When he held a religious meeting at Kasarani International Sports Complex, Nairobi, two weeks ago, many Kenyans were puzzled while others took to social media demanding to know who exactly Pastor Ezekiel Odero was.
He says more than 60,000 people attended his Nairobi prayer rally that also attracted Pastor Dorcas Rigathi, the wife of Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua.
To the country, filling the stadium by a non-political player was a shock.
However, in Mavueni, Kilifi County – where his New Life Church sits on a 65-acre parcel – it is an ordinary occurrence. The pastor has a huge online following too.
Pastor Odero has always been a crowd-puller with thousands attending his church for prayers daily.
People from all over East Africa seek his services.
To many of his followers, some of whom spend nights at the church, Pastor Odero’s prayers heal. However, he is quick to say that it is God who heals and that he is only a “vessel”.
But who is this slender man with a commanding baritone voice? The man who even attracts people of other faiths to his church seeking healing, solace and peace.
For the first time, Pastor Ezekiel has consented to an interview about his life “without hiding anything”.
He even allowed the Sunday Nation team to go to every part of his compound and take pictures.
Before anyone is ushered in, guards have to alert the head of security to confirm if the individual has an appointment.
In the megacity Pastor Odero is building a helipad, cottages, a restaurant, shops and an international school.
He is also constructing a supermarket, a hospital, a rehabilitation centre and a university.
After preaching in Majaoni, Mombasa County, for more than 15 years, Pastor Odero purchased a bigger piece of land to accommodate more worshippers. Mavueni was the ideal spot.
“I wanted something big. I began building the church, which sits on six-and-a-half acres with a capacity of 45,000 people. I have also constructed a four-storey flat accommodating 64 families. There are bedsitters and one and two-bedroomed units for our employees,” he says.
He further opened up the area with the building of a petrol station.
Two banks have set up branches in Mavueni.
Read: When a man prays...
“I took the decision not to build a house in my rural home. I only have a hut there. I live in the church compound to serve God. We are also constructing inns for 700 guests,” Pastor Odero says.
Pastor Odero denies oozing opulence. He prays before the interview begins, saying it is the first time he has allowed journalists in his church.
The pastor says he accepted the interview “to put an end to rumours about me”.
Low KCPE marks
So why did he build the cottages, we ask.
He says he constructed the cottages and guest house to accommodate worshippers who have no place to spend the night when they arrive for prayers.
“Some sleep in the church. Imagine somebody travelling from far away to Mavueni, only to spend the night in the church. The faithful come from all over the world. This place is full to capacity every Sunday. Getting a parking lot is difficult. I had built the petrol station for guests to fuel their cars,” he says.
The school, which Pastor Odero says is 75 per cent complete, opens in January. His plan is to build a university in Mavueni.
“A church is not just a place of worship. We are putting up a hospital too. A church must have important facilities,” Pastor Odero adds.
The pastor and his team also engage in animal and crop farming. He keeps thousands of chickens and hundreds of cows and goats.
Pastor Odero was born on Rusinga Island in Suba, Homa Bay County. He describes his family as poverty-stricken.
He travelled to Mombasa in search of greener pastures after completing his secondary school studies.
“I have lived in the Coast for 21 years, more than the time I spent in Homa Bay. I know this region better than my rural home. It is Mombasa that taught me life,” Pastor Odero says.
He began his studies at Ngodhe Island Primary School near Rusinga.
Pastor Odero says he started venturing into fishing when he got to Standard Seven, “which affected my studies”.
“My mother used to urge me to go fishing. I could not concentrate in class because most of the fishing took place at night. My mathematics teacher kept punishing me, saying I was a slow learner and that my head was full of mucus instead of brains. Interestingly, I topped the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination with 210 marks out of a possible 700,” he says with a grin.
Young Odero’s grandfather, who he only identifies as Daniel, was an employee of the Kenya Wildlife Service.
He decided to change the trajectory of his grandchild’s life by taking him to Seme, Kisumu County.
The boy was admitted to Standard Seven at Yeye Primary School.
“My grandfather ensured I would not engage in fishing again but study. I loved disco matanga (overnight funeral vigil) because I was used to them in Rusinga. One day, my grandfather left me at home but I sneaked and went for disco matanga,” he said.
Arriving home in the morning, the boy found the elderly man sleeping in his bed.
Praise and worship
Young Odero was marched to school and caned. He was made to promise to change his ways and never attend disco matanga.
Odero sat the KCPE tests for the second time and passed. He was admitted to Miwani High School in Chemelil where he scored a mean grade of C in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination four years later.
After that, he travelled to Mombasa and became a member of the Maximum Miracle Centre Church.
Bishop Pius Muiru became his spiritual father.
He was a keyboard player and choir teacher, crafts he nurtured while serving in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Odero later became a praise and worship teacher.
“That’s where I grew up, at the Mombasa branch of Maximum Miracle Centre. I later met Pastor Sarah in Kongowea and she became my wife. I wanted to join Mombasa Polytechnic (today the Technical University of Mombasa) for a diploma in chemical engineering,” he says.
He enrolled for a diploma in chemical processing technology instead as he did not qualify for his preferred programme.
But he dropped out in the second year due to financial problems.
Asked if he is close to powerful people in the government, Pastor Odero takes a deep breath, perhaps careful not to utter words that may rub some people the wrong way.
“I am a preacher and so is Mrs Rigathi. We are God’s sheep. She knows me as a preacher. We are Bishop Muiru’s children. We are siblings from the same pulpit and we can meet,” he says.
Pastor Odero says when he was planning the Kasarani rally, he met Mrs Rigathi at Maximum Miracle Centre in Nairobi and she offered to help him secure space at the stadium.
The preacher says the Deputy President’s wife advised him to book a safe place that could accommodate many people.
“She gave me a space to preach,” he says.
When asked if he ever thought he would pull such a crowd, he says it was not his will but God’s.
He says the crowd was called to Kasarani stadium to worship God.
“I know powerful people because they are also human beings. They have challenges. An individual could be a leader but he or she faces challenges,” he says.
“The person sees you have God’s grace and seeks your help. Because of my ministry, I know some leaders. For being close to powerful people in the government, I don’t know.”
His church forbids anyone from using the pulpit for political purposes. He says the pulpit is apolitical.
However, lawmakers and other political leaders are among those who turn to him for prayers and counselling.
“Politicians come to church for prayers. It is not their platform for politics. Some people may not know the church is not a place for politics. A church is a place for God’s politics,” he adds.
According to Pastor Odero, it is dangerous for the Church to mix religion and politics. He adds that congregants will stop worshipping God and turn to politicians instead.
“Let’s not change Church topics from God to politics. We will be leading the country astray if we do that. Politicians attend church to be given direction by God. It will be wrong if a religious leader fails to give them God’s direction and instead offers them a platform for politics,” he says.
“When we pray, it is God’s power that heals. God gives pastors powers. I am a human being and God will remain God.”
Pastor Odero’s church has a special wing for sick people seeking prayers and healing. They include bedridden individuals.
The Sunday Nation found stretchers in the church, where the sick lie during worship.
He says some people are brought in with septic and smelly wounds.
“We cannot abandon them despite the stench. We have to serve everyone. I never stigmatise a patient and urge the society to do the same. Let’s embrace them,” he says.
“Suppose the patient were your child, spouse or parent; would you run away?” says Pastor Odero who adds that he is a believer in science.
The pastor says he has prayed for women who had been declared barren by doctors, “only for God to open their wombs”.
He says some of those women prayed for had been childless for more than 14 years.
Like many other evangelical Christian leaders, Pastor Odero sells “living water and handkerchiefs”.
It is a controversial matter that many Kenyans say is used by Christian religious leaders to exploit their followers financially and psychologically.
But Pastor Odero says the water and handkerchiefs have healing powers “to those who have faith because I have prayed over them”.
“There is nothing special in the bottle. It is purified water. I pray for it. The clothes used by Paul in the Bible healed many people. The shadows of the prophets also had healing powers,” he says.
“God is the same today, tomorrow and forever. Jesus says in the Bible: ‘If you, believe me, you will do more wonders than I did’. God gives us authority.”
He says his water and handkerchiefs have helped more than 5,000 people.
The pastor says he would rather pray over the handkerchiefs and water to heal and reach many people than attend the burial of a congregant.
The preacher puts marks on the handkerchiefs and water to prevent fraud.
“This is for anyone to identify easily. One day, I met a person making similar prayer clothes claiming they are from Pastor Odero. If people buy and use the items and they fail their expectations, I will be the one to shoulder the blame,” he says.
The pastor says he sells the handkerchiefs and water “since I also spend money to get them”.
He sells every item at Sh100. The money, Pastor Odero says, is used to run the affairs of the church, including settling water and electricity bills.
He says he does not advertise his church but claims that as many as 50,000 people attend his services every Sunday.
Pastor Ezekiel says he seeks advice from Bishop Muiru when faced with challenges.
He adds that people from other religions have a right to go to his church for worship and should not be condemned for doing that.
“We are human beings in search of God. I don’t preach religion. I preach about Christ. Jesus is not a Christian. He is Christ. New Life Church programmes are watched by more people from other religions than Christians. We must preach love and peace,” Pastor Odero says.
According to him, his sermons rub many people the wrong way “because I speak the truth”.
He advises women not to get into polygamous marriages.
“How would you feel if another person comes into your marriage as a second wife? If you are a second wife, put yourself in the shoes of the first. Do not do unto others what you don’t want to be done to you,” the pastor says.
Pastor Odero adds that many children have been left homeless and others have dropped out of school after their fathers abandoned their mothers for second wives.
He says God hates divorce, urging men to love their wives and take care of them.
According to Pastor Odero, men should get used to their wives and pamper them.
“Remember that someone else has paid a price for that woman you want outside your marriage. I take my wife for shopping and buy her clothes. I also help her. She is my wife, girlfriend and best friend. I don’t need a girlfriend or another wife,” he says.
He adds that women should be given freedom for marriage to have peace.
He says wives are helpers and not domestic servants.
Pastor Ezekiel says he cooks for his wife and “wonders” why men change immediately after marriage and go against family values.
“You even used to serve her food as a girlfriend, but once she becomes your wife you become an animal. You become a lion; you roar when asked a question,” Pastor Odero says.
“We were created to be lovers and not authoritarian. That’s why there is no love in marriage, only during courtship, because you think you are a lion.”
He advises men not to be rulers at home.
Pastor Odero bases his preaching on the New Testament book of Mark 10:10: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. If a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Says the pastor: “It’s not me; it’s what God detests. A woman should remain with their husband and vice-versa. If there is a problem, solve it and live in harmony. You are psychologically and emotionally torturing your child by allowing them to call somebody else ‘father’,” the pastor says.
The pastor says he has no resting days.
“I will rest when I finally die,” Pastor Odero adds.
He does not give worship on Monday. Pastor Odero instead meets his workers, including the clergy, to brainstorm and discuss church affairs.
“I am at the office by 8am on Tuesday. I go to church at 9.30am and leave at 7pm. It is preaching all that time. I preach while standing. I don’t take water or tea,” he says.
“I have never had breakfast or lunch in my life. If you see me eating, it means I was fasting. I am a very busy person.”
Pastor Odero says he only eats meals prepared by his wife.
The pastor adds that he thanks God “for giving me three obedient children who understand my busy schedule”.
However, he meets them occasionally on church corridors.
He says he ensures the children eat, dress and sleep well.
“I have two (biological) children and one adopted. My brother’s wife died in childbirth. I took the baby. That child knows me more than his biological father. He knows my wife as his mother. My wife loves him more than the other children. The other two children even complain,” Pastor Odero says.
He adds that his children are free to meet him any time they feel like doing so.
Sometimes he calls a meeting with his wife and children to discuss their education and other issues.
“That is a sacrifice. I don’t know some parts of my children’s lives. It is painful but that is the price I have to pay to serve people. I know my wife because we serve together. More so, I live in my bedroom. That is where I eat and bathe,” he says.
The pastor says his “angry” children summoned him sometime this year to demand why he has little time for them.
“They said they were sad because their parents don’t seem to have time for them. It was painful. I told my children I understood them, then asked: ‘ ‘If I don’t help the people who need me, who will take care of us?’ I also asked for their time and forgiveness,” he says.
When asked when he gets time to rest, Pastor Odero says it’s during his sleep.
“I am still young and have a lot of energy. I sleep at 8pm and wake up before midnight for prayers then walk around the compound. I have two days in one day. I don’t believe the night was created for sleep,” he says.
“Sleep is one way of resting. Even Jesus prayed at night and preached during the day. When he was tired, he slept in the vessel and was woken up during the storm to calm it.”
He is surprised that witches do not sleep at night.
“We must change our attitude if we insist on a 24-hour economy. If we believe Jesus prayed at night and worked during the day, why do we sleep?” he asks.
Pastor Odero says he has never visited a hospital or fallen sick for 22 years.
“The greatest joy in my life is my congregants’ success,” he adds.
When the Sunday Nation team visited, there were about 100 people praying in the church.
Many said they came from Kakamega, Kisii and Kisumu counties.
“I am here to be prayed for. I need God to heal my family,” said one.