On September 1, 2017 friends and followers of Zoe fellowship organised a special event to honour their own, Prophet Elvis Mbonye at Kololo ceremonial grounds.
Little did they know that the one-day event would culminate into weeks of debate and controversy. Clad in a sleek, all-white suit and shoes, Mbonye was smart for his dinner. So smart that some of his followers deemed parts of his attire pristine enough for kissing.
The public woke up to social media and newspaper reports of Mbonye’s followers kissing his shoes in reverence, sparking off a string of criticism and outright insults against both Mbonye and his followers.
Among all the worshippers, renowned journalist-turned-preacher Joseph Kabuleta stood out after his picture went viral on social media. As if social media did not ‘crucify’ Kabuleta enough, his relatives were also up in arms after The Observer published the picture last Monday.
In an interview with The Observer last Friday at his office in Kampala, Kabuleta said: “Eh! That picture has caused a storm, but I am not complaining. People are angry, but I have largely kept myself out of the debate.”
The veteran sports scribe said people have passed judgment on him but he understands their concerns because his action was not something the public was used to seeing.
“In this case, it is not the act of kissing that has issues, but the person doing it,” Kabuleta said, adding that people are only accustomed to bowing down to other forms of authority.
He cited persons such as Pope Francis and cultural leaders where people do “all sorts of things” to honour their presence.
According to Kabuleta, when the speaker of parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, visited her ancestral Nhenda hill in Iganga last year, it did not attract a lot of public opinion unlike his actions.
“So, this was a whole speaker kneeling before a witch doctor but people were not moved much. But when Kabuleta kisses [Mbonye’s shoe], they make noise,” he said. “I call this hypocrisy from what you call intellectuals on social media.”
Such argument, however, goes against some of the very reasons why the Pentecostal church was formed in the first place. Ordinarily, the Pentecostal faith frowns upon acts of reverence of a spiritual leader that border on idolatry, and therein lies the huge backlash against Kabuleta.
Many born-again Christians left Catholicism and other religions, citing ‘unacceptable’ customs such as kneeling before fellow people, revering the dead or ‘worshiping idols’. By kissing a prophet’s shoes, Kabuleta and group seemed not to be any different from those they cut ties from.
But to Kabuleta, people will do whatever impresses them as a sign of loyalty like he did to Mbonye, whom he believes is a true man of God. Once a staunch Catholic before becoming a born-again Christian in 1992, Kabuleta says he would kiss Mbonye’s shoes as many times, but not those of the pope.
“Personally, I am looking for spiritual authority, but I would have no issues with those who kiss the pope’s feet or fingers,” he said.
He said if only social media fanatics did not forcefully propagate knowledge to determine what one is supposed to do, people would have the right to glorify God in their own way.
“These social media ‘priests’ pour scorn on everything they don’t understand. They want us to dance to their tunes, but we are not ready to engage them because none can beat me on an intellectual debate,” he said.
At the Kololo event, Kabuleta reportedly contributed Shs 3m towards the preparations.
Last week, The Observer quoted Mbonye as urging believers to stand firm in their belief because they may be hated by the world, but they are not of the world.
“When God wants to manifest Himself, he chooses a man or woman. The people that get so irritated by the anointing of God on men and women are basically clueless about spiritual things,” Mbonye said.
While speaking at his Light the World Church in Nansana on Saturday, Pastor Wilson Bugembe also weighed in on how far believers can go in glorifying God. While he defended people’s actions in honouring their spiritual leaders, he was bothered about the Mbonye incident.
“I was personally shocked to see high-profile people kiss Prophet Elvis Mbonye’s shoes. When people want to worship somebody, they go an extra mile to do things like that, but it is up to you to stop them,” Bugembe said. “On the other hand, I have no problem with people but the problem was how he [Mbonye] was smiling, which was very wrong.”
He added: “As a prophet, you are a signpost to God and you are not God. So, you shouldn’t be worshipped.”
When asked if Mbonye was a true prophet or not, Bugembe said: “You should never be quick to judge someone. If his movement is from God, nobody can defeat him. But if it is not from God, however big it is, it will disappear. All that prophets need is time.”
In the same breath, Pastor Jackson Ssenyonga of Christian Life Church used his Sunday sermon to condemn Mbonye’s antics, saying a true man of God should be humble enough to tell people that only Jesus Christ should be venerated.
Moses Talemwa, a Catholic and journalist, said he appreciates Kabuleta’s newfound faith but is puzzled by his current stand.
“The longer it takes you to acknowledge your faith, the more fanatical you will be when you finally embrace it,” Talemwa said. “Many who join a faith later in life tend to be more fanatical about it than those they find there.”
To those who still doubt the worship style that Kabuleta adores today, he urges people not to dismiss anything at face value as he leaves another message in scripture format.
He quotes 1Thessalonians 5-21: “Test all things; hold fast to what is good…”
The Observer has tried to contact Prophet Mbonye for comment about the fiasco, but is yet to hear from the 40-year-old minister whose Tuesday Zoe fellowships at Kyadondo rugby grounds attract thousands.