They came in their thousands to collect on a promissory note. The promise was simple yet quite profound: "On Sunday the 28th of March there will be a special healing service at Joubert Park. If you are suffering from HIV or Aids or if you have other problems you must come because you will be healed!!!"
The note bore the seal of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. This was a special open-air healing session. Except for its length - it went on for four hours - it was no different from sessions that are held daily throughout the country, where promises of great health and wealth are given in exchange for a few, if dear, pieces of silver.
The Universal church has exploded in most working-class areas of South Africa. It has taken over every conceivable form of premises, from storefronts to halls to movie houses.
Most cinemas are virtually empty at 10am in the morning. Bar one. By 9:30 a.m. in a movie house at the corner of De Villiers and Kerk streets in downtown Johannesburg the patrons are already sitting quietly, some in pairs, talking in muted tones. Men in sober white shirts and ties walk about the 2,000-seat hall, which is slowly but steadily filling up. They could be ushers in any cinema - only these are the ushers of God, the God of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
The church uses the cinema for its marathon daily services: the last ends at 8 p.m. Services are led by "pastors". Ten of them sit below the stage, hands placed on the heads of a few individuals, some praying, some listening.
A man on stage - seated at a synthesiser - gestures at an unseen sound engineer who adjusts the sound booming out of the state- of-the-art speakers situated all around the walls, some of them concealed in the ceiling. The muted rhubarb fizzles to a hush as a voice booms into cinema: "Lord Jesus Christ, I pray to you this morning ..." The gathered throng stand and respond to the voice of the man leading today's service, "Pastor" Abel, repeating every word after him. (In a later conversation he refuses to give his full name.)
He bellows into the microphone: "Now talk to your lord! Tell him what you want!" Congregants break into individual prayers, some pleading, some cajoling, some collapsing in tearful abandon.
A woman in her late 20s and dressed in a brightly coloured African dress pleads: "Oh Lord, I need you, please help me. You are my last resort ..." Such individual conversations with "the lord" are encouraged throughout the service.
Pastor Abel looks on approvingly from the raised stage and stops the session abruptly, commanding: "Say to the person next to you, 'The lord is here for you ... the disease that you have will go away.'" Obedience follows. He breaks into an energetic ditty that makes the gathered faithful move to the groove.
The ushers are joined by women dressed in navy-blue skirts and shirts. All wear badges with the insignia of the church, a red heart with a white dove. They patrol the aisles, hawk-eyed.
The song is so gay that whenever the accompanist on the synthesiser breaks into a drum solo, some of the gathered faithful break into whistles and ululation. The atmosphere is carnival. "You are not sick because you are supposed to be sick," smiles Pastor Abel happily into the microphone, "you are sick because you are hiding your joy!" The day's healing session is about to start.
Pastor Abel instructs everyone to go to one side of the cinema. The pastors form a corridor on the opposite side, through which everyone must walk in order to be healed. "We are going to burn the devil out of you, we are going to heal your body, the lord is going to get the tokoloshe out of you," he rattles into the microphone as the people walk through the gauntlet of pastors who touch them and pray as they pass.
Everyone has now broken into individual prayers and to soundtrack this process Pastor Abel intones into the microphone, "Yisha Sathane. Yisha tokoloshe [Burn Satan. Burn tokoloshe]." He repeats the phrase, dragging the middle vowel of the first word such that his voice starts resembling a blowing wind. The accompanist gets in on the act, playing sound effects of thunder and lightning. The din drowns out any of the sounds that might have seeped through from the bootleg music salesmen who hawk their wares outside on the street.
When Pastor Abel gets tired he hands the microphone to one of 22 pastors who take up the howl, screaming into the microphone, screaming, screaming ...
Some of the people - mostly young women of slight build - overcome by emotion are taken up on stage and a wrestling match ensues between the women and zealous pastors as they shout prayers - "Show yourself Satan, get out of here Satan!" - in a relentless physical and aural assault. The "laying of hands" is violent - the women are grabbed by the throat, almost throttled, some of the women nearly losing consciousness.
At the end of this session eight women are still on stage. Pastor Abel points at the audience and declares, "All of the people on this side have had their demons removed" and turns to the stage: "The people who still need praying for are these. Let's pray for them." Another assault begins as some of the women scream and shout, inviting shouts from Pastor Abel: "Scream Satan! Burn Satan! Scream Satan!"
After 10 minutes, only a woman in her early 20s remains. "Oh, this one is stubborn. This tokoloshe doesn't know what the lord is made of. We'll show him. We'll show him. Get out! Sathane! Get out! Get out!" he screams as his voice echoes, courtesy of the unseen sound engineer. The woman struggles as she is grabbed and wrestled by three of the "pastors". Finally she relaxes and staggers off stage, seemingly sapped of all energy.
Pastor Abel is pleased with himself. "Look at the person next to you and ask him, 'Do you still believe in Jesus? See you next week.'" The congregants oblige, including a young man of about 16 who looks zoned out on glue. He is quickly ejected by two of the "pastors".
Pastor Abel tells them that this is the most important part of the service, "Where you receive the blessings that you came here for." A few people smile as he says that those who want to receive those blessing should come up front. "I am going to start with anyone who wants to give R200 upwards to come forward. Come and plant and you will reap. Come forward. Do I have anyone for R200 upwards?"
His delivery is now akin to that of an auctioneer. A stony, shamed silence greets him. "Akekho bazalwane [Isn't there anyone, fellow Christians]?" he asks. "Say 'Amen'. Don't be ashamed," he sympathises, immediately moving to the next scale of blessings. "Those who say they will give R100 upwards come forward and receive your blessings." Three people walk to the front and hand money to the male "pastors" who touch each on the head.
Pastor Abel asks one, a well-dressed man, "How many cars do you have?" The man responds: "Six." A satisfied smile spreads across Pastor Abel's face as he says: "You see, he had nothing when he came here, now six cars. This is what happens when you plant."
The scale goes down right down to 50c, the blessing session with the most subscriptions.
The last pitch is for a swab of cotton wool "which you can use on all those people who are sick. You can even put it inside your purse, go to the bank and say, 'Lord, heal me, I am sick financially.'" Here the scale starts at a paltry R50 and slides down to R10.
It's noon, the packed hall has halved, the next service has started. Another pastor has started hissing into the mike: "Yeesha, yeesha Sathane." The banner outside declares: "Stop suffering! A new life awaits you! Universal Church of the Kingdom of God."