Believers and Hustlers: An Indepth Literary Summary by Jane Obonomen
This novel was written by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo in 2020. He is the winner of the 2022 Chinua Achebe Prize for Literature. The novel reveals the rottenness of religion. Every event of the church is scripted to be staged like in a performance.
That the pastor and his wife keep malice at home but make a show on the altar to appear like a lovely couple or that the church pays press members for their presence, or that the church distributes the questions to be asked to journalists is laughable.
Pastor Nick becomes desperate to appear on CNN because he now pastors the biggest church auditorium. The novel represents the mediocrity of the church. That Pst Nick writes a book titled Thinking at the next level; Think to Wealth is a mockery of the soundness of the human mind.
That he employs the services of a non-Christian to write Christian books for which he takes credit is absurd. His self-given mandate is to bring validation to a lifestyle of choice; no pressure on sinners.
The church is to be run like a company; equal shares with his wife in the registration of documents. He tells his wife they will be rich and will buy a yacht. And one year into the ministry, he already has escorts.
The novel starts with Ifenna struggling to get a good photograph at the commissioning of Heaven’s Gate Cathedral, the new headquarters of Rivers of Joy Church Global. Irritated by the exegeses of the event and the boring regulars being adopted by the church, he tries to cover every moment to make his Boss proud and to keep his company, The Nigerian, on top of the trends.
In an atmosphere that is expected to be spiritual, the MC cracks carnal jokes which cue thunderous laughter from the congregation but fires Ifenna back to the conversation that ensued in the bus he commuted to the church; an argument that is about to turn Ifenna’s life around. Little does he know that it is going to be a memorable day for him.
On his way that morning, he is attentive to the debate held by co-passengers on the bus. They argue about the size of their church. While this passenger declares his church as the biggest in the world, built in record time, the other takes offence, claiming that hers remains top on the size list.
As they each buttressed their point, the offended passenger shares unverified murder information to spite her opponent. She reveals to everyone’s amazement that death had occurred on that site.
Ifenna makes up his mind to dare the devil and ask about the dead pastor, ignoring the scripted Question that was earlier given to him. He goes ahead to print the outcome of the media parley adding that perhaps the church needed blood to solidify its foundation just as salvation is solidified by Christ’s blood.
This cost him his job. Ifenna is not a religious person, despite his mother’s effort to indoctrinate him, although, he’s been Catholic all his life. His mother calls him to tell him about a prophecy, “There is something going to happen soon in your workplace that will elevate you”.
The irony is Ifenna just lost his job for being too forward in his assignment.
Nick has been an intelligent person since his childhood. He bested his class. His father dies too early in an accident, leaving behind his mother to care for him and his two sisters. She is a loving mother who delays her travel just to sing him a birthday song and gift him a card on his 13th birthday. She is humiliated because she turns down the Landlord’s proposal to be his fourth wife.
In retaliation, Owo Blow cancels the two-year support rent he earlier announced at the funeral of their Dad and sends them packing. Nature does not favour Nick and his sisters on the day that Owo Blow kicks them out and flings their things out, as it brings a downpour afterwards. Nick has locked the memory of Owo Blow laughing at his family since that day.
Pastor Nkechi is as mundane as her husband. Bayo prepares her for every sermon, not the Holy Spirit. She has a police orderly, a personal photographer, a stylist and a makeup artist that accompany her everywhere she goes. Her husband has already taught her how to manage a large crowd in mock attention.
She slashes her time for the Single Women’s Conference to thirty minutes to offer herself willingly for a magazine photo shoot that will last for more than two hours. She prioritises only meetings that add political value to their ministry.
Believers and Hustlers exposes corruption in the church, where fundraising for church projects is shared amongst guest pastors and host pastors. Peju, the wife of the founder of Living Spring Church invites Nkechi to her church to raise funds to replace her two-year-old Range Rover. Nkechi does a great job in stimulating the generosity of the gullible brethren to thirty-five million against thirty million Naira.
When pastors’ wives meet, their discussion is mundane, deleting everything spiritual. Peju advises Nkechi to deal with female members who may be throwing their bodies at her husband. In a quest to find out who Pastor Nick is sleeping with, his wife employs a detective referred to her by Peju.
He brings news that Nick is having a sexual affair with Bimbo, his media aid and another wife of a junior pastor who now has a baby for him. When she asks how to solve the problem, the detective gives her four options. The first is to destroy him, the second is to confront him, the third is to kill the women and the fourth is to kill Nick.
Meanwhile, Ifenna turns himself into a taxi driver to fend for himself. A few rides into the job get his ears full of more stories about criminals who take shelter in the church as pastors.
He falls in love with Lilian, his neighbour. After Lilian accepts to visit him in the evening, Ifenna plunges himself into thorough sanitation of his room to make a first impression on Lilian (a typical behaviour of the average Nigerian bachelor).
Ifenna loses interest in Christian gathering a long time ago after his Dad died and his mother leaves Catholic to a Pentecostal whose many doctrines Ifenna find choking. Since then, Ifenna has not seen or heard of a true holy Christian who behaves Christ-like.
He has since witnessed the expose of the non-exemplary life of many popular men of God. From his days in the university, youth pastors who esteem themselves as holy have shamed holiness by being caught in fornication with countless girls.
Pastor Nick goes into ministry for the wrong reasons. He keeps taps with what the ‘competition’ does and their strategy for staying ahead.
And because he is not pure, his pastor friends aren’t either. His consciousness about his appearance makes him keep taps with fashion trends. To have a branch in London, he signs a franchise with an already existing church.
He encourages his junior pastors to evangelise only to rich folks, to fill the church instead of rats and spirits who may impoverish the church. He buys a property in a neighbourhood in Dubai simply to be the only man of God capacitated to afford such luxury.
He further instructs the agent to see to it that no other man of God buys a property there. He is to be a neighbour to a senator, an Army General and only influential Nigerians. He commissions an Eatery in a mall where the Governor holds shares. He met the rich owner of the Eatery on a plane some time ago where they engage in a conversation and Nick is able to convince him that his Anglican church is the reason for his setback.
Chief Edozie testifies that his business has flourished since the time he sowed a special seed to Pst Nick. After the spiritual charade of prayers, Edozie gifts him a cheque of One Million Naira for fuel which Nick finds satisfactory.
The next chapter has him making an entrance into his wife’s room to end their malice. She has left since three months ago when Nick flared up because she confronted him about the condom she found in his pocket and Nick has acted like he didn’t notice her absence. Now he wants the malice to end, not because he loves her and misses her but because people are beginning to notice.
Nick makes a fool of himself when he claims the lady is a random lady and feigns regret, claiming that God has forgiven him and that it is all in the past. Pastor Nkechi, who already has knowledge of his extramarital affairs, tells him little of the truth she knows about Bimbo being the random lady.
She does not get the chance to reveal her knowledge of the other junior pastor’s wife before Nick reverts that he also knows about her escapade with Pastor Felix.
This is new. She is awestruck as she has been sure that that secret was between her and Felix alone. All may be in the past for her because her adulterous opportunity is gone. Pastor Felix is dead. Therefore, true repentance cannot be measured in her favour. She still relishes the moment they had together. Both husband and wife are guilty of adultery.
She wakes up in the morning with a headache, thinking about last night’s argument. It is here the author shares her moments with Pastor Felix, her lover. Pastor Nick appoints her to be head of the church project to avoid depression from a failed IVF and makes Pastor Felix her assistant. This gives room for friendship, closeness and indeed averted depression.
The door to intimacy opens as they work together. Felix becomes the friend she never had, a shoulder to cry on since her husband’s own is scarce anyway. He even becomes her genuine pastor. But as is expected of man, there is a fall.
She initiates sexual intimacy and relieves the moment. No guilt, no judgement. The joy she feels from that moment reflects in her worship on Sunday that when her husband asks why so elated, she attributed it to the special mercy of God.
She does not get the chance for a second sex. It may be safe to say this because he dies. It is here she suspects the credibility of the report of her lover’s death.
Tunde, Ifenna’s afore unfriendly neighbour, confides in Ifenna about the religious blow he has been dealt with. He is troubled about the circumstances around the death of his baby. His church members tell him during their condolence visits that having perfected the medical requirements, he lost the baby because he didn’t give enough and didn’t exercise faith enough.
This breaks Tunde who has been faithfully religious. His wife also blames him for not carrying out some selfish rituals directed by her mother’s white garment church. Although she had been on his side when he refused, she is now convinced that her baby would be alive if the sacrifice was carried out to wade off the water spirit that had supposedly possessed him.
Nze Ifedigbo unveils religion-ingrained beliefs with the story of Tunde and his family. Whether truly born again or hiding under the umbrella of Christianity, the average Nigerian is living in darkness and needs to be liberated from religion. The book reflects how people make errors in religion.
Tunde reveals to Ifenna that his wife had done two abortions before marriage because they both come from respectable Christian families. It tells how doctrines can cage people from the truth of Christianity, and how churches bury sins to save their name and membership.
The church features blind donations led by pastors to swindle members of their money in the guise of sowing seeds to perfect their lives and threatening them with a curse if they do not fulfil their monetary vows.
Lilian and Ifenna are fornicators but Lilian insists on marrying a ‘born again’. Indifferent Ifenna wonders how his girlfriend can go to church directly from his bed. He makes a mockery of her in his mind because as liberal as he is, he disapproves of impurity which negates true worship.
Lilian reveals that she is a member of Rivers of Joy Church, Ifenna’s number one enemy church. She is oblivious to Ifenna’s blogger identity. He however honours her invitation to attend service there, where he gets stuck by Pastor Nkechi’s beauty and is suddenly drawn to the true identity behind her façade.
Nkechi meets with her newly employed Detective X who reveals to her that although he has no evidence to claim that her husband killed Felix, his desperation to halt all investigations is suspicious. This news makes Teetotal Nkechi gulp two glasses of VSOP. Before she leaves, he shows her a flash containing incriminating information about her husband but will only hand it over at a juicy cost.
In his sad experience with the Federal Road Safety Corps, Ifenna overhears the officers sharing their sad stories about the church. It is here he gets the inspiration to start an anonymous blog where people can share their true stories without necessarily revealing their IDs. He titles his blog, ‘Exposing the Bad Shepherds and Unchaining the Sheep Blog’.
When the story of a scandal of a former member is released, Nkechi remembers her late father’s stiff warning against marrying Nick. She decides that she needs to know the identity of the blogger and wants the costly flash.
One of the days, Lilian talks about a mushroom blog posting stories to defame her anointed pastor.
She innocently defends her pastor’s purity and refuses to give credence to the revealer even if she recognizes her as a member. The relationship that the devil himself cannot separate, religion does so in a flash after Lilian discovers that Ifenna is the blogger who continuously defames her pastor. She leaves him seconds after professing his finality for the marriage step.
Pastor Nick meets with the spring and backbone of Rivers of Joy Church. They are Chief Gbadamosi, a Muslim, Senator Enahire of the Ogboni fraternity, General Gumi and Sir Augustus, a crook. It is here the author reveals that the church is not the source of Pastor Nick’s wealth.
When Nick attends CAN meetings, he makes clear the politics, tribalism, envy, judgement and lack of spirituality in the body of Christ. The pastors gossip rather than discuss spiritual things and only make references to the Bible to crop scriptures that back up their financial prowess, like in the case of the first fruit offering.
Pastor Nick welcomes it and means to enforce it by handpicking testimonies that lean on it otherwise he will make arrangements for such testimonies. The meeting ends with the conclusion that the presidency at CAN can be achieved through money influence.
Pastor Nkechi blackmails Bimbo into resigning and leaving the church quietly and keeping the reason a secret from everyone including her husband. She hushes Bimbo from telling the truth about the affair and instead blames it on her for seducing her husband, still hushing her in her defence.
Pastor Nick recognizes the illusion of Owo Blow’s face as a premonition that something bad is about to happen. When he receives Bimbo’s resignation letter, he decides that it is bad news compared to anything that may affect the realization of his private jet, which could have been worse news.
Having concluded that the news is bad enough, he carefully takes in the details of the letter and makes an effort to reach out to her but to no avail. He is troubled as his bedmate and go-to media cushion leaves without his approval. As he broods on the possible reasons for Bimbo’s sudden disappearance, his eyes fall on the venue of Pastor Felix’s death.
His memory flashes to how he confronts Felix at the site about a rumour that he is side-phoning money raised for the building project. In the heat of the argument, Nick accuses Felix of getting close to his wife to manipulate her for money.
In his defence, Felix directs Nick to ask his wife why she can’t get her hands off him. This careless slip shocks Nick as his suspicion never trailed in that direction. When he asks to confirm the meaning of those irretrievable arrowed words that suggest intimacy, Felix falls silent. With a clenched fist, he walks towards him but Felix in his retreat, loses his balance and falls backwards to his death.
Ifenna’s mother calls at about 6 A.M to narrate her fresh disappointment in a most adored pastor and somehow concludes that the miracles these folks claim to perform are pre-arranged. Her guest pastor employs someone to plant charms overnight which he reveals the next day to make people believe that he has used his gift of knowledge to decipher the root of their problems and then proffer solutions.
This action is to make his prayers appear potent, thereafter bringing his believers under servitude. The story becomes humorous when Mama Ifenna reveals that the pastor happens to be one referred by her revered pastor. She doubts his genuineness now that his friend is caught playing gimmicks on gullible believers.
The reader may conclude that Ifenna’s mum has broken free from the chains of religion without external influence, like his blog, for example.
Nkechi is very calculative in dealing with her husband. First, she removes his shock absorber, Bimbo, who is chief in managing scandals and upholding the reputation of the church on social media. Then she strikes again having sent vital info to Ifenna’s blog and instructed him to post it by 10 ‘o clock when her husband will be giving the sermon.
The blogger releases the deadly secret titled, ‘Pastor Nick’s Empire of Fraud and Criminality’. To make sure no one misses it, Pastor Nkechi sends registered members the link to the scandalous crime news of her husband. She pretentiously handles the situation, giving his followers scriptural backing to defend the church from this ‘unknown enemy’ and hope to God for victory.
Pastor Nick trusts in her solace and for the first time in a very long time, they live like a normal couple, bonding and making love. Nick suddenly becomes a changed person as his downtime makes his wife his only go-to and immediate confidant. Only this time, it is the wrong time and she is the ‘unknown enemy’ on a revenge pirate ship who will never be caught nor conquered.
Not moved by his character switch, she goes ahead to hand him over to FCA for investigations. Proud Nick has concluded that he will be promptly rescued by his Fantastic Four anyway.
Sadly, Pastor Nick spends three days in prison and wonders why his national fraudsters have not come to his rescue as earlier assured.
AB Mustapha tries to strike a deal with him to expose them and reduce his probable thirty-five years jail term to five but Nick is hesitant. So what looks like what Lilian could have saved, had she forgiven Ifenna, her lover, leads to the death of her cherished idol, Pastor Nick.
Tunde and his wife get back their marriage, still attending their old church. The writer does not tell us about their resolution but from Ifenna’s judgment, their love is reignited. The novel ends in Rivers of Joy Church where Pastor Nkechi’s subtle coup d’etat has been successfully smooth that there won’t be a counter coup.
She gives her rehearsed charge which cues offering time. The prophecy that Ifenna will be promoted at his workplace is the only word of a pastor in the novel that finds its way to reality as Ifenna gets One Million Naira for being a naïve accomplice in the takeover.