Their Sunday service has just ended and I’m trying to talk to some of the worshippers making their way out of the Southorn Stadium in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. Sonny, a middle-aged man who calls himself a Preaching Club Member and wants to know my purpose, seems keen on stopping me.
As it happens, he has quite a lot to say for himself — both about the church to which he belongs (The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, The Name Above All Names), and about the prospects for my own salvation (basically, unless I become a “Kingdom citizen,” they’re not good).
Sonny has known the sect’s leader, Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, for many years, he says. Quiboloy claims to be the Appointed Son of God and has amassed considerable wealth and power in the Philippines.
So what kind of man is he, I ask. “He is just an ordinary guy, but there is something special from within,” Sonny insists. “Many, many people love the pastor. He is the one who encouraged our good president [Rodrigo Duterte] now to stand up and make the Philippines better.”
Earlier, video of a sermon given in Davao City, in the troubled Philippines province of Mindanao, by Quiboloy (who claims to have dreamed 17 years ago that Duterte, his longtime friend, would one day be president) had been relayed live on two large screens. As he waxed lyrical about how it has pleased God to make him wealthy — when he had nothing in life, he shouldered that burden with equal grace — I couldn’t help but notice that many of the women around me seemed more concerned with browsing Facebook on their smartphones.
Admittedly, it’s an entirely different story when the music starts up. At the Kingdom of Jesus Christ’s Southorn services, a full choir and half an orchestra, perched in front of a giant print of two golden staircases ascending into the clouds, occupy one end of the basketball hall. The congregation, around 1,000-strong and composed largely of Filipina domestic helpers immaculately attired in pristine white dresses, can’t seem to get enough of the hymns — jaunty gospel numbers laden with endless euphoric key changes.
It would be tempting to describe the effect as Stepford-ish. In truth, there is something rather touching about the sense of personal and collective pride on display. And even if it’s hard to fathom the appeal of their curiously un-spellbinding figurehead, there’s no obvious sense of anyone having been coerced into attendance. Annabel Arroyo, a woman in her mid-30s from Mindanao who has been attending for four years but only submitted to being baptized last December, tells me: “The church is our community. I came because I had friends who came and they talked to me about it.”
Pastor Quiboloy’s ministry is, nevertheless, by most definitions, a cult. And like most cults, its unsavory facets — more of which later — do not lurk far beneath the surface.
In Hong Kong, The Kingdom of Jesus Christ is listed, along with a legion of similar-sounding Christian churches, on the Inland Revenue department’s register of Tax-Exempt Charities, although it does not have a permit from the Social Welfare department to collect money in public. Nor indeed do either of two philanthropic concerns related to the church — The Children’s Joy Foundation and the Sonshine Philippines Movement. Women claiming to collect for these programs are a common sight on the streets of Hong Kong Island’s busiest night life districts, but the church denies any knowledge of their activities and when approached by Asia Times they were evasive about any links to Quiboloy’s sect.
Quiboloy set up The Children’s Joy Foundation in 1998, its website states, “to help feed, clothe, and send to school” destitute children. Meanwhile, donations to the Sonshine Philippines Movement are directed toward “the complete restoration of man and his environment” — and there are details online of its reforestation programs and rebuilding work in communities devastated by typhoons. What’s clear is that these endeavors are no mere ruse. “The pastor has helped many poor people,” says Rose, a member of the church for 18 years who says Quiboloy put her through school in Davao. “He paid for everything — because he is a very good person.”
Where his benevolence ends and his personal wealth begins is not so apparent. Suffice to say that, having risen from poverty, being the Messiah has made Quiboloy a very rich man — besides occupying a large estate in the foothills of Mount Avo, near Davao City, he was able to lend Duterte his private jet and helicopter during the former Davao mayor’s recent, successful bid for national office.
As Quiboloy tells it, God came to his mother in the form of a cloud after he was born, declaring “That’s my son.” He left the United Pentecostal Church to start preaching his own gospel in 1985 and now claims to command the allegiance of 4 million tithed followers (meaning they give the church a 10th of their income) in the Philippines and 2 million more overseas, in addition to reaching 600 million viewers worldwide through his TV station.
In a rare interview with a mainstream media outlet, he told ABC News, in 2010, that every member of his Kingdom shares in his wealth and is welcome to stay at his mansion. However, in explaining that the Almighty had revealed to him in 1983 that he wanted Quiboloy to own a jet, he also made it clear that each of us ought to accept what is apportioned to us. “If it is not God’s will for me to have these things I have, you can take it away,” he told his interviewer. “It is God’s will that we follow … If he wanted me to live like a rat, if he wanted me to live in wealth or in poverty, it does not matter to me. Put me there and I’ll be happy as long as it’s God’s will.
My own attempts to ge an interview with Quiboloy were met with friendly suspicion then ultimately rebuffed after I complied with a request to submit a list of questions to his office. I’d wanted to sit in a room with someone who describes his state of spiritual perfection as being similar to that of Adam before the Fall and who has convinced several million self-identifying Christians that he is justified in putting himself on an even footing with Jesus Christ. I’d wanted to ask him about his conversations with God — and about allegations against him of brainwashing and of holding a young woman against her will.
I’d wanted to ask, too, about stories linking him to intimidation and land grabs against indigenous peoples in Mindanao — including an episode that resulted in the death of the Bagobo K’lata tribal leader Dominador Diarog, who was gunned down in 2008 shortly after refusing to sell Quiboloy 2 hectares of land near the so-called Garden of Eden Restored on the Pastor’s grounds. At the time, Quiboloy was able to call on Duterte — himself widely suspected of overseeing extrajudicial killings during his tenure in Davao — to dismiss rumors of his involvement.
In the end, I have to make do with watching him preach on a big screen. Quiboloy made one of his semiregular appearances at the Southorn in June, but on my visit his presence was virtual. He’s fatiguing to listen to — by turns straw man-denouncing demagogue, late-era Elvis impersonator and used-car salesman — and I’m unable to discern the “something special from within” that Sonny alludes to. Maybe it’s simply stamina, or conviction. “No other pastors or preachers have the knowledge that he has,” says Rose. “He teaches us to work hard and make money for the Father’s glory and to pay for the ministry and its work.”
As I look around the hall, I get the sense I’m witnessing a show of strength that thrives on vulnerability. Maybe that’s how all religion works. Maybe not. Maybe I’m just too cynical. I can’t help but suspect, however, that the greater cynic is Pastor Quiboloy himself.