By Elias Munshya
The rise of Pentecostalism in Zambia marked a massive shift in the religious landscape of the country. Long dominated by traditional churches such as the Roman Catholic Church and the United Church of Zambia, Pentecostals renewed emphasis on spirituality, revival, and renewal. It was in the 1960s, and in the 1970s, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God (Zambia) found its significant breakthroughs. Young women and men, mostly on the Copperbelt heeded the call and started gathering in homes, schools, and sometimes, rented halls. The Pentecostal message was simple: for people to go to heaven, they needed to be saved and become born again. It was not enough that one went to a traditional church such as the Church of Rome. Everyone needed to make the decision on their own. Pentecostalism was as we can rightly put it: a faith of sisters and brothers. In a Pentecostal gathering, attendants were all equal, there was neither men nor women, Greek nor Hebrew. They all belonged to the same family with Jesus Christ as the centre of the gathering. Those who showed themselves to be leaders of those gatherings were just vessels God was using. And nothing more. Pentecostalism was an egalitarian faith.
Casting tradition aside also meant that Pentecostals would not follow the traditions of the more prominent traditional churches. The Holy Communion was a meal Jesus introduced for his disciples to eat in remembrance of him. It was not the presence of the real body of Christ, but symbolic of the body and the wine, symbolic of the blood. Traditions, such as the holy water’s sprinkling, done mostly among Catholics was not accepted by Pentecostals. The spirit was inside people, God did not need water or any medium. Anointing oil was also not necessary. God’s spirit would work regardless of all these symbols and rituals. Pentecostalism was a faith of the spirit.
In terms of leaders – early Pentecostals in Zambia looked at Christian leadership in terms of spiritual gifts. However, these spiritual gifts belonged to all believers. Each gift was given for the edification of the body of Christ. And so, the leading names and titles were simple and most straightforward. Early Pentecostals in Zambia had pastors, board members, and to some extent, the deacons. Early Pentecostals frowned on extensive and extravagant titles. Interestingly, the only early Pentecostal leader who has not given into the lavishness of new titles is Nevers Sekwila Mumba, who despite his stature within the Pentecostal fraternity has still not adopted the titles of Bishop, Chief Bishop, or as has recently been adopted, “General Overseer”.
At the beginning of Pentecostalism’s golden age in the 1970s and 1980s, Zambia was still relatively closed to its neighbour to the north. However, for many years in Congo’s Katanga province (which at one time was called “Shaba”), there was a sect of Pentecostalism that had developed over there, which I will for the purpose of this discourse call the “profita” movement. It is beyond this article to articulate the development of this sect in Katanga. Still, we could look to President Mobutu’s “Authenticite” philosophy in which foreign preachers were banned. So local faith expressions developed and flourished, including the profitas. Profitas functioned more like ng’angas or traditional witchfinders, claiming enormous divination powers and the ability to foretell the future. The marked difference between the profitas and other ng’angas was that the profitas were in Katangese Swahili “ba tumishi ba mungu“. They used the Bible and claimed to be Christian pastors. Some Katangese would gather in homes of these profitas, pray, fast, and trust God and the profitas for good luck. The profitas did not disappoint. They would practice divination on their followers. They would “see” the source of problems that their adherents were going through – sometimes they would say it is a sin that was causing problems for one person. Or that there was a witch in one’s family. Or that there are evil spirits all round that are causing problems.
The profitas would, however, prescribe solutions – fasting, money, or some other particular action. After the fall of the Kenneth Kaunda presidency in 1991, the Congolese profita movement entered Zambia. The earliest Pentecostal seers or profitas in Zambia’s compounds in Lusaka or the Copperbelt all had one thing in common – they were mostly Congolese. And for sure, those Profitas who could claim to have been Congolese Bembas quickly claimed Zambian identity and Zambian nationality in some cases. They flourished in Matero, Mandevu, Chiwempala, Wusakile and in several compounds across urban Zambia. Profitas had now entered the Zambian landscape. The classical Pentecostals in Zambia such as the Pentecostal Assemblies of God had new competitors – the profita movement.
Thirty years later, the profita movement has grown. It has gone on TV, and it is wreaking doctrinal havoc among Pentecostals. The profita movement is now selling holy water, holy oil, and holy car and house door stickers.
As for women – the role of the sisters was going to be just that. The PAOG would not organically change to accommodate or recognise the visibility of women leaders. The role of sisters. In the newly established system, women are supporters of the men. Curiously, while this change is happening in the PAOG, other Pentecostals in Zambia were opening up women’s visible roles. Among Pentecostals, women should be as visible as the men – except perhaps in the PAOG.
A Pentecostal faith which started as a faith of the poor. A faith of women. An egalitarian faith has suddenly changed. Well, nothing is really sudden. But several factors may explain why the change came so suddenly. In the early 2000s, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, as an example, announced that its leaders will no longer have corporate names such as superintendent, they would now be called Bishops. It appeared like brothers and sisters’ faith would become an episcopal church, just like the Catholic Church it had long despised. Another development was the change of local church organisation. Instead of a democratic congregation voting on its leaders including pastors, power would shift to the Bishops or the pastors. The pastors who were collegial ceased to be so.
There is really no difference between the traditional churches and the Pentecostal churches in all of its subgroupings. Holy water is a staple in both. Women are still not viable in at least one of the most prominent Pentecostal denominations. And Bishops are now rulers.
Elias Munshya can be reached at email@example.com