Bishop “Moses” (names have been changed throughout) was a respected spiritual church leader from Rwanda. He spent decades building a strong church movement of nearly fifty churches across the Rwanda and Burundi borders into Tanzania. Although this area is a seven-hour drive from where I lived in Mwanza, Tanzania, I stayed overnight for up to a week four times during my dissertation research and three times previously.
During every visit, I went to the home of Moses and his wife, Mama Moses, to eat and talk. His trust in God impressed me despite their suffering. They had lost most of their children to AIDS and other diseases. One son that had survived had mental issues from a bicycle accident. In the decade that I knew him, Moses’s age and increasing health issues (an accident, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes) kept him from playing as active a role in the churches, including the one he used to pastor. He had appointed a co-worker Joshua to pastor this church.
I visited him in the hospital in Mwanza during his final battle with sickness when his leg was amputated. A week later Moses died; we drove the seven hours to give condolences to Mama Moses. After a long talk and eating together, we were all going out the door. She led me by the hand into the back hallway. She told me that I must not trust Pastor Joshua. She said that Joshua was into magical things and had bewitched Moses out of envy so that he could be the pastor of the church. He had put an object into Moses’s body which was what had caused him to die.
I was shocked. Pastor Joshua was one of our graduates whom I had known and worked with for ten years. I had also been in his home and church. I had spent several hours with him just before this. He was the administrator of our Bible school extension, which he hosted in the church building. In short, I fully trusted him. What should I do with this information? Surely she must have told others.
Joshua had known Moses and Mama Moses since before he was saved at age ten. Moses had married him, dedicated his children, and traveled in ministry with him. When Joshua was going to go with Moses for treatment in a distant hospital, Mama Moses instructed the driver not to pick up Joshua. When Moses returned home, she refused to let Joshua into the bedroom to see him. Joshua was distraught and could not understand it. He had had a dream three weeks earlier in which he was not allowed to visit Moses. Finally, a fellow pastor passed on the news that Mama Moses suspected him of bewitching Moses. Joshua laughed with relief, because this was so ridiculous to him. There was no history of witchcraft in his family. Joshua did visit him in the hospital and Pastor Moses greeted him warmly, although Mama Moses did not greet him the first time. Joshua was the first person to visit the family after Moses died and, therefore, had to make the funeral arrangements. He was even asked to read things at the funeral. He said knowing that the widow and others in the family suspected him of killing Moses made him uncomfortable and may have caused some oversights in the funeral arrangements. Mama Moses never came back to Joshua’s church after the funeral.
I decided to tell the regional and national overseers about Mama Moses’s warning. The regional overseer eventually arranged a meeting between Mama Moses, her son, Joshua, several men, and a woman leader to lovingly confront Mama Moses about this issue. They knew that beyond others she had told, eventually people would start asking why she was no longer coming to the church. Then the witchcraft accusation would probably spread. When pushed in the meeting, she admitted that she thought he was a witch. They asked how she knew, if she had gone to someone for divination (the typical local way to discover who has caused a problem). She said that a respected prophet had come to pray for Moses when he was sick. He had knelt to pray and then began to roll from side to side and say, “This sickness is from within the church! There is a pastor who wants your position! He is the one who has sent many genies (majini) into your feet. But he and two others will die.” Also, her granddaughter had many visions of Joshua up on the roof above them.
(Joshua says that she also got proof from certain actions of his: for example, Joshua did not come with me when I went to give her condolences. Joshua announced in church the results of Moses’s surgery in Mwanza before she knew. She took that as witchcraft knowledge rather than cell phone contact.)
The leaders then began to question the reliability of her sources. This prophet was a local carpenter and member of a different church. He later ran away suddenly because of problems he had caused there. They asked how her granddaughter had true visions if she never came to church. They read Matthew 7:15–21 and 24 about wolves in sheep’s clothing and false prophets.
At first Mama Moses was angry and defensive, but finally she began to listen. She came back to church the next Sunday and has been fairly regular in attendance and giving since. When I talked to her last, she talked a blue streak. She told me all about the prophetic visions she had before her children died. I finally had a chance to encourage her not to believe that Moses could be defeated by witchcraft and not to tear down the work they had built. She said, “Yes, Moses didn’t like to hear about this and said that it was worldly talk. I am just trusting Jesus now. I know Moses is in heaven. I will not talk to people about it. I will love Joshua, even though I don’t trust him because he was envious and wanted to be the pastor.”
Joshua says that Moses was aware of all this, and it upset him. Moses said that, despite all their years together, his wife had never really decided to join him in following Jesus. She seldom sat through a whole church service. Some said that, unlike Moses, she had never really gotten over her Tutsi tribalism, looking down on the local people. He wonders if she is disappointed that her two sons who survived are mentally or spiritually unable to take over Moses’s ministry. Joshua and his brothers lead the church instead, but the overseer says it is because they are the most dedicated workers in the church. A national overseer, from his own experiences of being called a witch, encouraged Pastor Joshua to just keep on loving Mama Moses and doing the right thing and eventually the truth would win out. He should lead the church in taking offerings to help her with her needs, for example.
Capitalizing on a Story
From all reports of outward appearances, Mama Moses’s relationship with Pastor Joshua and the church is continuing well now.
Pastor Joshua shared his story in the 2013 consultation/training we had about witch accusations. This year he shared it while helping lead two seminars in his area that grew out of that discussion. He helps people see how this prophet created dissension and anger against him from the family. But after the intervention of various church leaders, the family now realized it was just an outsider creating problems and they live in peace and love with him. At each of these events, his sharing gave confidence to others to share their stories of being accused. Normally many dare not mention that someone has suspected them of being a witch, in case it might be remembered as a confession when people look to blame someone for a later tragedy. The result is that most people only hear the accuser’s side (whispered in the back hall) or the rumors they begin. Unless the suspected witch confesses (usually under pressure), their testimony is not believed. After all, part of the definition of a witch is that they lie about what they do in secret.
The intervention of other church leaders enabled this reconciliation. Joshua’s social capital (network of trusting relationships) enabled this. Now, rather than protect his reputation, he is using his social capital and reputation as a pastor and leader of pastors to side with those who are falsely accused.
Everyone I know in these communities believe that witches exist and can cause harm, but these Pentecostal pastors are changing the perspective and relationships first in a particular case and now questioning many accusations. In what ways is this similar to the approach noticed by Tim Stabell in the “mission churches” 700 km away in Bunia, DRC? Why is this ending different from Andy Alo’s pastor friend who remained a witch in the eyes of most people? What other things do you notice in this story about witches and witch accusations?
I would love to hear your comments!