Abigail Nkhoma, 21, knows what she is supposed to do every time she travels outside her homestead—ask her hosts about the direction to the nearest church.
“Do you have a Pentecostal church nearby? I am one of the Pentecostal believers who cannot do without God. God is my shepherd, provider and steady protector,” Nkhoma told her hosts upon arrival.
Nkhoma comes from Muloza, Mulanje and has been in Lilongwe for a fortnight now.
She is in the capital city in search for employment. Obligingly, the hosts took her to a Pentecostal church at one of the primary schools, last Sunday.
Nkhoma was, however, taken aback when she saw a swarm of masked men in riot gear walking round the classroom in which the prayers were in session.
More bewilderment awaited her inside the classroom-turned-prayerhouse, where the presiding pastor had two plain-clothed men guarding him.
They trailed him as he evangelised a handful congregation.
“I did not know that there is such security breakdown in Lilongwe. I have never seen a pastor hiring security personnel to guard him as he preaches,” she confessed.
Added Nkhoma: “At our local church back home, everyone feels secure and safe in church. What is happening here tells that even the pastor feels insecure and unsafe?”
She is probably not the only one in this bewilderment. The mushrooming of Pentecostal churches since Malawi reverted to multiparty democracy at the turn of the 90s saw with it a number of bizarre occurrences on the religious landscape.
The hiring of security officers for ‘men and women of God’ being one of them.
This is bizarre and a new spectacle in Malawi.
A number of states in the United States of America (USA) have recently passed laws allowing concealed weapons in churches, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Illinois and North Dakota.
Bryan Crosswhite, president of 2AO, an organisation that advocates Second Amendment rights, says roughly 25 states church-goers to carry weapons in church, but concealed.
“Churches are often gun-free zones,” Crosswhite says. “That makes them a major target for those who go to worship. In most churches, the congregation has their back to the doors. People could walk right in and shoot so many people if you don’t have a plan in place.”
Several organisations specifically work with churches to arm congregants that volunteer to provide security.
Chuck Chadwick, founder and president of the National Organisation for Church Security and Safety, says his organisation has worked with thousands of churches since the group’s founding in 2005, including church-goers who attend security seminars and pastors who are trained in use of guns.
The organisation has worked with churches around USA, but in Texas, where the organisation is located, Chadwick says his group has trained hundreds of officers who are now deployed throughout the state.
Associate pastor Brian Ulch of Trinity Lighthouse Church in Denison was once quoted by one of the US publications that personally, he would not attend a church if it did not have armed security.
But as earlier said, this is Malawi where nothing of gunshots have ever been heard in churches or mosques.
So, why are our modern pastors hiring special security while fulfilling their Godly commission? Is this a sign that they are in doubt of the divine protection?
Prophet Amos Kambale of Life International Church argues that arming congregants, let alone pastors, is against religious teachings of non-violence and that dangerous weapons have no place in a place of worship.
“The presence of a cross in our sanctuary reminds us that God’s response to violence is never greater violence,” says Kambale. “This is a place of peace, safety and security. This is not a place for guns or any dangerous weapon. God’s protection suffices when we are in church.”
Mabiri CCAP congregation resident pastor, Reverend Bannet Magawa Zimba, is equally concerned about rising cases of pastors hiring security personnel to guard them.
Zimba fears this will potentially have a lasting effect on people of faith who will no longer feel like their churches are sanctuaries from violence.
Secretary general of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) Reverend Father Henry Saindi emphasises that serving as a pastor carries with it the responsibility of being a shepherd.
He says shepherds in the Old Testament not only cared for their sheep, but also protected them.
“This means it is our job as spiritual leaders to protect, shepherd, and stand in the strength of our Lord for our churches and followers. Unless we know our weaknesses beyond spiritual realm, our weapon against anything evil is and should always be the Lord Jesus Christ; not men hired to provide us security while celebrating mass,” says Saindi. n