I used to be a church boy. My earliest recollections of being active in church dates back to St. Mary’s Catholic Primary School, Ondo with its white and pale blue uniforms, blocks of stepped classrooms and a rocky terrain that formed the perfect backdrop for our large playground – exaggerated by a child’s point of view. My precocious tenor and effeminate features had earned me a place in the school choir and the elite corps of altar boys who served at every Mass. We sang hallelujahs, wore pretty white choral robes and completed the haloed sanctity of the school masses with our childhood innocence. I can still smell incense and hear the jangling thuribles at those masses amidst the solemnity of it all.
Being a child then, I can’t recall whether or not I had a connection with the spiritual experience of my childhood religious adventure with the Catholic Church. What I clearly remember though is the plangent response of ‘Hosanna in the highest’ from a crowd of worshippers as we sang, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ and the strong desire I always had to participate in the worship rituals. After my year five in primary school, the proprietor of my school – a matronly reverend sister, had asked my parents if they would allow me to proceed to the seminary and study to become a Catholic priest someday. My parents’ vehement refusal – not understood by me then, had been the only thing that held me back and probably altered the course of my life. Now that I’m older, I sneer at the thought of my father pondering over the thought of a barren scion on the family tree in the name of religion.
Thus, the hopes of becoming a Catholic priest dashed, I went on to a normal secondary school where yet again my love for music attracted me to the school choir and my preference for books over footballs, solitude over noise, surrender over fights drew me closer to the ‘good boys’ – who were also the ‘church boys’. Despite my general predisposition to being a ‘good boy’, what I observed in that phase of my development was the consternation I had for doctrinal guidelines and basically anything that looked like a rule. I had grown up a vast reader and I had been encouraged to ask questions on things I did not understand. I had also been brought up in a home where I had earned the independence to take my decisions and be responsible for it from a much earlier age than most of my contemporaries. So, I was not a ‘thou shalt not’ kid; and in those days, I questioned everything. Why would I go to hell if I decided to stay in the hostel on Sunday rather than come to church? Why was Jesus the only way? Why was it a pre-requisite to speak in tongues I did not understand or was fully convinced of its origin? Why did the heavenly tongues all sound alike and were mostly repetitions or plosive syllables?
The questions were many and the answers were few and underlying my acceptance of the religion was the notion of faith. I was told that I needed to have faith in the things I did not see or could not understand. Unfortunately, my questioning often earned me nicknames like ‘atheist’ and ‘unbeliever’; and the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ came time and time again to me from concerned friends. Where was the line between faith and the practical application of the things I had read in my many books? How much could I cede to the mysterious while still retaining my humanity in the quest to know? Such was my dilemma in those days of ‘finding out’ and I did have faith as much as I could and where my faith was lacking, I acted out my Christianity to fit into the crowd.
As time passed, the maroon years of teenage passed with fleeting images that my memory can’t fixate upon any longer: images of choir masters and choir robes and the continuous grey boundaries between church music for art’s sake and church music for God sakes. Note upon note, I sang my way through choral works of Handel and the indefatigable works of early English missionaries in the Anglican mass choir of my home church, arriving at church early and leaving late, caught up on the discovery of a new world of music and the sprouting breasts of alto girls that sat in the pews ahead of us in tenor. Yet even then my questioning mind still threw up questions. Why was it that our cultural religions were over-ridden by Christianity with the flimsy excuse that it was evil and Christianity was good? Why were our cultural relics – items we once called gods, considered as witchcraft while the rosary, canticles and censers of our imperial lords were more holy? Why did I sing English missionary songs in an African church? Why was I reluctant to sing ‘Jerusalem’ by Sir Hubert Parry during a choral anniversary event where our choir master decided that it was the appropriate song for the event.
It was because there was something not quite right for me with singing,
“I will not cease from Mental Fight;
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand;
Till we have built Jerusalem;
In England’s green & pleasant Land”
Unfortunately, this position was not appreciated by my choirmaster in those days who quickly labeled me a renegade.
My reluctance to sing Parry’s Jerusalem is a past event that explains my mind-set in the quest for connecting with my spirituality – or just about any other thing. A position guided most of the time by the question of whether or not it ‘feels’ right. And if it doesn’t, asking questions and finding the answers. Consequently, I started to get involved in studies of the occult and a self-directed adventure into the Muslim faith reading a bit of the Quranic documentation of the life of the Prophet Mohammed (SAW). I read a lot from Lobsang Rampa’s paper backs on astral travel, enlightenment and levitation (despite being told that reading them would make me mad); I read Deepak Chopra’s pieces on Buddha and Jesus; and numerous issues of the bi-monthly publication of Jehovah’s witnesses that I inherited from my grandfather. I sought other worlds and explored other religions beyond the Bible and I found similarities and differences in each religion as it tried to explain the existence of a higher being. I also found out an almost plagiarized similarity between the Christian bible and the Holy Qur’an.
As those golden years of enlightenment (or maybe it was confusion) passed, I emerged a ‘kind of Christian’ one who had undergone some spiritual change nonetheless but one who harboured lots of conflicts but suppressed them by buying in into the sub-culture of Christianity prevalent in the University I attended in my undergraduate days. For anyone who attended the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife they will connect personally with my experience. A liberal school – with vast grounds, O.A.U (as it is aliased) boasts more Christian groups than most other Nigerian institutions that I know of. Every available communal space in the institution was usually converted into a praying ground – badminton and tennis courts, football fields, butteries, car parks, classrooms, corridors and just about any space where a gathering could be organised was used for these prayers. Church fellowships were proliferated vastly with as many names as could be permutated from abbreviated letters with ‘S’ and ‘F’ as a regular feature. ASF, BSF, CSF … the S’s and the F’s usually being ‘student’ and ‘fellowship’. Some were linked to parent churches on the outside while others were not. In all of the esseffism, I understood a lot less than I could find answers to so I kept away from it and joined an orthodox church similar to my Catholic and Anglican background – for me, the orthodox sects had more order to it and less religious entropy. Yet, the questions never stopped coming. Why did I feel as though Sundays were days to show off our clothes? Why were most pastors male and not female? Why did my classmates who were not pastors call my classmates who were pastors, sir and bowed down for them as though we weren’t all in the same class?
I did not understand and at times I did not try to. Most times I concluded that there was some massive social construct in the name of God. But in all, I knew God existed – by faith and my a logical thought on the order this world and I knew Jesus, like Mohammed and some of the other prophets of other doctrines, existed as historical figures. Encountering the life of Jesus through the words of the bible, I found him to be a person – not a mystical figure, but a person who had a strong spiritual connection with God and preached nothing more than compassion and genuine love for one another. It was my own way of explaining it and it suited me fine. And I developed a me-Christianity around that, acting out socially where I needed to fit into the Christian social milieu but constantly withdrawing myself from the nerve centre of the construct.
Thus creating my place of temporary peace, I passed through O.A.U and left its praying grounds behind – emerging into a larger society that stirred more turbulence within my unsettled soul. Without giving room to a retrospective approach to writing of the present, I will say that my brief educational sojourn in the United Kingdom contributed most to the turbulence of which I speak. Being a Nigerian who grew up with a partial understanding that most people in the world were Christian’s or Moslems, I found another world where I had friends who were atheists, Chinese Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus and many other indifferents. I also had friends who were Christians but who professed Christianity in a far different manner than that which I was used to. It opened a broader world to me that in all honesty compounded my confusion. Such that on returning back to my home society, the conflicts had been magnified and my questions were more.
Why did I feel as though most churches in Nigeria were money making ventures? Why was the church always hung up on offerings to expand the church or buy instruments rather than to give? Why were churches rarely ever donors to charitable courses? On the contrary they were always recipients. Why were there large churches owned by individuals, funded by collectives who rarely ever had an equity stake in the assets of the church? Why do poor people still go to church and give their last tithe? Why has there not been visible change directed by the church in a society where the government has failed? I must confess that these questions, in the context of my Christianity broke me and led me to disillusionment never before felt in my chequered spiritual history. I stopped attending church altogether and focused on being compassionate and showing love like my vicarious friend Jesus. I shunned doctrine and rites and religious rituals. I gave my offering to the needy as opposed to the church and every now and then got into heated debates with other Christians on my point of view.
Alas! Here I am. Church boy nearly turned priest now turned religious activist – with no place of peace. Had I been led on all this while by a spiritual experience or by just following the music? I cannot tell. What I know or perhaps what I believe now is that truly there are questions; questions I may never find answers to but questions I will ask nonetheless. And in finding those answers, I will try to discount the societal inconsistencies that so glaringly beset me and look to Jesus, the author and finisher of my faith. I will try to develop a personal relationship based on spiritual honesty and obedience to the tenets of Christianity, which I’ve come to conclude, bears no ill. And place less emphasis on Nigerian Christian practice which I have observed, arises from a need to be free from want and need rather than a true desire to find the truth. But who am I to judge a people by the actions of some? As I work at rediscovering myself in this quest for the truth, I long for a place of peace and I pray to God almighty to enable me find it. I also long for a the evolution of Christians, Muslims and even Idol worshippers; whose profession is truth and whose honesty will shine through, beyond the bastions of need and want; past horizons of social conformity and colonial throwbacks. I long to find answers and I long to see the change that can come from a nation of truly Godly people – notwithstanding the route through which they have each chosen to manifest their godliness.
Osundolire Ifelanwa is an Architect, a writer, and a recipient of the British Council Innovation 360 awards. He is the author of ‘On A Lot Of Things’.