It is no longer rumour. Hard-talking Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, President of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and founder of Word of Life Bible Church, has joined the elite league of Nigerians who own private jets.
According to reports, Oritsejafor's jet, marked N431CB, was delivered to him on 10 November 2012 at the celebration of his 40th year of being on the pulpit. The jet, estimated to cost some US $4.9m (or roughly 769.3 million naira at the current official exchange rate), was manufactured in 1994 and previously belonged to two different owners in the US. Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor's anniversary, held at the Word of God Bible Church in Warri, Delta State, had eminent dignitaries in attendance, including President Goodluck Jonathan.
The rivalry among billionaire pastors to own private jets appears to be the current wave of the competition among Pentecostal churches and their leaders who often proclaim themselves 'saved' and have no qualms unleashing themselves on us as the intermediaries between God and us sinful mortals. First there was competition on the size of churches, the number of people who attended them and the weekly returns from sundry offertories, tithes, collections and several donations and levies for 'doing God's work'. Then the competition pushed them into going 'world-wide' - in search of hard currency, prestige or 'winning souls for Christ'. Quite often they operate like franchises as they open offices across the world. As more money poured in, 'doing God's work' transmuted to owning schools and universities, choice properties, farmlands and now aeroplanes. And as they compete on the material plane, competition to be seen as miracle workers, harbingers of prosperity and God's chosen intermediaries also intensified. If your church neither performs miracles nor brings prosperity, then you are on your own. 'Believers' want a happening place, not time wasters.
I am not trying to come between anyone and his or her belief or ridicule any one's faith. I know enough about faith to know it is a belief in things unseen - which means it has nothing to do with rationality or science. I am a firm believer in God, in the existence of an omnipotent and omniscience God who oversees the affairs of us little, sinful, mortals. However I believe that my relationship with God is a private matter, something between me and my Creator. Largely because of this, I have a morbid suspicion of people who flaunt their piety or who use what I will regard as subterfuges to prey on the gullibility and vulnerability of the underclass who often form the core of the followership of religious leaders. Pentecostal pastors are not the only culprits in this regard. Across the country and the religions, charlatans, rabble-rousers and conmen and women also use religion and phony pious ambience to mask their lust for money and power. And this creates image problem for the few who are truly called to the spiritual vocation.
The excuse often used by our 'pastorprenuers' - (apologies to the writer Eddie Iroh) to justify their morbid craving for the epitome of the things of the world always reminds me of the book Animal Farm - an allegorical novella by George Orwell published in England on 17 August 1945. In that book, after the animals had succeeded in overthrowing their human oppressors, the leaders of the new regime, essentially the pigs, began to re-make the rules to enable them corner all the good things in the Animal Farm for their exclusive use. For instance they banned all the other animals from eating the apples on the Farm. And their justification? They never really liked apples but scientists had found they were good for brain work - which they alone did in Animal Farm!
Re-wind to the congregation of the Word of God Bible Church in Warri, Delta State on 10 November 2012. When it was announced that the church had acquired a 10-seater Bombardier/ Challenger 601 aircraft , the announcement was greeted with "loud ovation and applause" (Punch, 11 November 2012). The Vanguard of 11 November 2012 reported that the "jubilant congregation spent over 15 minutes congratulating one another even as the recipient did not make any comment on the jet said to have been purchased for him by the church". As far as the members (or most members) were concerned, it was not a piece of luxury for Pastor Oritsejafor. It was something to enable their Pastor maximize his time in 'doing God's work'.
Sometime in 2008, I found myself in a different area of London where I had to live briefly. One Sunday I was looking for a place to worship and by chance sauntered into a Pentecostal church - which had a Zambian as a Pastor. There were no more than 15 people in the congregation. The Pastor had apparently been having an issue with the landlord who wanted the church to vacate the place - a rather spacious lounge that could accommodate up to 200 people.
Just before the service ended, when people were giving testimonies of the good things the Lord had done for them during the week, the Pastor chose to be the last person to testify. "Many of you are aware of the issue the church has been having with our Landlord", he began in a low tone and then paused for effect. The congregation was wrapped in attention. The Pastor continued. He was, he said, led by the spirit a few days before to the landlord to talk about the church's tenancy. When he got to the landlord, he found him unusually friendly. He paused again amid shouts of "our Lord is good" and "Alleluiah". The pastor claimed that as he discussed with the landlord he could see a halo over the landlord's head and knew immediately that the Lord was about to do a great thing that day. More shouts of 'Alleluiah' and the 'Lord is good all the time.'
Briefly, the landlord, who had all along insisted they should vacate the premise that day told the Pastor that he would not only allow them to continue with their tenancy but would also encourage the church to buy the place.
The small crowd was uncontrollable in its excitement and dabbled into several songs praising the Lord. From where I was, I began to wonder whether the landlord was not just being a smart businessman rather than someone who had come under the influence of the spirit of God .It was the height of the collapse of the property market when many landlords were having a hell of time because securing mortgages had become almost impossible for most potential property buyers. Landlords were happy if they had tenants who paid their rents as and when due.
From my wonderland I heard the pastor lower his voice, almost to a whisper, and said: "Even though the price is £1.2m, I know our good Lord will do it for us". As be began a lengthy sermon of the benefits of the church having its own place where it can serve the Lord, I began to do a mental arithmetic of how this small congregation was ever going to raise the money to enable the pastor buy the building. Predictably, before the service ended, the Pastor said he would like to see all the men - about five or so were there - for a proper briefing on the plans about buying the building. I offered apologies that I had other engagements and left. I never went back. Admittedly not all 'men of God' are like the Zambian Pastor or Eddie Iroh's 'Pastoprenuers' but my suspicion of them is truly deep.
For Pastor Oritsejafor's 40th anniversary on the pulpit I consider it an error of judgement that the announcement of the purchase had to be made in the presence of President Jonathan as it could wrongly suggest that the President supported the purchase or had a foreknowledge of it. Given President Jonathan's rather simple lifestyle and the level of poverty in the country, being associated with such ostentation could undermine his standing before many Nigerians.
I also consider it an error of judgement that the President had to attend the event at all. With all due respect, I find Pastor Oritsejafor's hard line views on some political issues rather uncomfortable. By gracing the occasion, an impression could be created that the President supports those hard line views of the Pastor or that the Pastor was merely acting out the President's script.
For sure Pastor Oritsejafor is not the only religious preacher who takes inappropriate hard line views on national issues. Several Islamic preachers are also guilty of the same offence. But such views should be side-lined, not mainstreamed by the president inadvertently legitimising their purveyors.