A Catholic priest and Spiritual Director of Jesus and Mary Adoration Ministry, Nnewi, Anambra State, Rev Fr Thadeaus Ilechukwu, who is also noted for disguising as a beggar to test his congregation, tells IKENNA OBIANERI about his mission
A video resurfaced on social media recently showing you disguised as a beggar at the gate of a church. What informed it?
I am the Parish Priest of St Monica’s Catholic Church, Nnewi. I am popularly known as ‘Father Egwu Mmonso’ which means ‘terror to demons’. People call me this name because of a particular kind of deliverance we carried out in 2015 when the ministry was still in Amichi.
The video first went viral precisely on July 7, 2018, but it was shot on July 5, 2018, at Jesus and Mary Adoration Ground when I was at St James’ Catholic Church, Amichi, before I was transferred to St Monica’s Catholic Church in Nnewi. The person that captured the video posted it online on July 7, 2018, and then within 24 hours, it made over one million views. It started trending again in 2022 during the Lenten period and it has started trending now. Many people have been calling me to tell me that this video is trending again. It keeps trending as if it is new because of the teaching and the message it carries.
What motivated you to do that?
I got that inspiration when I went for an assignment in Lome, Togo. It was impromptu. I did not see it in a movie. The thought just came and I decided to try it in Nigeria. In June 2018, I preached about charity and giving. Every month, we have a monthly declaration and assignment and I told the congregation that in July, every adoration member must be charitable and do works of charity by giving to the poor and the needy. I told them that everyone must have something to give and that they must not be very rich before they give because there are people poorer than them. So, on the first Thursday of the month (July 5, 2018), I wanted to have a unique way of disseminating this gospel of charity. What came to my mind was to disguise as a beggar and sit among the adoration members and beg or to disguise as an ordinary person and sit among the members and beg. I knew that if I disguised myself as an ordinary person, people would easily recognise me.
How did you get the costumes?
As the thoughts of the method to adopt were running through my mind, I came across a lady who is a makeup artist in Lagos. I saw her on Facebook, so I contacted her and eventually, she agreed to come down to Anambra State and do the makeup for me. So, that day, she applied makeup on me, wore me a wig, attached beards that made me look like Abraham, and gave me tattered clothes.
Were you surprised at what you looked like after wearing the costume?
Frankly speaking, when I looked at myself in the mirror, I was shocked at what I saw; I definitely changed. I looked like a beggar, a mentally ill man, and a homeless man. Even when I was leaving the Parish house, our cook saw me and shouted, “Jesus! There is a madman in my father’s house.” She then ran away. But, I quietly entered my car and drove to the adoration ground. I was not able to raise dust because my car was tinted, but then, I had to park a few kilometres and trek to the adoration ground still in the attire so that nobody would know. It was on a Thursday and before that day, I had told the cameraman that captured everything to focus on any mentally unstable man he saw around the adoration ground because God was about to do something.
Was he aware that you were the one disguised as a madman?
The cameraman was not aware. He later told me that he thought that the reason I told him to focus on any madman he saw was because the madman was going to receive a miracle that day. So, when I came to the adoration ground, I sat at the entrance. Incidentally, it was a rainy day, so I was wet and shivering while begging the people entering the adoration ground. While people were passing and entering, I was at the gate begging. People from different denominations came to the adoration ground for prayers, but even my regular members ignored me and passed by. There was a pregnant lady that came down from a motorcycle and paid the motorcyclist who gave her some balance. As she walked in, I asked her, “Aunty, please can you find me something so that I can eat?” I was shivering because of the rain and the muddy ground made me dirtier. So, the lady replied, “Please, I don’t have money.” When I reminded her that I saw her receiving some change from the motorcyclist, she said the money was not for me and then she moved on. She came for prayers that day.
Did anyone give you alms that day?
Some people gave me some money in N10 and N20 denominations. Out of the many people that passed by, only five people gave me money. The money I gathered from begging was N70 but I can’t remember what happened to the money.
What can you recall during the encounter that struck you or came to you as a surprise?
In front of the adoration ground was a space that I gave to people free of charge to use to sell items, but when I went to beg them for alms, they chased me away. One of them even pursued me with a stick threatening to break my head. Only one pregnant woman selling cooked groundnuts in a wheelbarrow called me and gave me one cup of groundnuts. When I collected the groundnut, I said to her, “Madam, God bless you. You will deliver your baby safely.”
Were some of your colleagues aware of your plan?
I told a priest, Father Henry Ejimba, who assisted me. He is now in Rome, Italy. I told him that day that I would be coming late and that he should prepare the ground and expose the Blessed Sacrament and wait for me. He was not also aware that I was disguising myself. So, when I managed to enter the adoration ground while eating the moi moi someone gave to me, I called the priest and said, “Father, come and eat.” He thanked me. He made the sign of the cross and I gave him the moi moi, which he collected and fed me, not knowing that I was his colleague.
How were you able to now enter the adoration ground and get hold of the microphone since the congregation didn’t want you to gain access?
I managed to move into the adoration ground and moved to the altar. When you watch the video, you will see when I was moving to the altar, the members were afraid that I might attack the Blessed Sacrament, so they tried to prevent me. As they were doing that, I called my assistant and told him to get me the microphone so that I could preach the gospel of charity to my people.
But he told me to return to the gate and wait for Fr Egwu Mmonso’. However, when I called his name, he was shocked but he still threatened to throw me outside. It was at that point that I reminded him that I would arrive late. So, I was able to convince him beyond doubt that the “beggar” he was looking at was a reverend father. So, he got a microphone and handed it over to me. I went to the altar and sang this song, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” As I was singing, I removed the wig, beard, and other things and then the adoration members recognised me immediately and started shouting. There was an uproar. Many people who passed me by and did not offer help cried. They regretted their actions.
What did you want your congregation to take home from that event?
So, it was a message that when we encounter Jesus Christ, we might know he is the one. A lot of people have encountered Jesus Christ in such a manner, but they ignored him because they did not know. I also used the event to preach the gospel of charity. These days, a lot of people are afraid to undertake charity because they believe that people use it for ulterior motives. It is not true; we receive something faster from God when we give.
I was not the one that posted the video on social media. If I wanted it to be a social media stunt, I would have posted it on my handle and there would have been traffic. I only wanted to use it to pass a message of charity among my members and I am very happy that the message resonated among the people to the extent that other preachers started using it in their teachings to date.
How did you feel when you got feedback from people who saw the video?
When I watched the video, I shed tears because I am equally guilty. Most times, when I drive, I see beggars and I sometimes shun them. Sometimes, when I pass a particular location and see a beggar I have given alms in the past and I feel reluctant to give more, but it is not like that. After that video went viral, I told myself that I would always give alms even if I passed the same place five times a day. God is not interested in the things we give, He is interested in the heart with which we give. So, that was the message and I thank God that people are picking the message and it is helping in spreading the gospel and I pray that many people will be touched and start giving. When we give to humanity, God gives to us.
Some people wonder whether not giving to charity is a sin. What do you think?
Actually, it is not a crime. So, I was not disappointed by the reactions of the people from the video or what I saw that day of people coming and passing without giving the beggar anything. You know charity covers a multitude of sins and Jesus Christ emphasised prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We get a lot of things from God when we give and this is the secret many Christians don’t know about. Every religion emphasises giving, especially the ones you know you might give to people that might not appreciate you, the ones that you give to people who don’t praise you. The one that you give and don’t expect anything in return. Those are the ones God cherishes most. God loves a cheerful giver.
Have you tested the faith of your members since that event occurred?
I have not. There are many ways of preaching. I didn’t do it to test them; it was to preach and teach. If I have to disguise myself again, it will mean repeating myself and they will know. Maybe, another inspiration will come and it will be in another form, who knows, until the Holy Spirit brings such a venture again.
How do you balance your job as a parish priest with running the adoration ministry?
The prayer ministry is part of the priestly functions and the work. I became a priest before the prayer ministry and it is part of the parish programme. I am managing both. I am the parish priest in the church and I am the spiritual director of the adoration ministry. Only God gives me strength. As a matter of fact, I am still studying for my master’s and will also study for a doctorate.
What is your view that despite the many religious centres in Nigeria, moral decadence is on the increase? Who is to blame?
It is because many people have jettisoned the practical aspect of the teachings and are now pursuing material things. Religious centres can only impart knowledge; it is now left for the individuals to follow the teachings or allow the teachings to make them better people. The church is not to blame.
What is your opinion about the perception that some priests who run adoration ministries do so in conflict with the instructions of their superiors?
All I can say is that grace is built on nature. That someone is ordained as a priest does not remove the fact that the person is a human being. If I am hot-tempered or easily angered, the fact that I am now a priest does not remove it completely. So, they (priests) are human beings. No one is perfect. So, when you hear that a priest disagrees with their superior over one thing or the other, they are human beings. They are prone to human frailties. We will pray for them also; they are not superhumans. That is why we ask the people of God to pray for us.
Nigerians are lamenting the current economic hardship in the country. Are you worried about the situation?
You know there has been a change of government recently, and the current government is just a few months old. Before this government came, people experienced the worst. But from the look of things and in my assessment, I am not speaking for the church, we have yet to see any tangible thing being done to alleviate the sufferings and poverty among the masses. The President said that he would “let the poor breathe”, but we have yet to breathe; we are suffocating. So, when the poor begin to breathe, then I would say the government is working.
I would not want to delve more into politics, but my advice to government officials is to note that this life is too short, whenever they come into office, they should strive to do their best for the people because they are there to serve the people and for the good of the people. So, when they serve themselves and not the people, even God, nature and the people will be against them. But there are still good ones among them who do their work with the fear of God.