By Paula Akugizibwe
Jesus waits in the swimming pool. The tenth commandment lies in pieces all over my sinful heart as our queue snakes towards salvation. We are facing the pastor one by one, waist-deep in water warm and dirty from all the sinners that went before. Around the pool, the congregation is gathered, singing languidly as they hold up bibles to shield their faces from the sun: Coming home, coming home, never more to roam, Open wide Thine arms of love, Lord, I’m coming home.
Then one hand is on the small of my back and another covers my nose and suddenly nothing fills my mind but water and suddenly I’m back above the surface: soaked, shocked and born again.
Nakedness drips resentfully from my clothes as I hurry back to the dressing rooms. Peace, belonging, all the promises that lured me here are displaced by a sense of shame at my role in this ritual, and laced with a niggling, heretical disappointment.
‘I waited all Tuesday and dear Jesus did not come,’ Henry Emmons wrote of 22 October 1844. ‘I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, and I lay prostrate for two days without any pain – sick with disappointment.’
Emmons was one of thousands of Millerites across North America who had looked to that day for the second advent of Jesus Christ. Dressed in white robes, they ascended hills and waited expectantly for hours, days, even weeks, for a deliverance that never came.
The event went down in history as the Great Disappointment. Believers, instead of celestial choirs, were subjected to the sounds of societal scorn, provoking their leader William Miller to write to a friend: ‘Some are tauntingly enquiring, ‘Have you not gone up?’ Even little children in the streets are shouting continually to passers-by, ‘Have you a ticket to go up?’ The public prints are caricaturing in the most shameful manner the white robes of the saints.’
Out of the rubble of the Great Disappointment defiantly grew the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church. It is now the world’s sixth-largest international religious body, and one of the most quietly prolific patrons in the global development industry, with thousands of schools, universities, health and humanitarian programmes spread across more than 200 countries.
A solemn and stringent church, SDA doctrine is characterised by apocalyptic prophecies, all framed around the expectation of Jesus’ imminent descent from the clouds. Other core beliefs dip into lifestyle details, such as the importance of healthy diets and abstaining from body piercings.
Strict observance of Saturday as the holy Sabbath – marked by a 24-hour ban on secularity and strenuous activity that kicks off at Friday sunset – is the church’s distinguishing practice. The flip side is anticipation of future persecution from governments worldwide, to force compliance with an ominously prophesied Sunday Law.
Pastors walk us through intricate numerology that led Ellen G White, the church’s guiding prophet, to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church and the United States together constitute the anti-Christ. The theories grip my childhood mind like a celestial soap opera. I take scrupulous notes, which I later try to recount for my friends at school. They look at me like I’m crazy. Some of them are Catholic.
‘What are you saying?’ ‘It’s not you guys,’ I try to explain. ‘It’s the pope.’
Church bureaucracy, which includes an electoral process to decide on the global president every five years, is supported by members’ voluntary offerings and a 10 per cent tithe on income. Funds collected from the quarterly Thirteenth Sabbath offering are earmarked by the church’s global governing body, the General Conference (GC), for mission activities to support continued expansion of membership:
Namibia is a sparsely populated country lying along the southwestern coast of Africa. About one person out of every 120 is an Adventist. About 85 per cent of the population is Black Africans.
Significant numbers of tribal people continue to follow their traditional beliefs. One of these groups, the Himba, is the focus… This [2012 third quarter’s] Thirteenth Sabbath Offering will help provide MP3 players containing Bible stories for the Himba and Herero people of northern Namibia.
The US, where the GC is headquartered, is home to less than one-tenth of baptised Adventists – the bulk of who reside in Africa, the Caribbean and South America. At 9 per cent, the Southern African division has the second-highest annual growth rate. It has also offered fertile soil to some of the more extreme offshoots of the church.
In Botswana, the annual Present Truth bible camp was launched over a decade ago by visiting pastors from the US, under the auspices of the local SDA church. It has since become a local movement of its own, despite being increasingly ostracised from official SDA structures, which seek to keep their seat at the table of mainstream religion while maintaining a conspicuously unique posture.
Present Truth, on the other hand, has a righteous disdain for anything mainstream, preferring the greatest possible degree of disconnection from the broader world. Tshego Nkwe, a member of the Gaborone SDA, recalls her visit to a Present Truth church: ‘I was wearing a knee length skirt, and they said I was not dressed up, I was given a chitenge to cover myself, but above all I had fellowship and the sermon was spot on, the food was good also, their kids do home schooling and they are very intelligent, I must say.’
It is at a Present Truth bible camp that I come forward for baptism at the age of 15, drawn in with a fascination that temporarily numbs my deep-seated scepticism of religion. There is something seductive about the all-consuming peculiarity of this fanatical space, something comforting in the way it seeks to make twisted sense of a twisted world that doesn’t make sense at all.
Peculiarity is the foundation and glue of the church – so intense, so demanding of solidarity, that it pulls people together with a force that momentarily overrides other divisions. Growing up, it is one of very few consistent points of reference in a life scattered across the continent. From Addis Ababa to Harare to Johannesburg we are assured of the familiarity of a tightly coordinated industry: GC-issued hymnbooks; GC-issued bible study guides; GC-issued tithes envelopes; and a few hours every week in which we are connected with others in old reiterations of shared alienation and hope.
All our services in Swaziland conclude with a church leader declaring the ancient Aramaic promise: Maranatha! The congregation responds in unison: Jesu uyeta! Jesus is Coming! Not waiting in heaven to deal with sinners post-mortem – returning to earth to mete out judgement and justice in deservedly direct style. The promise tingles with vindication.
Charles Bradford, a theologian at Oakwood University, the so-called mecca of black Adventism in the US, observes that despite the SDA church having the reputation of being ‘exclusive, clannish and even xenophobic’, it attracts black members with a level of success that is usually unseen in American churches with white leadership.
‘Why would any self-respecting African-American want to become a Seventh-day Adventist?’ he asks. ‘Perhaps the answer lies partly in the fact that Adventism is an end-time message. Not only is Adventism eschatological; it is also about justice and judgment. Adventism makes use of the apocalyptic vision, which has a powerful liberating effect… ’To black Americans, the church offers a demobilising cocktail of empathy, explanation and disclaimer. ‘Apocalyptic appeals to people who are being ground down by overwhelming forces of oppression,’ Bradford says. Vivid and emotive imaginings of the Second Coming appeal to us from pictures on the front of our bible study guides, and from words woven through our hymnbooks. They call for calm in the face of injustice, for acceptance in anticipation of divine deliverance.
Only God can deal. Jesu uyeta, bazalwane. He is coming. Sooner or later.
This piece originally featured in the Chronic (April 2013 edition), available here. Stories range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; from latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and from the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD. It also investigates crime writing in Nigeria, Kenya and India, takes score of the media’s muted response to the ‘artistry’ of the World’s No1 Test batsman, rocks to the new sound of Zambia’s Copper Belt and tells the story on one man’s mission to take down colonialism’s monumental history.
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