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Religion on the rise in Nairobi

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Brendan Bannon

(Read caption) Friday prayers at Jamia Mosque in Nairobi, Kenya

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This post is part of the Daily Dispatches project chronicling life in Nairobi, Kenya throughout the month of April.

Congregations are growing across all beliefs in Nairobi. Mike Pflanz explores what faith means to religious leaders and their followers in a fast-changing world.

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The main hall, brick-built with a high tin roof, is packed. The tents outside, three of them, are packed. And still people are streaming in.

Welcome to Winners’ Chapel, early on Easter Sunday morning. As the choir, smartly dressed in white shirts and black skirts, take their seats, a compact man in a charcoal suit jumps to the stage, beneath a sign promising “Financial Fortune Is My Heritage: Deu 8.18.”

This is Senior Pastor David Adeoye, a Nigerian ministering here in Nairobi to what claims to be one of the fastest growing churches in Kenya, an evangelical mission preaching prosperity through sacrifice to Jesus.

The congregation, maybe 2,000-strong, is mixed, as would be expected in this middle-class area lying on the fringes of the city’s largest slum, Kibera.

But everyone is electrified when Pastor Adeoye begins his exhortations for the “spirit of financial bareness” and “aborters of opportunity” to “die by fire in Jesus’ name.”

Phyllis Andanja has been coming here each Sunday for two years. Her eldest son, admitted to hospital with a severe eye infection that doctors said might steal his sight, walked out fit and well days later after she prayed at the Winners’ Chapel, she said.

“This is a place that brings me hope of a better future,” she says, after the 9:30 a.m. service finished. Jemimah Kianga, a retired secretary who said she moved to Nairobi after God told her that her destiny lay in the capital, agrees.

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“Everyday I feel that my faith is growing stronger,” she says. “What is faith? It is the trust that you are not alone in your struggle, that with sacrifice and commitment, good will eventually come to you.”

Worship in Kenya, whether to Christian, Islamic, Hindu or African gods, is on the rise.

Christians – mostly Protestants – make up 83 percent of the country, a total of almost 32 million people, according to results from the 2009 national census. Muslims are the next most populous, at 11 percent, then African traditionalist at 1.6 percent and Hindus (heavily concentrated in the main cities) at 0.1 percent.

The listings for Churches and Church Organizations covers 20 columns over five pages of the Nairobi telephone directory. Hundreds of foreign missionaries – the majority from the US – arrive in the city each year.

Leaders from each religion told Daily Dispatches that congregations are expanding amid a failure of economic growth, trumpeted by the government, to trickle down into the wallets of ordinary Nairobians.

“Many, many people are turning to find refuge or seek solace in all religions,” said Ibrahim Lethome, a Muslim scholar, lawyer, and member of the organizing committee at Nairobi’s Jamia Mosque, the largest in Kenya.

“I would say – and this is the interpretation of our religious scholars – that that’s because of the many problems that people are facing out there.”

The Jamia mosque, dating from 1925, is usually filled to overflowing for Friday prayers, with the congregation spilling out onto the city center streets around it. Part of what draws those crowds, Lethome says, is a marked change in the last decade in the content of each week’s preaching.

“The interpretation of religion is now more liberal, closer to the daily lives of the people, addressing the issues they face,” he said, as the muezzin above him began the call to prayer.

“It used to be something mysterious, strictly spiritual issues, now we can talk about the Ocampo Six, or rising food prices, or what’s happening in Libya.”

In Nairobi, religion has rarely shied away from weighing in on political matters. Congregations trust their priests, pastors and imams, and for that they wield enormous clout.

But where in other countries in Africa, and beyond, that political power has been exploited by faith leaders, often in return for pay from politicians, in Kenya it has largely been used to press for positive change.

There are strident panels drawn from all religions whose pronouncements on corruption, election violence, human rights concerns and even the economy are nearly always front page news.

The Saturday Nation newspaper this weekend splashed with “Churches’ warning to Kibaki and Raila,” with four pages of Christian leaders’ admonishment of the president and prime minister for failing to whip legislators into line.

And unlike in West African countries, in particular, where each religion occupies geographically distinct regions, causing perennial tension along "border" areas where two faiths meet, Kenya’s believers mix-up harmoniously.

“There are families where one brother is a Christian, another is a Muslim, where people marry into different faiths, and there is no problem,” Lethome said.

He warned, however, that “containing” the city’s frustrated, jobless young people, some eyeing extremist websites, some already across the border in Somalia’s Islamist training camps, is “getting very difficult”.

“We’re in a global village, blanket condemnations of Muslims from certain parts of the world, it affects us here,” he says.

“Our continuous dialogue, preaching logic not inflammatory speeches, must carry on, but sometimes we feel like we’re holding back a fire. With time we fear it’s bound to explode.”

This leaching into ancient religions of modern ways is changing other faiths too.

Krishan Kumar Sherma, a senior Hindu priest at the Shree Sanatan Dharam Temple, bemoans the flood of Western culture sweeping Nairobi, and especially his younger congregation’s blind rush towards it.

“People want to live that kind of life, running always to achieve something, to get a big house, to change to be something else,” he said, sat cross-legged on cushions beneath the temple’s soaring octagonal ceiling with 48 colorful paintings of Hindu gods.

“We learn that there is nothing you can take with you to the next life, so what is the point of rushing so hard to find all these material things? Stop, close your eyes. The questions you have are inside, the answers will come from inside.”

That simple message could not be further from Pastor Adeoye’s frenetic crescendo ending his high-octane teachings at the Winners’ Chapel.

“Welcome to your week of financial prosperity,” he roars. “Welcome to your week of open doors in all business, all contracts, all promotions. Money will no longer be scarce, pockets will no longer be empty. Praise the Lord.”

The crowd is on its feet, arms aloft, tears running down the cheeks of some, hope hanging heavy in the air that by next week’s service, the pastor’s promise will have touched them.

The power of Nairobi’s many faiths, really, is that: a comfort in a difficult today, and a hope for a better tomorrow.