Can I get a witness?

  • 14 April 2005
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The rise in evangelical, Pentecostal and gospel style churches in Ireland in recent years is relatively unknown to the general population. Village takes a soulful journey. Words and photographs by Tom Galvin

'Prayer is a battle and we fight to win! If you don't want to pray that is your own business. But you are not here by accident!" the Brother says, each sentence punctuated by a pause that is filled with chants from the congregation. Suddenly a slip of paper is handed up to the podium. "Will the owner of a red Honda, registration number 98 D **** please go to the front door, your attention is needed. Praise the Lord."

The sudden mundane break to address a badly parked car momentarily severs the bond the Brother has spent the last few minutes forging. But within seconds the praying re-commences. Some stand still and murmur quietly with eyes shut. Most dance, sing, chant and hold Bibles, babies and hands aloft reciting prayers that are lost in the din. It is both a spectacle and an experience that is unlike anything in the traditional Christian church in Ireland. The fact that it takes place in the rather bleak environment of The Dartmouth Industrial Estate in Dublin 10 makes it all the more fantastic.

In the right hand corner next to an altar which is quite sparingly adorned, a band provide the music for a full gospel choir who take up the left side. The podium in between will host up to five people – a sister, brother, minister and the main pastor – over the course of the service, a service that could go on for up to three hours. On the whole, it is very loud, very uplifting and very, very long.

"But when you are in the presence of God, where else do you want to go?" says Pastor John Fasan, the head of the Gospel Faith Mission International Church, established in Ireland five years ago, with branches in Carlow, Kells and the main one in Dublin. "There is joy in the presence of God," he adds.

We are discussing the service on Sunday which went on for over two-and-a-half hours and seemed pretty hard going. I counted at least three handkerchiefs being used to wipe his brow during his sermon, which dwelt for considerable time on the subject of "mercy".

"Mercy! Are you with me?" he shouted throughout his preaching. He quoted from several sources in the Bible. Mathew, James and the Book of Proverbs. And to cap it all he instructed the congregation to "Tell your neighbour to obtain mercy!"

At this, the woman next to me turned and pointed a finger in my direction. "Obtain mercy! Obtain mercy! Obtain mercy!" she shouted.

I nodded but had little to offer by way of a response. Such outbursts are not normal in the Catholic tradition. And it brought me back to philosophy lectures in Maynooth, where many students were from various countries in Africa. One lecturer pointed out on one occasion that the Africans, despite the abject state of much of the continent, had a far healthier outlook on life than westerners, whose rational tradition stifles the spirit.

The system of belief in the Gospel Faith is a relatively straightforward one and becomes rather obvious at a service. The Bible is taken literally as the word of God and is taught directly, with the bulk of the doctrine coming from the New Testament. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or transubstantiation – a concept which was actually only introduced in the 13th century, despite it being of great importance in the Catholic mass – is not adhered to. Communion – given maybe once or twice a month – is symbolic in this tradition. But there is nothing figurative about the Bible.

"We go to the Bible," says Pastor Fasan. "We teach a different message every week. Mercy last week. We will teach forgiveness next week. Holiness. Relationships. I just finished a seminar three weeks ago with single people, telling them how to know the will of God before you go into marriage. We taught them that they must be spiritually compatible. You must be compatible in life purpose. You don't just get married. There are certain things you must know. The Christian cannot get married to a Muslim. It's wrong."

Wrong or just not practical? I ask.



"Because the Bible says. If you are a Christian and you want to marry a Muslim the Muslim in their faith can believe they can have other wives. It's not against their faith. But it is against our faith. There is only one man and one wife. You have to consider are you spiritually compatible. If you are spiritually compatible, are you compatible in life purpose? What is your vision? If you don't have the same vision, there will be a problem in the future. A Christian must only marry a Christian. A believer. If you are a believer and you want to marry an unbeliever, thinking that you are going to change them to be a believer – you cannot convert anybody. Only God can change the heart of man."

The majority of this church's congregation are Nigerian, the largest group of Africans in Ireland, numbering approximately 20,000. Some are also from countries such as Ghana, Angola and Uganda, even a few from Cameroon, but in general it is the English- speaking countries that attend.

A study by the Irish Council of Churches into 'Black Minority Churches' (BMCs) has found that there could be up to 10,000 people attending churches in traditions that embrace the Pentecostal, Evangelical, Apostolic and independent churches which are loosely termed 'Gospel'. Some are better organised than others, such as the Redeemed Church of God with about 17 branches under two Pastors. Others are based in rented rooms, hostels and other buildings. But with religion connected closely to one's culture, a church of some sort is obviously a natural draw for immigrants. However, many pursue an active policy of expansion in keeping with the words of the Bible:

"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost "(Matthew 28:19, 20)

"We do evangelism. We go on evangelism," says Pastor Fasan. "Two weeks ago we went to the houses here in Ballyfermot. We have the evangelism team. We go out on the streets and visit people's houses and invite people with our hand bills [pamphlets]. We invite them to church. Everybody."

But between the insular make-up of the Irish character and perhaps a spot of bewilderment, only a few have turned up. I counted three last week.

"When we go out on the streets they just smile. If they don't want to listen to you they just smile. But we have not had any experiences where people have been rude to us or said any bad words to us. We had only one bad experience when we were new in this place. Someone came and burned the sheds and took two of our buses."

He says he doesn't know what became of the buses, of which one remains from three, used to transport the faithful around the city and emblazoned with the logos of the Gospel Church. I don't mention the joyriding tradition in the city, even if he would find solace in the fact they chose a Gospel bus to joyride in.

Not all members of the Nigerian community view the churches in a glowing light. Wole Arisekola, editor of the Dublin Street Journal, a magazine for the Nigerian and African communities, believes it is mammon and not God that the Pastors worship, taking advantage of helpless refugees. "They [the congregation] have no government to cater for them, no social welfare, nobody to turn to in case of need. The only option they have is their faith and that is what all these designer pastors are using to dupe them," he says, mentioning that there are "up to a thousand" churches in Dublin alone.

Chinedu Onyejelem, editor of Metro Eireann, the multi-cultural newspaper, says that "If anybody has the ambition to become a pastor, they can link up with a church in Nigeria and do so". Some have training, others have none at all and he believes the biggest problem for the churches is getting accommodation. So naturally they will use backrooms, hotels and warehouses, which give a shady impression.

White envelopes were produced at the service on Sunday and money was collected, as they are at services across the country. "If you don't have anything to give, that has nothing to do with your faith," said the Pastor, whose church he says dontated money to Crumlin Hospital and who regularly gives to the people who were queueing outside his door when I visited on a mid-week afternoon. "If you force people to give money, well they will leave that church. So it is counterproductive." Afterwards he will visit the sick in St James Hospital and he will also go to Kells and Carlow, seeing himself as a pastor in the strict sense of the word.

The last word in the service was "to go and find work. If you have the right to work, go and work. If you can't find a job, go and get training. If you are faithful to the authority of the country you are faithful of God."

Is this important I ask him – apart from being the word of God?

"It's very important. We are trying to do our best to encourage the people and encourage the Government. If you have been given a right to stay in the country and a right to work, and you are staying at home and getting support, then you are discouraging the Government. If the Government sees that the foreigners are contributing to the economy, then you are encouraging them.

"And there is dignity in labour," he adds. "The Bible teaches us to work."

On a second visit to the service I had to leave early. Out in the car park with the one bus and an assortment of second hand vehicles, my car was jammed in behind an old Mitsubishi. Wait for the service to end in two hours or ask them to move the car? I asked them to move the car. Praise the Lord.p

?More Gospel Faith Mission International – The Overcomers, Unit 4, Dartmouth House Industrial Estate, Kylemore Rd, Dublin 10. Services every Sunday at noon