By: VINCENT ACHUKA
What makes a church, a church? Is it the membership? Teachings? Programmes, or property?
This question has in recent days been brought to the fore following a series of stories over property disputes involving church ministers and elders.
In one of the stories, members of Nairobi’s Christ is the Answer Ministries (Citam) have gone to court accusing some of the church leaders of defrauding them millions of shillings in a project involving the purchase of 72-acres of land in Karen.
The scandal comes at a time when religious organisations appear to be gaining an appetite for property development and other capital projects involving millions of shillings.
However, the contribution of religious organisations especially in the health and education cannot be ignored.
In the absence of their role as the overall largest non-government providers of essential services, governments would have to expend more public funds to replace the services that the churches provide.
But the undue premium on material investment by the church has raised serious questions whether priests and pastors were veering from their core function of offering spiritual nourishment to their followers.
In Nairobi’s Westlands, for example, the Mennonite Church is developing a Sh1.5 billion high-end 10-storey apartment project that it says will help fund its work.
Once completed in 18 months, a three bedroom unit at Sky View apartments would earn the church Sh26.25 million, which the leaders says will help fund their work.
“Many churches and mission organisations are taking similar initiatives, creating a legal investment arm for their organisations,” said the church’s chairman, Philip Okeyo.
In Nairobi’s Central Business District, the Catholic Church, one of the largest land owners in Kenya, has for the last one year been running the Cardinal Otunga Plaza, a 10-storey office block it constructed for Sh500 million.
The Church occupies only two floors and rents out the rest.
The church also owns the Pacis Centre in Westlands, which is run by Pacis Insurance, which belongs to the Church.
In Mombasa, the Presbyterian church runs the Milele Beach Hotel, a popular getaway and wedding venue it acquired in 2007.
The PCEA is also building and promoting the Presbyterian University. And in Ngong the church in opened a 100,000 sq feet Milele Mall in August.
Jesus is Alive Ministries, associated with Nairobi politician Bishop Margaret Wanjiru, is constructing Glory Twin Towers at its Haile Selassie headquarters.
The 12 storey building will comprise of a five star hotel, conference room, banking hall and supermarket. At some point the church operated a fleet of buses in the city.
It is not clear what the Bible says about wealth accumulation by Christians as different verses give conflicting messages on economic gains and riches with others advocating for accumulation of wealth while others push for simplicity.
“Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth. He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son,” says Proverbs 10:4-5.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort,” says Luke 6: 20 and 24.
COMMERCIALISM IN CHURCHES
The Rev Timothy Njoya, a retired minister of the PCEA, feels these investments apart from making churches self-reliant keep politicians away from meddling in the running of churches.
“We should aim for more investments including building universities if we are to come to a situation where churches don’t need politicians around to bandy politics when they are fundraising to build churches,” he said.
However, he cautions; “There should be some checks because the capitalism in churches can be worse than the capitalism out there. This happens when self-aggrandisement and the gospel of prosperity takes the better part of preachers.”
And as Christians head to church today, there is a likelihood that quite a good percentage will be bombarded with requests to fund commercial projects.
This has become almost a permanent feature in church services.
So incessant are the financial demands that a number of worshippers would rather miss church on some occasions than not appear to openly disappoint the requests of the church.
“The projects are endless. Once one project is complete, another one comes along and the cycle starts all over again,” lamented Mrs Christine Jepkoech, a member of one of the churches.
By: engaging in their own projects Pastor Thomas Wahome of Helicopter of Christ Ministries argues that churches have a solid base to finance their growth, which is part of the reason why they exist.
“Economic activity is to be considered and undertaken as a grateful response to the vocation which God holds out for each person. Genesis 2:16-16 says man is placed in the garden to till and keep it, making use of it within well specified limits with a commitment to perfecting it,” he says.
But how much business is enough and where do churches draw the line?
Father George Kocholikal, a lecturer at the Catholic Church run Tangaza College, says one cannot quantify how much business a religious organisation can engage in as long as it is legal.
“There is nothing that prohibits religious organisations from investing the money they get from followers as so long as the proceeds from those investments go to help the people,” he says.
“Economic activity and material progress must be placed at the service of man and society. If people dedicate themselves to these with the faith, hope and love of Christ’s disciples, even the economy and progress can be transformed into places of salvation and sanctification.”
But as investments by religious organisations grow, conflicts between members of the churches and their leaders or between churches grow in tandem.
Some of these conflicts have led to splitting of churches or embarrassing court cases.
In the Citam land scandal, 130 members of Lanyavu Gardens Ltd, the land-buying arm of the church’s savings society — Lanyavu Sacco — are accusing retired Bishop Boniface Adoyo, Mr Haron Nyakundi and Dr Joyce Gikunda of defrauding them.
They claim that the trio, acting as directors of Lanyavu Gardens Ltd, collected money from members to buy land in Bogani Gardens in Karen but had not sub-divided the land.
In the corridors of justice, a case over the ownership of St Mary’s Mission Hospitals has been dragging on for four years.
In the case, Nairobi Catholic Archbishop John Cardinal Njue is fighting with former priest William Fryda over the ownership of the St Mary’s Mission hospitals.
In court papers, Dr Fryda who was eventually defrocked by the Maryknoll Fathers because of the case, claims Cardinal Njue and seven other people are shareholders of a university college that they had planned to set up on the hospitals land.
RELIGION OR TAXES
In November 2008, a leadership row broke out at the Africa Inland Church after the Rev David Mulei Mbuvi challenged the appointment of Bishop Silas Yego’s as the church’s Presiding Bishop.
The Rev Mbuvi went to court claiming that Bishop Yego’s ordinance was irregular since the church’s constitution did not provide for the position of a presiding bishop.
What began as a dispute over leadership eventually spilled over to investments owned by the church when the Rev Christopher Mutai sued Bishop Yego over allegations of harassment and interfering with the affairs of Bibilia Husema broadcasting, a radio station owned by the church.
The Rev Mutai told the court that he was the managing director of the radio station and that in November 2013, the Rev Yego locked him out of the Upper Hill offices with clear instructions to the security that he should not be allowed to access.
But the head of the Anglican Church in Kenya, Eliud Wabukala, says such conflicts arise when the faithful are not fully involved in decision making.
“There should be total involvement in the running of these projects and most importantly, getting their views beforehand. Questions only arise when they do not own them,” he says.
In September Pope Francis, the global head of the Catholic Church, asked churches to start practicing religion or pay taxes.
“Some religious orders say, ‘No! Now that the convent is empty we are going to make a hotel and we can have guests and make money.’ Well, if that is what you do, then pay taxes,” he said.
“A religious school is tax-exempt because it is religious, but if it is functioning as a business, then it should pay taxes just like its neighbour. Otherwise it is not fair business,” he said.
But despite his negative perception towards earthly wealth, Pope Francis not only leads the world’s largest denomination but also arguably the richest.
SOURCE: DAILY NATION