ORANGE FARM, South Africa (AP) — Dressed in a red robe and a gold-trimmed bishop’s miter, the clergyman pours whiskey into his cupped hand and anoints the forehead of the man sitting before him.
“You are hereby invested as a minister … This is a double tot,” he says of the remaining whiskey in the chalice. He hands it to the new minister, who downs it.
“Hallelujah!” shout the congregation members who erupt in singing and dancing, swigging from bottles of beer.
Welcome to Gabola Church, which celebrates the drinking of alcohol. The South African church was started eight months ago and has found an enthusiastic following.
“We are a church for those who have been rejected by other churches because they drink alcohol,” Gabola’s founder and self-declared pope, Tsietsi Makiti, told The Associated Press. “Gabola Church is established to redeem the people who are rejected, who are regarded as sinners. We drink for deliverance. We are drinking for the Holy Ghost to come into us.”
Others in South Africa are outraged by Gabola, saying it is not a church at all.
“Gabola has nothing to do with the word of God. Those are not church services,” said Archbishop Modiri Patrick Shole, director of the South African Union Council of Independent Churches. “They are using the Bible to promote taverns and drinking liquor. It is blasphemous. It is heresy and totally against the doctrines.” He said his organization intends to see that authorities close Gabola for breaking municipal regulations that say churches should not be located near bars.
Gabola is not a member of the mainstream South African Council of Churches, which said it has no comment about it. Gabola is not affiliated with any other denominations.
About 80 percent of South Africa’s 56 million people profess to be Christian. In addition to Catholic and Protestant denominations, there are small independent ones with unusual practices like handling snakes. One pastor recently was found guilty of assault for spraying Doom, a popular insecticide, into worshippers’ faces, which was supposed to chase away evil spirits.
The condemnation by other Christian organizations did not bother the 30 worshippers attending a recent Gabola service, held in a bar in the sprawling Orange Farm township 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Johannesburg.
A pool table served as the altar, adorned with bottles of whiskey and beer. Six ministers at the altar solemnly blessed the chilled jumbo bottles of beer bought by most churchgoers. A few drank whiskey, brandy or other beverages, all of them similarly blessed. The congregation sang hymns praising the positive effects of drinking. Three new Gabola members were baptized with beer which covered their foreheads and dripped down their faces.
Gabola means “drinking” in Tswana, one of South Africa’s official languages.
“Our aim is to convert bars, taverns and shebeens into churches,” Makiti said. “And we convert the tavern-owners into pastors.”
People in other churches “say they are holy but they drink by the back doors, in secret. They think God does not see them,” he said. “But the Lord zooms in on them and can see them. We drink openly at our services. We do so in peace and we love each other.”
Gabola’s leader said he encourages people to drink responsibly and emphasizes that alcohol will only be sold and blessed to people who are 20, two years older than South Africa’s legal drinking age.
The rousing hymns praising the effects of alcohol brought church members to their feet and they enthusiastically stomped and danced in a circle, often around a beer bottle. As the three-hour service progressed they became louder, more animated and sloppier. Some dozed off during the sermon.
“Nothing is as happy in the world as people who drink,” said Nigel Lehasa, who explained scripture during the service and described himself as Gabola’s professor. “There is no fighting, no arguing. We have nothing but love.”