2021 EDITOR'S PICK
The ‘prophets’ who profit from selling the word of God
Acting in Christ’s name, they claim to change petrol into pineapple juice, raise the dead and get God to splash the cash — but the real gift of these church leaders is parting their followers from their money, writes Paul Ash
To celebrate our award-winning journalism, Sunday Times Daily is republishing some of the best Sunday Times articles of the year, including those that walked away with an accolade in the Vodacom journalism awards. In the Features category in the Gauteng region, Paul Ash was awarded for his long-form Sunday Times piece into how many religious leaders were profiting from selling the word of God.
There is a delicious joke doing the rounds. Why didn’t Shepherd Bushiri use SA Airways to skip the country? Because SAA is a non-prophet airline.
Bushiri — net worth about R2.3bn — certainly did not depart SA on his private Gulfstream III business jet, as that is currently in the hands of the Asset Forfeiture Unit.
Then again, why would a man who has repeatedly told his flock that he “walks on air” need an escape jet anyway? The Hawks should have been looking up.
Either way, the Bushiri birds will possibly be back in their coop to stand trial on charges of fraud and money-laundering. According to Malawi minister of information Gospel Kazako, Bushiri and Mary, his wife and alleged accomplice, had been arrested but were released on Thursday pending paperwork from SA. “We looked at our laws and decided to act,” said Kazako.
Rape charges might also be added to the sheet, though the good Shepherd has brushed off the allegations as nothing more than people trying to extort money from him.
To paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes, we have seen this movie before. If he is found guilty, Bushiri will join a pantheon of religious leaders gone bad. This rogues’ gallery includes men — and occasionally women — whose crimes range from petty larceny involving church funds to extortion, sexual abuse and adultery.
The trouble with anything based on faith is that it’s a scammer’s paradise. Add the human frailties of fear, desperation, greed, guilt or hope to the mix and you have a Ponzi scheme with angels’ wings.
THE SCAMS “I HAVE A BRIDGE TO SELL YOU”
The phrase comes from a scam perpetrated by a man named George Parker, who allegedly “sold” New York’s Brooklyn Bridge to unsuspecting civilians on many occasions over a 30-year career. Parker would sell either the entire bridge or the right to erect a toll both to charge people a fee to walk across it.
Religious scammery is no less inventive than Parker’s trick. Forget vials of “holy water” drawn from sewers — how about the piece of Noah’s Ark found by one George Jammal on a mountain in Turkey in 1993? The discovery secured Jammal an appearance on CBS and all was going swimmingly until he was outed as an actor, and the piece of ark turned out to be scrap pine soaked in soy sauce.
Jammal’s fragment of boat was a deliberate hoax designed to make people look foolish. The Turin Shroud — a supposed remnant of the cloth in which Jesus was said to have been wrapped before being entombed — was on another scale.
The shroud, which bears the faint outline of a man, was presented by a French knight named Geoffroi de Charny to the dean of a church in Lirey, France, in the 1350s.
History does nor record where the shroud had been for the previous 1,300 years or how the knight got his hands on it (although that would have been most likely during a crusade to the Holy Land, which in itself is problematic).
Suffice to say that in a letter to Pope Clement VII in 1390, Bishop Pierre d’Arcis of Troyes said the shroud was a fake and that the artist had confessed as much. Carbon dating later established that the shroud dated from the Middle Ages. Despite this it remains a revered holy relic.
Religious scammery is an equal opportunity provider. Wherever there are poor and needy people seeking a way out of misery, poverty or prosaic boredom, there are conmen who will happily take their money.
Take the story of Satya Sai Baba, a hugely popular Indian guru who over a 50-year career thrilled his followers by conjuring rings, necklaces, holy ash and little statues apparently out of thin air. Sceptics claimed that the guru was hiding the objects in his voluminous robes and using simple magician trickery to make them appear. Being caught on camera by a BBC film crew palming a relic out of his sleeve apparently did nothing to dent his legitimacy.
These were all scams calculated to deceive gullible people. How much easier it would be if people just gave away their money voluntarily.
THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL “SEND MONEY NOW”
To say Christianity has had an erratic relationship with money for the past 2,000 years would be like saying kicking a bull Cape buffalo in the groin might end badly for the kicker.
Money followed religion probably the same way that the first hangover followed alcohol — roughly three hours after its discovery.
Incensed at finding money changers and dove sellers in the temple, Jesus chased them out, saying: “My house shall be a house of prayer but ye have made it a den of thieves,” or so Matthew tells the story.
That didn’t last.
Once upon a time, piety and poverty were “good” and the pursuit of mammon was “bad” until the prosperity gospel came along and turned everything upside down.
According to this gospel — which, not surprisingly, found its natural home in the US’s booming post-war economy — God wants you to be rich, healthy and happy. To receive these gifts requires a true confession, everlasting faith — oh, and donations to religious causes.
The doctrine had been around since the 19th century, but it really took off in the great 1950s healing revivals, massive prayer-and-healing campaigns whose star attractions were evangelical preachers Oral Roberts and William Branham.
The two men filled stadiums of people drawn to be forgiven and “healed”. Roberts even held a festival at Wembley stadium in Johannesburg in 1955, an event that attracted 25,000 people and, the Sunday Express noted sourly, clogged the city’s streets with traffic.
The men – and they were mostly men – driving the prosperity gospel were helped by two things: the US’s rapidly growing middle class and the spread of the greatest opiate of all: television.
The prosperity gospel is all about “investing” money, which will then return to you in abundance. Some call it seed money that you have to sow in order to reap riches.
Like most televangelists, Todd Coontz of Rockwealth International Ministries is a natty dresser and bursting with natural humility.
“Pastor, evangelist, television host, author, humanitarian, philanthropist, businessman are some words that others use to describe Dr Tom Coontz,” says the About Tom Coontz page on his website.
Coontz claims God called him as a financial deliverer, according to a recent BBC article. In order for him to deliver, though, you have to invest by buying “seed” for a future harvest.
It’s all nicely spelt out on the website. First you must “sow a seed”, and better yet, in “quality soil”. You must sow “proportionately with expectation” (presumably the more you sow, the more you reap) and sow “with obedience”. Finally, you must also “wait patiently for harvest time”, because waiting is “the proof that you believe in God”.
If any proof were needed that there is money in religion, look no further than the fleet of luxury cars — including a yellow Lamborgini — reportedly owned by Alleluia Ministries International (AMI) general overseer Alph Lukau. Like Bushiri, Lukau is a televangelist superstar. His church is based in Sandton and has branches across southern Africa. Lukau’s services draw thousands of people, and AMI’s YouTube channel claims 1-million subscribers. The videos — which have titles such as Do Not Worry and What Is It That You Are After — have racked up anything from a couple of thousand to nearly 4-million views.
Raising the not deadAs popular as AMI’s videos are, the one that went truly viral was where the pastor “raised” a man from the dead, in February 2019.
The video shows Lukau praying over the open coffin of a man named Brighton Moyo who had “died” a few days previously and whose weeping family had brought his coffin to the packed church.
Urging him to awake, Lukau places his hands on Moyo who then sits up, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Despite Moyo’s terrible acting — he looks more zombie than resurrected — the congregation goes wild.
The “miracle” was rapidly debunked as a stunt. Lukau back-pedalled fiercely, saying the “healing” must have already happened before Moyo arrived in his coffin.
There are allegations, however, that Moyo had previously been paid to participate in other healing miracles, TimesLIVE reported.
In a scene straight from the comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Moyo was once allegedly brought to a service in a wheelchair and beaten with a stick to prove he could not feel anything in his legs. After a healing prayer, he stood up and walked.
AMI denies the allegations.
Meanwhile, the resurrection video spawned the #ResurrectionChallenge in which people fake their own resurrection miracles on video. Moyo has since died, allegedly from food poisoning back home in Zimbabwe.
Raising undead people from the dead is an easily rumbled trick. Less so are the claims believers make themselves.
US evangelist Benny Hinn built a huge ministry around his healing crusades. At a 2001 crusade, nine-year-old William Vandenkolk claimed that his eyesight had been restored.
When tracked down by ABC News almost a decade later, Vandenkolk, then 17, was still legally blind.
Vandenkolk told the network he had been caught up in the moment. “Being as young as I was, thinking this could actually be possible … I just started feeling sad, a little upset that this really didn’t happen.”
Somewhat nonplussed when confronted by ABC, Hinn said he wasn’t in fact the healer but that God healed people in their seats and that he — Hinn — was not responsible for what people claimed when they got onstage.
Back home, the miracles continued unabated. Pastor Lesego Daniel of Pretoria-based Rabboni Ministries once urged members of the congregation to drink petrol that he claimed to have turned into pineapple juice. The petrol was set alight first to prove that it was, in fact petrol, after which Daniel performed the conversion.
According to various news reports, willing members of the congregation lined up for a gulp and reported that the liquid was “sweet”.
Upping the ante, End Times Disciples Ministries leader Penuel Mnguni — one of Lesego’s protégés — was photographed feeding his followers snakes and rats, which he claimed to have turned into chocolate.
The prize for hands-on healing, however, must surely go to Bishop Daniel Obinim of International Godsway Ministries in Ghana. Videos show Obinim grasping men’s crotches in a purported attempt to heal their erectile dysfunction. Another video shows him praying over a congregant’s exposed penis, according to a BBC report.
On a continent stalked by poverty, the cruellest of all the miracles, though, is the one where Nigerian pastor Andrew Ejimadu of Christ Freedom Ministries — known as Prophet Seer 1 to his followers — is seen in a 2018 video “vomiting” money into a woman’s handbag during a service in SA.
Ejimadu, who is based in Zambia, has recently earned the ire of that country’s political establishment by threatening to use his powers to expose politicians. In a rambling video, Ejimadu claims he is not attacking Zambia.
“Any time a dog wants to die, he doesn’t perceive the smell of food,” he says, while claiming that various politicians have benefitted from his largesse. Reports do not say if he vomited on them.
Getting shot in the clay footThe trouble with getting rich and famous on TV is that it opens a lot of doors that should probably have stayed closed.
Take Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, once upon a time the US’s golden televangelist couple. With their Christian TV programme The PTL Club, the Bakkers built a multimillion-dollar televangelist empire between 1974 and the late 1980s. Viewers signed monthly pledges and income from the couple’s own satellite TV network swelled the coffers.
In 1987, Jim Bakker’s followers were dismayed to learn that the ministry had paid a reported $279,000 in hush money to former church secretary Jessica Hahn, who alleged Bakker and another minister had drugged and raped her. Bakker said the sex was consensual.
Enveloped by the scandal Bakker stepped down from PTL (for “Praise the Lord”). In March 1988, he was convicted of defrauding investors and spent five years in jail.
Bakker seems to have an inexhaustible supply of self-belief, though some might call it a penchant for self-immolation. This year he was back in the news as he faced charges in Missouri for touting a fake coronavirus cure called Silver Solution — yours for just $80.
Responding to the shock of the 1987 scandal, fellow television evangelist superstar Jimmy Swaggart said Bakker was a “cancer in the body of Christ”.
That was rich coming from Swaggart, who barely months later would himself plummet from grace after being filmed leaving a motel room with a prostitute named Debra Murphree.
Swaggart claimed it was a set-up — Murphree subsequently failed a couple of polygraph tests. But in 1991, police in Indio, California, pulled him over for driving on the wrong side of the road. With him in the car was a prostitute named Rosemary Garcia.
Upping the ante, church leader Penuel Mnguni fed his followers snakes and rats, which he claimed to have turned into chocolate.
THE JETS, NOTHING SUCCEEDDS LIKE EXCESS
What Swaggart really needed to help conceal his fleshly pursuits was a private jet — the ultimate televangelist symbol of success.
Being earthbound can be difficult for a busy pastor with a clamorous flock spread far and wide, which is why Hinn told ABC News that he “absolutely” needed a private plane to go spread the word.
“If I should fly commercial I would wear out,” he said. “With my schedule? It would be madness.”
Televangelist Joel Osteen is alleged to have said to fellow televangelist Jess Duplantis that flying commercial was like getting “in a long tube full of demons”.
Osteen, whose current ride is an Airbus 319, angrily berated a reporter for asking him if he stood by his demons comment.
“No, I do not, and don’t you ever say that I did,” he said.
Duplantis himself reportedly gets around in a $54m (R830m) Dassault Falcon 7X. Fellow flying pastor Kenneth Copeland — whose Kenneth Copeland Ministries operates three jets — said in a 2019 video that the aircraft were sanctuaries where the pastors could talk directly to God.
Copeland’s wife and ministry co-founder Gloria, a preacher in her own right, has garnered fame as one of US President Donald Trump’s evangelical advisors. In a breathtaking head-on collision between logic and faith, she also earned notoriety by claiming that children did not need flu shots because Jesus had already carried the world’s sicknesses and diseases — which makes one wonder what the point is of all those healing drives.
Bushiri’s jets — the number ranges between one and four — may or may not be relevant should he and Mary be returned to SA to stand trial.
Perhaps, as he stands in the dock, he might remember John Gillespie Magee’s poem High Flight, which begins with the line “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth” and ends with “Put out my hand, and touched the face of God”.
Or perhaps he will be thinking of Icarus and feel the molten wax drip from his wings