Pressured: Bumping Heads with Religion in Namibia
I’ve had an ever-gnawing disdain for Christianity’s fierce hold on so much of the global Black community. It's been increasingly difficult for me to look past the religion’s forced introduction on my African ancestors.
Consequently, I consider myself to be more so spiritual than religious. I’ve also dabbled in studies of Islam and Buddhism out of curiosity, and of late, Yoruba has piqued my interests. In the end, I’ve carved out my own personal relationship with a higher power, with an emphasis on the guidance of my ancestors.
About a year before my mother’s sudden passing, she became very involved in her local Baptist church. I remember her discovering a newfound love for gospel music and making many dear friends through church fellowship. Almost as if she was unknowingly preparing to transition.
Her end of life taking to Christianity has always stuck with me. Perhaps it was one of the final lessons she was imparting on me - that regardless of Christianity’s historical imperfections and our infrequent church attendance over the years, there was still something of value in the religion for my life.
And so despite my many uncertainties, a few years after having relocated to the southern African nation of Namibia, I decided to peak into the Namibian capital's local church scene. If anything it would be a great opportunity to meet more Namibians and kick off my Sunday mornings with uplifting messages.
What followed were a series of several disappointing and sometimes bizarre encounters.
I once attended a nondenominational church in the country’s capital. There came a point during the service in which anyone interested in joining the congregation was asked to stand and attend a private meeting in a separate area. I obliged and was escorted into a small room. After a quick welcoming, I was told that I was going to speak in tongues.
I'll say that again.
I was told that I was going to speak in tongues.
Irritation and doubt began flooding my mind. This couldn’t end well. Nevertheless, I sat there listening to the other potential new members one by one begin speaking in what I assumed were tongues, as church members chanted in deep prayer. It soon became apparent to the ushers that no tongues would be exiting my mouth. I sat, respectfully, but silently. I halfway wondered if some out of this world possession might move me into whatever had caught hold of everyone else.
Nothing came. Oddly enough, someone decided to whisper into my ear to ,”Just say something.” Wait. Did they really expect me to fabricate catching the Holy Ghost?
What was I doing here?
Garnering a last glimmer of hope, I went ahead and attended a subsequent new members orientation class. I hoped this event would be more promising. If I could just get past all these formalities, perhaps I could still manage to make some new friends and have an overall good experience at this church.
Unfortunately what followed was even more indicative of how truly out of place I was.
The orientation class was run by a seemingly short-tempered woman (who was quite possibly American) who literally scolded each attendee who walked into the class late. Even the women with children. I watched each person she rebuked kowtow in embarrassment and apologies.
What part of welcoming and fellowship was this?
During her ‘lesson’ this woman went on to mention other religions and the many ways they and their gods were false. Irritation was probably written all over my face. Needless to say, that was my last time at that church.
There was another day I accompanied my husband to his relative’s church. This one was located in a township in Namibia’s capital city and offered services in at least three languages. While the musical selections were awesome, I couldn’t get past the show of people falling to the floor after being ‘healed’ by the pastor.
Not my scene.
I’ve also been randomly approached in public by local outreach members of various ‘born again’ churches.
One day as my husband and I sat in a park, a man approached us with pamphlets in hand, and invited us to his church service. But not without somehow parlaying that into shading lecturing us on the sins of cohabitation, dating and premarital sex.
My husband was beginning to feel offended and challenged him. But it was clear there was no debating him. Talk about conviction.
In the end we took his invitational pamphlets with a grain of salt and laughed about the encounter on the walk home.
My most recent intrusion was just last month. As my husband, son and I were walking home we were stopped by two men.
The men were dressed sharply, slacks and button up shirts with a choking combination of cologne. Wherever they were going must be quite the event, I thought!
It turned out they wanted to invite us into their nearby church for service. I told them it was late and that we had to get our son home as his bedtime was approaching. To be polite, I added that we would think about attending their church at a future date.
With a very serious expression on his face, one of the men paused, looked directly at me and said,
“Let me ask you something. If you die tomorrow and you meet God, will you tell him, I’ll think about it?”
And so began a tirade about why my rejecting his church invite would get me damned to purgatory.
I couldn’t help but to chuckle.
"They got me again," I thought.
I knew where the conversation was going - in a very one directional route. So I made the quick decision not spend energy explaining to this man why his approach was not only uninviting but extremist and downright rude. And condescending. I will say that the fact that he spoke to me in that manner over my infant son was particularly irritating.
Beautifully, my husband swiftly cut him off. This man’s verbal assault on his wife was going to stop here and now.
We were eventually freed from the two men’s grasps. We took their invitations and walked home, remarking on how dangerous this reoccurring and seemingly extremist religious hold was in certain corners of Namibia. We discussed what we believe is the need to strip away the prosperity preaching and recruiting that has permeated Africa’s core.
Where followers can’t seem to simply take "no" for an answer. Where a "no thank you" equates to a ticket to hell. Where different thoughts and ideas are the folly of sinners. Where pastors from foreign lands sing promises of abundance in exchange for blind allegiance.
This "no room for discussion, do as I say" grip that so many establishments have managed to exert on minds across the continent, and particularly the poor and vulnerable.
Though difficult, I remind myself not to judge how religion may give someone the strength to get through the very real trials life may present them with.
And still, my qualms with Christianity's existence within the African diaspora have not completely soured my interests in the religion.
The longer I live in Namibia, the more I miss the many Sundays I spent in my grandparent’s Baltimore city Baptist church. I smile thinking of the members who caught the spirit and danced out of their pews and down the aisles. I will always cherish the warm memories of my grandmother giving me sweets from her purse as my grandfather deaconed from the front.
Black Christianity is not all a loss in my soul, but ancestral religions from across the continent and the world are what truly intrigue me.
Give me religion with culture, steeped in thousands of years of tradition. I long for what we were before.