My Interview with Pastor Philemon Joshua

“When his life was ruined, his family killed, his farm destroyed, Job knelt down on the ground and yelled up to the heavens, “Why god? Why me?” and the thundering voice of God answered, “There’s just something about you that pisses me off.””
Stephen King, Storm of the Century

“Okay,” I say, “so let’s just get straight to the point,” putting on the tape recorder and setting it on the table between us. It took months to set up the interview and another few weeks for him to agree to not bring his aides. It was meant to be just a small conversation type thing and I just didn’t think having twenty-five other people in the room would make that much sense. He’s wearing an impossibly white suit with a scarlet tie, and I’m fairly sure his outfit is immune to creasing. He’s sitting down now and I turn my head sideways trying to at least spot one, but nope, nothing. Is this another perk of being a man of God along with the private jets and mansions? Immortally starched clothes?

He smiles at me and the light reflects lightly off his bald head as he rests back in his seat. The rings on his fingers glitter and even from where I’m sitting I can smell his perfume. Not that I’m complaining or anything, he actually smells nice, well, I guess everything does when you’re annoyingly rich. “Yes,” he says, “why not?”

I start off on the first question on the list the studio reps gave me as I was coming in, but I may have edited it a little — a tiny bit — just to make it interesting. I mean, who wants to know where he likes to eat on Fridays? “Okay, sir, do you mind introducing yourself to the people who may not have heard of you yet?” I say. “I’m sure they’d be dying to know who you are.”

He flashes his white teeth. “Well, good day all, my name is Pastor Philemon Joshua. I’m from Ogun state and I am the founder of Holy Blood Ministries, founder and chancellor of Holy Saint University, Commandment University and a number of secondary and primary schools across Nigeria. But uhm — sorry…”

“Anthony,” I say, reminding him.

“Ah, yes, Anthony.” He says, smiling again. “I don’t think anyone won’t have heard of me, I’m known far and wide. In fact, just last week, I even flew over to the overseas to give a conference talk to thousands of people.”

As I use saint like strength to not roll my eyes, I move quickly to the next question. “Ah, well, that’s really nice.” I say, nodding my head. “So, this is a popular one, and a lot of people have had it on their lips lately since you increased your university’s school fees to 1.2 million Naira for tuition. People are saying that it’s incredulous, what do you have to say to them?”

He sits up ever so slightly. “Well, first of all, as a man of God, how can people challenge my word?” He looks at a spot just beyond my left shoulder. “Don’t they know I represent Him? The One Above All? And to clear it up, these things aren’t free, imagine if everything didn’t have to be paid for, what would we have then? The problem is that these people are lazy, angry and bitter. Their, erm, is it not Wizboy, that charges God knows what for his tickets, do they challenge him?”

“Well, the thing is,” I say, scratching behind my ear, “the money you built the university with, wasn’t it from these people? And so, doesn’t charging them outrageously for a school they practically built seem wrong? And as for the Wizkid thing, I wasn’t aware you were also an artiste.”

He gives me a look that I have gotten from far too many. It’s one that conveys anger and annoyance in equal amounts, Did you…did you just say that to me? Nonetheless, he maintains his composure.

“See, people need to stop focusing on my money — ”

“And the private jets?” I chip in.

“Yes, what they need to — ”

“So, to be clear — the cars and the mansions, we’re also removing those from our memories?”

“Yes!” He snaps, then he lowers his voice. “Yes, that is not the point. The point is that Holy Saint University is one of the best in Nigeria and anyone who questions my school fees will face the wrath of God!” He says this like a decree and I wait two beats expecting a boom of thunder or at least a flash of lightning. Even a tiny earthquake will do, but everything stays in its place. I stare at him for a good one minute, and he, me. There’s a silent conversation happening.

Be honest, did you really think that was going to work?

You see, I’m a man of God, you have to listen to me.

Yeah, bro…if that’s what you were thinking, you’re in for quite a ride.

“That’s all well and good but still, it doesn’t answer the question. Why is it so high?” I ask him, my eyebrows raised.

He presses his lips. “It’s…It’s just a good school, now let’s move on, I have a church conference at 7pm.”

I’d love to push it, but he’s right: time is essential. “Okay, well this is an easy one,” I say, ticking a question off my list. “How did you get so rich?”

“God blessed me,” he answers almost automatically like it’s been rehearsed hundreds of times before. “I also put in a lot of hard work and effort in my early days before I was even a pastor.”

“Mhm,” I say as I put some sheets of paper on the round table between us. “But we did our research and while you were making a little money from those things, your income greatly increased when you opened your first church, coincidence maybe?”

And in that moment, I realise that pastors sweat bullets too. “Well, clearly, God’s blessings multiplied when I started doing his work, it’s only right.”

“Ah, yes,” I say nodding my head, then I lean forward. “So, God also blessed you with the private jets, the cars, the mansions, the jewellery, the — ”

“Yes, yes, all of them.” He says quickly and I’m a bit upset he cut me off, we didn’t even get to the elephant. “God works in mysterious ways, my son.”

“But why do you even need all those things? I mean, you’re a pastor, isn’t that all too much for a job that you’re supposedly meant to do naturally? It’s like me getting paid in dollars for breathing, and then why hasn’t God blessed anyone else like that? I for one would love an elephant too.”

He waves his hands. “See, most of you people don’t read your bible, you don’t pay tithe, and that’s why you’re like that. I told my pastors recently that anybody who doesn’t pay tithe — ”

“Goes straight to hell,” I complete for him. I remember the headlines clearly.

“Yes,” He says, tapping his knee. “It’s in the Holy Book,” he brings out the pocket size bible from his jacket pocket. “That’s why I carry it everywhere, God’s word should be on you at all times.”

I sigh, and move on to the next question, my head hurts. “Another thing that’s been going around is your sexual assault cases, twenty-five women have come forward saying that you…well, were inappropriate with them.”

“Demons sent by the enemy.” He says.

“…All of them?”

“Yes, every single one of them, I’ve never done such in my fifty-six years of living.”

“So…they’re all lying?”

“Most definitely!” He says, checking his watch nonchalantly. “They are all just Jezebels and witches.”

“But, some of them even have pictures and I know that one of the women even has a recording of — ”

“The Enemy works hard, but my God works harder.” He says, pointing at his chest. “My followers all know I’m an innocent faithful man.”

“Speaking of faithful,” I say “How’s your wife, or rather, ex-wife?”

His left eye twitches. “She’s…fine.”

“We all heard about the divorce and we know she also had some claims on social media about your, uh, extramarital practices.”

He pauses for a while and then leans in. “Antonio, are you a Christian?”

“Well, it’s Anthony,” I correct. “And then, that’s not important to the conversation and it’s very much by business. So, do you want to answer my question or stall more? I also want to ask about the illegal practices going on in your churches and universities, your doctrine about children below the age of two being witches and the case regarding hair is — ”

“Ah, well, I have to go now,” He says abruptly, standing up and dusting off imaginary lint off his trousers. “It was a nice chat!” He calls, heading towards the front door.

I stay in my seat shaking my head as I shut off the tape recorder. I watch the man as he goes and that’s all I recognise him as: a man. Nothing more, but maybe a lot less. His demeanour, his general charisma, these are all hard to deny but they’re all cover ups.

He doesn’t want anyone looking too closely.

I shrug, most of them are like this. I note his suit as he walks off and I’m packing up, it still doesn’t make a single crease. Damn. Is it made of some rich person material? I think to myself that if writing and painting don’t work out, being a Nigerian pastor would be a cool way to settle. The cars, private jets and multi million-dollar mansions would be a welcome side effect.

Having an Indian elephant wouldn’t hurt too.

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Anthony Azekwoh is a Nigerian-based author and artist. He has written five books so far, and is now working on the sequel to his fourth book Ṣàngó, Oya.