“We’re going where!” our driver asked, as I was explaining our destination on Sunday. “They shoot at people in that village,” he went on. We were on our way to Zanzoun, a village known throughout the south of Benin for its lawlessness. We were going to visit a church that was made up of former thieves and hoodlums. They have abandoned their life of thieving and fraud in order to follow the narrow road, in order to walk in the way of Christ.
How did this church come to be there? And how did these brothers and sisters in Christ come to know Jesus? It all begins with an act of love.
The village of Zanzoun is know for two things: the predominant role of the “Zangbeto” and the frequent practice of fraudulently selling land. The Zangbeto institution began many years ago to provide protection of property at night. They maintained law and order. If anyone was caught committing a crime, he had to pay a fine. If he didn’t pay, he would be punished by the Zangbeto. Over the years, these night watchmen have become the very thieves they were supposed to stop. They became a force in the community that no one dared to challenge. The Zangbeto come out in their grass costumes sort of like huge grass skirts that cover them from head to foot, sometimes with horns at the top. Nowadays, they can even come out in the daytime. They are accompanied by musicians tapping on their rhythm instruments and followed by laughing, curious children who keep a prudent distance.
In the village of Zanzoun, a group of people has perfected the art of selling land that doesn’t belong to them. They will bring in an unsuspecting buyer, show him the land, take him to a fake office where he will be given a fake deed to the land in exchange for his very real money. By the time he figures out that he has bought a useless piece of paper, he can no longer find the people who sold it to him.
One day, some of the key figures of this group went to see some people in a another town, Porto-Novo. Porto-Novians had come to Zanzoun to share the gospel through an evangelisation effort. The effort had not been very successful. Now the people from Zanzoun went to see the evangelists in order to sell them some land. The chief spokesperson for the group from Zanzoun explained that his father was seriously ill and in the hospital. He needed to sell some land to pay for his father’s medical bills. Did the Christian brothers want to buy land? The Christians from Porto-Novo responded that they did not want to buy any land. “However,” they continued, “if you can show us where your father is staying we will go and pray for him. Then if there are any prescriptions, we would be happy to buy his medications. We will also help to pay his hospital fees.”
Now, of course, there was no ill father in the hospital, nor were there any hospital bills waiting to be paid. But the spokesperson from the group was overwhelmed. How could these brothers offer to pay for his father’s medical bills without getting anything in return? Perhaps there was something to this gospel message after all. He was prepared to listen this time. He decided after listening to their message to give his life to Christ.
After he made the decision for Christ, however, there was a backlash. The other members of the village were not at all in favor of losing one of their chief actors in their land fraud schemes. Not only that, but the young man was also a Zangbeto. He was the brain behind many of their activities. He could not leave them without a fight. Even his own father turned against him. At one point, after he was no longer part of their activities, the gang accused him of land fraud and he went to jail for a number of months. None of these forms of persecution made him turn his back. He had decided to follow Jesus.
On Sunday morning, I joined in the small church’s worship. As I was preaching from Psalm 73 about how people follow after the wicked, a Zangbeto came down the path that passes in front of the church. Some of the children ran out of the church to watch and follow after the straw-clad figure and his entourage. “There,” I said, “people follow after the wicked in ignorance, not knowing what lies ahead.” But for me it is a good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all his works. Everyone smiled; they knew what I was talking about.