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Mysterious Money Ministry: Ilana van Wyk’s A Church of Strangers Launches at UCT

Ilana van Wyk

The launch of Ilana van Wyk’s A Church of Strangers: The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa took the form of a seminar held at the Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town. The author, an anthropologist who found herself going to church daily over a period of 18 months in the name of research, was joined in a vibrant conversation by fellow academic, Fiona Ross, from the Department of Social Anthropology at UCT.

A number of students, colleagues and interested readers arrived to celebrate the publication. They were captivated by Van Wyk’s intriguing account of her research. In particular the unusual relationship with her research assistant, a member of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), with whom she attended services regularly. Her research assistant also accompanied her to interview a traditional healer, acting rudely, pretending to fall asleep and generally being obstructive to the interview process. Van Wyk’s stated antipathy to her “unlikeable” research assistant was discussed in depth at the question and answer session following the discussion.

Van Wyk commenced by sharing her enormous delight at the beauty of Wits Press publication, which presented her work in the way she had envisioned it, with a cover and title that expressed her research experience and her vision of those who chose to worship at UCKG. The first edition of the book, published in hard cover by Cambridge University Press as The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa: A Church of Strangers, costs nearly R2 000, placing it beyond the reach of the South Africans who she most wanted to have access to the book – those ordinary people who most want to understand their family members who belong to UCKG.

Fiona Ross and Ilana van WykA Church of StrangersVan Wyk shared some of the most mysterious aspects about this enormously wealthy organisation. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) is a church of Brazilian origin that has been enormously successful globally, but particularly in post-apartheid South Africa, where it has established branches and attracted a following of millions of people.

There are many perplexing dimensions to this church that elude those who come from traditional Christian backgrounds. Despite the enormous buildings containing many auditoriums that seat some 2 000 people and the extensive grounds surrounding some of the churches, the church is largely invisible to many scholars. Internationally, the UCKG possesses staggering wealth. It has a vast international business empire, with provision stations in Brazil, printing presses, construction companies, publishing houses, travel agencies, their own bank, commercial aeroplanes and parallel businesses, which is where journalists typically focus their attention. “There are a lot of dodgy dealings with drug lords that are suspected and made much of,” she said.

Unlike other Pentecostal Charismatic Churches, where the focus is on community building and relationships, the UCKG insists that relationships with God be devoid of emotions. Socialisation between members is discouraged and charity and fellowship are seen as useless in materialising God’s blessings. Instead, the UCKG urges members to sacrifice large sums of money to God for delivering wealth, health, social harmony and happiness. Additionally, very little actual Bible reading is part of the theology.

“With branches in over 80 countries, it is strange that South Africa is its most successful mission country,” Van Wyk said. She sought as an academic to ask why it was that South Africans were so drawn to a church that was unfamiliar. The estimated membership here is in excess of a million people. “It has started to give the ZCC a run for its money. By 1997, with a handful of churches in the country, South Africa was contributing US$10 million to its coffers. Now with 320 branches, that amount has exploded, but remains secret,” she said.

Van Wyk said that though outsiders condemn these rituals as empty or manipulative, this book shows that they are locally meaningful, demand sincerity to work, have limits and are informed by local ideas about human bodies, agency and ontological balance. As an ethnography of people rather than of institutions, this book offers fresh insights into the mass Pentecostal Charismatic Churches movement that has swept across Africa since the early 1990s.

Those who attended this remarkable event enjoyed the author’s enthusiastic recall of the various challenges she undertook in the pursuit of a non-judgemental understanding of those who worship in a way seems to many to be inexplicable to many. A few people in the audience took her on, suggesting that perhaps she had not, in fact, succeeded in this. The lively discussion gave all present much food for thought, and was a good indication of a truly irresistible read.

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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:


 

 
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