Sbu told me later that it was a “prophetic” church. It began with a litany of call and response hymns. Foot tapping and soulful. Then, a sermon which was long on time and long on humor. As the sermon wound up, I began to stretch my legs and gather together my personal belongings. Little did I realize that this was simply the prelude. There were still three and a half hours to go.
It would have been appropriate if a microphone had descended from the ceiling and Michael Buffer had appeared to herald the main event. “Let’s get ready to rrrrrrrumble!” The pastor pointed at a woman in from at the back of the room and beckoned her to the front. Combining the Exorcist and Law and Order, she began to interrogate the demon. Instead of simply banishing it, or sending it into a nearby herd, the pastor was determined to bring to light all possible incriminating evidence. There was no “good cop” to this scenario.
The woman in question, from the moment of her appearance on stage, ducked her head low and flailed her arms up behind her. Her fingers were in constant motion and she spoke as if it were painful. The climax of her performance included tight, quickening pirouettes and loud, high-pitched shrieks. A video camera for the CCTV and a microphone were never far for maximum audience viewing pleasure. These were not jobs for the timid, as “deliverance” is supremely a contact sport.
Nevertheless, our fearless (and somewhat cavalier) leader was not easily distracted. She hurled words like daggers: “Fire!” In a crescendo, “Fire!” Then, if it turned out that it wasn’t hot enough, “I increase the fire!” “Out!” “Bow down!” Occasionally, she slapped the victim, and in the end, had the choir sing a hymn to complete the process. The end goal was to cover the person in a purple cloth approximately the size of my travel towel (but hopefully not as rank).
After ratting on her boyfriend (by name), the woman finally listened to reason and fell to the floor. Once the purple cloth had been placed, the pastor began to speak to the crowd about holiness or something, when, lo and behold, the woman was off the ground again, a whirling dervish, twisting in tight circles. Apparently, the demons were legion. Each was given the name of one of the townships were her lovers lay, Sandton, Alexandra, Soweto…
Once she was down and out, my friend Sbu handed me his glasses and cell phone, crawled over bodies to the aisle, and walked bravely to the front. The pastor put her hand on his forehead and…but wait…the woman was up again! Her demons were very determined. The elixir had not yet been strong enough. It took another hymn before she finally exited stage right.
Sbu hit the floor much more quickly. As he lay face down, covered by the religious travel towel, I realized that I had a budding logistical problem. What if Sbu was laid out for the rest of the night? How long is one generally slain by the spirit? Sbu had confided that the Friday night service often lasted until the wee hours of the morning, therefore, we would stay no longer than an hour. He was now laid out on the carpet. What is the etiquette surrounding religious experiences and getting home at a decent hour? Do I pick him up and carry him to car, or leave him to fend for himself? If someone is slain by the spirit, are they responsible for previous promises?
Ten minutes later, Sbu was back at my side and I scrapped my getaway plans. Nevertheless, it appears that God had other plans for us besides leaving early. When we walked out to the car, we realized that we had been blocked in. It was absolute: we weren’t leaving until the service was over.
Meanwhile, the floodgates had opened. Both aisles were jammed with people waiting to get to the front to be healed. The queue was about fifty long on either side. Sbu surveyed the room and breathed a sigh of relief. “There aren’t many people here tonight.” I couldn’t tell if he was kidding.
The hymns progressed from “Standing in the need of prayer” to “Holy Spirit, fall down, fall down, fall down on me.” While some worshippers crashed to the ground immediately, some took more prayer, while others simply took a few small steps backwards and retreated back to their seats. Two or three people were assigned to crowd control and stationed behind and to either side of the action to catch their fall. If they were acting, it was quite the trust fall.
I entertained myself by assigning style points to the fall. It was much like the old Nintendo game Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. Some went down like Glass Joe, swaying from one side to the next, while others went hard and fast like Bald Bull or Soda Popinski. Bodies were strewn about like a battlefield. At one point, I closed my eyes, and it sounded like the best moments of my recent safari: howling, groaning, whistling.
As the number of people in the aisle diminished to zero, we all looked around us, wondering what could cap off the evening, when down one of the aisles, came the whirling dervish. If the service was a symphony, this woman was the reprise. It turns out, in addition to her demons of lust, she also had a spirit of witchcraft. We were all amazed and beamed at one another. What an encore!
The evening seemed to be coming to a close, and I again started to gather my effects, when the man to the other side of me was called to the front and returned to tap me on the shoulder. “The pastor wants you.” He can’t be serious, I thought. I studied him with wide eyes and then turned to Sbu. “Go. She wants you,” he said. I shook my head firmly. No way. “I’m not going up there,” I replied resolutely. “Go,” Sbu repeated, as if there were not an inch to question, “the pastor wants you.”
Suddenly, everything changed. I went from a sometimes amazed, amused, and/or horrified observer to a participant. Regardless of what I action I took, there were now repercussions to my presence at this service. Time began to move very slowly.
For someone who has done his share of preaching and speaking in front of people, when it comes to being a congregant, I try to blend in. I’m Tribe Called Quest’s Mr. Incognito. I don’t even like standing to introduce myself as a newcomer at churches. Much less walk to the front before 300 people at the most bizarre service I’ve ever attended. Nevertheless, I’m in a tough spot. I’m a visitor, I’m a foreigner, and I’m one of the few white people this church has probably ever seen. I want to help build good relationships; I definitely don’t want to offend the pastor. If I go to the front, I risk disrespecting her and her church by not falling to the ground. I don’t want to make a show of the fact that I harbor doubt about these occurrences. But if I don’t go the front, I flaunt her authority, which is obviously strong. What do I do? I didn’t have any choice. I faked a heart attack…
Alright, I didn’t fake a heart attack. I reluctantly walked forward, weaving my way through an aisle that was much narrower than it was at the start, feeling every eye burning into the back of my head, my bright yellow Bafana Bafana jersey announcing my location like a blip on a radar screen. I noticed with dismay that my heart was beating hard and fast. Why did she choose me? It was a fact that I didn’t exactly blend into this Soweto crowd. Was I the only one that hadn’t been to the front to be healed? Is she going to rebuke me? I braced for the worst.
We met each other at the center of the stage. She reached out and put her hand to my chest. She must be able to feel my heart pulsating deeply—did I just run wind sprints?—but continued to press. Her eyes flitted closed (in prayer?) and then open again, determined (for what?). Full minutes passed.
In the first wedding at which I played groomsman, the wedding planner had harped continually about not locking your knees. She had me fearful that I would collapse into the organist at any second. The admonition popped into my head as my weight tilted backwards underneath the pressure of the pastor’s hand. I had a sudden image of the whirling dervish pirouetting onto the stage behind me, but stood firm, looking intently into the pastor’s eyes. Would she use me as an example—he has not enough faith—and lambaste me in front of the crowd? How long she would keep it up? I was now the Grand Finale; would she give up before I fell? It was a battle of wills. We’ve almost hit the five hour mark, should I make like Arjen Robben and take a dive? She pressed and prayed, prayed and pressed and it seemed like the minutes entered double digits. I held my ground, though wobbly were my knees. Finally, she leaned over to me and said, just above the music, “You have lost much. But stay with the Lord.” I responded, “Thank you, pastor,” and walked back to my seat. The service ended soon after, and we found our way out of the blocked parking lot.
Loss. The great theme of human life and religious longing. Universal, and yet it functions with a kind of relative deprivation effect. Have I experienced loss? Sure. Stay with the Lord? Good advice. The more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a horoscope reading—true enough, to a degree, for anyone. Yet, true, nonetheless—and so prophetic, indeed.