The Spiritual Warzone At The African Church Service

Terrifying screams and cries of suffering and mass hysteria. This wasn’t what I imagined would happen in a church.

But this wasn’t church as I was used to. It was a worship running the gamut from celebration and joy…

…to the pits of spiritual and mental anguish:

You will probably be disturbed by the descriptions and footage of the finale of this service. But for Overcomers Church in Iringa, Tanzania, it’s just another Sunday. They are a congregation willing to express and address the extremes of their spiritual battles. And as a weekly slice of life, I was privileged to witness it–and now am pleased to be able to share this extraordinary grand finale with you.

***

As described last week, halfway through the service, a woman in the front row stiffened back in her chair and screamed hysterics. As three men approached to help, she flailed at their touches. But despite her resistance, they knew they had to proceed. There was a demon in her that had to come out.

Yet as dramatic as this scene was, the woman’s extraordinary show of possession and the congregation’s rise to caste out her affliction turned out to be a warm-up. After the woman was taken outside by those three men to finish the job, things calmed down. Bishop Boaz proceeded the service with his sermon. Like all aspects of this four-hour afternoon worship, his preaching would extend beyond the twelve-minute lectures my pastor growing up would give. So I saw this as an opportunity for a break, as had some others:

Then I reentered to hear the end of the sermon.

Bishop Boaz

His sermon ended on a high note: exclamations and shouts from him and resultant cheers from the audience.

As he finished, a young woman in a white dress walked up on stage prompted by his request for anyone in need. As she stood next to him, he asked her a question, and she quietly, plainly said something back–a explanation of what was wrong, I suspected.

He nodded back reassuringly and reached out his microphone to his assistant pastor like a doctor handing an instrument to his nurse. A couple of other “nurses” then stood behind the girl. Bishop looked at the girl, said a few words, put his hands over the side of the her head and face, said a few more words, and then with her head still in his hands, jerked his arms which jolted her head and had her body go limp. She fell backward into the waiting arms of the two men behind her, who set her gently on the stage floor.

The rising action continued.

There she lay behind while Bishop asked those interested in the congregation to stand up and come to the front. A good 100 of the 300 people approached the stage with Bishop standing over them, offering what I thought was to be the benediction to this already-powerful service. I was wrong. He spoke commanding phrases which the standing crowd repeated with increased enthusiasm. His voice and the looks on their faces increased in intensity with each call and response. These members, this time in unison, were reaching a level of intensity similar to that which I saw earlier during their individual meditative praying that I shared two weeks ago.

Their eyes closed, their hands raised, their faces serious and focused on the sounds and meaning of the bishop’s words.

Then it started.

Like the lady mentioned at the top of the piece, a partaker of the intense prayer erupted. A high pitch scream that sounded at first terrifying and then sexual came from the thicket of the crowd. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact location, but after a few moments, two men walked out carrying the body of a woman overcome. In her purple Sunday dress, they laid her body stage right. She rocked onto her right side and coughed. Unlike the previous woman, this one remained calm. Her demon was apparently not so stubborn to exit.

Yet she was just the start.

Within seconds, another loud moan, and another woman was carried out from the crowd and brought forth to the other side of the stage. One, two, three seconds later, another woman screamed. And then another. And another. Meanwhile, the audience crescendoed in their intense shouts, murmurs, tongues, and gestures. Every time I focused on one woman, it seemed two more were carried up. My attempt to capture every detail had me overcome myself with all the activity. I finally just looked up to take in the scene as a whole.

Bodies were filling both sides of the stage; others were being put in the center. Within a ten minute span, there were eight. All women. Some stationary; some rocking; some flailing. Some quiet; most of them moaning, and some screaming guttural, agonizing cries like the featured vocalists to the congregation’s chaotic choral back-up. And I was caught with that same hand-over-open-mouth gesture with which I had caught myself first doing earlier in the service with the one woman’s possession.

Making my way across this battlefield, tip-toeing around an over afflicted bodies, I got to the other side and did zoom in on one young woman no older than 20 lying still–even stiff–in her white skirt, purple top, and baby blue sweatshirt. Her still body was countered by her hands together and fingers twiddling in the air while her face expressed an array of loud, rapid, unintelligible declarations.

I looked back up to survey the scene from this side–and to discover that it had increased by at least three more women. One girl carried on stage screamed with such resistance and fear that one would think they were carrying her off to be executed. Another woman convulsed with vibrating hands. Mental and physical afflictions had manifested from their spiritual conflict, people were rushing to their aid, and an audience was right there to support with their own cheers, shouts, and gestures.

It was chaos.

I have never seen a war zone, and I don’t think I ever will. And those that have will no doubt scoff at my comparison. But warzone is exactly what came to mind: suffering bodies laid out in numbers that helpers had trouble keeping up with.

I took my face from behind the camera with a look of mouth-gaping shock which I didn’t realize was chiseled into my expression until after several second of it being so. In all, there were about 15 women in various states, each accompanied by an attendant or two rebuking the demon with various gestures and incantations or simply comforting the afflicted with an arm around.

I’d later confirm that these women were up here because a demon was indeed being removed. This surfacing was the demon’s last gasp, one last effort to make a stand in holding reign over the woman. This was business of the utmost seriousness, and some of these women were not to be deterred in their possession. Despite the amount and intensity of the praying over them, they seemingly ignored the outside activity and remained in their state for several minutes.

I looked down from my chair and to my left. There was a toddler boy sitting on the chair next to mine. He sat there quietly, and I knelt, shook his little hand, and patted him on the back. He just looked at me and then back out, not startled nor scared nor happy. Then I hopped off my chair, and up came carried from the audience a boy of maybe 12 dressed lying limp in two men’s arms. Laying on stage in his nice grey suit, he was the only male to be purging a demon, and his expression also stood out from the rest with an animated facial display of his eyes rolling into the back of his head. Seeing the whites of his eyes turned my stomach. But one lady stood down the demon and prayed over the boy with her hands holding his face. The boy remained in trance for many minutes.

Difficult to estimate the time, I think after 30 minutes of this activity, the energy started to lessen. The demons were leaving the bodies. Those who had been possessed started up in recovery. Some walked away looking good. Others looked like they’d been through a month of shock therapy.

The other side of hysteria. The girl who offered such an extraordinary expression now stood with none at all.

Here is the footage of the eruption: the overcoming, the possessions, and the rebuking. This footage is loud and shocking.

***

Perhaps now was the time for the benediction. Bishop said a few words and reached out over the crowd eager for his spiritual touch.

Their reaction made me think he was a cross between Jesus and a rock star. If he missed them while walking by to the left, some would wait expectantly as he came back to the right. Others wouldn’t wait at all and muscled through the crowd to catch up to him and his holy hand for a chance to touch the power of God.

After this, the people started to pack up to go about their lives, while children were gathered and chairs were folded up and stacked. The concentrated energy of a mass of people focused on a deep expression was now relieved. And like the calm after a workout or a good cry, the people now came down off their high and addressed one another, their normal day, and then exited to the outside world of strangers, traffic, grocery shopping, and their jobs. It’s amazing the clash of energies between the inside and outside of this room.

I had planned on speaking with Bishop Boaz after the service to talk about the church. We met outside, where he had his SUV waiting right outside the front door. He said he would drive me to their new church being built. Indeed, Overcomers Ministries, which runs a radio station and a school, is hoping that volunteers and donations will be enough to fulfill their dreams of a new church campus just outside Iringa.

If you have questions about their church, or are interested in getting in touch with them, you can let me know.

***

Coming from a Lutheran heritage and an American culture, seeing this service was a lot to absorb and raised a lot of curiosities. What’s going through the minds of those who come here, who really let go and get swaddled into the mass effect of such powerful worship and meditation? What’s going through the minds and bodies of the women possessed on stage? And why were almost all of them women? (An assistant pastor answered this question by saying Eve was tempted by Satan. Women are more susceptible to a demon’s lure.) And are such scenes beneficial or harmful for the children to see?

Some may watch the above video with fear and concern, but I think it is just an alternative style of worship. What I see is a church who has taken the basic ideas of demons, temptation, sin, affliction, release, and the power of Christ to a new level.

But irrespective of the specifics of the beliefs, I see the benefit of coming together with others to unify not just a community, but oneself–mind, body, and spirit. It’s a chance to step off the track of daily mind and mood and center in on a truer existence often forgotten while wrapped up in work, sports, relationships, competition, alcohol, ego. It’s their chance to expel such “demons” which interfere with their route to a more centered, calm, truer place.

What say you?