The Millionaire on God’s Payroll
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a man who can capture the hearts of so many deserves a close look.
By Laura Secorun Palet
Rows of sick people queue up one afternoon in downtown Lagos. There are people with crutches, mothers with crying babies, a couple of wheelchair-bound people and several with bad coughs. This is not a hospital; it’s a sports center. And they are not waiting to see a doctor; they are here to see a priest.
T.B. Joshua is one of Nigeria’s most controversial clergymen. Besides claiming to have a direct line to God, this 52-year-old has been performing so-called “healing miracles” for 20 years. Call him the Oprah of evangelism, the African case study in the kind of mass preaching that much of America is so famous for; he has his own TV shows, two million Facebook fans, sold-out events and branded merchandise. And like Oprah, he’s rich as hell. The latest estimates put his wealth at about $150 million. His church has branches all over the world, from the U.K. to Australia. He often goes on what he calls “Miracle Crusades” to other nations, and he claims that more than a million people have paid to attend his Tony Robbins–style seminars worldwide.
I have nothing to say. The Holy Book teaches us to love even our enemies.
Chimbiebere Stanley Okah, follower of T.B. Joshua, referring to Joshua’s critics
Joshua is certainly not the only millionaire priest in Nigeria. Over the past 15 years, televangelism has taken over the country, and Pentecostalism — a Christian renewal movement that emphasizes a direct, personal experience of God — is booming across the entire African continent, as well as in Latin America. The first Pentecostal missions arrived in Nigeria in 1910. By 1970, there were an estimated 300,000 converts, and by the turn of the century, 30 to 40 million, according to Ruth Marshall, professor at the University of Toronto’s Departments for the Study of Religion and Political Science and author of Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria. According to the World Christian Database, some 12 percent of Africans are Pentecostals.
His pastoral style is sui generis. Joshua, who didn’t respond to OZY’s requests for comment, doesn’t preach that much. Rather, for a few minutes, he screams into the microphone, often prophesying what is to come — wisdom garnered from the latest chat with God. (He claims he foresaw the September 11 terrorist attacks.) Then, he takes his powers away from the mic and toward the sick, praying over the bodies of the afflicted and asking God to release the object of his prayer from cancer, syphilis, whatever disease it may be.
Chimbiebere Stanley Okah, 42, one of Joshua’s followers, tells us that he found the preacher through TV and was convinced when he saw one of Joshua’s “miracles” — healing a man from baldness with a sip of water. “I’ve seen countless miracles,” Okah says. “His preaching is flawless.” As for Joshua’s critics? “I have nothing to say,” Okah tells us. “The Holy Book teaches us to love even our enemies.”
For many followers, wealth enhances their pastor’s credibility and their own faith, rather than sullying them. Indeed, it’s not his money so much as his power that pisses off his preacher peers. The Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, the country’s association of leading Pentecostal churches, has denied Joshua membership because, it says, he hasn’t provided proof of ordination. A few years ago, some preachers gathered to warn followers about Joshua, calling him an agent of the devil, arguing his curing powers had a dark source.
Such earthly demands for proof don’t trouble Joshua, who dismisses them as quack talk. Joshua claims his birth was prophesied a century earlier and that he spent 15 months in his mother’s womb before being born into a small Western Nigerian village. There, he attended primary school and worked odd jobs before starting to organize his first Bible groups.
He’s extremely charismatic, says Rene Peters, a Rwandan student whose mother took him to one of Joshua’s events. Joshua, Peters recalls, yelled at a woman who tried to stand up and leave during an event, and made her sit back down. “He exploits the naïveté or desperation of his followers with no accountability,” says Pradip Thomas, a scholar at the University of Queensland and co-editor of the book Global and Local Televangelism. A dozen people died last year when one of his event venues collapsed. Joshua has not been held legally accountable for the incident — yet.
It would be churlish to paint all of Joshua’s followers as naive or wooden-headed. “It’s hard to believe you can run on empty claims for over 20 years,” Marshall says. Those who come to Joshua are, after all, seekers; many have prayed and dreamed for years on end. Like Paul Ighodaro, 37, a Nigerian living in Greece. A composer, singer and writer, Ighodaro tells us about a vision he had: A son of God would appear in Nigeria. Ighodaro himself began to spread this word, which brought him to Emmanuel TV and Joshua. “I know the signature of God when I see one,” he writes. Ighodaro doesn’t even need to go to Joshua’s church, he says — he never has attended. He’s seen himself in Joshua’s congregation in a dream, wearing the choir garment. But don’t think he’s just relying on visions to connect with Joshua. Ighodaro credits the internet most of all.
J.Y. Lee contributed reporting.