From humble beginnings, TRSH became an expansive spiritual international institution, advocating for the return to African indigenous spirituality.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 2 of 4. Read article 1.
At the address 14, Plein Street, Johannesburg, there is an office building with an underground garage. Descending to its lowest floor, we found a space that was once used as a rudimentary place of worship. These were the humble beginnings of The Revelation Spiritual Home (TRSH), founded by Dr. Samuel Radebe.
After the vision at the Vaal River, Radebe (whom I will call from now on IMboni, following his followers’ use) left the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), the Brazilian Pentecostal movement he had joined at age 16. Several devotees, who had been attending the UCKG services not so much for the Brazilian group’s theology but for IMboni’s healing skills, left together with him and started gathering in the Plein Street garage. The year was 2009, and the success was immediate. Soon, the garage was clearly too small to welcome those who wanted to hear IMboni.
There are only a few scholars who have paid some attention to the TRSH. Both in the chapter Bettina Malcomess and Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon contributed to the 2016 book “Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg” (London: Palgrave Macmillan), and in the article Wilhelm-Solomon wrote in 2013 for “Writing Invisibility: Conversations on the Hidden City” (Johannesburg: Mail & Guardian), the story is told of how IMboni and his followers rented what had been the Great Synagogue of Johannesburg in Wolmarans Street.
The story of the synagogue is extraordinary in itself, and is visually told at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town. In the 19th century, some 40,000 Jews emigrated from Russian-occupied Lithuania to South Africa. Most were poor, but some became millionaires, and the opening of the Byzantine-style synagogue in 1914, designed by the famous Swiss architect Theophile Schaerer (1874–1948), testified to their newly acquired affluence. 80 years later, in 1994, the dwindling number of Jews in Johannesburg and the rising crime rate in the area persuaded the Jews to leave. The synagogue became a venue for fashion shows and other events, until IMboni decided to rent it.
Although it is no longer the main center of TRSH, we visited the former synagogue during a Sunday service, and were duly impressed. TRSH should be commended for having restored the building with love, respecting its original Jewish flavor (they did the same, with respect to another Jewish place of worship, when they purchased a beautiful synagogue that was in a state of disrepair and now hosts the Empandeni branch of TRSH). Even more impressive was the fact that the ex-synagogue was literally packed. In front of it, a former Jewish school was adapted as an overflow place of worship. More devotees were accommodated in a nearby courtyard, protected from the sun by brightly-colored umbrellas.
Even the former synagogue eventually became too small, and TRSH is now completing the construction of a large building in the Marshalltown district of Johannesburg, which is already in use and where it can sit some 5,000 devotees. It also plans to build a mega-indigenous spiritual institution in the Johannesburg neighborhood of Yeoville, where it purchased a ground and won a long legal battle to evict the squatters that had occupied it.
No single building, however, can contain those who want to attend the TRSH Sunday services and Tuesday healing services. We visited several branches, all crowded and in need of using overflow spaces, which in the large Soweto branch included a huge white tent. Overall, there are more than 70 branches in South Africa, Eswatini, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, with an overseas branch in Newbridge, County Kildare, Ireland, and devotees in the United States who plan to open a place of worship in Atlanta. In the branches we visited, the Sunday service conducted by IMboni in the Marshalltown headquarters was shown on large screens via streaming.
What exactly attracts these crowds, which some have evaluated in the millions (although statistics for new spiritual movements are always both difficult and contentious)? TRSH was once called The Revelation Church of God, and had “churches” and “bishops.” It is now called The Revelation Spiritual Home, and it has “homes” and local “leaders.” The change of terminology attests to an emphasis on the difference between African spirituality and Christianity.
Although IMboni maintains friendly relations with several Christian leaders, he believes that Africans should return to African indigenous spirituality. Christianity, even in its “Africanized” forms, is regarded as a religion imposed on Africans by the white man and the colonial powers.
In fact, IMboni goes one step further. He distances himself not only from Christianity but from religion. IMboni believes that African spirituality cannot be reduced to the European notion of religion, and that serious problems were created when religion tried to replace spirituality in Africa. In traditional Africa, kings ruled by following the advice of spiritual guides. IMboni explains that, to subdue the kings, the colonizers had to get rid of the spiritual guides, and they replaced them with religious advisors.
Another misunderstanding, IMboni articulates, is to confuse African spirituality with African traditions. Often, traditions have spiritual roots but just as often these roots are forgotten. IMboni sees spirituality as something that is alive and is capable of changing and adapting, while tradition is just kept. Religion may have the same problems tradition does, and for this reason religious leaders should ideally be led themselves by spiritual leaders. The same is true for traditional healers, and in fact many of them seek the guidance of IMboni and occupy a special corner, with their very distinct spiritual garments, during the TRSH services.
IMboni insists that fighting religions or Christianity is not part of his calling (although his scholars read with interest texts “demythologizing” the traditional story of Jesus Christ as told by the mainline churches). However, as signs in the TRSH “homes” proclaim, “the foundation of Africans is African indigenous spirituality.” IMboni says he “specializes” in African indigenous spirituality, but spirituality is fundamentally the same everywhere. He assists people from all traditions, and sees the future of TRSH as not limited to Africans only.