Moved by Spirit

The two-year old Victoria Idahosa outside the hall of the RCCG / MADELINE SZEMPRUCH

Born in Nigeria, pastor OmoJola Morenikeji is the spiritual leader of the Redeemed Christian church of God in Seville.

The community is formed by approximately 130 members, most of whom are African migrants, who help and encourage each other, united in their celebrations through common cultural bonds and faith.

THE TAXI DRIVER strains forward to squint at the tiny GPS teetering precariously on the dashboard, its small dark screen grimy from infrequent use.  Alternating between exasperated sighs and curious exclamations, he marvels at this new address he’s never driven to. “¿Está segura?” he asks, not waiting for a reply. “82 calle Herramientas,” he mutters, half rhetorically. The taxi crawls past rows of metal warehouses squatting uniformly in the hot glare of the noonday sun, their aluminum paneling creating a harsh kaleidoscope of light all around. “Allí,” he says, stomping on the brakes and gesturing at what appears to be just another warehouse in one of Seville’s most industrial areas. The only discerning feature between number 82 and its adjoining unit is a small door propped open with a cinder block. A girl of about four years with coffee colored skin and hair decorated wildly with a halo of colorful bows and barrettes peers out the door shyly. After ten seconds of open staring, she retreats abruptly back into the cool, inviting dark of the warehouse, chirping cheerfully. The taxi driver holds out a cupped hand for the fare. A sharp series of claps followed by a resounding “Hallelujah” emanate from inside the door. This is the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Seville.

The inside of the warehouse is a stark contrast to the spartan exterior; rich in decoration and dripping in spirituality. Faux green carpet spreads the floor beneath neat rows of plastic white lawn chairs. A stage, swathed in deep maroon-colored tapestry and cheery lime green, blue and pink curtains dominates the small space, with a Plexiglas podium bearing the church’s emblem front and center. The space is filled with people; children dodging and tripping over each other playing tag, men wearing formal suits and women donning modest hats and scarves. It’s Sunday, and many members of the 130-person congregation have arrived early for the special guest appearance of Pastor Yomi Obadimeji, a world-renowned church leader from the U.K. “If you do good, you do for yourself,” the star-studded preacher calls, hands dancing animatedly. Though this monologue is just a precursor to the three-hour worship session that lies ahead, sweat already glistens on his brow. “If you do bad, you do for yourself…Praise the Lord,” he says. His assertion is met with the hearty affirmation of a collective “amen” and fervently nodding heads. The audience repeats the phrase back to their guest, then to the person standing next to them, smiling.

Like the vast majority of members of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), the congregation is almost completely African: a mix of Nigerians, Liberians and Cameroonians. A solitary young Caucasian woman sits chatting amidst a group of women close to the stage. Gathered in this warehouse is just a tiny fraction of the denomination’s approximately 5 million adherents spanning 147 countries.

Pastor Morenikeji Olemuyiwa Omojola (Pastor Keji) addressing the assembly of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in Seville / MADELINE SZEMPRUCH

“The majority of the people here are immigrants,” explains Irene Odeyemi, 32, one of four women and seven total ministers in the Seville branch of the church. “The church means a lot to us,” she continues with an almost confidential tone, her eyes watchful, flitting quickly between the children playing around her legs, hands deftly reaching out to prevent head-on collisions. “It is a covenant church, founded on Christ and God.” Odeyemi came to Europe in 2005 and to Spain one year later seeking more opportunity, and never left. Uprooted by necessity from her birthplace in Nigeria, Odeyemi, like the members of the congregation she shepherds, has been transplanted into the Spanish community. With the guidance of Pastor Morenikeji Olemuyiwa Omojola and his wife, Opeyemi Omojola, her new life has begun. “I came here for a better future and to make ends meet,” Odeyemi says. “There are no jobs even if you are a graduate in Nigeria and not everyone is treated equally.”

Surveying the room, the only trace of this financial difficulty is in the humble space used for worship. There are no extravagant images of Christ, touches of gold leaf, burning incense or leather bound hymnals. A stack of paper bulletins sits on a side table, outlining key points for today’s service and a list of telephone numbers of members of the congregation offering professional services from cosmetics to computer repair. The reporter’s conversation with Odeyemi is interrupted by an usher pressing a Bible into their hands and urging them toward a row of chairs. “Welcome, sister,” says a tall woman with an impressive yellow-and-blue patterned head wrap. The little girl reappears, peering out from behind her father’s leg. One man, short in stature with an open, expressive face and pronounced wrinkles around his eyes and lips—presumably from much smiling—strides forward with both hands extended. “Pastor Keji,” he says urgently, in English filled with long vowels. He pulls absentmindedly at his red bowtie, adjusting it. “Please sit,” he says, softspoken and grinning kindly. “The service is about to begin.”

The congregation is a flurry of color and activity, formal business attire, of soaring hallelujahs and fervent, shaking prayer. The worship band assembles hurriedly alongside the stage, stepping carefully around urns of yellow and pink plastic flowers.  For the rest of the service, their six microphones and lone drum kit hammers out the steady, whirling rhythm of a group much larger in size. Pastor Keji, in a charcoal gray pinstripe suit, kneels alongside his wife, many months pregnant, to the right of the stage and prays. The rows of chairs reserved for the church’s various “walkers,” ministers and pastors, is a scene of personal prayer amidst a maelstrom of cries. Many members hold their cell phones and iPads, following along with passages from the Bible online.

The British guest pastor draws laughs from the crowd, giving his sermon like a comedy reel laced with genuine urges to be holier, to love one’s neighbor more. “Someday…maybe this church, this warehouse can be a modern facility closer to the city center,” he asserts. His statement aligns closely with the policy of the RCCG, an ambitious denomination founded in 1958 in Lagos, Nigeria. Since then, RCCG has spread rapidly from Africa to the rest of the world, with new churches and facilities springing up quickly, the newest of which is an expansive 700-acre complex in southern Texas. A man walks from row to row, offering a small bag to each member for a tithe. This is the sort of charity the church relies on to grow.

The singing intensifies into a tinny cacophony as the congregation enters its deepest point of prayer, bodies moving frenetically with the irregular heartbeat of prayer inspired by the Holy Spirit. Pastor Keji takes the stage, and suddenly his approving nods from the audience, as he watches  the visiting pastor speak, turn from gentle affirmations to emphatic preaching. Previously meek and softspoken, Keji is now a different person entirely, transformed with passion as he preaches. His brow is furrowed with the effort of prayer and proclamation of God’s teaching, the volume of his discourse heightening with each sentence and falling away with each “Praise God.”

Keji, 38, who also oversees the RCCG centers in Huelva and Jerez, is no stranger to the idea of powerfully bringing people together with words to incite community action. A member of the RCCG since 2002, he has personally experienced the transformation from the life of a “normal” citizen to what he refers to as being “born again.” His family lived in Ocampos, Nigeria, where he attended a polytechnic college to earn a degree in finance and accounting. “I never knew that God had a plan for me,” he says. “It was December 31, 2001 when I decided to go to the RCCG church in Ocampos. There, I responded to the call,” Keji says as he folds his hands. With the half-smile that twitches his mouth into a curve, refers to the altar call, a crucial part of the service where people are called to receive Jesus Christ. For Keji, the soon-to-be father of a little girl, each day is a blessing from God. “I am now a vessel of service in the hands of God,” he says. “It brings me such joy, because by the grace of God [as a pastor] you are leading people to Heaven, and to service.”  Keji first traveled to the Netherlands from Nigeria in 2002, then through France and into Spain, “in search of greener pastures.”

Like Keji himself, much of his congregation belongs to the Yoruba tribe from Nigeria and speaks Yoruba, English and Spanish. Keji explains how his church strives to help new immigrant families who arrive in Seville. Often, they are supported with small amounts of church funds and basic needs like clothes. Once they settle in, they, along with the rest of the church, participate in the church’s weekly programming, ranging from Bible studies on Tuesdays to faith clinics on Thursdays and prayer services on Fridays. The demands of the job can get tricky, he says. “It is a challenge to lead people together who are on different levels…helping them meet on two sides. I need to bridge the gap with leadership when they have a conflict.” Keji is interrupted mid-sentence by a knock on the door from a member of the congregation. He asks for help deciding where to allocate church funds for the week. After listing several amounts in euros and mentioning names of specific members of the congregation, addressing them as “brother” and “sister,” Keji smiles apologetically for the interruption. “It’s all about responsibility,” he continues, refocusing with a serious expression.

The sweet, musty scent of rain mixed with perfume now fills the gathering space. Odeyemi talks with some of the children, then shoos them away to continue playing. The rows of chairs have already been cleared away. Women hug each other in the doorway, and a man swings the little girl up into his arms, smiling. Here, it seems as if everyone’s children are everyone else’s children too. Odeyemi’s voice, soft over the din of the noise, intones, “I love being in this association, you know? I can help change the lives of these people. With God.”