The Upper Room

By Florence Madenga

4pm: Opening Prayer

We are waiting for Apostle Debbie Banda-Viggs, a Malawian evangelist living in McKinney, Texas. None of us have ever seen her in person, but she will come to us through the small speakers my father has plugged into his laptop. The five of us – me, my 12-year-old brother and 22-year old sister, and my middle-aged parents – gather around the laptop in our small, three-bedroom apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. No one speaks. Someone turns off the washing machine droning on in the laundry room in the hallway.

We have been invited to the Upper Room. The e-mail, forwarded to me through Debbie Banda Ministries International, says that we are part of an exclusive group of worshippers. We have now entered a season of warfare, and it is time to crush the enemy, before we embark on what sounds like a brutal 70 days of fasting.

We edge closer to the laptop as a woman’s voice asks us to type if we can hear her. My mother nods. My father eagerly types yes.

“Come on, begin to pray,” says the voice, revving up like an engine. Other, lower voices from the speaker begin to murmur and pray. “Begin to ask God for forgiveness of sin,” commands the voice. We begin to murmur and pray. We have entered the Upper Room. We are ready for the high.

Our addiction to evangelists and apostles started in the early 1990s, in Chinhoyi, a sleepy town in the north of Zimbabwe. We started small, at an Apostolic Faith Mission church with a wiry, bespectacled pastor. His sermons often involved combat language; chasing away the devil, denouncing evil spirits, prying ourselves from the enticements of sin. That was back when the enemy had not even lifted a finger.

We were in the type of Zimbabwe where we were not supposed to care who our enemies were. My sister and I were “born frees”. I had arrived a whole decade after independence and my sister almost three years after me. The town of Chinhoyi, where the first battles of the Chimurenga war had begun, was just a town with too much red soil, and Salisbury, where once black people couldn’t walk beyond First Street without a pass, was now just Harare, the big city.

But we were not completely blind. Even at that age, we knew that our parents felt that something supernatural had happened. They had been children of war and they knew something was coming that we might never comprehend.

The voice on the recording breaks into a language I do not understand: “Ooooh oriaasande hiroshia.” My father kneels and starts praying loudly, his index finger pointing up at the ceiling with every new declaration. My mother paces towards the dining room table and back, proclaiming everything from healing to victory to financial provision. My brother sits cross-legged on the carpet watching my sister twirling the burgundy tips of her afro into little balls. I sit still on the couch, watching the spectacle, but I don’t know whether to laugh or be angry. I’m 24, jobless, still living with my parents, and this is my second three-hour service of the day. Praying and proclaiming for things that never seem to come.

The Apostle Debbie Banda-Viggs’ website promises that she makes things arrive. She has many titles: simultaneously an intercessor, teacher of the Word, conference speaker, certified Christian Life Purpose Coach, prophetess and healer. Her mission began with an audible voice from God to a church named “The Miracle of Allentown Road” because of its rapid growth from a 17-member congregation to a 2,600-seat sanctuary in two decades.

Years later, she was praying for the terminally ill, vanquishing everything from cancerous brain tumours to HIV. She was travelling to Malawi, anointing the sick with oil, rousing coma patients from their hospital beds with nothing but prayer and the tips of her fingers. She was performing miracles in the UK. One time, a woman whose father had been bedridden for 15 years asked the apostle to pray for her handkerchief. When the woman went home, she laid the piece of cloth on her father and “witnessed” instant healing. After a three-month fast, ending in 2007, God told the apostle to heal the sick worldwide through e-mail, phone and internet radio waves in addition to her in-person touch. After another 40 days of fasting in the middle of that year, the apostle left her full-time job at the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC to run her ministry.

4:23pm: Praise and Worship

About 20 minutes in, the apostle invites us to sing in God’s throne room. Her voice pierces through a recording of a slow praise song, interrupted by static every few seconds. The music stops after three minutes. Her voice comes back on.

“I get disturbed when I see this.” Silence. “I don’t know about those of you who are on webcam, you all need to be standing up, and you all need to be raising your hand.” My mother glares at me and I stand up and lift my hands.

“You see, when you are praising God it’s like you are a child. It’s like you are saying ‘pick me up’. The child doesn’t even have to say anything, the parent knows.”

So I lift both my hands and stretch them out like a prisoner in surrender. “If you are there, sitting at home with your hands by your side, that’s on you. You won’t get anything from God.”

I get another look from the other side of the room. I keep my hands up. I really need a job. But I’m not feeling the spirit. I don’t know if this song will really take me to a new place.

In 2001, right at the advent of an economic meltdown on its way to swallow Zimbabwe, we tried to go to a new place. We found our Canaan in a small town in northern Tanzania. And like good Pentecostals we latched onto several other pastors, apostles and evangelists within days of our arrival in Arusha.

To outsiders, Arusha was a cliché – the quintessential mould of an East African small town with power cuts, water cuts, organised chaos and wazungus passing through. Hundreds of boxy Land Rover Defenders, dust-coated from travelling back roads and safaris, roamed around town. There was only one traffic light. Wooden shacks lined the sides of the tarred but poorly lit road from Kilimanjaro Airport. The town centre had a clock tower, supposedly the centre-point from Cape to Cairo. But it underwhelmed the eye: a brick structure only really towering over one petrol station and stumpy colonial buildings, overlooking men spitting on the side of road, selling postcards and peddling overpriced beaded jewellery.

We passed the clock tower on our way to church for years. It marked the point where traffic would get heavier, all coming in and converging from town, Kijenge, Njiro, and our UN expatriate neighbourhoods. We had come under the guise of temporary UN mandates for a tribunal for Rwanda, where my mother now worked at the courts, in the town that Bill Clinton had called the “Geneva of Africa”.

While my father quickly picked up Swahili and embraced it, I could barely hear the sermons. My sister and I dreaded greeting congregants after hours of worship. Our parents had a certain savvy we struggled to emulate. They wept when the pastor yelped out orders to pray for Kikwete, sometimes Mugabe, and other times Israel, and my sister looked on, part bored, part bemused. Many UN kids were like that: bored Pentecostal products of suburbs in Dakar, Johannesburg or Lagos who ate at L’Oasis Lounge on Sekei Road. We watched too much MTV and went to school with the kids of white farmers and safari owners. We fasted at home during revival conferences but ate lunch at school by “mistake”.

In the Assemblies of God Church, led by Pastor Kimaru – a short man in his 70s whose loud voice carried his long, looping sermons for hours – my younger sister and I were both baptised. Just to be sure that we were all-the-way saved. When the mission trip people came to see the choir dance and sing in coordinated, bright, kitenge garb, and even when they left in their mission buses, I sang the songs like I knew them.

I already knew the cues: lift hands during worship, pray loudly and furiously when demons were cast out. Always wear something below the knee. Don’t you dare put your hands down or let your lips hold a smirk. Don’t talk about boys. Don’t talk about sex. Don’t question the preacher. Always pray for your leaders. Forgive everyone. Even if they flare their hands too close to your earlobes, or step on your sandal during a particularly upbeat praise song. Keep the spirit moving. God is watching. Don’t ruin the high. Whatever you do, don’t put your hands down.

5pm: The Breakthrough

After the singing, the sermon begins. There are more shuffling sounds coming through the speakers, as those close to the apostle settle into their seats.

“This time we have is so crucial,” she begins. “A lot of people get caught up in negative thoughts and negative words. And these words, they keep you in bondage. They keep you stuck in this place.”

Everyone in our living room listens for the breakthrough – the instructions, spiritual remedies and verses that usually follow after the apostle states a problem that supposedly plagues us all.

“Any negative word, any negative thought, even a small one, like how am I going to get through this month, can be a huge mountain blocking your breakthrough.”

I try to stop my own negative thoughts, especially the questions, about what this woman could know about what I’m thinking, but they keep gnawing at me. Apostle says they have been keeping me stagnant. I’m still in bondage.

Our bibles flip to the story of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda, who hadn’t moved for almost four decades. He had watched an angel stroke the waters and had been there when countless others, with withered bodies, vacant eyes and other afflictions were healed. When Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed, the man began with his negative thoughts, the apostle stresses. He said he couldn’t get to the pool in time. He let those thoughts engulf him, and they pinned him to the ground for 38 years.

“What have you been thinking?” the apostle says. “God hasn’t blocked anything for you. It’s not the devil, it’s you,” she says. “You are building Mount Kilimanjaro all by yourself.”

As Apostle Debbie’s sermon continues for an hour, my parents nod, holding onto every word. I still can’t help but doubt. I can’t stop thinking.

As the years passed after Arusha, my own faith struggled through bouts of college rebellion, falling in love with the “wrong people”, and post-graduate unemployment. Meanwhile, my parents fasted more, and my father sowed more cheques, in the family name, in someone’s faraway ministry.

My own real crisis of faith in America might have begun the day my father left my younger sister and I at a Long Island Christian boarding school. It was in August and I was entering the 9th grade. He left us to go back to the car the same way he left to go to the supermarket. Call when you need me.

And so we stood there, refusing to be afraid. For years before that, my father had a policy for goodbyes. No excess. No bawling of eyes on first days of school. Short sentences and bible verses would suffice. No long “thank yous” about how he had spent salaries, sleepless nights, and airfare tickets to send two children to a private school oversees. I knew what was expected, as he flashed a quick, gap-toothed smile through the car window. I was expected to work. That expectation had weighed on me since I was a bowl-legged toddler. No missteps.

There was an old, tired family joke about the peculiar relationship I had with my father. From infancy, I had confused the genders; I clung to my father like a barnacle while others wailed for their mothers. While others cried to be tied firmly with cloth to their mothers’ backs, I refused to leave my father’s hard hip. He had to buy a baby sling.

I held a frightening resemblance to him; the gap tooth, the button nose, the very dark eyes, the perfectly feathered eyebrows, the rigid idealism, the need to please.

My father was a product of a religious upbringing in the Dutch Reformed Church, in the village of Gutu, in Masvingo. It was combined with years of rigorous syllabi at Fletcher High school in Gweru, one of the first all-boys boarding schools in colonial Rhodesia. He was a village boy at heart and a city man by necessity.

At Shumbairerwa Primary School, he clobbered his mathematics classes with a quiet confidence. He became the black boy listed in national newspapers and entered Fletcher for free. He was a logical man. He wiped out his A-Level courses. By the early ‘80s, he was an engineering student at University of Zimbabwe. He was whisked to Ireland and France as a young graduate for electrical engineering training. He liked to flip through pictures of his signature gap-toothed grin on the streets of Belfast, near the Tour Eiffel, European cobblestones, tables full of strange food. He quietly made his way to a top job at the Zimbabwe Electrical Supply Authority. When the country began its collapse, he quietly worked managed engineers for UN facilities in Arusha. I was supposed to quietly impress him with hard work and success.

And at the Stony Brook School, we were expected to learn quietly. The school wasn’t big, and the classrooms weren’t as loud as they had been back home. The school started from Chapman Parkway, making its way up towards a white chapel, green lawns, maple trees, and kids with tight blazers and collared shirts. Our starter dorm was a red-brick building with a fireplace in the lounge and a large oil painting of an old white couple, our dorm founders and benefactors. Dorm prayer was every weekday, and chapel services every day except Saturdays. We drowned in prayer.

On rare occasions, it got a little louder. Someone threw a chair at the teacher in Algebra class, and some hot-sauce into someone’s eye. We prayed some more. Someone fingered someone else under the bleachers. Someone cut and bled all over a dorm bathroom. Sunday chapel kept moving. Someone threw a glass coke bottle towards someone else and called them a nigga in the dark, dirt path near the tennis court. Someone made a kill-list. We sang more hymns. On the outside, my life at school remained unremarkable and boring, a pattern of long hymns, lectures about Christ and invitations to mission trips to the “lost” people of Africa.

The doubts came quietly. The questions lingered after off-campus visits to Louis Simpson’s home, an elderly poet from Jamaica, urging me to write about my “immigrant existence.” I wrote, at first very badly, but honestly, and felt simultaneously guilty and angry about the whole evangelical thing.

6:14pm: The Anointing

“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” the apostle says through the speakers. “That’s what the bible is saying to you.”

The doubts have been with me for so long it’s hard to shut them off.  The thoughts are always asking about where I should be, who I should be, and where God is.

The thoughts have wafted through my college years, from a one-year stint in Paris and a Muslim boy from Senegal asking too many questions. How did I know what I know? How did I know whom not to love? Guilt ate away at me when I wasn’t a little more persistent about my “faith”, a little less puzzled, a little more sure. I just closed my eyes and walked a little faster, drank a little more. I still prayed first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but I did so with half my heart turned, sometimes demanding answers, sometimes just paying homage, mostly indifferent.

Back in New York, I tried to get my spiritual high without family. Often, during the day, the quiet questions would come again, and I would sit alone and think in Washington Square Park by a bench near the 20-foot Garibaldi statue – the one of the fierce Italian revolutionary in the act of drawing his sword.

At night, I sat with friends in the park and we discussed agnosticism after our graduate class, while sipping cheap wine from a cranberry juice bottle. Don’t feel too bad about the questions, they said. Maybe it’s a nurture versus nature thing, who knows. Over 80 percent of Zimbabweans claim they are Christian. You just want to know if what you know hasn’t been a farce all along. It’s not a crime.

But moving back “home” after graduation, to a small three-bedroom apartment in a small town in northern Virginia, I found that our Rolodex of evangelists and pastors now included an apostle nobody in our house had ever met.

Since the beginning of last year, the apostle’s 6am call line, months-long fasting regimens from afar and healing tours through the airwaves, have joined our family’s repertoire of evangelical hits. My father forwards the ministry e-mails at least once a day, before dawn, right before he leaves the house with earphones, listening to the prayer-line. In this household, we are supposed to call upon her teachings as we combat the enemy.

Apostle Debbie’s website tells me that she covers everything under her biblical counselling: abortion, addictions, adultery, aging, anger, bitterness, burnout, death, decision-making, depression, discouragement, divorce, domestic violence, eating disorders, envy & jealousy, fear & anxiety, forgiveness, grief & loss, guilt, homosexuality, loneliness, love and belonging, marriage, mental disorder, money crisis, pain/chronic pain, parenting, perfectionism, pornography, prejudice, premarital sex, relationships, self-esteem, sexual abuse, singleness, spiritual warfare, stress, suffering, suicide, trauma, workaholism, and worry.

In this household, we are supposed to obey our parents in everything.

The Wednesday night bible study small groups and Sunday worship services at our local church in Alexandria are now not enough. We have added long fasts and nightly communal bible reading, disguised as family meetings. Visiting friends overnight cannot be done without a family e-mail, a discussion and prayer. Meeting other people outside of Wednesday small groups and church groups is suspicious behaviour.

In this household, we are supposed to wait for God for everything.

My sister and I have never been good at waiting. My brother seems to have inherited the same gene. He almost flings himself at the dining table when dinner is ready, whizzing past anyone in front of him. He is quick to argue when he feels wronged. He is quick to speak over elders.

“I’m feeling some tension between us,” my father says one day, during one of the nightly bible studies disguised as family meetings. That’s very American of you, I think.

As usual, he is at least 10 years late. No one says anything.

“Everyone seems angry,” he says. He instructs us to trust in the Lord and read a bible verse out loud or something. One day I also crack.

“No one is hearing me. I have already been looking for a job for a year. I have fasted and fasted again. The last thing I need is never to leave the house and stop eating,” I plead.

“We must keep our emotions in check,” my father responds dryly. “Read the bible and listen to what Apostle Debbie says.”

In this household, we are supposed to give God everything.

A few months ago we waited for Pastor Debbie to anoint our home in person. She was travelling from Texas to Maryland to visit her son, and would bless our apartment while she was in the DMV area. We left church as soon as the service ended, briskly pulling out of the parking lot without greeting too many people. We headed to Whole Foods with gusto, as if an angel of the Lord was about to land in our apartment.

“The apostle likes eating healthy,” my father said, as if this woman was a long-lost sister. We picked three different kinds of lettuce from the produce.

“Finally, we will know if this woman is cat-fishing us or not,” my sister smirked, but not too loudly, as we sweated over pots in our tiny kitchen. For four hours, we peeled and roasted butternut, stirred peanut butter into brown rice the way they do it at home, and boiled stew until the meat melted off the bone. We vacuumed, wiped, and scrubbed until the apartment smelled cleaner that it had ever smelled.

“Her flight has been delayed by two hours and she might not have time,” my father said. She never came.

In this household, we are supposed to trust God with all our hearts.

Nowadays, it’s difficult to know where all our hearts stand. But our heads all bow in unison when Apostle Debbie says a prayer. When the apostle’s voice from the speakers says we must anoint our heads with oil, my father assumes the title of household priest. He walks around the living room and smears our foreheads confidently. No one complains; no one wipes the anointing away. Everyone receives it, hands up, and knees on the ground.

 

C7_BS_COVER (1)This story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

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