On Tuesday, Daily Nation’s sister publication in Uganda, Daily Monitor, had a story telling us that the Chaplaincy of St Augustine at Makerere University, Kampala, had released video footage showing the thief who stole offertory money and equipment from the church.
St Augustine, is the Catholic church at East Africa’s oldest university. The thug, according to the chaplain, made off with a lot of money, a laptop, extension cables, and other gifts to God that were secured in the place where the offertory was kept.
Many years ago, this was unthinkable. No one dared steal from God’s house, because then fire and brimstone would descend upon you from the heavens. But the times have changed.
Fellows come to church – and these days funerals – to steal from the Lord’s flock. Many a service begins with the pastor cautioning men to protect their pockets, and women to guard their handbags.
Communion time used to be a short rewarding trip to the altar, in which you nibbled at holy bread and swigged some wine (if you were a Catholic from a prosperous parish), and returned to your seat purer of spirit. These days, if you aren’t vigilant, it might be the reason you are applying for a salary advance on Monday morning.
The Sunday collection bag has become a target. In many places now, the money is pressed through a small hole, as anything big enough for a hand to dip in might invite some to do exactly that.
Many years ago, when I first realised that folks were no longer leaving to God what belongs to God, and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, I was appalled. I went to a service in a gorgeous cathedral in Kampala, with a famously high ceiling. A clock hang high above the altar.
Yet, there was a cage built around the clock with a huge lock on it. I eventually learnt that the extreme security measures were necessary because a thief had stolen the previous clock. This means the thief either drove a crane into the church, or dragged in at least two ladders and joined them to pull off the heist!
So, here we are today, with a church needing a CCTV camera to keep its belongings safe. CCTV cameras are a feature of many churches all over this continent, including Kenya. When did this we stop fearing God?
Actually, we didn’t. I am not sure what happens in the mosques, but this desecration is happening mostly in the older Protestant and Catholic churches.
In some of the independent and “Born Again” churches, some with their dubious-miracles-conjuring pastors, you don’t mess around. In Nigeria, some pastors have enforcers, with cricket bats, chains, and even hyenas, overseeing the church’s assets and collecting from those who fall behind. You steal the blinged-up pastor’s offerings, you probably will end up under a hyena, not jail.
In Kenya, we have read instances of direct enforcement by the pastor, who rolls up his sleeves and trousers and joins in beating down the thief.
It seems, since we Africans are less likely to steal from places “with an owner” (Pastor Mafaranga who will come after you), we will steer of them, and go more often to those “that belong to nobody” (like the hierarchical Catholic where the earthly boss is a good man who lives in The Vatican, a strange place in the middle of Rome), in much the same way many people steal taxpayers’ money and public property, because they cannot put the name of an individual who lives around the corner on it.
In religious terms, therefore, maybe we are seeing a kind of rogue anthropomorphic fundamentalism going on here. If that grave white, black or brown, man with a long beard who is supposed to be God is not sitting at the entrance with a rungu, they will not fear his goods.
The clergy, though, are increasingly finding ways to achieve “ownership” and bringing people closer to the church in new ways. Early this month, it was reported that the Norwich Cathedral had caused a stir by installing a 55ft fairground ride inside the church.
The aim being to give people a different view of the inside of the building, and a creative way to share the story of the Bible with distracted and straying Christians. The purists were outraged, calling it unprofessional, and a dangerous dumbing down.
Well, when the BBC camera panned the church, a long queue of parents and their children waiting to take a ride had formed. The resident priest said worshipper numbers were at an all-time high.
So, all is not lost then. In the years to come, we can fully expect that forward-looking churches will tithe in cryptocurrency. Will be far harder to steal. And we don’t all have to carry eggs, bread, and biscuits to the offertory on Sunday. We could order them online and have the delivery spaced to the chaplain over the week, to allow for safekeeping.