There are two universal truths when it comes to attending church: People love dressing up for God and kids will always look excruciatingly bored and unimpressed.
Every Sunday in the suburban town of Aubervilliers, France, 2,000 worshippers flock to an abandoned slaughterhouse to pray. The industrial space fills with life as about 30 different Christian congregations conduct an array of vibrant, perplexing holy services. Recently, officials called for the shuttering and demolition of the building, so I decided to take part in a few of the extraordinarily weird ceremonies while the weird ceremoniousness was still good.
First up: the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth by His Special Ambassador Simon Kimbangu (Kimbanguism for short), the most popular denomination in the building. Services draw about 700 people each week, most of whom are from Central Africa. As its name suggests, Kimbanguism was founded by Simon Kibangu, a Protestant pastor born in 1887, in Nkamba, Bas-Congo. Followers believe that Mr. Kibangu was a prophet and miracle-maker whose feats include passing through prison walls like a ghost (then “making himself visible” to all of the inmates) and declaring that “I am going to die in 15 minutes” precisely 15 minutes before his death. If that’s not enough to convert you, his followers claim that his corpse was perfectly preserved when they exhumed him eight years after his punctual passing. Kibanguism forbids smoking tobacco, dancing, eating chimpanzee meat, and bathing in the nude.
The other holy gatherings I experienced were a bit more casual, including the Haitian Celestial Traveller of the New Jerusalem Church, which had annexed a tiny room atop a rather steep staircase. Inside, a sparse flock of 15 swayed to the soothing sounds of electric guitars and tom-toms. A few devotees pressed their knees against their overturned plastic chairs as if they were prayer kneelers. The pastor sang with enthusiasm, while constantly pulling his drooping pants up. He said that if my photographer wanted to take pictures, we would have to wait for an authorization delivered by the church committee, which would “take a month or two. Or maybe three months.”
Unfortunately, we couldn’t wait that long, so we shimmied to another church that apparently couldn’t afford electricity. Or perhaps they believed modern lighting to be the work of Beelzebub. The sole neon bulb cast strange shadows on an assembly of old Haitian ladies wearing lace doilies on their heads. A preacher in a double-collared jacket alternately bellowed in Creole and in French, invoking a grim time when he only had a three-quarter-length pair of pants and holes in his shoes. “But you freed me, Lord!” he proclaimed. “You gave me a job. I have shoes now. Only God has the power to deliver residence permits. For Jesus is the only SOLUTION!” After the service, the preacher confided in us that he would preach for any parish that would have him, and he would gladly perform another sermon in French, especially for us. All we had to do was give him some money.
Before leaving the slaughterhouse, we returned to the first floor, where we discovered the funkiest parish yet: the Congolese Peace of the Lord Church. A preacher named Didier Kuku was seriously getting down, bouncing around the room in a Genesis-inspired boogie. “Before you came into this world, God had already talked about you,” he said. “Indeed. Before you were inside your mother’s womb, God the Eternal had already prepared promises for you. Do you understand these words? Because what’s coming will bombard you. He is the one who speaks of a thing before the thing exists.” He gestured to the plastic chairs: “Today, we are talking about oil. Do you know what man created out of oil? All these plastic materials in front of you, all these chairs. God wanted you to have a creative spirit inside of you, a spirit that convokes the EXISTENCE of things that didn’t exist. Have you ever been sprayed? Go and tell your neighbor: Have you ever been sprayed BY GOD?”
Photos by Guillaume Belvèze