For church and country

A recent Saturday night at Johannesburg’s Northgate Dome: a big band is ploughing through gospel hits during the Two Days of Hope, the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Rhema Bible Church.

The on-stage singers are heaving uncontrollably—as if in the grip of a divine embrace. Many of the estimated 10 000 people still here after two days of sermonising, praying and singing appear similarly ravished. In the front row of this quivering congregation is Pastor Ray McCauley, founder of the Rhema Bible Church in South Africa and installed last year as head of the National Interfaith Leaders Council (NILC) by President Jacob Zuma.

McCauley mounts the stage and spells out his vision for both the church and the country: he is encouraged because Zuma’s administration is sympathetic to the church, especially mass-based charismatic ones like Rhema.
This will help “extend the body of Christ not just past Randburg — but through the whole country”.

A republic of virtue is on the rise, it seems. And its bedrock may well be Christian evangelism.

McCauley is joined on stage by his wife, Zelda. In a spray-on white and gold lamé outfit, her 52-year-old body appears to have defied the aging process. Her arms drip with diamonds and, despite a self-confessed partiality for Botox, her lips move.

Zelda delivers her message: the poor and marginalised in society will receive a “huge bonanza”, the magnitude of which is emphasised by her elongating the word “huge”. The crowd’s cheering reverberates around this inverted nipple of a venue.

Welcome to Saturday night at the Jesus Dome, where the air is heavy with faith and superstition, exaltation and desperation; where mounds of televangelist DVDs and quasi-spiritual self-help books are on sale, the receipts feeling like pages from the prosperity gospel.

McCauley powers congregants with his brand of charismatic Christianity: of taking “biblical scriptures” and melding them to “issues that people deal with every day, whether it is unforgiveness, broken relationships [or] divorce”.

In an interview the following week we meet McCauley at the Rhema Church’s gargantuan edifice in Randburg North.

Off stage as on he displays the Everyman appeal of a favourite mechanic, but is also a shrewd business­man sitting atop a multi-million-rand empire that, last year, drew a net income of more than R68-million (more than R60,5-million from tithes and offerings) and holds assets of close to R33,5-million.

He declines to quantify his salary, saying it is in line with a chief executive of a mid-size company. Speculation figures it at more than R100 000 a month. Rhema has extended into media and evangelical television and one insider boasts of McCauley “being known from Cape Town to Cairo”.

McCauley is affable, with a squat physique and shambling gait, yet he is also well aware of his status and the need to cultivate his public persona. He reaches into his bowels to laugh raucously, sometimes, one feels, out of expedience.

The 60-year-old preacher who believes storytelling is his “calling” started the church in his parents’ lounge in 1979 with a congregation of 13. Today McCauley boasts of having gone “international” with about 45 000 members and sold-out evangelical shows at the Sydney Opera House and the Royal Albert Hall in London.

He describes several Damascus Road experiences, including his participation in the Mr Universe bodybuilding competition in 1974, after he had won Mr South Africa: “When I came third in the universe, I realised that I was just as empty. There was no fulfilment. That, actually, the goal kept me going more than achieving it. And that made me look inward,” he says.

He had taken up body-building at 13, impressed by Reg Park and compelled by “always wanting to fit in — I’d always had to watch my weight, always had a big appetite—I could eat a lot and had to discipline myself. But I was always impressed with the impact of the guy who had big muscles: the beach thing, the girls’ thing, [I had] that type of image in my head.”

The impression is that he still has to rein in his big appetite and that Christ is his tether.

Another Damascus experience compelled him to start the Rhema Church while he was ministering to recovering drug addicts in Johannes­burg. The final one, he says, opened his eyes to the injustices of apartheid in the early 1990s, saying he had previously “been naive on the issues”.

McCauley, one of four brothers, had a rough and ready childhood. His father was a gambler, his mother an alcoholic. He grew up carousing, “trying to pick up girls”, and brawling through the Johannesburg suburbs of Hillbrow and Norwood: “We were four boys and had a bit of a wild upbringing — We had a reputation where if you started with one, you had to have all four of the McCauley boys,” he says, laughing.

Vusi Mona, a former Rhema spokesperson and currently director of communications in Zuma’s office, says McCauley remains “a bit rough — but he is a generous man. Not in terms of material things but in terms of relationships.”

But with a church philosophy that links spirituality with materialism, McCauley has a penchant for expensive possessions: motorbikes, especially Harley Davidsons, designer labels and big houses. Having decided to move back to Johannesburg to play a bigger part in the NILC, McCauley recently sold his ocean-side mansion.

On recent media reports that he is in the red, to the extent that his son Joshua asked guests to his 60th birthday party to come bearing cash in aid of his father’s debt, McCauley blames the “begging letter” on youthful exuberance: “The word that he misused as a young guy—I don’t think he ever will again—was the word ‘debt’. What he was trying to say was, that, you know, we all have bonds.” McCauley senior lets off a wheezy laugh.

Quizzed on what he sees as his own shortcomings and whether he has regrets, McCauley answers that he’s afraid to “disappoint people” who have a “false expectancy” because of his gift for preaching.

“Yet in real life you have shortcomings: you’re always looking for more love, more tenderness, more patience, more compassion, things like that. I have my brother [Alan McCauley, who lives among the recovering drug addicts and single mothers at Rhema’s Hands of Compassion centre].

“I preach, I lead the church, but he has been a role model in the way that he loves people and the poor and serves them, and I sometimes think that ‘You could do more of that’ — These are challenges that you face all the time and a lot of people look at you as if you are some little demi-god sometimes, or demonic.”

He bowel-laughs again. “It depends who you read —”

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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