the message that captivates the people – it’s the spirit-filled prophet himself. And that is the power he has over the people.
The other prophet – the one who mixes Christianity and traditional belief – has been around for much longer. His hallmark is prophetic vision. This isn’t the ability to foretell the future, but the ability to reveal a person’s deepest and darkest secrets, or those of his enemies. He will reveal the person who has been casting evil spells on you, whoever killed whom in your family, which of the ancestors is bringing bad luck to the family – basically the kinds of things that easily explain a family’s troubles. What’s more, the hybrid prophet is usually able to cleanse the family of the said troubles using many different and sometimes strange methods. The cleansing ritual may involve the purchase of baking materials, or a search for some rare stone, numerous night vigils or even sexual intercourse. Like the other breed, this prophet is a highly revered individual – perhaps even much more so than the ‘Christian prophet.’
Prosperity here is in two forms: prosperity for the followers/congregants, and prosperity for the prophet. A significant/ number of the people follow the prophets in order to secure comfortable or even luxurious lives. And the prophets offer all this in abundance, to use one of their favorite words. Of course there is nothing wrong with somebody wanting the good life. After all, we all wish each other a “prosperous new year” at the beginning of every year. But once such a desire becomes the ultimate goal, or a near-obsession in some cases, it detracts from normal Christian values. Even the importance of each individual becomes tied to how much s/he gives to the church. I have seen churches where more prolific givers sit in couches at church, while the ones who give the least are squashed at the entrance. Congregants also offer money for prayers, to prove how serious they are about receiving answers to those prayers. The more they give, the more they receive, they are told. Eventually, the giver gives for the express purpose of reaping – not simply for the benefit of God’s work. The congregants find all possible reasons to justify these things. But something about paying for prayer just isn’t right.
And what is this money used for? While many of the prophets do live simply or comfortably, a few of them begin to lead overtly flamboyant lives. They drive flashy cars, own monstrous houses and employ bodyguards for each of the members of their family. And this fancy lifestyle is supported by the faithful congregants, who give unsparingly for their own prosperity. Still, somehow, all these excesses can be justified by the prophets and his followers. “The children of God are rich,” the faithful say. “Why should a Man of God live in poverty? He should do great things so people can see how richly God blesses.” Yes, God will give a Bentley, a Range Rover and a sports car to a prophet in order to demonstrate his power and ‘favor.’ This same prophet will lead many to prosperity, it is said, so that God’s name is glorified. It’s just hard to wrap one’s head around this.
They say the downfall of many men is women. The same is true with many of the prophets, but this is also true: the downfall of many women is prophets. The new Christian prophet tends to be a (handsome) young man, full of energy (and raging hormones, as they say). Many are his temptations, especially with the female congregants who are allowed to dress in very revealing outfits at church. And what with the very up-close-and-personal prayer meetings that the prophet has with the young and beautiful church ladies? Of course it’s not all Christian prophets who fall to this trap, but whenever they fall, this is the top reason.
For the hybrid prophet, sexual encounters are not so much a temptation as they are part of the job. As I have said, prophets tend to have such an air of otherworldliness that they captivate their congregants to stupendous extents. And the abundant faithful – the women, are prime prey. Prophets have convinced many women that their particular demons or spiritual misfortunes, can only be removed through sexual acts with the prophet. The strong-willed prophet will say: “if I sleep with you for three nights, and [insert some ritualistic stuff], then you will be cleansed.” Yes, it happens. A lot. In many cases the husbands also allow their wives to go through with these rituals. Whether these incidents are consensual or not is usually a fuzzy matter, but some cases do pop up in the media: Johane Masowe Prophet Rapes Woman, we read.
As I have tried to convey, prophets, women and money is not an eyebrow-raising array of words in Zimbabwe – at least not in the past few years. Prophets are harvesting people at an incredible rate, promising them prosperity, or at least escape from poverty, illness and misfortune. Most of the new congregants are women, who generally attend church in greater numbers than men. With this mix of highly influential, mostly young prophets, and many captivated and desperate women, and a promise of good things, what could possibly go wrong? I’ll tell you. We get very rich and flamboyant prophets, a lot of promiscuity and rampant sexual abuse of women (and, sadly, children).
This is not an attack on all churches led by prophets, or on people seeking to better their lives. There are many prophet-led congregations that do so much good in Zimbabwe. However, many of them are “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” They prey on unsuspecting people – mostly women – enriching and creating names for themselves. Many of these churches don’t survive – or they survive for as long as the prophet can keep his zip closed. The ones that survive grow bigger and bigger, drawing people away from the traditional churches. And while the followers seek healing, anointing, prosperity, and deliverance from demons, these churches will continue to grow. Some indeed pure and good, but some out to deceive and plunder.