Troubled man @ Greater Works 2019

The anointing doesn't reach the stands. You should be as close to the podium as you can...
Image Credit: Facebook/ MENSA OTABIL

What binds a man unto himself, if not faith—in a custom, a love, a faith…

PARTLY ON A WHIM, and with faith the size of a mustard seed, I disembark from behind the okada, hand my chauffeur the ten cedis that is his charge, and wave him farewell. “Pray for me ooh,” the motorcyclist requests before blasting off.

Last year, when I attended the annual Christian pilgrimage that is the Mensa Otabil—led Greater Works Conference for the first time, it had been at the invitation of Body, a coastal gal in whose nightly words I was beginning to store a faithful fondness. She had worn an unbroken smile and a single pimple between her brows, a slightly affected pigment on her skin, and a full acre of waist. But that was last time. This year, I am without any such motivations, availing myself solely in pursuit of a panacea for my own mental chaos.

It’s a little after 6 pm. I’m late, for I have arrived a full hour after the advertised commencement time. As I quickly notice though, I have not missed much. The glorious opening ceremony reminiscent of the commencement ritual of an international tournament; complete with flag-bearing stewards, a hundred choreographers, and an amalgamation of choirs has yet to be rolled out. The atmosphere is doused in a cold breeze from the beach nearby, a dense mystic presence, and a general mood of naked want.

At the entrance, I am met by an assortment of security personnel mainly controlling traffic (four hundred in all, dispersed across the breadth of the site), as well as petty traders peddling handkerchiefs, bottled water, yoghurt, juice, spiritual books, and confections. Worshippers shuffle into the Black Star Square from cars parked a considerable distance from the venue, their hearts primed for spiritual recharging, their lips murmuring along to the hymns emanating from the stage eighty metres ahead.

I recognise the worship leader’s voice without struggle. Joe Mettle.

Many of the attendees don bright yellow shirts branded “GREATER WORKS 2019,” and clutch knapsacks, briefcases, handbags, Bibles, pouches… Others, presumably reporting from offices across town, cap their looks with the universal white collar uniform that is the black jacket.

Once inside, I am received by the smiling faces of countless yellow-shirted ushers with outstretched hands covered in white gloves. I follow the hands and the sound of Joe Mettle’s “Bo Noo Ni” all the way to a row in front. Here, the air is denser, and I fear that at any given time, I will catch an image of myself on one of the large screens projecting proceedings. A multitude of hands waves expectedly above a multitude of heads. A dreadlocked man in a suit, by his avid galloping, calls the Jamaican reggae star Buju Banton to my mind. To my left, a single tear runs down the cheek of a dark stocky woman, and when I excuse myself by feigning a phone call to find a more favourable tenement, my palms are feverish with guilt for requesting the crying woman to allow me pass; for interrupting her earnest spiritual undertaking.

I exit the row I have just been ushered to, and head up the stands to my right where, shrouded in a bit of darkness, I am certain that I will be shielded from the prying eyes of the conference cameras (but not the agonising nippiness being freely distributed by the gulf, made worse by my short-sleeved shirt). I pick a spot on the last row, from where I am afforded the full breadth of one of the large led screens. Mettle still holds a microphone to his chest, his eyes facing upward in supplication. It is from this elevated province that one wholly appreciates the visual wonder that is the grounds below; the lavish sea of yellow shirts curtained from the lavish ocean by a gargantuan arc, the entire expanse of the main stage, the detail in organisation, and precision in coordination. It is, I am told, the result of a year-long effort effected by a combined workforce tipping beyond ten thousand. Several feet above the heads of the congregation, I catch the blinking lights of a drone—two drones — hovering and capturing bird’s eye takes. In the not-so-distant sky, I spot the flashing of light from another flying object, and it is a while before I realise it’s an aeroplane making a trip over the ocean.

Put together by the International Central Gospel Church (ICGC), the summit, which has been running for two decades has continually served up a distinguished roster of African ministry giants in Dr. Mathew Ashimolowo, Bishop Tudor Bismarck, and Bishop Mike Okonkwo—all of whom are fixtures at this point—for morning sessions at the Christ Temple in Abossey Okai, and evening sessions at the Black Star Square. Also regular faces in the past couple of years have been the beloved musicians like Joe Mettle and Nigeria’s Nathaniel Bassey. This year’s edition is also graced by Ghana’s KODA, and South African vocal dynamos Ntokozo Mambo Mahalia Buchanan. Operatic and jazz music are also greatly represented courtesy LUMINA and the Accra Symphony Orchestra, the Ghana Navy Band, the Ghana Immigration Service Band, and the ZAMAR Band tasked with providing interludes during the offertory session.

Otabil, when he mounts the podium for the first time, beams with a confident certainty, his grey facial hair and trademark three-piece lace ensemble complementing the glimmer in his bespectacled eyes. He is received with thunderous cheer, his alleged role in the recent Capital Bank collapse forgotten in time for this programme.

As has been the focus of the conference in recent years, Greater Works 2019 tackles pan-African themes of an improved sense of duty and self-determination by the continent’s inhabitants and leaders, more so as this year has been earmarked the “Year of Return” by Ghana’s government in commemoration of four hundred years since the first African slaves arrived in America. The programme’s international outlook is also evidenced by the presence of delegates from several countries the world over.

“We don’t need a favourable President in America or a favourable Prime Minister in Britain for us to prosper,” ejaculates Otabil. “Yes, we can! Yes, we can enter! Yes, we can return from inferiority complex. Yes, we can return from working to build other people’s nation! Yes, we can return to dignity and honour. Yes, we can return to blessing and favour. Yes, we can return to healing and deliverance!”

I feel a rousing in my heart. Its broad scope notwithstanding, I sense the message striking a personal resonance within myself. My hour of redemption is upon me; change’s gon’ come. Everything that will occur henceforth is a sign that brings me closer to breakthrough.

 I applaud with the singlemindedness of a determined man. All around me, open palms harvest the prophesy eagerly.

My phone vibrates against my thigh. I evacuate the Nokia device from my pocket and turn over its screen.

 Good grief!

It’s Body, after all these months…

HE WHO APPLIES HIMSELF TO THE VOCATION OF MUSIC applies himself to the essence of God himself.

It’s 5 pm on another day, and Alto’s uniform for the day has still not arrived. “The tailor says she’s on her way from Sowutuom. I pray she arrives in time,” he paces gently, a look of worry circling his eyes and lining his sideburns which have veered closer to his cheekbone than their designated province.

“I’m sure it will get here before you guys hit the stage,” I say, but my consolation is too lifeless to improve his countenance. I say a silent prayer instead.

I have caught up with Alto, a friend of ten years, because over a phone conversation earlier in the day, he mentioned that he will be attending, ministering with the Afro Mass Choir, one of the performing groups on days two and five.

While we wait for the miracle, we catch up on recent happenings in our lives. Despite his previous luck, he is confident that this new relationship he is in, with a woman who is kindly and protective, will lead to the altar. “I have a good feeling about this. Wofa, my uncle is happy about her too.” He probes my presence at these holy grounds, knowing very well that I’m generally averse to church. “My mind has been stagnant in low spirits for the past few months. I am deeply troubled and I’m here to recalibrate,” I respond.

The smile on his face after his brief phonecall minutes later promptly reveals to me that our miracle has indeed arrived. We meet the clothier, a fair married woman by her car. She’s stationed at the booth of her spotless black 4WD.  She confirms Alto’s details in a small notebook and hands him a plain bag containing his uniform. We thank her and leave in a hurry, as Alto could be summoned on stage any moment now. We look around and, identifying a secluded car park close by, head there so my companion can change. We would go to a bathroom, but they are crowded and their wet floors could sully the garment; a white caftan with flowery long sleeves and a red velvet hat. Alto is unimpressed about how the uniform has turned out. “It’s too tight around the armpits, and the pants are a size too big.” He wears it anyway, and in my opinion, looks sharp despite the tailor’s failings. We promise to meet at the car park at the end of the service, and separate, him backstage, and me to my spot at in the stands, half-expecting to see him on one of the screens. That expectation doesn’t happen, but our backstage rendezvous does.

THERE ARE MOMENTS during Bassey’s ambient trumpet solos, elements about LUMINA’s crescendos, Ntokozo’s modulations as she proclaims “Hallelujah, worthy is the lamb,” Buchanan’s adlibbing; an entrancing quality that alerts the skin on my forearm, and induces an uneven rhythm in my chest. In these moments, I feel a tangible grace and a renewing of my belief in a higher presence in the midst of all this earthly confusion.

In the days that follow, it is these sincere sensations I submit myself to, for in those moments, with my head nodding gently in my hands, my eyes closed and my heart primed, I sense a refinement in my senses, a coming together of my very self. A feeling of rare interior decorum.

In multiple instances and to my surprise, I hear my mouth mumble phrases of prayer to a God I claim to bear undying allegiance to, yet am conditioned to remember only occasionally, specifically when in distress. 

In moments such as the one I often find myself sheltered in at Greater Works, I feel Christian again (if there ever is such a thing).

I MARVEL CONTINUALLY AT THE PERFECTION OF THE COMMERCE OF FAITH that unfolds before my eyes throughout the five-day gathering, the modernisation of the concept of church as I know it—especially when I embark on random wanderings about the venue in attempts to void my veins of the coldness biting at my marrows. There’s a massive GH One TV—branded OB Van behind the stage, not far from where an ambulance is also situated for emergencies.  The programme is broadcast nationwide via multiple channels, including a dedicated dial on the Multi TV digi-box, and to a global audience via live streaming across a number of online portals.

On social media, the #GW2019 hashtag features prominently in the trends, witnessing mass sharing and retweeting of Otabil Quotables and other punchlines from the sermons: “A season of return, recovery and restoration in every aspect of our lives.” “The big one is coming!” “Take your life back!” “The bondage has ended!” “Stretch!”

Selfies also pour freely, as do short clips of happy women SnapChatting themselves singing “filled with the Holy Ghost.”

The digital protocol extends to the offertory, as worshippers, especially those not physically present can partake in “digital giving,” an innovation that allows for contributing offerings and honouring pledges via mobile money platforms and other cashless modes.

On four occasions, I receive reminders via text messages that generally took the following tone: “Join us at the INDEPENDENCE SQUARE, ACCRA for GW2019 Day 3. Ministering TONIGHT are Pastor Mathew Ashimolowo and Bishop Mike Okonkwo. Time: 5 pm. See you there.”

ALL PUBLIC SPEAKING IS A PERFORMANCE, I find. The most popular sermon at Greater Works 2019 is the prosperity gospel titled “Stretch,” by the UK-based Ashimolowo.  Steeping his message on Biblical passages from Mark 3: 1-6 (a compelling story of Jesus’ encounter with a man with a withered hand), he charged all under the sound of his voice to stretch for their healing and breakthrough.

A galvanising orator with decades of service under his belt, Ashimolowo rouses the crowd with youthful wordplay complemented by a spiritual musicality: “What you need is above, not abroad,” or “People who looked down on you will look up to you,” or “follow the cloud and not the crowd.”

The most incisive arrow in his quiver is the “S” word, which he accentuates by theatrically mimicking Usain Bolt’s famous victory pose. By Friday, which is the last day, there is merchandise bearing the verb against a silhouetted Bolt in “stretch” posture.   

Observing preachers thunder emphatic declarations up the atmosphere, to which expecting hands shoot up to harvest, one can’t help but be amazed at this mystic transmission, and be convinced at its potency to sprout wonders.  Else, why do people keep returning?

THE ANOINTING DOESN’T REACH THE STANDS. You should be as close to the podium as you can,” says Body when we crash into each other on one of the nights and I reveal that I have been partaking of proceedings from the stands. I chuckle. She doesn’t see the joke. Months of quiet have dissipated any rapport that once existed between us. In its place, a nervous awkwardness nestles.

Before Friday’s evening session, which is the final day, I take a brief stroll down the beachside. Staring out into the ocean, whose shores were filthy with plastic waste, I ruminate on the melancholy that has sent me to Greater Works 2019, the peculiar sort that besets a Ghanaian man who is now in the eye of the storm that is adulting. With relaxed breaths, I lay my troubles side by side the exhortation phrases my ears have seen. The former is outweighed by the latter as long as I am willing to keep stretching–a quality the sea before my eyes metaphorises abundantly.

Loud worship hymns summon me back to the premises for the start of the climaxing service complete with an anointing service, generous euphony, and bounteous prosperity prophesies for all 54 African nations.

The anointing does reach the stands, I retort to Body, but only in my head. It is a statement I can now boldly make because my bones have felt it throughout the week. “But upon mount Zion shall be deliverance, and there shall be holiness; and the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions,” reads Obadiah 1:17.

What binds a man unto himself, if not faith?

I have rediscovered faith. My spirit is level, and I brim with a conviction that I can soldier on.

All is well. I keep stretching.

Pop writer from Accra.