I heard a lot of yelling from across the street. I had been hearing it each weekend when trying to write on Sundays from the internet cafe in Iringa.
I thought there was a political rally going on. It turned out to be a church.
I crossed the dusty divided street to a warehouse-like space filled with jubilant worshipers. Returning future weeks, jubilation would be replaced by intensity, screams, and faints. I asked around the attendees and was eventually introduced to the man in charge, Bishop Boaz. He gave me permission to record their service. I did so on May 4th, 2014.
I shared last week about how this four-hour afternoon service kicked off with feel-good song and dance. It was having me feeling spiritually high as well. After 45 minutes, Bishop Boaz–middle-aged, a bit stocky, a friendly face, and an equally-warm yellow pants/yellow short sleeve button-up outfit–took the microphone from the last singer and started to get things really cooking. It was prayer time.
But I grew up Lutheran. So this wasn’t the prayer I was used to: a time of lowered volume and calm while listening to the pastor. This was a time for individual recitation, internal dialogue from each of the 300 practitioners spilling out to become mouthed and then voiced monologue with eyes closed and hands raised.
Then a man fell to his knees, and a woman buckled in pain. Faces contorted. peaceful expressions became pained. One young woman started to cry.
It seemed they were all coming clean. “For what?” I wondered. The anguish indicated a penance for something terrible. Only I doubted any of them did anything so bad. The feel-good had turned into the dramatically humble and unworthy. Then, perhaps as a source for this display or perhaps as an end to these humiliating means–or perhaps demonstrating another element of this worship altogether–someone erupted from this build-up.
After several minutes of these congregational cries and expressions of “I’m not worthy!”, Bishop Boaz took the mic and proceeded with the service. “Okay, let’s bring everyone back together and move ahead to the next part of our worship,” directed his words. One woman, though, wasn’t ready to move on. As Bishop quieted the crowd, she countered from the front row. Leaning back in her chair, but not relaxed in the least bit, she rambled loudly with a stiffened posture.
Unlike me, people didn’t stare in wonder. They knew what to do in this situation. Three men grabbed her limbs and lifted her off the chair. She wiggled and flailed like a fish out of water. But the men contained the swings and kicks and had her on the floor in the front middle, just before the stage where Bishop stood.
He also knew what to do.
Bishop calmly asked an assistant to take the microphone, and he stepped off stage to address the afflicted woman being held down and surrounded by three men and a woman. As she squirmed under their containment, the woman compensated lack of physical movement with verbal expression. A teaching colleague of mine later translated an exchange between Bishop and the shouting, rambling woman. Turns out Bishop wasn’t exactly speaking to her, though. He was arguing with what was inside.
Bishop wanted “it” to come out. Here’s what was said:
Woman: “I can’t get out until I get human blood! I can’t get out; I can’t get out; I’m telling you I can’t get out!”
Bishop: “Hold her down, the demons are coming.”
Woman: “I’ve told you I can’t get out. I’m a man. I can’t get out until I get human blood! Why do you tell me to go out? Why today? Why do you tell me to get out?!”
Bishop: “You must get out!”
Bishop (to congregation): “She says that she needs human blood, but she knows what is going to happen today.”
Bishop (back to woman): “I’m asking you, who are you? Where are you coming from?”
Woman: “Who are you to ask me?”
Bishop: “Don’t disturb us. Who are you?”
Woman: “I’m a man of men, who are you?”
Bishop: “Where are you coming from?”
Woman: “Who are you?”
Bishop: “Where are you coming from?”
Woman: “Who are you?”
Bishop: “Do you know Jesus?”
Woman: “Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus?”
Bishop: “If you are a man, please open up your eyes and see.”
Woman: “I don’t like you.”
Bishop: “If you are a man, open up your eyes.”
Woman: “I can’t open up my eyes. Even if I open, what can I see?”
Bishop: “Aha, go!”
Woman: “I’m a man of men, I can’t get out.”
Bishop: “She says that she’s Satan.”
Bishop (to congregation): “Raise up your hands and say ‘Satan!’ Tell Satan, ‘You don’t have anything here. You have failed. Since 2000 years ago!'”
I did find it amusing that they put the microphone up to her mouth as she spoke. “Why are you making an even larger spectacle of the poor woman,” I thought. But I later learned that this was because they wanted the audience (including the children, apparently) to hear what the demon was saying–and then to be witness, and even participate, in this exorcism. It was the power of Jesus, the pastor, and the family of that church that would tell that demon who’s boss. And the congregation was proud to fight in the corner of Jesus by standing up, cheering, and offering their pantomimed smoting gestures. The peak of the battle reminded me of the audience energy of the old Jerry Springer show.
After a few minutes of battle, Bishop recognized the need to move on despite the demon refusing to do so. He asked the men to take her outside for more purging.
Interestingly, the service continued with me.
Almost as soon as the men carried the woman off and the room quieted, did I hear the word, “Merikani.” I was then alerted by an assistant pastor that it was time for me to address the audience. Not certain what to make of the event I had just seen, I chose to focus and recall the feel-good song and dance, from which I felt the love and uplift.
I stepped up, took the microphone, and stared back at the crowd. With an assistant pastor translating, I introduced myself, said where I was from, and why I was there.
“I’m a writer and share about the Tanzanian way of life,” I said to the crowd and then waited for the translation to go through. “I’ve written about schools, and villages, and food, but not yet about worship.” Assisted pastor translated. “Every week I work across the street at IringaNet and can hear the worship in this building.”
The audience was proud when hearing this translation. I’m assuming they were proud to know that outsiders can hear their worship. So they cheered.
I continued, “I was intrigued and came over. At first I was interested in photographing the service because I was curious.”
The audience evidently liked that they caught a curious ear and so clapped again.
“But my curiosity has been replaced with admiration for the love I feel here.”
As soon as this translation came through, there was an impressive applause and cheer. I smiled.
Then I finished by thanking them for letting me be here to witness and share their powerful service. I walked off and bishop took back the mic.
As he spoke, I wanted to check on the woman out back. I walked down the aisle to the back of the church and went out the left rear door to the alley behind the building. Outside was a walled-in space housing the men’s and lady’s bathrooms. Just to the side of the bathroom doors, five men and one woman huddled around the woman laying flat on her back and under the sun.
Her helpers prayed intensely over her, holding her head, continuing to rid the demon.
The woman (or the demon) seemed to be tiring. Something was working. I was glad to see her calm.
From eruption to resolution, here is the footage of the exorcism:
I went back inside nearing 4:00. Church was half-way over. Bishop was now starting his sermon. Understanding that I wasn’t going to be able to get much from this Swahili speech, I took a break from the action. And with such a stretched out service, I figured his sermon may take a while. I was right.
But I was wrong about the possessed woman being the peak of the service. That, it turned out, was nothing. She was just a wounded soldier from a stray bullet in this spiritual warfare.
The finale of this service would be a battlefield.