OUR FAMILY WAS SO POOR WE COULDN'T AFFORD 3 SQUARE MEAL
Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo is the Senior Pastor of Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC). He is a motivational speaker and a successful businessman. He is the author of over 75 books.
Born into a Muslim home, Ashimolowo, who got converted by reading a gospel tract, is not only the founder of KICC but also has the highest population of church members in Europe.
In a chat with Saturday Sun , he spoke about his humble beginning and specifically took time to debunk allegation that he ran away from the United Kingdom to evade tax.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I was born 58 years ago in Kaduna, in the northern part of Nigeria on the March 17, 1952. I was born to Muslim parents. I am the fourth in a family five children. As the son of a military officer, my father was constantly transferred on official duties and this meant that my family was always on the move. Before I repented, I had a Muslim name, which was Ahmed. The first 14 years of life was lived in the North. I came down to the South sometime in December1966 following the uprisings by the North, when people of the eastern region were being killed by hooligans and given mass burial. At that time, Chief Obafemi Awolowo then advised us in Yoruba: 'Whatever that killed your neighbour is warning you to run for your life.' One day, one long train collected all the soldiers who were of Yoruba origin from Kano and Kaduna and stopped at the military barracks in Ibadan.
I attended army school, where I got my O'level and went to Bible school, which was 36 years ago. After Bible school, I began as an assistant Pastor in Foursquare Gospel Church, Somolu in December1976. They decided to send me to England, not as a student but a minister in the church. I was their pastor from February 1984 to September 1992 before I stepped down to start KICC. Pastor Matthew is married to Pastor Yemisi. They have 2 sons, Tobi and Tomi.
What was your growing up days like?
Mine was extremely difficult; we were very poor, to the extent that poor people referred to us as paupers. Probably, because my dad joined the army with what we call other ranks, i.e. corporal, sergeant and others. It was after the war that he became a lieutenant. He was also a compulsive gambler; he played Pools all his life. During those days, three meal daily or, eating was a problem. As I speak, I do not have mental memory of my family seating around the table to eat food. We were champions at bend down boutique; then it was called 'okirika wake up.' Almost all our clothes were second hand materials, except those that were given to us by family friends.
I was born in 1952. In Kaduna, we were in the poor area of Kaduna, places like Jos road, Benin street, Ogbomoso road.
Those houses had no electricity, but still we couldn't afford the rent. At a point, my family moved to live in a village known as Baniko, near Kaduna because we could not afford the rent. I was shocked, after 35 to 36 year of living in Kaduna, I went to Baniko village, in 2001, to see the place and discovered that it is now part of Kaduna. If you get there you will not believe I am telling the truth. Childhood was very tough, In fact, there was an occasion, sometime in 1965, there was no food in the house; it was so bad that something just instigated me to go and report my dad to his commanding officer. I just walked straight to the commanding officer's office; that time it was Major Njoku, who later moved to the East, during the civil war, to become General Njoku. I told him then that I had come to report my dad; that there was no food in the house. He sent a soldier to call my dad, I felt sorry for him. That was how poor we were.
In that kind of atmosphere, there are people who are poor but they discipline and watch over their kids; my dad was an absentee father. Most times, I played truancy from school. They wouldn't know that I was not going to school. I would just join the area boys.
How did you manage to pay your school fees?
Thank God, soldiers' children attended school without paying a dime. When we found ourselves later in life in fee-paying schools we dropped out. At that time I knew that I had so much in my mind and was very brilliant. What I did was to pursue my studies, to read more. It was in the course of doing that that I got born again.
What are the unique things you learnt about your father when he was alive?
In spite of my father's disposition, being an absentee father, he also had great love for me. He loved me more than the other children. I am the only one who never left home. My sister and brother had to live somewhere because of poverty, but I never left home until my father left for civil war and never came back. He was compassionate to a fault. Even when we don't have food, he will give his last kobo to outsiders. He had the gift of counselling, which is one of his good traits I inherited.
What could be the reason you decided to toe the line of ministry?
My journey into Christendom was a gradual process. It was in 1972, at the age of 22, that I got born again. That very day, I was in a drunken state, when I saw this tract in my friend's house. I picked the gospel track, read it and decided to get born again. It was also a period I was also trying to pass my o'levels so that I could go to the Nigerian Defence academy (NDA). I also desired to be a soldier, but as an officer, as I did not want to go through the same rigours that my father passed through.
When I got born again I discovered that the passion for preparing for my o'levels was not there again. I found out that I wanted to share the word of God with everybody; my overwhelming dream was to preach Jesus. In the middle of that, I was living on a church parsonage and an evangelist who came visiting told me that I look like someone who the call of God might be on his life. That was when I got to know that the power of God was living inside me. She gave me the address of a Bible school in Ikorodu, where I eventually attended. It was a gradual process, I got born again, had passion for God, someone introduced me to a Bible school. I attended and began as an assistant pastor in Foursquare Gospel Church. Eight years after graduation, they decided to send me to England, where I later started my own ministry. That is my story.
Can you share some of your experiences during counselling in church?
Nowadays, I do not do too many counselling because I have a lot of pastors all around me. But the days I was into counselling people, I discovered that all human problems are the same. I also observed that no matter your status, you have a weakness of strength, something to overcome, something to learn about, the greatest thing is to be able to reach out to people and help them. The greatest thing in life is for me to be a minister of the gospel because it gives me opportunity to do a unique work. When you stand on Sunday to preach, there is a professor in the service, a woman who never went to school and both want to get something from the message of the day. You will have to be able to communicate in a way that you are effective to the professor and the woman. The ministry is very intriguing and enchanting.
In the course of your ministry, have you ever been sexually harassed?
Sexual harassment is everywhere. Mine was in Bible school. There was a young man who was next door to the church; there was the sister who had interest in me. She was a divorcee, that was 1975, I was 23 plus. I told her no, because I had a commitment with God. A minister must learn to create system by which he handles sex advances by making sure they don't come near by creating walls that break the possibilities. In KICC, you have to book an appointment; the pastor will counsel you, in an atmosphere where the door is not locked. No counselling should exceed 30minutes. When I got to England, I put CCTV in my room, so that the secretary will see whatever was happening in my room. The fact remains that a man is attracted to a woman sometimes because of beauty, her own interest and behaviour. A woman is attracted to a man, especially a pastor, because, he is a symbol of power. Sometimes, if you look at the pastor, he does not look great.
With the proliferation of churches in Nigeria, do you think that is way to salvation?
Well, there isn't enough formation of churches in Lagos. Number one, Lagos has up to 15 million people. According to the United Nations, by the year 2015 there is likely to be 25 million people in Lagos. Even out of 15 million people I can assure you that with the number of churches in Lagos, one million Lagosians don't go to church. So that settles that.
Are you also in support of the fact that men of God no longer preach salvation but prosperity?
When it comes to preaching prosperity, essentially the church should preach the principles of God, the total order of salvation. Jesus said baptise them with the holy spirit; preach salvation, through grace, living the victorious life, the rapture, the second coming of Christ etc. In several ways, this teaching by these churches has helped many Nigerian to survive despotic non-feeling goverments. We have a country, where one government minister wants to build a runway with money that will build western airport. The only thing that has helped Nigeria is that the churches are teaching people how to prosper by starting your own business, be empowered, be successful, dream and actualize your dreams.
It is the principles that are being taught in these churches that people used to open small businesses and sustain their family, while they have the government approve trillions in budget and never see it. So it is these very churches we are bastardising and attacking that are teaching young men and women how to be responsible people.
The message of prosperity is not what I will preach in Saudi Arabia, where no tax is charged and education and free accommodation even exist for the poor. It is not the message I will preach if I live in Dubai, where everybody is bringing money, including our governor and dumping it there. I believe the church needs to preach it. If you travel out of Nigeria and go to Congo and Kenya, where no one is teaching them how to prosper, they only concentrate on just how to survive.
Despite what is widely believed by Christians about divorce, men of God divorce and remarry. What is your take on divorce?
Some people are quoting the Bible out of context. Initially, when God created marriage he wanted it to be permanent. In the days of Moses, the damage done by people made Moses approve the principle of divorce. Jesus gave sound grounds for divorce. In the church, the man swears that his body belongs to his wife. If I see somebody else, that means that bond has been broken. If a covenant has been broken, it does not exist anymore. Can you now call any of them and say that he or she cannot re-marry? Some churches are unable to honestly look at the scriptures and say maybe our founders, not having enough depths, rolled their thought and say let us follow the laws. They have never taken time to look at the scriptures.
If you beat your wife, you have broken your vow. If you are beating her, you have abused her. You do that and then you say to her don't leave. Men of God need to study the subject very well. They will see that the day a man breaks the vow, then that man no longer exists. It is required in marriage to keep forgiving and you have to forgive 49 times a day. A man leaves his wife and travels to live in America for seven years. He has broken the vow that joined them together. The vow you made when you married was that your body is yielded to the woman. If you go live in the US, you have not yielded your body to her. People should stop using the word for better for worse. Some men are using that statement now as a good luck charm for abusing the woman.
How did you meet your wife?
I met my wife as a pastor at Foursquare Church. She was the daughter of one of the senior pastors. She was a member there and I was serving then under her father. I served very well and ate the fruit of my labour by marrying his daughter. I was the one who counselled her anytime she has problem. In fact, she even came to me to counsel her on who to marry. It never occurred to me that it was possible for me to advise her to marry me. One day, a friend of mine said to me: 'You are a counsellor. God is bringing her into your life so you can actually help her develop and become like you.' That day my scale fell off my eyes and I saw 110 percent that this was my wife. That was the day I spoke to her. That was June 1979. And then today, truly, when I'm not in church on Sunday she conducts most of the services.
What has kept the two of you together?
It is the word of God. I am a father to many spiritual sons and daughters and I'm in it for the long run. If you are a pastor in Europe, you will see a 24 year-old who is divorced, who is busy sleeping around and coming to church to praise the Lord. Some of them married for stupid reasons. People take major decisions based on minor reasons and they come to church and get born again and you end up discovering they had married before. They end up doing witchcraft prayer so that they will come back to them; that is witchcraft prayer.
Can you recall your most embarrassing moment?
I can never forget the experience I had in my last year in Bible school; that was 1976. One of my pastors, who organized a seminar, in line with our graduation, gave me a topic that wasn't good for me. I had stayed 10 years in Yoruba land and I was to talk on Christianity and culture. It was in 1976, FESTAC was in 1977. That time, Nigeria was full of rumours, as to why Gowon was organizing FESTAC '77. Some said he wanted to use it for promotion. Others said he wanted the queen to come and make him the field marshal. I went there and began to teach crap. I told them that the whole thing was organized to promote the head of state. My pastor sent me a note that I should stop calling names. I threw it aside and went on firing Gowon. When I finished, I told the people to stand up, that we were going to pray that FESTAC '77 would not hold. As we were praying, my pastor came forward and took the microphone. The man suddenly announced, 'please, I don't want you to leave here and all you can remember is that the head of state wants to do this and that. All I want you to do is to tell your children not to get involved with bad gangs or worship of Idols.' I was dead on my seat. The whole congregation was looking at me. When he finished, he prayed a simple prayer to close the service of the day. NEPA came to my rescue and there was power outage, that was the day I blessed NEPA for being so kind.
What of close shave with death?
I was coming to Nigeria to preach at Shilo 2000. As the plane took off, suddenly I noticed that it was not moving. The pilot said, 'we are experiencing some problem; therefore, we are going back to throw away some of the fuel.' I knew quite well that in the process of discharging the fuel, while in motion, a little drop that touches the engine could cause fire. For one hour, we were flying over the sea. For that one hour, my mouth dried up. I didn't know I had fear till that day.
It was all over the news that you had problem in UK relating to tax evasion. You were said to have run down to live in Nigeria. What actually happened?
The Nigerian press is very shallow and does not do investigative journalism. I am just a Nigerian who went to live in England. September 1992, I stepped down from my denomination to open KICC. Unknown to me, God had a plan, as my church became the largest church, since Christianity began, that Britain would ever see. Government was scared that eight to 10 thousand people come to this church every Sunday morning. They checked my account and found eight million pounds.
So what was the outcome?
They said that we were doing well, but that I was a trustee and earning salary. Their argument was: if you are a founder of this thing, you don't need to be a trustee; if you want to earn salary, apply to us; we will give you variation. Next thing, they sent their investigative department and they came on the pretext that they had come to check the trustee that were earning salary. They said that by the powers of the charity commission, the government couldn't stop them; only the parliament could call them to order on an issue. Even you will need a member of parliament to raise your matter. Who do I know? They began to look for anything they could lay their hands on. They searched every corner and the next thing they said was that we have mismanaged church funds in the way we operated. The church bought a car, Mercedes 600, during my birthday. They said it was mismanagement. I had 10 to 12 thousand members, who decided that they should buy me a car. The decision was legitimately taken; it's in the file, but they said we had mismanaged funds. They took over our account, to investigate us for two years. We were being queried on things like: Why did we buy the water; does a trustee drink it. If a trustee drinks it, it is trustee's benefit. At the end of two years, they could not find anything they could hold and they spent two million pounds of our church money to investigate us.
Was the matter ever resolved?
The case was closed when they said that they wanted us to restitute all the salary and benefit we received, by paying 250,000 pounds over two years. They said they would raise the salary from 45,000 pound to 250,000 pound. When we were managing the funds, I was earning 45,000 pounds. They recommended 250, 000 pounds, which I eventually rejected. I told them to restructure, as I want to earn less, because they would come back tomorrow again. They went and got the press to write that I earned like some of the CEOs in the UK. The truth is that UK will always remind you, even if you carry British passport, that you are an immigrant. So it wasn't a tax issue The charity commission does not exist anywhere, except the UK.
Luckily, before they came I was smart enough to ensure that everything I established was registered under a company. My bookshop in the church was paying rent to the church. They claimed to be investigating churches, but I have never seen them take any church to the media. They look me to BBC, HITV, and all the paper. I was everywhere. At last, they found out that there is nothing. They now said they had fined him and increased my salary. It has nothing to do with tax evasion.