3 December, 2023: The Word of God set in Bamenda, Cameroon

Featured & Cover 3 December 2023 The Word of God set in Bamenda Cameroon

It is a beautiful day with not a single cloud blocking the blueness of the sky or the greenness of the hills, and yet Mother is not happy. She is at church. She should be happy. Every Sunday she comes and hears the choir sing and the pastor’s sermons and leaves to home with a full heart.

Yet she is not happy. It has been this way for months.

The pastor who had made her love this church is gone. She has come to accept that. People come, people leave, that is the way the world works. The new pastor is very young, probably younger than her son, leaning on the glass podium more than standing straight, commanding it. He is a skinny man with a round face. He has not a single hair on his head but there are a few stranded curls here or there on his throat and chin, which show he is not a precise shaver. Mother thinks he looks his best when he goes to the barber to get his cuts.

The young pastor is in the middle of his sermon.

‘Who is here to hear the Word?’ he starts.

‘Amen,’ say some of the congregation, the men in their black or blue blazers, the women in their floral dresses.

A proper pastor would not have even asked. He would have just begun his sermon and engaged the congregation with the veracity of his words.

This young pastor says again, ‘I said, who is here to hear the Word?’

The congregation shout a louder ‘amen.’ This is not because they are feeling particularly inspired; this is because they know he will keep asking again and again until he gets the proper amount of people to shout. He still hasn’t gotten enough, so he shouts even louder, ‘Who is here to hear the Word?’

The people who come to this church are old. They are the women who have accepted that their hair no longer grows well and so they keep it short rather than buy weaves. They are the men who have had children and grandchildren, and some of the grandchildren have had children again. They are Evangelicals, a denomination which takes the Gospel seriously. Anyone would know just by looking at the church. It’s the only built-up building on the road, freshly tiled in blue and painted with yellow plaster each and every year, with money coming from the US. So, Mother wonders, does this pastor know who his audience is? Does this pastor know what he is doing when he speaks?

Because he starts every sermon this way, like he thinks he’s at a football match. It’s no way to begin prayer. It’s the reason why he is losing respect.

He only does it three times at least. Then he gets on to the point. He flips through the Bible. Even from several rows behind, Mother can see that the book is covered with highlights and Post-it notes. Her old pastor would flip open the book, centre it on the podium, and thunder as he spoke. This one was almost hiding behind the podium, trying to make his body look smaller while he found the verse he was going to start with.

Just pick one, Mother wants to shout. Instead, she looks over to the other side of the rows where her friend Mary is sitting on one of the plastic chairs. Back when the old pastor was in charge, Mary would be combing her one copy of the Bible, diligently following whatever verse the pastor was quoting. Right now Mary is on her phone, playing one of those mobile games. She does not even notice the side-eye that Mother tries to give her. Mother feels that in the short time in which this pastor replaced the other, or even because this pastor replaced the other, Mary has changed.

And she’s not the only one. When Mother came in the late eighties, people took the Word of God seriously. Now they mostly gossip, sleep around, and make fun of others. Mother takes a look around and sees how many others are looking at their phones. Few are paying attention.

The pastor finds his verse. He looks up from the Bible, giving a calming smile.

‘God blesses the soil which drinks in the rain that often falls on it and which grows plants that are useful to those for whom it is cultivated.’

Mother knows this verse to be from Hebrews 6:7. She reads it now and again. She is curious how the young pastor will interpret it.

‘That is a very strong statement. We are the soil. The word of God is the rain. When you water the soil, they are plants that are in that soil. And those plants are going to grow.’

Yes, Mother wants to say. That is all very obvious. In fact she believes her old pastor said this exact same thing seventeen years ago, probably when this young pastor was still a boy. At that time the church had no money because nowhere in Cameroon had money at all. It was a concrete building, but compared to the huts Mother saw in her village that were used as places of worship, it was already impressive. Mother was fresh out of Ndu, and it was the late eighties. Any building that wasn’t made out of mud impressed her.

As she came in for the first time, the pastor noticed her and introduced himself. She was a young village girl, and yet the pastor was so humble, welcoming her to the city, asking her about her family, how she was setting up, if she needed any help. It made her feel that people in Bamenda were friendly. Of course, later on she came to know the other housewives of her suburb, and how they gossiped and spoiled everyone for one another. But the pastor was friendly when they first met and remained friendly and approachable over the decades.

And how his voice boomed when he gave his sermons. How he filled the room with his presence. Mother remembered so well how he uttered not only Hebrews 6:7 but all of his other favourite passages, returning to them and re-explaining them time and time again because he wasn’t afraid to show his love for what he was saying.

‘God has given us the Word. Whatever we are experiencing now, God will come and get you. God is the one who provides all the paths to be constant in our prayer,’ the new pastor says.

What does this have to do with his previous metaphor? Even some of the other congregation members are turning heads to chat with their spouse, gossip with their friend.

Perhaps the young pastor notices, which is why he says next, ‘Everyone listen. Be careful. God is inside of you. But there are Devils inside of us as well. Everyone listen. This is how you avoid the Devils.’

That does catch the attention of the churchgoers. Almost everyone immediately perks up, straightens their backs, looks straight ahead, gives him their attention. Mother wonders how he is going to continue now that everyone is listening again.

‘God is the water. We are the soil. The soil receives water. We must use the water to do something.’

Mother readjusts her posture. If it were the previous pastor, he would taken advantage of the tension in the room to speak louder, hammer home his point, call them all sinners, teach them how to repent.

The young pastor is now looking through his book. Is he going to go to a new verse? He hasn’t even finished making his point about the soil and the water.

‘What about the plants?’ the young pastor suddenly asks. ‘What is it about the plants?’

The problem is he is asking an open question, rather than delivering a rumination. One of the women, a thirty-something with her hair braided, raises her hand. The pastor notices it but then looks down. He isn’t trying to get them to answer his question after all.

The woman shouts regardless, ‘Our plants are our actions, the good tidings which come when God speaks and we obey.’

Some members of the congregation nod their head, the woman who might be her auntie quietly claps her hand.

The young pastor has found the excerpt he is looking for. He looks up from the book to say, ‘Let us all reflect on something from Matthew.’

Mother wants to shout, But what about the seeds, and the water, and the plants?

Instead her mind finds itself tuning out. She knows the pastor is quoting something from the Gospel of Matthew now. She is imagining what she will cook for herself and her husband in the evening. She thinks about her son and wonders how he is doing. She feels a mild pain in the back of her ankle and wonders what is causing it.

She has not come to church to hear empty words. Mother comes because she believes in this institution. It is the place that made her who she is. She came to this city and made a life for herself almost forty years ago, and this building was a part of it. She sang in the choir for decades. She brought her husband and son here almost every Sunday. They changed and life changed and this city changed, but the church never changed.

Until the pastor left.

It isn’t fair. Mother still does not know which rumours are truth and which rumours are rumours. Either the pastor did in fact impregnate that girl of sixteen and left because of the scandals, or he was kidnapped by thugs, possibly killed. The point is Mother does not know for certain. At first she expected the pastor to come back and clear his name, but he never did. It has been months now, almost a third of a year, and with no sign of him and nothing from his family and relatives. She saw him every week for decades, and now she knows nothing about where he is.

He is probably never coming back.

Mother sighs softly. The sadness is all-encompassing. It is the sense of being discarded by someone she knows didn’t actually leave her, but nonetheless has still left. There is a sense of uncertainty. There is something outside of Mother’s control, and she doesn’t like it.

It doesn’t help that this pastor is saying nonsense.

‘That is why you must believe. That is why you must pray.’

He has not given a single good argument, and yet some of the congregation are nodding. Have they grown stupid? Is it literally that they will reply or respond to anything that involves Gospel, no matter what is bineg said? Mother sees how most of her friends get their news not from the newspapers but from forwarded messages on their phones. Mother avoids these messages for a reason. She knows they are strewn with the temptations of the Devil, that they are nonsense written by those who have nothing but evil in their hearts. And yet this is what everyone is reading and responding to. Only Mother turns her phone upside down whenever she sees she has thirty new messages.

This pastor, these messages, the things happening in the phone, the things happening outside in the world . . . it’s all a sign of the same thing. Things are just not the way they were when Mother came to Bamenda.

Well, some things have remained the same, actually. Like the walk from Mother’s house to the church. There is a dirt road with pine trees and pungently dark grass on the side. The road sometimes curves upwards and downwards, but that is good for Mother’s legs, keeping them fit. Occasionally, a passing van or truck kicks dust around. Otherwise, it is quiet. Once in a while a woman in a blouse and sun-coloured leg wrap comes down the road with water on her head or potatoes on her hips to sell at the market. They smile, and Mother asks how the woman’s day is going, and the woman asks her as well. It is short and superficial, but it keeps Mother in a good mood. Mother has to remember she is blessed, that she loves much of her life even when she often questions what her purpose is in a world that is rapidly changing beyond that dirt road.

Mother believes in the Gospel. Mother believes in Jesus. Mother believes in everything God has ordained and continues to do. That has not changed, and it never well. It’s just that when she comes to see this young pastor stuttering over his words, trying to command the space that her pastor, this city’s good and honest pastor, used to occupy, she can’t help but feel disbelief. It’s not just that her pastor has disappeared and no one can find him. It’s that the person they have hired to take his place is such a disappointment.

So, why does Mother stay? Why does Mother remain seated on this plastic chair just because she has been sitting on it for years? Why does she keep her eyes fixed on these plastered walls, a colour that reminds her of what she is used to? Why does she avoid looking into the eyes of the people whom she thought she knew, but who have started to tear each other up for this opinion or that?

The point is she loves the Word of God, not the people whom God has put on earth. And she will remain faithful to God until the end of her days.

It is in the middle of the sermon that Mother stands up. Once in a while people are possessed by demons in the middle of a sermon, and the pastor is expected to intervene. Everyone looks up at her, curious if that is what is happening again.

Instead, Mother walks up and leaves the building. Out on the road, she walks around the potholes, and her heels are coated with dust. It does not bother her. The wind rushing against the back of her skirt and the cool air from the hills refreshes her. It will be Christmas soon, she remembers. She will be inviting her friends and relatives to a party to celebrate. Some of the people from this church are invited. They will have the chance to discuss her decision there. Yes, Mother’s life and her friendships will go on despite her leaving the church. She does not need the sermons of this pastor or that pastor or anyone to give her religion meaning. She will find other ways to practice her truth.

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