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Ezekiel Guti: a winner in life and in death

For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith (1 John 5:4).

Being a journalist – and not a historian or biographer – I take on this essay with a sense of trepidation.  That’s because I’m actually not sure that I possess the literary wherewithal to encapsulate the life, ministry and legacy of Ezekiel Handinawangu Guti in a single piece of writing.

The legendary Zaoga leader has shuffled off this mortal coil, but his variegated legacy of authentic and effective Christian leadership, ministry and living will endure.

So vast is this legacy that it would take tomes (a book, especially a large, heavy, scholarly one) to condense it in a manner that would give the reader a fair, holistic look.

Yet a close look at Guti’s life, ministry and leadership is also a study in the plague of humanness in the quest to fulfill lofty spiritual aspirations.  He was a man of like passions as we all are.

Born a hundred years ago in Zimbabwe’s Chipinge rural areas, in a village called Ngaone, not even Guti himself could have foreseen the great career and ministry for which he was destined, the multitudes of lives he would touch and how his life would inspire various research efforts by scholars. 

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In the years to come, his life and ministry are going to continue generating scholarly interest and inspiring much study.

Entering this world from the back of beyond, the boy was plagued by disadvantage upon disadvantage as he began discovering that his was not to be a routine, regular life.  And turning life’s liabilities, disadvantages and setbacks into triumphs would be a hallmark of his life and ministry as he blazed a trail across a burning bridge of hardship, mockery from naysayers, betrayals and rebellions from some of his most trusted lieutenants.

Inconceivably tremendous were the odds he faced in his quest to build a church true to his vision and ideals.

Simply put, the deep practical faith in God he exhibited throughout his years as a preacher so steeled Guti’s soul with a deep resolve to win that to describe him as a winner in life and in death would be a fair assessment. 

Starting with nothing, in life he put paid to frequent predictions of doom, defying the scorns and pessimism of doubters to build a big church that has acquired a fortune in terms of hard assets.

And in death, the haters kept doubting that his funeral would attract enough people to fill the National Sports Stadium in Harare – which it did, to the deafening silence of the keyboard warriors and thoughtless detractors, who were eagerly waiting to celebrate if the event flopped.

To understand the deep faith of Ezekiel Guti and the church he led since inception, one has to go back to the beginning of his spiritual journey. Etched in Zaoga lore is the story of how Ezekiel “met God before he met a preacher”. 

The story is told of how on one of his trips home from the farms where he worked as a teen, he was one fateful evening greeted by a story told by his mother of how sinners would end up in hell.

The mother had heard the story from a sermon by a missionary, and in telling it to her children that evening, she set in motion a series of historical events so cataclysmic they would culminate in me sitting here penning this piece.

The young Guti was so shaken by the tale of eternal damnation and forever fasting in flames of unquenchable fire that he started having dreams about this ghastly, harrowing place called hell. 

These unnerving dreams compelled him to go to the bush daily and pray, “Creator, if you exist, save my soul.  I don’t want to go to hell.” This earnest seeking would one afternoon result in a supernatural experience.  He heard thick music playing around him and a voice told him words that would become perhaps the most enduring mantra of his church: “Fear not. Sin not”.

This supernatural experience, which gave him confidence that God indeed existed, would be but the beginning of a myriad angelic visitations, divine encounters and miracles experienced by Guti as he prayed and ministered, and by those who were with him or were involved with him.

It is impossible to tell the story of Zaoga’s exponential growth since its founding in the 1960s without talking about the role of the miraculous in aiding the cause of evangelism.  The church grew so rapidly thanks to healings and miracles God wrought through Guti himself and the preachers in his church. 

As a matter of fact, so remarkable a hallmark of Zaoga have been miracles that many among the church’s rank and file have experienced miracles of one degree or the other – whether these be healings, answers to prayer or some other form of divine intervention.

Perhaps most illustrious of the authenticity of his ministry and calling is the fact that Guti never called himself an apostle until a peer review process led by notable American clerics described him as such after seeing the impact and fruits of his ministry. 

In this day and age, where a preacher can arrogate themselves whatever title strikes their fancy, it is worth noting that there are many claiming to be apostles today who are nothing of the sort. 

As I have sometimes jokingly said, if we had as many real apostles as we have pseudo-apostles, the Rapture would happen next week because the work of evangelising the world would be complete momentarily.

Imagine what would happen if all those going by the title today could accomplish even half of what Guti accomplished in terms of measurable success in ministry!

Jesus Christ Himself stated that there is such a thing as fake apostles, saying in Revelation 2:2, “I know your works, your labour, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars.”

If there was a proper appreciation today for what the Bible describes as a true apostle throughout the church of Jesus Christ worldwide, there would not be the many abuses of the title we see. 

The same abuses beleaguer the office of the prophet, whereby ministerial shenanigans and plain mischief are rife, thanks to the sheer impunity and blatancy of charlatans in ministry.

So what are some of the signs of an apostle according to the Bible, and how did Ezekiel Guti fit the bill?

One key sign of a genuine apostle is that his life experience with the Lord will be very real and beyond the ordinary.  For example, the twelve apostles of the Lamb were picked by Christ Himself, lived with Him, supped with Him, saw His death, resurrection and ascension.

“Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).

Apostles today cannot replicate or imitate these credentials of the twelve apostles because Christ is already in heaven.  To have seen Him in the flesh, lived with Him and heard Him teach and see Him working miracles makes for staggering spiritual pedigree. 

So their experience with the Lord was not secondhand or secondary.

Yet God still calls people to be apostles today just like he still calls some to be pastors. Even the Apostle Paul, who apparently never saw Jesus when the Lord was on earth – only to be called to ministry after the Lord’s ascension – had to have an extraordinary conversion experience with the Lord as his first claim to apostleship.  Paul’s first encounter with Jesus was with the Lord Himself, not a preacher. 

When he was blinded by the blazing glory of Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus became a Christian – actually history’s foremost proponent of Christianity. 

Some scholars have referred to Paul as Christianity’s second founder because the bulk of Christian theology and doctrine today is predicated on his writings.

After hearing the voice instructing him to neither fear nor sin, Ezekiel Guti would have his own remarkable share of supernatural experiences and divine visitations that were beyond the ordinary.

First was the angelic visitation he had in the Vumba mountains near Mutare after fasting and praying for a month.  Then he had many more experiences and manifestations that proved to him and those who witnessed his ministry that he was indeed called of God.

Describing Guti in the book by Gayle D. Erwin, African Apostle, Jerry Horner said Guti had the marks of apostleship upon him, with his ministry bearing divine authentication as to its genuineness.

Almost all Zaoga members know the story of how one Saturday afternoon while praying and fasting with a young man in a house in the Highfield township of Harare, the room was filled with a blazing brightness. 

Guti was lifted up in the air, and the young man who was with him saw three men in bright clothing talking to him.  He tried to run out of the house but could not find the door, and was thus forced to hide under the bed.

Even among seasoned ministers of the gospel who knew something about divine visitations from personal experience, these were not ordinary, routine experiences.

Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds (2 Corinthians 12:12).

Another testimony to Guti’s divine calling as an apostle would be the calibre of leaders he brought up and schooled in ministry over his historically lengthy years as a preacher of the gospel, resulting in scores of churches being planted.

To start with, the young people who formed the nucleus of what would become Zaoga around the young evangelist, Ezekiel Guti, were no minnows when it came to ministry gifts, calling, raw experience with the Lord and spiritual zeal. 

By any definition, most of these zealots would qualify to be called apostles in their own right on account of the work they did, the churches they planted, how they operated in the supernatural and their extraordinary experiences with the Lord – including receiving angelic visitations and seeing Jesus Christ himself.

This group’s initial focus while they were in the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) was not even Guti.  They coalesced around the great AFM apostle, Enoch Gwanzura, the man who baptized Guti and played mentor to him and the rest of the group. 

So Joseph Choto, Raphael Kupara, Lazarus Mamvura, James Muhwati, Priscilla Ngoma, Caleb Ngorima, and Abel Sande formed a prayer band and choir around Guti only after seeing that, although they were highly gifted servants of God in their own right, Guti had that extra layer of grace to lead and accomplish a special divine purpose.

It’s said that God did indeed to speak to many of them to this effect.

After being expelled from the AFM in 1959 following a struggle with missionaries from America and an elder male fraction of the black leadership, the semi-autonomous group subsequently joined the South African Assemblies of God of Nicholas Bhengu, which operated in association with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Once again they were expelled, and they formed their own organisation, Assemblies of God, African (AOGA).

One historian has described the late Abel Sande as one of the most prolific evangelists in Zimbabwe’s history.  He planted many Zaoga churches and was so given to prayer and evangelism that Paul Saungweme – arguably Zimbabwe’s greatest mass evangelist to date – has stated on numerous occasions that on all the instances he was out with Sande for a crusade, he never saw him eat during the day or sleep through the night – always fasting and praying. 

Yet do you know whom Sande credited for teaching him to pray?  You guessed right – Ezekiel Guti! Sande himself said he became a “prayer warrior” after being coached by the late archbishop. And only a true apostle could teach a gospel titan like Sande about spiritual things.

Sande reportedly used to tease his congregants – after he left Zaoga in 1987 under acrimonious circumstances to start Ambassadors For Christ Ministries – that if they bothered him he would abandon them and go to sit at Baba Guti’s feet to learn from the great apostle. 

Yet Guti’s ministry of grooming leaders did not stop with the initial group that gathered around him in the 1950s.  Throughout his life as a preacher of the gospel, he continued to play this role of mentor and teacher – resulting in the training, grooming and deployment of thousands of pastors into the ministry.

Back in 2000, at an Acts conference hosted by Pastor Tom Deuschle of Celebration Church, I heard the American missionary Terry Mize tell a story about visiting Zaoga’s Africa Multination For Christ College (AMFCC) that afternoon. 

He wanted to see Apostle Ezekiel Guti, but he arrived at the Bible school when a pastors’ conference was underway. Terry Mize said just to see the place packed the way he saw it with pastors serving under Guti was evidence of the great work the man had accomplished.

As I recently said to a friend, with thousands of pastors and other workers employed by Zaoga, there’s no denying that the unemployment woes in Zimbabwe would be a trifle worse without these men and women being removed by ministry work from competing for regular secular jobs with the rest of the job-seeking population. 

Zimbabwe, where the bulk of Zaoga churches are, has gone through all sorts of economic ups and downs, yet we have never heard about Zaoga retrenching pastors or laying off workers for economic reasons.  If anything, it keeps hiring!

With churches littered all over Zimbabwe and dotted around all neighbouring countries and beyond, Zaoga has amassed a vast portfolio of assets like land, houses, church buildings and vehicles with minimal use of external donations.

When the Zimbabwe government declared Guti a national hero, it was mainly for his measurable contributions to national social development, described by President Emmerson Mnangagwa as unprecedented. 

Mnangagwa told mourners that it may be difficult to point out the contributions of some national heroes, but those of Guti were there for all to see.

This proliferation of Zaoga’s material prosperity is rooted in the practical teaching of the late archbishop, which emphasised entrepreneurism, penny capitalism, hard work, education, frugality and giving as cornerstones for believers to live economically productive lives.

He did not teach a pie-in-the-sky prosperity theology with doctrinaire rather than pragmatic emphasis, stressing that prosperity was possible but only answers to patience in taking practical steps rooted in faith in God.

He used to tell of how it took him twelve years to save enough money to buy a house in the leafy Murambi suburb of Mutare, stressing to his hearers that prosperity could only happen step by step.

The teaching of Talents – whereby women in the church engage in income generating activities to fund specified church projects – marked a turning point in the financial fortunes of Zaoga when Guti returned from Christ for the Nations Institute, a US Bible school, in the early 1970s. 

Guti, and indeed his followers, had hoped that a stint at Bible school in America would solve the fledgling organisation’s ever-pressing needs to finance its unending growth.

But these hopes were disappointed when no money was in sight at the end of his training, leading to Talents being deployed as the fundraising tool of choice for the church.

Borrowed from Nicholas Bhengu’s Assemblies of God, which Guti and his band of followers expelled from AFM were a part of until they broke away to start Zaoga, the concept has been behind much of the financial self-sufficiency of Zaoga through the years, keeping it from ever getting or needing bank loans to fund its ever-expanding network of churches and projects.

But Talents have not just succeeded because of the projects carried out by women to generate money throughout Zaoga.  Talents are and always have been driven by prayer and fasting. Ezekiel Guti lived and breathed prayer, and he taught his church the same lifestyle of prayer and fasting. 

So deep is this reliance on God that the church and its leader actually believed that a project not fasted and prayed for runs a high risk of failure.

Indeed, in his book African Gifts of the Spirit: Pentecostalism and the Rise of A Zimbabwean Transnational Religious Movement, David Maxwell has noted Guti’s solid devotional life, writing that when he was in Bindura from 1960 to 1963, “He also spent much time in contemplation, praying on Chipindura Mountain.”

But it was the late Pastor Priscilla Ngoma – a Zaoga stalwart who was with Guti from the very start back in their AFM days – who was first tasked with mobilising women to work Talents. Hands were laid on her to spearhead the task.  Vast sums were raised for various projects. 

Then Apostle Eunor Guti, who had once rented a room in Mrs Ngoma’s house when she in 1965 became a Zaoga member while working as a nurse, took over the reins when she became wife to the revered Zaoga leader. 

This thrust her at the tip of the spear in revolutionising Zaoga’s coffers.  She has been steadfast at the task, travelling across the length and breadth of Zaoga churches teaching women to take up side hustles and other moneymaking projects, and highlighting how prayer and fasting must underpin all efforts to raise money for kingdom purposes because it is a spiritual task bound to attract spiritual opposition.

So remarkable have been these measurable results of Ezekiel Guti’s ministry that one cannot help but think of the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:10, But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” Paul wrote these words after describing how he was up there with the other apostles because he had not only seen Christ, but also because he had worked harder than all the apostles.

All too often, a person can have spiritual experiences such as angelic visitations or spiritual visions, and still have nothing to show for it.  Just because we hear from heaven does not mean the things we hear will bring themselves to pass without any effort on our part. 

That is what Paul meant by receiving the grace of God in vain.  The only way for the grace of God in a believer’s life not to end in futility is for them to “labour abundantly”. 

This is what Ezekiel Handinawangu Guti spent his life doing.  He did not park on spiritual experiences, but kept applying himself and rallying his church to bring to pass in the real world the ideals he saw within. 

In the scheme of things, he was far from an eloquent, erudite-sounding speaker or preacher.  His command over the English language was limited at best, his scant formal education negligible. 

Unlike other preachers, he was not big on deploying heavy-duty publicity machinery for his speaking engagements, was not wildly popular as a guest speaker outside his church and did not seem to command the fame of other big-name preachers. 

I doubt that he ever filled a stadium for a crusade despite starting his ministry as an evangelist. Others in his church excelled at those. 

The towering figure that he was in spiritual affairs, his leadership and apostleship consisted mainly in providing guidance and mentorship to those under his wings, and pointing out the right direction. In the words of Maxwell, Guti’s genius lay in the strategic deployment of his lieutenants and in his vision.

The scholars that have tried to dissect his ministry and define the reasons for his success have often come up short. Even Maxwell’s excellent scholarly book falls short. 

There are still in any of the givens elements that escape scrutiny and logical analysis, making it impossible to define Ezekiel Guti and his astonishing results in black and white terms. 

It is worth noting that he and his best friend and preaching buddy, Langton Kupara, were not part of ordained AFM ministers when they started out.  All they had were papers from the church indicating that they were preachers, but ordination was the top recognition required.

Kupara stayed with AFM and became its first black president in 1980, although his brother, Raphael, had been ex-communicated alongside Guti and the others in 1959.

So how did Guti – this village boy born to a traditional healer father in a polygamous marriage – find it within himself to dare the missionary establishment of his youthful days, choosing expulsion from both AFM and A.O.G rather than give up his calling? 

How to explain the fact that the youths who gathered around him referred to him as “munhu waMwari” even before the formation of Zaoga, when he was still first a preacher with a troubled marriage and later a divorced man approaching midlife?  

Did his marital and a myriad other troubles not bother them?  How did an initially penniless man impose such gigantic faith in God as an immutable ideal for the organisation he led till death that men and women from all walks of life were ready and willing to sacrifice it all to advance the cause of this church?

I guess we will never fully know the answers to these questions this side of eternity. All we can safely conclude is that his early followers, as well as those who kept joining the fray throughout his life, saw something in and about him that made them overlook the challenges and limitations of his personal life and focus on the undeniable gift and calling he had.  To benefit from and support that gift and calling, they subordinated every other consideration to the task of working with this remarkable man and win souls for Christ.

In any case, Christ told Nicodemus that the ways of a spiritual man can never be fully known: The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit”(John 3:8). The Apostle Paul also echoed this sentiment in 1 Corinthians 2:16, which states, “But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.”

Yet despite all his accomplishments as a preacher and a leader, Ezekiel Guti was a man of like passions as we all are.  He was human, fraught with weaknesses and mundane struggles to tame the baser urges of our fallen nature. 

Being open about his own struggles to live a holy life and the need to exercise ongoing diligence to overcome temptation is one of the reasons he connected at such an intimate level with his audiences, particularly members of his church.

He said from time to time that he struggled for years to contain lust and a fiery temper, engaging prayer and fasting to overcome these bestial proclivities.  To his credit and to the glory of God, he was never involved in a sex scandal.

Did he sometimes relapse into his anger issues?  Some seem to think he would occasionally fly off the handle when rubbed the wrong way, unleashing tirades that lasted an hour or so at errant pastors.

Stories abound of him giving demeaning harangues to some of his workers when they were not toeing the line, or for simply not acting as expected. There was also talk of  him sometimes deciding on matters based on hearsay without investigating the allegations brought his way.

Was his succession plan informed by nepotism rather than merit?

In dealing with him, you knew you were not dealing with a superman, but with a human being just like yourself.  Guti never pretended to know it all, to be above temptation or to be better than other Christians.  He made this clear through the years, and emphasised it more as the sun was setting for him.  He told a gathering less than a month before his passing that he was not superior to his hearers, neither was he holier or more spiritual. The only difference, he said, was the work God had done through him.

Having been in ministry from the time he was a young man, he knew how easy it was for a preacher to start out right and then end up in scandal or doctrinal error, or even morphing into a cult leader. 

Seeing how signally God had used him in starting and then leading Zaoga from scratch and turning it into a transnational organisation with a footprint in more than 150 countries, there was no shortage of hero-worshippers in Zaoga, who sang his praises ad infinitum, to a point where it bothered some, who alleged that he had created a personality cult around himself.

But the record shows that Guti steadfastly resisted this deification.  He knew that accepting it could invite the judgment of God, who would not share his glory with anyone else.  He could also look across the landscape of Christian ministry and see the carcasses of leaders who created cults or acquiesced in their own deification, and knew he did not want to end up that way.  In his writings, as in his sermons and numerous speeches, he repeatedly pointed out that he was just a servant of God – that he was not Jesus Christ.

“I never said I am Jesus, or that I am like Jesus.  I’m only His servant.  Leaders must help me teach the people to cling to what I have taught about Jesus, because He is the one who sent me,” he used to say.

In one of his books, Guti said Nicholas Bhengu had taught him not to bother rebuking people who try to deify him. He said to leave them alone even if they call you Jesus. One day you will fall sick then they will know that you are not Jesus because Jesus does not get sick. I found that hilarious.

As the leader of a big church for decades, Guti spent much of his life engaged in spiritual activities.  An ascetic man of stoic self-discipline, his prayer and fasting life was legendary.  Most of the angelic visitations he received happened during times of prayer and fasting.

Stories abound of how he would sometimes go for 24 hours straight locked up praying in his bedroom during his younger days. 

On at least three occasions, he fasted for the whole year.  Mrs Eunor Guti has often chided the younger generation of Zaoga members for aspiring to be like the apostle while failing to emulate his life of discipline and devotion.

“You say you want to be young Ezekiels,” she has often said, “Baba doesn’t eat,” – hyperbole for his life of ongoing prayer and fasting.  She told mourners at Olifantsfontein in South Africa that her husband continued to fast and pray even at the age of a hundred.

The same can be said of his Bible reading and study habits.  He would reportedly routinely go for hours reading his Bible, saying to congregants that reading the Bible was not about understanding everything one reads, but about feeding the spirit with the Word of God.

Without doubt, the charismatic leader lived a truly remarkable life, achieving victory after victory right until the day he drew his last breath. His troubled first marriage ended in desertion and divorce, he openly discussed the frictions with his wife in the early days of his second marriage that sometimes had his wife thinking about packing, he started out handicapped by poverty and illiteracy, tongues wagged when his only son – Ezekiel Jr – was born and went through life with debilitating cerebral palsy, some of his daughters got impregnated out of wedlock, some of his trusted lieutenants lost faith in his leadership and jumped ship.

But because he stayed strong in the Lord and in the power of His might and was ever-strong in faith, he weathered all these storms, proving that when we abide in Christ Jesus, we fulfill the words of Christ Himself when He said, “These things I have spoken unto youthat in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).