Monday 3 January 2011

Friend's Church

Ikenna kicks me and says I should get ready for church. But I think he is joking, still feeling fantastic from the beers we slurped last night, though he’s already clad in a crisp lime caftan. I yawn. It is his fault that I’d slept late.

Where is she? I ask as I climb into the bed from the mat. She slept in his bed, so I had to hug the floor.

You expect her to still be sleeping? Ikenna replies.

When did this start?

When did what start?

I mean…this church business… I try to explain. Ikenna seems to have started taking his Sunday-Sunday church service more seriously, unlike the last time we met, seven months ago. He couldn’t care less about sermons.

Are you a chaplain now? He scoffs.

One Sunday morning, when Father Osita was chastising boys and girls who went straight to their lover’s home after church service, who would leave their lovers waiting for them at home, a wave of guilt so strange and powerful swept through me and made me believe that God had revealed to him what I did the night before. Twelve hours before the Mass one of my many girlfriends had crept out of my bed. Since then I swore not to bed a girl if I meant to attend church the next day.

But Ikenna is different. This morning he looks ready to listen to God. I think he’s acting but then he flashes me a dead-pan look. Before I get dressed, I ask him where the girl has gone to. He ignores me, grabs his car-key, walks out of the room.

Ikenna drives me to his church. A girl in a mauve blouse reaches a hand to collect the bulletin, the male usher says, Twenty naira, she frowns. When he tries to coax her to get a copy, that the money will go a long way in helping the church, she brushes his hand away and struts off like a peafowl.

Ikenna pays for two bulletins and hands one to me. As we approach the entrance, a female usher standing in the middle row between two brick columns of seats points to the left row, but the mauve blouse glances away and slides into the opposite row.

The female usher points us to the left row; we comply and sit down. I glance across at the mauve blouse, but her head is bowed in prayer. I notice some boys with trendy hair-dos: plaits, dreads, waves. Some girls with outfits that reveal either their backs or flashes of breast; one-shoulder dress; knee-high slits. The picture of a discotheque comes to my mind as I try to focus my gaze on the pulpit.

A female chorister has just started belting out: Jesus, lover of my soul…

That’s my ring tone, I hum along. Ikenna smiles at me. I wonder if the song reminds him of his own lover – the girl he slept with last night.

A business card lands on its flipside on the floor. Before I can make out the phone number written in biro, a hand sweeps it off the floor. I turn to the girl sitting next to me as she slips it into her Bible. She pops bubble gum quietly. There’s a white poster with the picture of a cell phone crossed with X on the pillar behind her.

As the singer glides away to join the other choristers seated across the altar, I hear a whisper and glance over my shoulder. Her chin rests against her chest as she speaks anxiously into a cell phone, imploring someone – a guy probably – to wait for her; that she might sneak out before closing prayers.

Just then a young pastor springs onto the podium and shouts a vigorous hallelujah that makes the congregation roar with an instant Amen.

Rise up for Jesus! He jumps up and down.

Some of us spring to our feet while others heave themselves up.

This is no time to be weak! We are soldiers of Christ! Stand, stand, stand!

Nobody else will stand up again, it seems. The remaining people stuck to their seats are not more than a quarter of the congregation; mostly youths, obviously students. They aren’t disabled. I wonder why they don’t heed the pastor’s call, if they know they are in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

When the pastor is done reading the announcement, he turns to face the General Overseer of the church. It’s now time for the divine feast. Put your hands together for Daddy as he comes on-board!’

The entire congregation goes ecstatic; the cry of delight explodes all around. Both young and old are already prancing in their seats like deer. Daddy strides across the podium clutching a giant Bible, then waves his right hand. Silence drowns out every voice. He speaks passionately for a while, breaks into strange drawls, pauses to catch his breath, then jolts us with a question.

Why are you in church? He fixes his eyes on our row. For a moment I fear he is searching me out.

I’ve been attending church since I was five and have never cared to ask myself why I wake up every other Sunday morning to attend church.

Daddy then reels out different categories of church members: a group comes to church to seek contracts and connections; another to show off their choicest and latest wardrobe or woo admirers; the other regards church as an age-old tradition; the last group envisions some amusement in their pedestrian lives.

The congregation appears subdued and rueful when the preaching ends. I try to identify myself in one of the categories, but I’m distracted by another female chorister who sings a frenetic melody that spurs some girls to start gyrating like soukous dancers.

We dance out to the offering box. When we settle back in our seats, two girls are whispering about a roommate who is too na├»ve to ask her man for money because he told her that he’d settle down with her next Christmas. They are sitting next to Ikenna.

People begin to shove seats aside and jostle one another as the service draws to an end. I wonder why they can’t move in a quiet, orderly procession like converts touched by the Good Word. We soon spill out into the fragrant sunshine. Two boys in front of me give each other a high-five and start to chatter about Arsenal Vs Chelsea. I think about an uncle who says today’s youth have lost their senses to Yahoo! and premiership.

Smiling as if he’s been healed of a strange affliction, Ikenna puts an arm over my shoulder. How did you enjoy my church?

Before I can reply, someone revs noisily. Another person screams in fright. My eyes dart around and make out a girl pointing her five fingers (in what is a curse) at a red Kia Rio: You no go see better! Behind the wheel is a boy not older than twenty, with a porcelain grin on his face. I remember seeing him swaggering up (his faded red boxers peeking out from his jeans waistband) to the altar nearly five times to drop offerings in the glass box, and thinking if he’d changed a hundred-naira note into five pieces of twenty.

Stupid boy, he wants everyone to know he’s riding a tortoise. A young woman hisses.

Don’t mind him. Ikenna pats the frightened girl on the shoulder, winking at her, as we walk past.

So, did you enjoy my church? he asks me again.

Not wishing to sound patronising or ungrateful, I say: How would you feel if your pastor – sorry, your Daddy talked about fornication?

And the smile falls away from his face.

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