BAMENDA, CAMEROON – Posters bearing religious messages adorn the exterior of a small home in Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest region of Cameroon. Inside, Christian stickers and posters plaster the living room walls like a Bible school notice board.
This is the home of Agnes Ngum, a member of Winners Chapel Bamenda, a Pentecostal church that promotes miracles and healing through the power of prayer. She converted to the church after more than 35 years as a Presbyterian because she needed a miracle, she says.
When Ngum was a Presbyterian, she was a drunk just like her pastors, she says. In those days, she thought drinking alcohol was fine because members of the congregation drank with their spiritual leaders.
Since joining the church, Ngum says she has been praying “ceaselessly.”
“I pray serious prayers four times daily, the most intense being from 12 midnight to 3 or 4 a.m. every day,” she says. “The Bible says: When men slept, that is when the enemy came and sowed tears. The night season is a time of battle, and if you are not taught to fight this battle, the devil will overpower you.”
Intense prayer in Ngum’s new church cured her alcoholism, she says.
“These days, I am rather drunk with the Holy Spirit than drunk with wine,” she says with a laugh.
The Pentecostal faith has helped her entire family, she says. Both she and her son suffered from poor health, and modern hospitals and traditional healers provided no respite. Her husband was a flirt, which created infidelity concerns.
But since the family joined the church, Ngum and her son are healthy. She also describes her husband as a changed man.
“My son and I no longer frequent the hospital,” she says, “and my husband no longer run[s] after countless women, thanks to the power of being born-again.”
Many Cameroonians cite a rise in the number of Pentecostal churches and their members. Converts says that promises of miracles and spiritual practices motivate them to leave other Christian denominations to join Pentecostal churches. But non-Pentecostal Christians are skeptical and accuse some of these churches of scamming converts. Pentecostal Christians admit that some con artists are taking advantage of the trend toward Pentecostalism to lure victims but defend their own churches. Despite tensions and accusations, members of both groups implore all Christians to find common ground as children of God.
The Pentecostal Church in northern Cameroon gained authorization and developed between 1980 and 1990, according to an article published by the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church. The creation of a multi-party political system in 1990 in the country also led to the liberalization of religions, triggering the emergence of a host of new denominations.
Many Cameroonians attest to an increase in Pentecostal churches and conversions to these churches since 2000.
The trend intensified around the turn of the millennium, says Pascal Mokundu, a Presbyterian and a student at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kumba, a city in southern Cameroon. Since then, countless Pentecostal churches have emerged.
Bernadette Taweh, a Baptist pastor and the chaplain of the Bamenda Central Prison, also sees an increase in conversions each year in the city, she says. The crossover rate increases as new Pentecostal churches appear in town.
The increase in new churches in Bamenda reflects a nationwide trend toward born-again Christianity, Ngum says. Pentecostal doctrine commands a belief in Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior, an open confession of one’s sins and baptism by total immersion. In her church, for example, congregants feel the urge to commune constantly with God.
Many converts to Pentecostalism say that their new faith brings them miraculous healing and intense spiritual development.
Jessica Mbolinwi, a 39-year-old mother of two children, joined the Redeemed Christian Church of God, an international Pentecostal church with origins in Nigeria, after witchcraft afflicted her family, she says.
Her elder brother suffered from constant fevers, headaches and vomiting, she says. Traditional doctors said that one of their uncles was bewitching him.
Pastors at her former church prayed for his health, and traditional doctors tried to cure him. But he remained ill. Finally, an acquaintance advised Mbolinwi’s family to seek out a powerful Pentecostal pastor to pray for him.
Mbolinwi’s brother was on the verge of death when her family brought him to the pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, she says. The pastor prayed for her brother and healed him.
The pastor then told her family that if they did not become strong in the Lord, ill health would afflict and eventually would kill them, she says. So Mbolinwi and her younger sister joined the church in 2001.
She expresses no regrets.
“I know the truth, I live the truth, and I do well to bring up my children in the ways of God,” she says. “I am praying every day that my children remain standing as born-again for as long as they live.”
Pamela Kinsam, 18, was raised Catholic but converted to a Pentecostal church a year ago.
“I am a member of Overcomers Chapel,” she says, smiling widely. “I am an Overcomer.”
She became determined to attend a church that would enrich her spiritual life, she says. Services in her old church were boring and dry. But in Overcomers Chapel, members pray, sing and dance to the glory of God, making the service lively.
Since joining, Kinsam has grown in her understanding of the Bible and in her own spiritual life, she says. Family members tell her to withdraw from what they call a “strange church,” but she prays every day for their sake.
“I feel sorry for my family members and others who are blinded by the boring doctrine and teachings of the Catholic Church,” she says. “May God arrest them before it is too late for them to become born-again Christians.”
Most non-Pentecostal Christians seek their Bibles on Sundays only, Ngum says. But she estimates that about 20 percent of these Christians are born-again and will embrace the Pentecostal doctrine eventually.
“This 20 percent will only be there for a while,” she says. “When the right time comes, they will relocate to a Pentecostal church where they will fully exercise true Christianity.”
But non-Pentecostal Christians are skeptical of the trend of conversion, which creates tension between the two groups.
Josephine Kinyuy, a Catholic, would never cross over to a Pentecostal doctrine and does not understand the increase in conversions, she says.
“I see no need [for] changing my church because I am blessed as a Catholic,” she says. “My relationship with God is good.”
Further, some Christians believe that Pentecostal churches are scams.
The people’s growing belief in miracles is driving the shift toward Pentecostalism, Mokundu says. Priests attract converts by claiming that they perform spiritual wonders in their churches.
But Christians must pray carefully before they convert, as some Pentecostal churches are cults, and some so-called pastors are con artists, he says.
"The big reason why people go to Pentecostal churches is because they are in search of signs and wonders," he says. "They are looking for miracles at all costs."
Converts seek miracles in their new churches, but they may fall prey to evil, Taweh says.
“There are a good number of churches that are cults,” she says. “Christians should be careful the way they select new churches, or else they will become victims of cult or sect manipulators who operate in the name of God.”
Some Pentecostal Christians admit that con artists posing as pastors are taking advantage of the surge of interest in Pentecostalism to dupe converts.
People are often suspicious of Pentecostal churches, Ngum says. Although her own church is not a scam, she hears stories of scammers posing as Pentecostal pastors to lure victims.
One of Ngum’s friends lost 2 million Central African francs ($4,065) to a man she had met in a taxi claiming to be a Pentecostal pastor, she says. He persuaded her friend to visit his church so he could pray for her.
At a building that resembled a church, the man told her friend that he knew she was a businesswoman who would soon travel to the city of Douala to buy goods, Ngum says. But he persuaded her to bring her money to him first so he could pray over it for a full day to prevent her from losing it.
But when she returned to the church to collect the blessed money, he was gone, and the building was empty. Local residents told her that there had never been a church in that neighborhood.
Jeremiah Chi, a pastor at God’s Way Ministry and Revelation in Bamenda, a small Pentecostal church that opened its doors two years ago, says that some pastors start churches just to extort money from parishioners.
“It is true that some churches are scams,” he says.
He warns Christians to be careful with the churches they select.
“It is hard to determine which church is a scam,” he says, “but I am praying that God reveals such churches and its scammers to the public.”
Amid allegations of scamming and misrepresentation, Christians from both sides call for an end to tension between Pentecostal churches and other denominations. They say they seek common ground as Christians.
Ngum has no problem with non-Pentecostal Christians, she says. She was not satisfied with their doctrine and chose not to raise her children in that doctrine, but that was her personal choice.
God is everywhere, irrespective of one’s religion, Kinyuy says.
“I wonder why some people move from church to church,” she says. “God is everywhere.”
Anyone can build a strong personal relationship with God, no matter his or her denomination, she says. People should feel free to do what is best for them, and God will answer their prayers.
Christians in Cameroon should love one another without criticizing other sects, Taweh says.
“We are all serving one God,” she says. “Let’s live as God’s children and let love lead.”