So I went to church last Sunday, having been invited by my now good friend who I will call Lucy. The day started of rather quietly, having woken up to still, chilly North Western weather and the sound of monkeys shuffling across the green canopy of indigenous and exotic trees that adorns the garden area of the many thatched cottages that make up the lodge I am presently staying in.
So having had my breakfast, Lucy-who happens to be a worker by the lodge invited me for church, probably half expecting that I would decline I suppose. To think of it, would it have been odd if I declined? This is South Africa after all, what if it was a trap where she had accomplices who would rob the rental car? What if it was merely a play at getting a ride to town? Another question whispered itself across my mind—the flashing reality that we were if appearances are to be believed, not of the same economic and educational bracket, therefore could we really be socializing in the same environment? And to add to this, was I still not a paying guest and she an agent of the service provider? Will this not also be seen to imply an illicit relationship?
And even as all of this whizzed in my mind, my first reaction was to apologize since the invitation, at 9.00 am was already late. Nevertheless, it turned out church was at 11, and even as my mind was a conflict, I said yes – telling myself in my heart that the artificial constructs of society do not run deeper than the unity that stems from faith in Christ. A faith that says there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew, master, nor servant; but one in Christ (Gal 3:28) and in which we are all brothers, sisters, mother and father to one another. Inwardly, a wandering, crazier part of my mind questioned if I felt the same way John D. Rockefeller Sr. would have felt not changing his church when he got richer.
I did not know what to expect as I made the drive towards the town with Lucy and a couple of her friends, who also were going to town but albeit to different churches. As we talked on the way, I could not help myself but be struck with the sincerity and simplicity with which Lucy conversed with me, without boundaries or fear. (Possibly because I tend to be guarded, and to grow into relationships and not go about trying to know people the same way a hot knife would go through butter-straight to the point.)
I saw after I made a right turn, a large building; rusty-brown face-brick; adorned with a cross and a green roof and with a number of cars outside. I thought I had arrived, but it wasn’t it. The road became potholed; and then we took a side road with no tar; then it became officially a muddy mess, thorns on the side and facilitating the movement of but 1 car alone. By then, I had already become a bit queasy on the inside. Corrugated Iron constructions, but well demarcated and fenced had become the standard housing on both sides of the road. We had also by then passed a large tent; at which my mind had told me about many a revival that had begun in an open tent on the poorer outskirts of town. I had wondered if I was about to witness the same.
But we were not there yet. It was when we were around these areas, that Lucy explained her reasons for going to this current church. She had gotten lost one day, on her way to here previous church; and just went into the first building she saw. And the members had prayed with her; and stood with her in her time of great need, and her need now stood answered. The story and the detail of it is not mine to tell; but the story made me question myself; “where is the prejudice coming from?”
When we did arrive, the church-building itself, like many buildings around was a corrugated iron construction, supported by black steel and seating possibly 50 to 70 at most inside. It seemed to me, most of the men were on one side, and the women (save one young lady) on the other side. Three different sets of brown, desert sand-brown and tan/pale brown tiled adorned the floor from the pulpit to about 70% down the length of the building; the rest being a hard form of concrete. The 3-person choir seemed to have agreed on a theme of black, and the entire instrument harmony came from a young man in an white shirt with African detail on the collar and neckline. There was a drum set, but no drummer, and even with the few people there, the volume from the 4 massive speakers seemed to be tuned to the loudest possible setting.
Sometime, maybe 6 or so years ago, I had tried sitting in front in church, but the exuberant shouting into the microphone of the highly animated Pastor so hurt my ears that I told myself never again would I sit in front as long as I was in that church. I felt the same on Sunday to start with, but as I allowed myself to pray and join in the few English songs, my attention went less from the state of the sound but to me, my thoughts, and what my life actually stood for.
As the afternoon began to swelter, I started to ask myself if I had not somewhere along the line made a good building, ventilation and sound a prerequisite for church. I thought of the general state of the church; how stark inequality exists and how that inequality forms a justifiable social boundary; where within the same denomination, different branches, in different suburbs will have different feelings and flavors. I thought of how many of us maybe do not know what it feels like to realize with a lump in your throat that your life as it is would be a dream come true for the majority of the people you are with if outside your comfort zone.
I found myself asking, “Would a critique of prosperity being God’s will honestly come to someone who has no healthcare, who is failing to send their 3 children to school and cannot guarantee 3 meals a day and tell them that God, who is the owner of everything in the world, is using their poverty to teach them a lesson”.”Would they look at the diabetic, whom no-one has the faith to lay hands on, and who cannot afford treatment, and tell them that God wants them to be poor?” There is a common critique, endlessly given to preachers today without discretion. A critique that arises because of a few, but is placed on all; that preachers merely exploit the desperate and build fortunes because they mislead desperate souls into believing they will get rich quickly. A critique often coming from more educated individuals, often with stable lives and incomes. But has anyone ever asked why are the people desperate? And what can be done for them?
The message was on the prioritizing what God says, in spite of circumstances and the situation. And letting oneself only speak what God says. An apt message in the face of very trying circumstances. I could not help but remember, a certain pastor who had spoken in confidence of not preaching more on prosperity, and providence because of being in a poor area, and how the message would not be well received because of that. But anyway, I found myself asking what the numbers we read mean. Whether we just glance over them; or when we think of a million homeless people, we see their humanity as well. Their capacity to smile, laugh, dream and hug; to know joy and to know pain; to bleed-like as we also do. When we read of millions of people who do not have access to education, are they just saddening statistics, or do we see the beautiful, brown bright eyes of curious minds that are not being awakened to possibilities because of circumstances that can be changed?
I found myself asking myself if I truly realized the magnitude of the blessings I have and the opportunity to bring about change that stood before me. It is said one needs a strong reason to do business; in case they ever come upon hard-times and I think I found mine.
And it is in the eyes of every little boy and girl who will be able to go to school because their parents are gainfully employed and can send them to school. It is in the better houses that well paid partners will be able to build because they are making much more than they would trying to get a dollar profit a day selling on the streets. It is in the transformation that will result when adults up-skill and can develop their own trades with capital and resources I can assist source. It is in the opportunity that opens up when a community finds access to the internet, and can leverage the consuming power of a multi-trillion dollar world economy.
Selah…To Be Continued