Location: Mowe, Ogun

I am drawn to human divinity, the way that humans embody and interact with holiness. I see this everywhere: in interactions of all kinds, in bodies and movement, in suffering and relief. But one of the most concentrated places to witness it is in sanctuaries. Sacred spaces and rituals offer a structure, time and place for human expression: emotional turmoil, peace, fear, and hope.

One of the most famous religious spaces in the greater Lagos metropolitan zone (though it is located in Ogun state) is Redemption Camp. It claims to house the biggest church auditorium in the world, with a new structure spanning 3 kilometers by 3 kilometers. It is run by the Redeemed Christian Church of God, one of the biggest, and fastest growing of the myriad Nigerian originated Pentecostal churches. On the first Friday of the month, traffic on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway crawls as normal weekend traffic is compounded by thousands of the faithful trekking in buses and cars to the Holy Ghost Service.

Headlights snake along the long driveway to the gleaming open-air sanctuary.

Inside, thousands of people are together, alone with their God. I am struck by this collective solitude. It is not unique to Redemption Camp. At most churches there are moments of individual prayer in the group, in mosques, Buddhist Sanghas, Quaker-meeting halls, at Hindu Pujas and elsewhere there is this experience of being alone in your thoughts and your spirit while surrounded by the crowd. But there’s something to this. It is different to pray alone than it is to pray with others, even if praying means closing your eyes, or looking to the sky, averting your gaze and avoiding everyone else. There is the feeling of everyone else doing it to that shows you how to do it, that permits you to lose yourself in the crowd, that reminds you of the commonality of your human experience, that puts a slight performative pressure to keep at it.

If mass solitude is part of the draw of religion, Redemption Camp is an extreme example because it emphasizes both. The church brags of attracting crowds up to a million strong. The solitary nature of it is also particularly striking, given its scale. Pastor Adeboye’s sermons tend to be a series of proclamations he says he receives straight from God. In the middle of his speech he will fall quiet, listening, and then proclaim, “The Lord says there is someone in here tonight….” And then he promises a divine miracle: a poor man will drive in a Mercedes to the next service; a barren woman will have triplets; family strife will evaporate. And the whole crowd, sitting in rows, or sprawled on the ground will leap to their feet, hands in the air, eyes closed, and scream, in unison, “it is me!”

The photographs I shot are about individual prayer in a collective space. The overhead neon lights are like halos gleaming on the faces of the faithful, shooting off into heaven. The subjects are lost in their own thoughts, everyone else blurring to the background.

Redemption Camp
Allyn Gaestel