• PROOF:
  • January 13, 2015

Life in Lagos: The Deafening Roar of Big Religion

Author
Robin Hammond

Lagos, Nigeria, is Africa’s most populous metropolitan area—with an estimated 21 million inhabitants. It also boasts the biggest economy of any city in Africa, housing some of the richest people on the continent, as well as huge numbers of poor.

Robin Hammond photographed life in Lagos for the story “Africa’s First City,” which appears in the January 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. In a series of five posts on Proof, he chronicles this city of contrasts that is fast becoming Africa’s hub of creativity, fashion, and business.

*****

Every Sunday, as a child growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, I was taken to church; my Dad insisted. While the priest—a good man, but a man with no natural talent for public speaking—sermonized, my father would invariably fall asleep.

Once I asked my father why we went; shouldn’t we just sleep in and save on fuel? For my Dad the act of going to church was important—what happened there, less so. And I’m afraid our priest didn’t do such a good job keeping us engaged. If that priest had been schooled by a Nigerian church, he might have had a better chance of keeping my father awake, and the one-hour service may not have seemed so long.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God, Annual Convention, Camp Ground, Mowe, on the outskirts of Lagos.
The Redeemed Christian Church of God annual convention campground near Mowe, on the outskirts of Lagos

The first hour of many Nigerian church services is just a warm-up. In fact the Redeemed Christian Church of God Annual Camp in Lagos is a week of praising the Lord. When these services are at their height, you wouldn’t want to sleep. The choirs, sometimes hundreds strong, and the church bands make it feel like a rock concert. Religious or not, it would be impossible not to be taken in by the atmosphere, because echoing those choirs is a congregation of as many as 300,000 people.

I paced out the church hall—a huge warehouse-like construction without walls—1,600 steps at about a meter each: That’s about a mile. It was just as wide, and the place was full.

Around the church an entire town has been built, including smaller churches, hotels, and restaurants. Getting to and from the church can take hours of waiting in traffic.

TV cameras brought up emotional faces on large screens around the hall. The congregation followed the pastors and took notes in their Bibles and notebooks. Many had their Bible on their iPad.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God.
The Redeemed Christian Church of God

Everyone was there to see “the Man of God.” He leads the Redeemed Christian Church of God and has done so since the founder of the church passed away. Believed to have been anointed by God, he is genuinely worshipped. At the main event that Friday night he didn’t come on until around 11 p.m.—this was an all-night service. Before him there were bands and lesser preachers to warm up the crowd.

When the Man of God shouted “Jesus” and the crowd returned his call, the noise was deafening. This is where my priest got it wrong; the pastors here had us involved in the ceremony. They were preaching to us, yes, but also expecting us to reply. It was a conversation, not a monologue.

Throughout the evening, members of the congregation gave testimony to the miracles they’d experienced. Most, when I was there, were women who had for years been trying to get pregnant but failed. They were “barren.” Some of them, in their 50s, gave testimony of how, thanks to the power of prayer, they were now pregnant. Some showed off a newborn child. Everyone celebrated the power of the Holy Spirit on seeing the baby.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God.
The Redeemed Christian Church of God

That was my second time there. At an earlier camp I was pushed off the grounds quite quickly. I thought I had permission, but it turns out I hadn’t gone through the right channels. A month later, after meetings in the corporate offices of the church, I was assigned to work with Redemption TV, which broadcasts services online around the world. They even gave me a Redemption TV t-shirt!

It turned out that their concern was with how I would be reporting on the church. Pastors in Nigeria have been criticized in the press for leading lavish lifestyles, flying around the world in private jets, amassing massive wealth on the back of impoverished believers. They wanted to know if I was going to photograph parishioners making “offerings” to the church—the implication being that permission would be denied if that was going to be the focus of my story.

It wasn’t, but I did leave wondering where all the money was going. I had heard before the expression, “The more you give, the greater the blessings.” Many Nigerians I met spoke with utmost faith in tithing as an investment. This was a foreign idea to me.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God.
The Redeemed Christian Church of God

During the service the Man of God appealed for funds to expand the church; he thought it needed to be bigger.

At the front of the church were the wealthy and influential. It was clear from the way they were dressed and the iPads they carried. To the back were the less well off. And I saw many who were poor. I bought one young man some food when he begged from me while we ate lunch.

I found the obvious wealth of the church and its leader—with his fleet of cars, his bodyguards and his tailored suits—a little hard to square with the outright poverty of some of his parishioners.

It didn’t seem a concern to those there to worship though. They were firm believers in giving money to get blessings. And they were firm believers in the Man of God.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God.
The Redeemed Christian Church of God

Nigeria is said to be one of the most religious countries on Earth. I would believe it. It’s not just the number of believers though, it’s also the passion with which they believe. Parishioners regularly weep or fall to the floor and writhe, overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit.

My fixer was one of those true believers. A member of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, he told me that I should join the church. I replied that I was very excited to be photographing the service but my involvement would end there. He turned to me and told me that in the end the decision would be taken out of my hands, that by midnight, after hearing the Man of God speak, the power of the Holy Spirit would be revealed and I would be born again as a member of the church. I wasn’t so sure, so we made our usual wager—two bottles of Star, the local beer.

I was very moved by the service and came to understand why such an event appeals to so many. But in the end my fixer was buying the beer.

Read Hammond’s other blog posts on Proof, covering Nigeria’s Fashion Week, the rising African middle class, the upstart Nollywood film industry, and sand diggers at the bottom of the bay.

See more of Hammond’s photos from Lagos, including a gallery of portraits, in the National Geographic story “Africa’s First City.”

*****

Robin Hammond has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Born in New Zealand, Hammond has lived in Japan, the U.K., South Africa, and France. View more of his work at www.robinhammond.co.uk

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Richard Aderounmu
    December 19, 2015

    Great coverage.

    Points to note however, congregation at such services usually exceeds a million and may run into two million or more perhaps because people who attend such services come from all over Nigeria and sometimes, all over the world.

    The last time I was there for a Friday Holy Ghost Service in October, by 9:15pm, the auditorium as large as it is, was so full I had to seat on the road.

    Again he’s not usually addressed as ‘man of God’, rather he’s popularly called ‘Daddy G.O’, An acronym for ‘Daddy the General Overseer’. He’s not a Bishop, rather he prefers to be addressed simply as Pastor Adeboye.

    I read somewhere that the church’s drive is to have a church planted within 5 minutes walking distance of worshippers.

    People with such immense popularity tend to have gifts and presents from all over. By the nature of who they are, they become very wealthy.

  2. Helen Cole
    January 27, 2015

    Great View Robin, I was in Africa and visited this very church in Lagos Ibadan Expressway. I am totally struck with the awesome environment, the crowd, the divine encounter and the convincing atmosphere that an extraordinary power of God is present. There is totally no way an human effort could have set up that congregation, its totally unbelievable especially in a place like West Africa where everything is not comfortable and everyone is in a rush.

  3. Tomisin
    January 18, 2015

    Hold on, we don’t “worship” him. He’s our leader not our Saviour. The seating arrangement is clearly a matter of first come first serve. For those who are seated behind, there are speakers and screens that also help them to be involved and follow up with the program. Those with their iPads are not only the rich, so many people have those. Also, “Man of God” is not what we call him. That’s a title we Nigerians sometimes call people who we know to be diligent in serving God. The fleet of cars are used by the church to run programs. He’ll definitely need to have body guards as people have rushed at him in the past. I’m not sure what you mean by “tailored suits”. If you refer to his clothes, there is no problem with having your personalized attire.
    Thanks for going through this, I can deduce from your tone that you were not criticizing. I have been a member of RCCG all my life and I want you to see it from our perspective.

  4. Femi
    January 14, 2015

    Yes, the true face of religion in Nigeria. Good kid with this article.

  5. Crystal Owonubi
    January 14, 2015

    I thoroughly enjoyed this. I can relate so well with this because of what happened to my life after living in Nigeria for eight years! http://www.amazon.com/Peace-Unlikely-Place-Triumph-Adversity/dp/1496083792

  6. alabi samson
    January 14, 2015

    Good

  7. Tobi
    January 14, 2015

    Feels really good to see things from a neutral, unbiased view. The shocking truth… Excellent article!

  8. Tina
    January 14, 2015

    Yet, Redeemed is still one of the less-controversial churches. They’d never have allowed you into some others or probably screened your work and pictures before allowing you leave.
    You should have also checked out the orthodox churches. I agree priests of old made us snooze, but there’s more spark with the one’s of today. Actually making you pay attention.
    Great read.

  9. Cephas Iredia
    January 14, 2015

    Great work Robin. I see you enjoying Nigeria.

  10. Lawrence Okoh
    January 13, 2015

    Nice report. I enjoyed every bit of moreso that Hammond tried not to offend anyone’s sense.

  11. ken
    January 13, 2015

    Great Story…Enjoyed it tremendously…Another view of Nigeria…Ken Columbia, MD

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