Front view of the church. Photo: Eric Dumo
Cars moving in different directions, commercial motorcycles blaring horns uncontrollably in desperate attempts to wriggle their ways through any available opening on the narrow road and pedestrians caught in between, the sight speaks of chaos and utmost confusion. Even though the area is a residential quarters, finding your way in and out of Okepopo Street, Adeniji-Adele, Lagos, can be one of the most frustrating exercises to embark on, in fact. Apart from the narrowness of the road itself, the rough nature of the surface also contributes to making your journey tiring.
But more than the topography of the area, the prevalence of red-eyed young men and women cooling off in various joints where drinks and drugs of different kinds are experimented, catches your attention. The joints, sandwiched between crammed buildings – mostly bungalows and two-storey structures that had seen better days, also serve as virile grounds where gambling and other related activities take place unabated. Morning, afternoon, night – these corners are never short of patronage. Male and female – old and young, there is a place for everyone.
However, while many of Lagos’ residents as a result of personal experiences had given up hope of things taking a different turn in and around the neighbourhood, a few others have separate ideas. Holy Flock of Christ, a religious organisation that has operated in the area for 85 years, is leading the line in the efforts to write a new chapter for Okepopo and its teeming youthful population polarised by illicit drugs and crimes.
Interestingly, while the 85-year-old cathedral tucked in between houses, joints and ‘coded’ corners notorious for all sorts of social vices has been making life-changing impacts all around the community, it is some of its unique attributes that has in fact fascinated many, who had come in contact with it.
For example, during a recent visit to Okepopo, our correspondent, who spent an evening of worship with congregants of the church, observed how throughout the almost 80-minute service, no clapping occurred. While singing took the form of solemn hymns hummed in a combination of English and Yoruba languages, interaction between members during proceedings was almost non-existent. That is not all. Unlike in other churches where congregants attack each prayer point with ‘rage’ and utmost vigour, here, demands to ‘heaven’ are made solemnly – like a conversation between two lovers. For a first time visitor used to a different way of worship, a time in one of Holy Flock’s services can leave a mix bag of feelings on the mind.
“Many people who do not understand our mode of worship find our services a bit strange,” one of the church’s elders and Vicar General, Dr. Kole Abayomi – a senior advocate and former Director General of Nigerian Law School, told Saturday PUNCH. “For instance, apart from the fact that we do not clap during our services, we only dance during our thanksgiving sessions which are not usually many. In an entire year, we may have such services maybe four or five times depending on the type of programme we are having. For instance, we are celebrating our 85th Founder’s Day this week and it is at such a period that we dance while bringing our offerings to the altar.
“Also, while other churches and denominations believe that once a person is consumed by the Holy Spirit, he or she could be knocked up and down on the floor, we do not subscribe to such. We believe that the Holy Spirit is calm and when he comes into anybody, he or she will remain calm and relay the message given to them. In fact, we believe that being knocked up and down is a sign that a person is resisting the Holy Spirit and if such happens during our service, we simply take the person to the back of the church for them to calm down. A lot of people find this a bit strange but we believe this is the way it is supposed to be.
“Even though we have our origin in the Aladura movement, our doctrine and way of operation is different from the other garment wearing churches in a number of ways. We don’t speak in tongues in this church. The church is a prophetic one where visions are relayed through those who have the gift. Also, women are seated separately from the men in all our services,” he said.
Situated in the heart of Lagos Island, a section known for heavy commercial activities, Okepopo, like many of its neighbours, has earned for itself a fearsome reputation over the years despite contributing significantly to the growth and development of the city. Besides playing host to some of the deadliest gang battles and political disagreements in recent times, the street has also witnessed other forms of unrest over the years.
While the situation has forced many residents to relocate to other parts of the state believed to be relatively safer, others who have remained in this part of Lagos told Saturday PUNCH that they live every day at a time, not knowing what the next moment will bring.
“I always call my people at home to get a situation report of happenings in the neighbourhood before returning from work every day,” Nneka Udukporo, a dealer in textiles materials at the nearby Idumota Market, revealed.
“The fact that the area is calm in the morning when you had left home does not mean that it would remain so till you come back. At any moment, violence can erupt, affecting movement in and out of Okepopo and other streets around. On several occasions I have had to sleep at friends’ and colleagues’ houses as a result of this problem. I think the large number of unemployed youths and drug joints is a major contributing factor to this scourge,” she noted.
Akeem Ogunmefun, 41, has lived in this part of Lagos for many years. During his time here, he has seen a lot of young men and women giving in to the pressure all around them. According to him, the high unemployment rate in the area is pushing many like him into embracing drugs and other wayward paths.
“Many of these joints and coded corners you see all around Okepopo and environs have been there for years, even before a lot of us were born,” Ogunmefun told a correspondent during a visit to the area recently.
“There is no time of the day that you don’t see guys and even ladies taking one thing or the other just to calm themselves down. I won’t lie to you, this is part of our life here, many of us were born into drinking and smoking and we cannot just leave it like that.
“Though personally I have reduced the number of times I go to these joints because of age and responsibility as a parent, many of our people here still visit regularly as a result of frustration. A lot of us don’t have jobs, so these joints are the only consolation for us throughout the day,” he said before sauntering into a small kiosk behind a car repairs workshop.
Less than 10 metres away sits another ‘coded corner’ where many of Okepopo’s youths and elderly ‘recharge’ and ‘fortify’ themselves with all sorts of concoctions and narcotics for the most part of the day.
With only a white, net-like curtain shielding them from the bulging eyes of passersby, patrons could be seen giggling and making other gestures as thick puffs of smoke flew out of the place. Time was 2:30pm, and not even the venom of the blistering sun on this afternoon could hamper proceedings here.
“Why you dey look my face,” one dark-complexioned and heavily bearded middle-aged man barked at our correspondent in splattering pidgin. “Se you wan high ni, abi you wan make I brush your face for ground?,” the man asked in a firmer voice, anger slowly building up in him. “No look this side again or else I can mess you up,” he added, gulping a few sips from the contents inside a cup he was holding.
Encouraging our correspondent not to tremble or show any sign of fear at the man’s threat, an elderly woman walking behind revealed how many visitors and passersby had faced harassment and intimidation from miscreants whose lives now revolve around the joints in the neighbourhood.
“Anytime I move around this community, I am saddened by the number of young people I see wasting away,” she began. “Apart from drinking from morning till night, drugs and crimes have also become their specialty. On a number of occasions, I have tried talking to the ones I know but I realise that after some time, they go back to partake in the activities taking place at the joints.
“But my worry is the way these guys sometimes harass people going about their normal businesses. They shout at and intimidate you if you look at them too much and if you are not bold, they can take advantage of you. Having lived in this neighbourhood for so long, people like us know how to deal with the situation but not others from outside this place,” she said, giving her name only as Mama Bimbo.
But through rigorous but an effective strategy, the church, according to Abayomi, is beginning to reverse the way young men and women think in this community.
“It has not been easy surviving in this environment for 85 years,” he said. “Even though when we came to this area, it was all marshy and peaceful, development over the years has meant that a lot has changed about the environment and its people. Today, the Okepopo area has a fearsome reputation in the minds of members of the public but we are gradually changing that,” he said.
Even though Abayomi revealed that none of their members had been attacked and or harassed by miscreants in the neighbourhood, getting the message of Christ across to them over the years had not been easy.
He said that through a distinct approach, they had been able to get many of the community’s youths off the streets and help them find new lives – a path free of social vices.
“Having been here for so long and with good understanding of the terrain, we have learnt how to approach many of these guys on the street,” Abayomi told Saturday PUNCH.
“By the grace of God and through consistent tracking, we have been able to get many of them off the streets and away from drugs and crime. A lot of them worship with us now and have even gone on to do meaningful things with their lives. This gives us immense happiness as a church,” he added.
Decked in a design that speaks volume of its rich history and heritage, the size of the church’s premises indeed betrays the level of impact it is making on its immediate surroundings and community at large.
Even though its doctrine and mode of worship may be alien to many, slowly but steadily, the Holy Flock of Christ church is setting many of Okepopo’s derailed young men and women on the path of redemption.