AYO ORITSEJAFOR, CAN PRESIDENT
'I want to hear amen like thunder!' His voice, resonating between lower tenor and upper baritone, tears through the giant speakers and reverberates through the expansive church auditorium with the force of a tornado. Totally enveloped in the spirit, as his parishioners are wont say, words fly out of his mouth with the force of thunder. Sometimes, he would take measured steps forward, stop and gaze at his enraptured congregation, before he begins to speak with a surge of energy that belies his age.
But, never ask Pastor Ayodele Joseph Oritsejafor, founder and senior pastor of Word of Life Bible Church, in oil-rich Warri, Delta State. He will never tell you. 'What has age got to do with this?' He would retort as many times as you pose the question.
Of a truth, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor is not your run-of-the- mill preacher. He is a zealot for the word, if you permit. But if you knew where he came from, if you knew how deep he sank in the world of illicit drugs and cultism, you would hardly be surprised at his zeal for the gospel.
As they say in Christendom, the fiery preacher 'fell' under the anointing of the late Archbishop of the Church of God Mission, Benin City, Prof. Benson Idahosa. It was in 1972, at the peak of Oritsejafor's notoriety as a cultist and drug addict. And his life never remained the same after that encounter. He began to preach almost immediately. 'Most people have a choice in the selection of their careers,' says Oritsejafor, the incumbent CAN president. 'In my case, I didn't have a choice other than to be a minister of God.'
Reason? He says his mother had made a covenant with God, long before he was conceived, that should she bear a son, he would be dedicated to God. He would serve God. And that came to pass.
Pastor Oritsejafor, immediate past president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) who made history, last year, when he was elected president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, the first Pentecostal pastor to hold the position, has been accused of pulling weird stunts while preaching. He often does not deny this. 'It is not my doing,' he says. 'I cannot explain myself. When the Holy Ghost controls you, there is no way you can control it. You just allow the Holy Ghost to do whatever He wants to do with you.'
A prolific author, 'Papa', as the teeming following of the flamboyant cleric call him, has taken the gospel to every continent of the world, having organised crusades and power conferences around the globe.
In 1980, Oritsejafor made a debut as a powerful tele-evangelist with his power-packed television programme, Hour of Deliverance, which is aired on many local and international television channels, as well as some satellite stations. Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor Ministries was the first to launch a Miracle Crusade, the Lagos Miracle Crusade, straight from the heart of Africa to audiences across the world, via satellite, in 1987, with Evangelist Joe Martin.
Blunt and fearless as ever, Oritsejafor, in this encounter, speaks about everything under the sun. Except his age.
Here are the excerpts:
I just witnessed a programme at which you gave out six cars, 10 tricycles, 500 bags of rice and so on. I learnt this is the sixth consecutive year you have held this empowerment programme in your church. Why do you do this? Is it because it is religious injunction or what?
I think most of it would probably be because of where I came from. Any normal person coming from my kind of background that would not take care of poor people must be crazy. And I am not crazy. Every time I touch the lives of the poor, it reminds me of days when I had no food to eat. Things were so bad that sometimes, I would stay in the street for days, in search of something to eat. I lived like that. So, whenever I see poor people, they remind me of where I am coming from and the life I lived as a child.
I wonder why, sometimes, Africans who had been poor and suddenly become rich become arrogant. I don't know why. It puzzles me because, to me, it should remind you of where you are coming from. Every time I see poor, hungry and struggling people, they remind me of the days I had no food to eat. When I say no food, I mean no food.
Some of those people who won the items are not even members of your church…
We don't look at all that. I don't care whether or not you are a member of my church or even a Christian; because, for me, a human being is a human being made by God. God is not going to ask me about the man's religion. He's going to ask me: 'Did you see that man? Did you see that woman?' I may not like the things you do, but that doesn't change you from being a human being. We can change this country. All it would take is just a few more people to have a good heart and to want to reach out to help so as to redeem Nigeria. I thank God for the privilege I have to do it. I have had a fulfilled Christmas.
About a month ago, we gave out N20, 000 each to 141 persons. What's N20, 000 that I can spend just at the snap of my fingers? But as some of them got that, I could see their faces light up with joy. What are we doing to ourselves in this country? I still can't understand. There are people in this country that have so much money, who don't know how much they have. These are the people who can literally change and transform a city. But ask some of them to take you to their towns. I won't mention names; but just ask them: can we go to your town? The place you call home? You would be shocked that some of them don't even own a house there. Is this not madness?
Can we discuss your early childhood? What was it like?
I didn't really come from a poor family as such. That's my father (pointing to a framed photo on the wall in his office). I think he was trying how to tie a wrapper (laughter). My father used to wear suits. I grew up to know my grandfather too. He too used to wear double-breasted suits with pocket-handkerchief. So, that's the kind of family I come from. I didn't really come from a poor family as such, but some things went wrong for me.
One aspect of what went wrong was that my father died when I was just four years old. Then, that finished everything. You are an African, so I am sure you would understand what happened. So, my mother had to remarry. And naturally, most men don't like to carry excess luggage. I don't blame my mother; she was so young. She had to go on with her life. So, they had to move me to uncles. My mother went to the United Kingdom. I started moving from one uncle to another. It got to a point that my whole luggage in life was contained in one black nylon bag.
In a nylon bag?
In fact, I didn't even know what I had. I think I had something like a bag. But it wasn't a real bag.
How many were you?
There were only two of us. I have an elder sister. She's a chief. Funny enough, they left her with my grandmother. She basically stayed there. Probably because I was a boy, I don't know, but they just kept moving me from one place to another. In fact, I never could tell how long I would stay in a place. In some places, I stayed for three days; and they would just say, 'pack!' And I would pack my things, get into the car or whatever. We would arrive somewhere and they would say: ''this is your home. So and so is your uncle. So and so is your aunty.' I would sit in a corner. If they liked, they would show me a corner to sleep. It could be on the floor. It could be in the parlour or anywhere. Just one corner.
I went through that for years. And that hardened me. It got to a point I almost had no feelings. Life meant nothing. I was hooked on drugs. We used to have a lot of tablets; different kinds of tablets. You take some to take you up, and some to take you down. I just wandered away. I lost hope in everything and anything. Things got so bad that one day, I was walking along the Marina, near where PHCN office is now, and I started crying like a baby.
I was really high (on drugs). But I was crying like a child. I asked myself whether there was God. I was tired of life. That was how bad it was. That's the kind of background I came from. You can't go lower than that. My mother came back. But at that point, my life was really messed up.
So, at what age did you give your life to Christ?
I don't talk about my age. If I give you that now, you would figure out my age. And I don't like people knowing my age.
What's is it about your age that you guide it so jealously?
Well, I don't just talk about it.
Ok, what year did you receive Christ?
In 1972. Actually, November 2, 1972 was when I had an encounter with Christ. Then, I started meeting good people. God had started helping me. I had begun to go to school. New things had started happening in my life. Then, I found myself in a privileged position.
Where was this?
It was in Sapele here. In fact, between February 14 and18 (2012), some friends from the United States and I would be doing a crusade at the very place where I gave my life to Christ 40 years ago.
What happened when or after you cried at Marina?
Three months after that, I came to Sapele from Lagos. I went out one night to buy Indian hemp. Where I was buying it, somebody gave me a handbill inviting me to a crusade. I said to him, 'you must be sick. How do you give people like me invitation to a crusade?' Anyhow, I took it. Somehow, I didn't forget about it. It was just there in my mind. Finally, on that day, I took a friend and we went to the crusade. I was half-drunk.
We got there; I heard the gospel preached very clearly, for the first time. That was how I came out during the altar call and gave my life to Christ. My friend didn't want me to come out but I did anyway. It was dramatic. The word had changed my life. It was so drastic that people who knew me couldn't believe. Just imagine: one day, I was an addict, addicted to all kinds of illicit substances; the next day, I had become a preacher, preaching from house to house.
It was very dramatic. I was already preaching. I bought a Bible the next day after I gave my life to Christ, and I was going from house to house, preaching. The people actually thought I had lost my mind, because it was hard to believe. People, who knew me yesterday as a drug addict, and now, today, suddenly see me with a bible, going around and saying: 'Jesus loves you,' thought it was too dramatic to be true. In fact, some people ran to my mother's house to tell her that 'your son has gone mad!' Yes, everybody thought I was crazy.
A few weeks after that, I actually bought a tambourine, went to the market. I was playing it and dancing. People would gather and then I would preach to them. So, they said, 'finally, he's gone. He has gone into the market.' You know, when craze don go market, dem no dey fit cure that one again. That's the belief of our people. They actually believed that I was gone. To go into the market was the extreme a mad person could go. So, people actually gathered to sympathise with me, but I ended up preaching to them to give their lives to Christ.
Before your encounter in 1972, did you ever imagine that you would become a preacher?
Most people had a choice in the selection of their careers. In my case, I didn't have a choice other than to be a minister of God. So, I knew I would end up being this based on the covenant my mother had with God.
My mother, in search of a male child, had told God that she was going to dedicate the child to God, if it eventually comes. But after my birth, she forgot her own part of the deal. She forgot her own part of the agreement. It was in 1979 when I was making my first trip to the US that she suddenly remembered the promise she made to God and she broke down in tears. I told her she should be happy instead of crying. She told me: 'Sit down, let me tell you something. I never told you this because I forgot.' My mother said to me that my father, at a point, got another wife. My mother was desperate to have a male child. She was a Baptist. She went to the church and told God that if He gave her a male child, she would give him back to God. She said that aspect of the prayer, she had forgotten to tell me.
My mother told me she had just come to understand that when I was born, for the first five years, I couldn't talk. I couldn't talk for five years. She said after my fifth birthday, I started talking. So, I now understood why the pull to do something for God was so strong. God was just claiming what belongs to Him. So, there was no way I could have become anything else other than preacher of the word. I was one of those few people who had a call even before they were born.
Who was that friend you were with the day you were born again, and where is he now?
Unfortunately, he died six months after I gave my life to Christ. My friend called me a fool when I gave my life, and he died six months after that conversation. If being a fool is being alive, I better remain a fool. He was wise and died. I was a fool and I lived, and I'm still living. I thank God that I was a fool and I think I prefer to remain a fool. If this is what He does to fools, I better remain one. Honestly, I don't think I would have lasted up till now if not for His intervention. I was one of the very few people, until that time, who hated anything that had to do with Christendom. It never interested me. I never saw anything interesting and good in Christianity.
So, how did he die?
As unbelievers, we got into cults. One of them was connected to a snake. We were involved in all kinds of crimes, but I never slept in a police cell one day. I really thought I had all the powers. The life I lived was crazy. But I denounced all that stuff that night I gave my life to Christ. Six months later, a physical snake crawled into his house, bit him and he died.
What do you think you would have been now if you didn't give your life to Christ the day you did?
I would have been dead. Let me just tell you that straightaway. I know. I don't need a prophet to tell me that, because the way my life was going, it was obvious. I said I started crying at a point. I didn't see any ray of hope. There was no meaning to this life. We were smoking Indian hemp on empty stomach. There were days I lived in a joint where they sold hemp. I lived there. I slept there. There was free hemp, but no food. So, if they paid you, you could kill. You could do anything for money.
There are so many desperate young men like that today. Any time I go to Moloney area (of Lagos), where my church is, where I grew up, the moment the boys who know my history, even among the present-day boys, get to hear that I am around, they would come in droves. I still give them something.
You said you went to the US…
What was it for?
I went to the bible school. I was already preaching, but I just wanted to help myself a little more.
By the time you were being moved around, how did that affect your education?
It messed things up completely. It messed me up big time. It got to a point when I hated to go to school. I hated to go to school. You see, I don't pray for my enemy to have some of those experiences that I had. Sometimes, you wonder what your own flesh and blood can do to you. You wonder if these people were really your flesh and blood.
You do all sorts of things when you preach, like taking off your shoes, hopping here and there, and so on. Why?
I do some crazy things at times on the pulpit that I cannot really explain myself. It is not my doing. I cannot explain myself. When the Holy Ghost controls you, there is no way you can control it. You just allow the Holy Ghost to do whatever He wants to do with you. Or can you control the Holy Ghost?
Would you describe the death of your wife in 1996 as one of the low points in your life?
She was a very interesting personality. Her death touched me just like the death of my father who died when I was very young. She was somebody, until her death I could not do without. It was, indeed, a very sad day for me. Her death was strange to me because she was actually recovering. She just collapsed. She spent 20 years of her life with me. I discovered at that point that God does not commit greatness to untested soldiers. He commits greatness to people who have been tested and are being tested.
When you lost your first wife, you had to remarry. How did you meet her?
Well, that is a long story now. I met her a year after the death of my first wife. God gave her to me so she could wipe away my sorrows and tears. That was exactly what she did. She was a member of the church. She used to own an engineering company. She actually studied Mass Communication but she owned a company here in Lagos. She knows a lot about building. So, by the time we got married, she helped me a lot in the finishing of the building. Till tomorrow, she helps me because I am not very good at many things. I am very grateful to God for giving her to me because she is a rare gem.
You're a very trendy preacher. Do you set out to make a fashion statement?
When you look at me, don't look at what I wear? I like to look nice. Most of the things I wear are cheap materials, but because of my personality, people think they are expensive. I naturally know how to combine colours. Most people do not understand that when you look at Ayo, you need to ask and find out who he really is. Where am I coming from?
Most people don't really know how I got to where I am today. A lot of people talk of success without sweat. It sounds good. But I can tell you that if you find success without sweat, you are going to sweat to keep that success. From Genesis to Revelation, God will not commit greatness to an untested soldier.
Can you let us into the money, time and energy that were put into building this church?
That will be difficult to do. I cannot really say how much we spent on the church. To be frank with you, I don't know. This is because most of the work was done by the members, mostly by direct labour. They are the ones, in most cases, who finished the church. If not for the members, I do not think we would come this far. Some people do ask why I decided to have such a gigantic church. My answer is that in l987, I was going through a transition in my life and ministry. I made up my mind that I was going to leave Warri to come to Lagos because when I gave my life to Christ, the Lord told me that He was returning me to my root and I thought it was Lagos because that was where I was born. But in the process of the thought, two things happened: God gave me a vision where he showed me thousands of souls and a building, a very huge building that would seat over 30,000 people.
There was nothing like it anywhere in this country when I started building the church. It was there He told me that from this place (Warri), you would take my word to the world. I just described what I saw in the vision to the architects; the rest, as they say, is history. If God is not with you, there is no way you can build such a place and build it in Warri. The church is in the middle of where the crisis is. I have realised why He allowed me to build it. It is because of the crisis. Everybody is a member of the church, irrespective of your dialect. The church is a rallying point. The Bible does not discriminate and the Scripture has taught us not to discriminate. Discrimination is not in the Bible.
You said you were once a bad boy. What do you think led you into doing those horrible things?
I think when God wants to use you, He picks you from somewhere. He does not pick those who do not have a past. I think, I got involved in those vices through peer groups. It started through simple smoking before I graduated into hard drugs. It became a normal thing for me to smoke. I was no more interested in ordinary cigarettes. I preferred to be in company with those smoking marijuana and I thought it was fun doing it at that time. All the money I had, I preferred to smoke with it than eat or buy clothes. That was how bad I was.
When eventually Mama came back, how easy was it for you to forgive her?
It wasn't easy, let me tell you. Don't go too far. I am a pastor, so I should tell the truth. I don't know if I really completely forgave her. I don't know. I am being very honest with you. I don't know if I totally, completely forgave her.
What would make you cry for Nigeria?
I cry for this nation quite often. I cried even this morning. The bombing in Madalla, near Abuja, broke my heart. Sometimes, I feel powerless. You think you could help, but you don't have the chance. You don't have the opportunity or anything to be able to help. Sometimes, I also feel bad because sometimes, I feel so close to being able to help but can't really do so. It's so bad.
How did you receive the news of the Christmas Day bombing in Madalla?
I had come to the office after the first service. I checked my phone, and then saw the text somebody sent. That just finished me. I went into the second service confused. I had to pretend to be normal because I didn't want to ruin everybody's joy. Let me be honest with you, it's not easy being a Christian now in Nigeria. It's not easy. It's even harder being a leader of Christians, because you watch things that otherwise shouldn't been happening to your own people. And sometimes, you just wonder. It's not good.
What is the greatest Christmas gift you ever received?
I think the greatest gifts I have received are my three children. If you know my story, you would know where I am coming from. So, for me, those are my greatest gifts.
What are the three things you fear most?
The thing I fear most would happen to me, in my different capacities as a Nigerian, as a pastor and as a Christian leader, is the thought that Christianity could actually be wiped out of this nation. It frightens me to see the way things are going. I pray a day would not come when you hear something like Islamic Republic of Nigeria. And in my own brand of Christianity, I say, God forbid!
Are you suggesting there's a grand plot to Islamise this country?
I am of very strong opinion that there's a grand plot to Islamise Nigeria. If there was any time that grand design was true, it's now. Look at it. Open your eyes and see it. It's there. It's on ground. It's happening before our very eyes.
But we are not going to keep quiet. We are going to be having some meetings to discuss and decide on the way forward for Nigeria and what next for Christianity in Nigeria. Because, if we do not talk to ourselves, and decide on what to do, they would wipe us out. It's a gradual process. When it happens today, we console ourselves. We say to ourselves, it's not going to happen tomorrow. It's not going to stop. Who is benefiting from all these things? Go to Maiduguri. Go to Yobe State. Christians are been slaughtered like animals. And many are running away. Who's benefiting? Who's taking over everything? Who? Answer it for yourself.
What implication does this have for our unity?
There's no unity in Nigeria. We're pretenders. We're hypocrites. There's no unity in Nigeria. There's none.
Some people have called for a forum such as a sovereign national conference to discuss Nigeria …
I support it. Call it anything. Some don't like the word, 'sovereign.' Some like the word 'national.' Some don't like the word 'national,' they don't like 'sovereign.' Call it anything you want, but I think it's important for all the nationalities in this country to sit down and discuss the project, Nigeria. Let's talk about it. Let's talk honestly. Let's face fact. Let's agree or disagree.
Let's agree to stay together or disagree and go apart, peacefully. We don't have to kill each other. Must we be together? I love for us to be together. Honestly, I believe that Nigeria has more to gain by being together, because part of the greatness of a nation is its diversity. I believe that. I believe we can negotiate ourselves into a very good union. But we're not there yet. We must do that because we see this thing coming. A group of people cannot gradually take over a place.
You see, when some of us talk, they label us. But let's face the fact; Tunisia was totally Christian at one time. Don't you know that? Go and read your history. Turkey that we're talking about now was completely Christian. There are lots of cities in the New Testament (Bible) that are still there in Turkey. Go through the whole of North Africa; Libya that you're looking at today was all Christian. This was how it started. Gradually. Gradually, they swept Christianity out.
The ones they couldn't conquer by force, they conquered by economics. Nigerians should open their eyes wide, because there's not only a violent jihad going on, there is also an economic, religious and political jihad. All these are happening in this country. I think it's time for us to start speaking. And that's why I am talking now, because what happened yesterday (Christmas Day bombing of a church in Niger State) is unacceptable. Totally unacceptable.