He is 30 years old and not yet married. His fiancée is far away, in the Central African Republic, where he spent the past four years at university, training for the ministry and now junior pastor. For the past week, he has not been able to contact her, and he is worried. Someone called him from Bangui, a week ago. A voice he did not recognize. You need to talk to her her, the man said. No, I’m not going to tell you my name. Just call her as soon as you can. And then the line went dead. Since then he has tried to call her, time after time. Without success. What could be the matter, he wonders. There has been war in Bangui. The rebels from the north, Muslims, have overrun the city and deposed the government. The university has been closed. The students dispersed. One friend remains there, and he has spoken to this man. But he knows nothing. Yes, I went to the house, but there seems to be no one there. And I have no way of discovering where she is gone. Has her mobile phone been stolen, or is it out of order? What can I do? More than enough cause for worry, n’est-ce pas?Before the weekend he phoned me. Not with news about his fiancée. But with other bad news. He had been informed about a conspiracy against himself. Four of the leaders of the church had been plotting, he had just heard, even since before his return from Centrafrique. There was talk of a voodoo curse, of an attempt to ensure control over the flow of money from the Netherlands, of a concerted effort to remove him from the scene since he would compete with the established leadership. There was nothing in his voice that suggested he was taking the news with even the smallest grain of salt.
It so happened that his informant was coming by to see me that evening, on an unrelated errand. So I sat this informant down and asked him what he knew and how he knew it. There was no doubt in his mind either, of the facts. One of the senior elders of the church was in conspiracy with the other pastor and with the secretary and the treasurer. This senior elder was the son of a feticheur. 12 to 15 years ago, the man who was now pastor had stolen money from the mission funds. In order to escape discovery, he had enlisted the aid of the senior elder’s father. By his dark arts, one of this man’s acquaintances, an even more powerful feticheur, had thrown a cloak of forgetfulness over the mission authorities, and the theft had gone unnoticed. And now, with the end in sight of the permanent presence of missionaries from the Netherlands, the church leadership – four man strong – was once again plotting to gain control of mission funds, and had approached the old feticheur for a second time. This time without success, however. Not satisfied with the payment received a decade and a half ago, he had sent them packing. It was his son who had told the story to a friend (a minor feticheur himself) and this friend had passed the news on to our informant. He had also heard tell that the four leaders had in the meantime sought out someone else to invoke the voodoo spirits on their behalf.
So there you are. One seriously troubled junior pastor. One informant who was doing what he could to help. And one missionary totally out of his depth in a world of dark envy, occultism, idolatry, suspicion and slander. Do I believe in the power of voodoo priests? Can I believe that four of the most senior church leaders would resort to such? Irrelevant. The point is that this fully modernized junior pastor, university trained and a devoted Christian, is not immune to the belief.
We spoke again today. What could I say to him? That an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one? Or that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything? He knows his bible well enough to counter: but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, and demons are very real. True enough. So I took the time to listen. This is Africa, he said. Things are not what they are in Europe. I too have received information, this time from another quarter. A nephew to the senior elder arrived at my house on Saturday night. He told me that his uncle had been seen by someone at a local sacrificial site. He also remembered once hearing his uncle talk to the senior pastor about the coming of the junior, and that he was afraid that the new arrival might provoke discord. It had been a telephone conversation, so he had not heard the senior pastor’s response, but wasn’t this alone sufficient evidence of a conspiracy? Added to what the earlier informant had contributed? And all of that information was once again recounted and amplified. Evidence unverified, second or third hand at best, cobbled together in a context of fear and mistrust, to our Western ears unlikely, but within this world carrying a strange and undeniable logic. Marijke was there as well, this morning, and I asked a question she had thought of. Tell us, is it one of your concerns that perhaps your inability to contact your fiancée is the work of a feticheur? His eyes opened wide with surprise at her understanding: yes, indeed, he said. Of course there’s no way of telling for sure, but you do remember that this senior elder spoke out against my plan to bring her here so that we could be married. You know, people here are capable of anything, once they have turned against you. They might even kill her, should she finally arrive.
Tangled in a web of suspicion and loneliness, our friend stumbled on. I’m not afraid, he said. I’m determined to do my work for God. But with these forces united against me… What could we say? What could we do? Not much more than to open the Bible and to apply it to this situation.
First of all, let’s look at what your hearing all these things has accomplished, I said. You don’t trust the people you work with any more, do you? If we imagine this situation as a tree, what are its fruits? Mistrust. Hostility. Fear. Division. And what will be the end result for the church? The answer was clear: a house divided against itself will fall. Okay, and now let’s look at the roots of that tree. Where are the sources of your information to be found? Exactly, in the circle of feticheurs and hangers-on who claim to know bad things about this senior elder. Can we prove that they are lying? Of course not. But in whose service are these people? Do they acknowledge any master but Legba, or Satan? And what does the Bible call their master: the father of truth, or the father of lies? What then seems more likely: will they be speaking truth, or will they be speaking lies? Who is likely to benefit if this tree, with its roots in the world of idolatry, comes to full fruition?
And then secondly, let’s consider the wisdom of God. He speaks to this very issue of words spoken against an elder. ‘Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.’ A little further on in the same chapter, the point is made that the truth is sometimes impossible for us to ascertain. “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” (1 Timothy 5:24) God knows what exactly someone may or may not have done, but only if there is incontrovertible evidence are we to allow the accusation to dictate our agenda. You do what you have been called to do, and do not entertain accusations such as these. If they turn out to be true, God will deal with them. And if they turn out to be no more than the schemes of the Evil One, you will rightly have refused to let them distract you.
There was some relief on his face after we had shared these gospel truths. But it was clear that he was still struggling. And we went home reminded of the complexity of the life of a Christian in this heart of darkness. This isn’t the first time we have been struck by the prevalent sense of insecurity, by the full conviction that as often as not misfortune is the result of evil people plotting evil against you, by the paralysing fear that powers from below may have been called into play to thwart your efforts. No-one seems to trust anyone any further than strictly necessary, survival depends on a suspicious attitude and a readiness to strike first, and there is an insatiable need to exchange information, verifiable or not, so that you may be able to counter conceivable threats against you. There is nothing noble or innocent about this primitive society.