Deep in the heart of Congo, Christianity comes in many strange forms and practices — the result of a bizarre blend between this religion implanted by the West and the traditional beliefs held by the local people.
It is Sunday morning in the heart of Congo. As the sun rises, the corrugated steel sheets that serve as a roof for the precarious wooden structure of the Lasys Zinphirin church dilate, turning the otherwise fresh nave, into a microwave oven. Like in most of sub-Saharan Africa, this is the day when spirituality comes alive in the form of the myriad of clandestine churches that are scattered all over the continent. Each rely on the Bible to give their own interpretation, each creating yet another variation of Christianity and each in turn evolving into a new form of faith with its unique characteristics.
Mass is in full swing, Pastor Nicolas stands prominent within a pulpit made of mud-walls partly draped in a dirty flag with a red cross on it. Before him rests an open old massive Bible, a brass bell next to it and his mobile phone on the opposite side. The small group of devotees of the village sit around him, almost intimidated by his bold presence. They listen attentively, while he passionately preaches the sermon of the day in Lingala. He yells the words of the Lord moving vigorously, raising his arms, swinging them with fervor and pointing fingers. His disciples stay quiet, nuns and priests sit by his side in admiration, and the altar boys beat the drums in total excitement when he encourages them to do so.
As the sermon goes on, villagers keep arriving in small numbers bringing plastic jerrycans filled with water as an offering. They leave them in a sandpit right by the altar and take seat on the benches made of tree trunks. After a while, Pastor Nicolas passes the Bible on to two devotees who continue reading passages. Meanwhile, he goes around using a wooden stick to sprinkle the water brought as an offering to bless his acolytes. As soon as they are all blessed, they kneel down and start invoking God and the spirits to come for help. They are getting ready for the second half of this holy gathering.
It is time to put the healing power of the Lord to use. Pastor Nicolas is the vessel in this minute village of the earth, endowed with the power to heal those going through pain and suffering. He prays for a few minutes alone while an old woman is brought from the backyard behind the church. She is visibly in deep pain and can barely walk. The acolytes help her sit where the pastor orders, by which time his mood has changed, as though he is about to deal with some evil powers.
As soon as the pained woman sits down, Pastor Nicolas turns to face her with a small bucket of “holy water” in one hand, and a wooden stick in the other. He becomes merciless pinching her body with his stick, yelling at her in anger and ordering others to come undress her. She looks weak, distressed, overwhelmed by pain and seems to have given up. The crowd around them, adults and children alike, watch ceremoniously; they stand up and start singing and clapping their hands to accompany the ritual.
Now the woman sits half-naked. The Pastor’s outrage builds as he starts to violently throw water at her with such strength that the sound of it resounds in the air like those of someone being whipped. She screams in pain when the water hits her face and body and she cries in despair. But the pastor is enraged, yelling at the spirits inside that are making her sick. He does not show sympathy. Finally, Pastor Nicolas pours bucket after bucket of water from above the woman’s head onto her until she is left completely wet.
Now the healing follows with a series of pain-inflicting motions performed by the pastor while the chanting goes on in the background. Priests and nuns jump out of their seats to start dancing around. His stick is pushed against the woman’s breasts and rolled down with pressure across her body; his hands squeeze her stomach; he stands and steps violently on her feet before raising her up to stretch her arms. Her face twitches in agony. He keeps screaming in what now seems to be an incomprehensible dialect. She can barely move, she cries, she is held up in the air but immediately falls back onto her chair as soon as she is released.
Then a moment of silence follows. Pastor Nicolas calms down and everybody goes quiet. It’s a moment of contemplation, of praying. A candle is lit and placed upon the woman’s head while everybody prays and gives her some time to rest before the healing ritual continues. The only sound now is the harsh banging of the brass bell around her head and the whispering of the Pastor’s prayers.
Outside, the sun is high. It is almost noon, the inner space of the church is now boiling hot and humid. Not the slightest breeze of air blows through the building. The whole environment resembles more than ever to being in hell.
All of a sudden, the chanting starts again in a fade-in fashion. It grows slowly filling up the silence. As it reaches a crescendo, Pastor Nicolas pulls the candle off of the woman’s head. Palms are clapping again, drums are beating, and the dancing resumes. The nuns go into a trance-like state and start swirling around the old woman. They spin frenziedly, randomly an turn in circles, up and down like sorceress casting a spell. They get close as if trying to pull the bad spirits out of the woman’s body.
The nuns then run away to the back of the church and stand in delirium, their bodies shaking and their mouths babbling, as though they are trying to shake off some otherworldly spirit that has taken over their bodies. The pastor, also in a trance-like state, rushes in and out of the church hysterically, sprinkling the whole church and the wooden cross outside with “holy water”. He is yelling incoherently, moving hastily from place to place before returning to the hopeless woman.
Now the woman is helped to lie down on the ground as her cleansing never seems to end. She is being surrounded again by the congregants, powerless, with tears of misery streaming down her face. The inner circle includes the Pastor and the priests and nuns who keep coming back and forth from the back to the front of the building. Right around all of them there are the devotees continue chanting and clapping their hands.
Then a young priest, who has been at the service since the beginning of it comes onto the scene. He is in a trance-like state himself, and with furious anger unleashes his wrath with accusing fingers and malevolent look onto the woman, who is still lying on the floor. Tension builds up in the air; the heat, the chanting and the clapping, all become hypnotic. It feels like not being in this dimension anymore, everyone is taking a role to contribute to this dizzying ritual and at the core of it, there is this sick woman being pawed for her salvation.
The young priest is out of control, he becomes ruthless. He screams, curses, accuses and shakes in a spastic fashion. His eyes bulge out as he starts spinning around in concentric circles, stopping every few steps, jumping in place and simulating a run while shaking his head uncontrollably. He is now leading the healing. The pastor retreats to his pulpit and continues preaching, but now directing it in all directions and not necessarily to those present.
The old woman is brought back to her feet and with the help of a few people, slowly taken away from the church back to her hut. During this time, everybody starts to slow down and sit again in silence. Nuns and priests regain consciousness and go back to their own seats, but the young priest seems unable to come out of the trance. He goes outside and sits on an old rusty truck’s tire rim next to a tree and remains there yelling out loud and shaking madly, his image that of someone who is not in his right senses. He will remain there for several hours into the afternoon.
Back in the church, now silence has taken over, eyes are closed, heads look down, hands are held together and candles are lit. The pastor, secluded within the confines of his pulpit, kneels down facing the cross and raises his arms into the air for a final pray. Everyone is there except for the young priest and the woman. For several minutes, there is nothing but silence, praying, and the distant mumbling of the priest in trance outside. The mass and the healing are finally over and normal village life resumes. The old woman is in the backyard, sitting weak under a tree, possibly thinking that, hopefully, the pastor with his healing power, has taken away the evil that has caused her illness.