The stranger smiled and nodded. “Thank you, I really needed some US dollars.”
He shook his scruffy head, forcing an uninvited smile. He stared at the crispy $10 bill. He mumbled something inaudible and quickly left the men’s wear store while staring again at the $10 bill.
And I realized I had been conned.
I didn’t want to buy anything in the men’s wear store. Giga’s was my favorite shop for window shopping – imagining a day I would afford to pay $20 for a pair of shoes and $30 for a shirt. Regrettably, I worked at a local university where I earned only $50 per month. It wasn’t enough to buy anything at Giga’s…
“My brother passed away last week in Johannesburg,” the stranger said. “His wife and kids are here in Bulawayo. I have to go and collect his body.”
My heart froze. Nothing is more painful than losing someone you love. I lost my father when I was 9. And my mother at 16. It was horrible and I don’t wish the experience on my worst enemies.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I managed to raise $40 for my transport. I still need $20 for carrying my brother’s body. I sold my furniture and I have Zimbabwean dollars. I need to change my Zimbabwean dollars to US dollars…”
His mind wandered off and I could see a hint of tears in his eyes. “I really don’t need any Zimbabwean dollars, but I have $10 I could spare.”
He smiled. “May the Lord richly bless you. How about changing at one to seventeen?” He smiled again handing me the money, “God bless you.”
As he walked away, I started counting the Zimbabwean dollars. It wasn’t fake money. IT WAS A NEWSPAPER.
The Art of the Con
I should have known better. A year earlier, I met a conman who offered me a lucrative job carrying boxes at Lutheran-Africa International Aid Organization. At ZW$20,000 per hour, I had to work for five hours only to pay my college tuition in full. But the charity organization didn’t exist.
The swindler was dressed for the job; black pants, light suede jacket, and a folder with seemingly important documents. A shabbily dressed man joined in the conversation – a confidence booster, I presume. He wanted the money and he wanted the job. But not me – I didn’t buy the gimmick.
“The Lutheran charity organization is called Lutheran World Relief. And Lutheran offices are on 7th Street and we are on 15th Street,” I turned to the young man who had shown interest in the job – I knew he was part of the scam, “This guy is a thief. Don’t take the job.”
A few months ago, I met another con artist who understood the importance of place and knowledge in the art of the con. He saw me withdrawing money at an ATM and approached me while I stood at Nando’s, an upmarket eatery. Nando’s had a free Wi-Fi hotspot.
“SaManyika, how are you?” SaManyika is a nickname for people from Manicaland, I was born in Bulawayo and I grew up in Mashonaland West. I wasn’t from Manicaland. “I think I have met you before. Rusape? Mutare? Chimanimani?”
Many people when they hear my surname always assume that I am from Manicaland. Sanganyado sounds like common Manyika surnames like Saurombe, Sakarombe, Saungweme, and Sanyangore. He probably read my name from the ATM card. “I have never been to Manicaland.”
Wearing cute pants, neatly tucked shirt and pointed shoes, the con man told me about his misfortunes. He was from Rusape, came to Bulawayo to collect his debts and failed. The woman who owed him passed away. “And I haven’t bathed in three days. Please, help me.”
But there was a problem. I had become better at detecting confidence tricks.
One. He didn’t speak as someone who grew up in rural Rusape. Two. He was too nicely dressed for someone who slept in the streets for three days. Three. His story was not consistent. Four. I hate someone who hears my name and immediately assumes I am from Mutare.
Sadly, pulpits across Africa are filled with con men too. They’re swindling believers promising God’s blessing. It’s painful, it’s true and I think Christians should learn how to spot con men.
18 Ways to Spot a Con Man in Your Church
When Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, they were several con artists sprouting in the early church. Like you and me, Timothy had to learn how to identify con artists in the church because ‘evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived (2 Timothy 3:13).
The con artists are ‘lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God’ appearing to be godly yet they deny its power (2 Timothy 3:4-5).
Con artists love three things: themselves, money and pleasure. An expensive taste for clothes helps them gain your confidence – rule of first impressions. Oftentimes, they drop names of famous people when they speak; after all birds of a feather flock together. And they always encourage testimonies that highlight their extraordinary exploits.
Recently, a pastor was arrested in Zimbabwe for sexually assaulting some church members. The pastor claimed he could cast out demons from the women if he had sex with the women. Unfortunately, the case against the pastor will probably fall apart since the women assaulted consented in search of a blessing. This is the reason Paul warned Timothy:
Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions
-2 Timothy 3:5-6
Godly Wisdom Can Protect You Against Church Con Artists
It is almost impossible to convince people that are being duped in churches that they are being duped. They throw 1 Corinthians 2:14 on your face, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
For example, a month ago, a Nigerian pastor was arrested in South Africa for human trafficking and sexual assault. Yet thousands of his church members picketed the court in his support. “We are being shown how Jesus suffered on earth, but he prevailed and so will our Daddy,” one supporter said. How could she equate Jesus to a man who made his victims recite Psalm 51 while raping them?
I cannot convince you that your pastor might be conning your church. I cannot. And Paul knew that even after giving Timothy 18 characteristics of an impostor, that knowledge alone was not sufficient to help Timothy and the churches he led. The ball was entirely in Timothy’s court.
Knowing salvation is found in no other but Christ, helps us escape the traps of con artists.
If you want to escape the grip of con artists in the church, you need to continue in God’s word. Jesus Christ said we are his disciples if we continue in his word. And as disciples, we will know the truth and the truth will set us free (John 8:31-32). Knowing salvation is found in no other but Christ, can help you escape the traps of con artists.
Above all, the scriptures are ‘able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Timothy 3:14-15). I have learned that instead of arguing with people who are caught up in a prolonged confidence trick, I only need to encourage them to read the Bible. Because only God’s word through Christ’s grace can deliver them from the lies of a con artist. After all;
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness
2 Timothy 3:16