Religious healing has been a facet of the Christian faith for centuries. The New Testament’s gospels of Christ declare that Jesus performed many miracles during his lifetime, and it was these miracles that bore witness to his godliness. Since his death, many religious branches of Christianity have highly revered the notion of miracle healing and tried to emulate Jesus Christ's power as a testament to one’s holiness. Recently, in parts of Africa, private Christian churches have also adopted this practice, and many pastors today claim the special, God-given ability to heal their faithful congregants. This has led to both negative and positive speculation. Many skeptics claiming to be pastors abuse their titles and take advantage of their poor parishioners.
This paper examines two such pastors; Reverend John Pesa, leader of the Holy Ghost Coptic Church of Kenya, and a man who is no stranger to negative media, Father Lesego Daniel and his Rabboni Centre Ministries of South Africa. These two men both claim to have been endowed with the ability to heal through miracles, and have gathered a large following for each of their respective churches. While many of their parishioners testify to their great miracles, there is plenty of skepticism to refute the claims. Using primary sources as gathered by author Mary Aoko and secondary sources collected by author Cassandra Brzozowski, we hope to explore both sides to the lives of these men, who are steadily growing in controversy.
In many parts of Africa, including Kisumu and South Africa, the trend of religious branding has evolved. Independent churches use it to market themselves in the hope of attracting believers who are also their most ardent supporters. These ministries wish to gain materially from worshipers and they seem to be willing to go to any length to get it. In Kisumu, a man called Father John Pesa leads one of these ministries. Pesa claims to have healing powers and prays over the needy and sick, while taking care of the orphans and the widows in the society. It is through these healing powers that Pesa is able to stand out among his peers. He is able to acquire many followers since people go to him for healing miracles and become converts of his Holy Ghost Coptic Church of Kenya.
In South Africa, another priest also utilizes religious branding to the benefit of his popularity. Father Lesego Daniel, leader of Rabboni Centre Ministries in Pretoria, South Africa, also claims to have the power of healing, and is famous or infamous, depending on how you view him, for instructing his followers to perform outlandish rituals in order to be healed. On the Rabboni Centre Ministries Facebook page, there are claims that with “prayer and fasting and dwelling in the word, Pastor Lesego was able to minister to a small congregation comprising of young people and elders without music instruments and other important things…[realizing] that most ministries have drifted away from what Jesus Christ was doing, since they do not focus on teaching but preaching for a few minutes and as such they do not give people a lasting solution”. The Rabboni Centre Ministries website contains testaments to Father Lesego Daniel's greatness, including one from an 84 year old woman named Winnie Lediga. These testimonies sound wonderful, yet the media attention Daniel has received is far from positive.
Recently, Father Lesego Daniel has gained notoriety as the preacher who made his congregates eat grass. According to an article on the news website, Times Live, Father Lesego Daniel ordered his parishioners to sleep, and after they had fallen into a trance-like slumber, he ordered “other congregants to slap and trample on them [as they remained rigid and unresponsive” (Masombuka). He also ordered them to eat grass to be closer to God and was “allegedly witnessed walking on top of his congregants as they were spread out across a lawn” (Manuel-Logan). According to Manuel-Logan, many worshippers became “violently ill after ingesting the grass…[and] throngs of followers wound up vomiting” (Manuel-Logan). Yet, those who believe in his miracle work still sing his praises.
While Father John Pesa and His Holy Ghost Coptic Church do not resort to the theatrics that Daniel seems to be fond of, they have been known for making similar claims. Father Pesa boasts he has the power to spiritually cleanse people with mental illness and even pray over the sick and the needy, but his healing powers have drawn questions. He draws a lot of suspicion regarding how he conducts his affairs in the church. He lives in a church compound so grandiose that it rivals any other church building in Kisumu.
The compound of his church has several corridors that those who are being prayed for are locked up in. According to Pesa, once a person is fully healed, he is able to be released. But, until then, even relatives cannot gain access to them. He also claims to have special healing powers for the mentally retarded. However, it takes so many years for the healing process to occur, that often a follow up is neglected to actually prove if the healing was successful or not.
In other churches in Kisumu, the clerics ask their church members to plant a seed (contribute money) in order to receive Gods favors, however Pesa says that there is no single day that he has asked any of his followers to give money as a condition for him to pray for them. He says that his followers donate money and pay tithes purely out of their own volition.
However, the Coptic Church faces various challenges which require money to be resolved, and which motivate parishioners to donate to the church. Also, people question Father Pesa’ high-handedness in dealing with critics. He has employed security officers who are posted at the entrance of the church, and the compound is guarded by secret security men usually wearing civilian attire. Responding to such critics, Father Pesa says that he was forced to seek a high level of security following an incident in the year 2010, after a journalist made a “malicious” claim that he chained his followers instead of praying for them.
Following the report, Father Pesa says that he was confronted by angry Kisumu residents who killed some of followers in the process. He asserts that the individuals who were in chains were actually mentally ill and would become violent, and they would beat the believers who come for Bible studies in the church. He had to resort to these means in order to protect his congregants.
The Holy Ghost Coptic Church of Africa has a strong relationship with the state; which can be clearly seen in most instances where Pesa is invited at state functions especially in Kisumu. For example, when Kisumu International Airport was being opened officially by the retired president Mwai Kibaki, Father Pesa was invited as one of the religious leaders in Kenya to help pray for the country. In fact, the church was registered through the help of the late President Kenyatta and when Father Pesa was himself imprisoned he was ordered released by President Daniel arap Moi. Father Pesa has been patronized by many politicians, who in most cases go to him for blessings and prayers, and even ask him to predict the outcome of elections.
In conclusion, these two church ministers who hail from completely separate locations in Africa, seem to be different but are actually very much the same. Through branding themselves as miracle healers, the ministers are able to gain quite a following and a lot of success. Both claim their powers are God-given, so anyone who opposes them are therefore against God and not to be trusted. Their claims protect them from any serious inquiry. They both remain elusive, and records of their church income, revenue, and expenditure equally remain obscure. Father Pesa even uses his security men to shield safely from any scrutiny.
As far as actually possessing the said powers of healing, the question remains unanswered. For every skeptic, there seems to be a large number of people willing to testify to the healing powers of each of the church leaders and their followers remain loyal, faithful, and solid. Only time will reveal if these men are truly what they claim, or simply part of a growing list of fraudulent African preachers.