South Africa: A Final Glimpse of Heaven

Sunday, June 12. I’m up early to finish packing and check out of the hostel, although I’ll leave my bags there. Pumla is one of the bartenders/receptionists at the hostel, and she has kindly offered to take me to her church in the Khayelitsha township. She lives close to the hostel, and picks me up a little after 8:30AM. On the way, she tells me a bit about Khayelitsha, the largest township and the furthest out. She needs to stop by her house in the township, her mother’s house actually, to pick up a white first Sunday of every month is communion, and everyone dresses in white for the occasion. Since she missed church last week, she will wear white for week two where they will offer communion to those who missed it the week before. Our next stop is at her auntie’s house. We’re giving her Aunt a ride to church. I’m sure to get out and give her Aunt the front seat. I feel so much gratitude that these people are inviting me into their world.

When we finally get to church, most of the men are gathered around outside. Because the township is so large, the church actually has three buildings for worship, each with a set of 20-30 deacons who look after a smaller group in the church. Her deacon comes up to greet me, and I’m happy to make his acquaintance. He wants to check in with me about the service afterwards. The ushers then guide me to a seat. Inside the church is large, and very simple. There’s an elegance to the paired down worship. Pews, a table draped in white for communion, a pulpit draped in white.

I’m seated in the center close to the front. It’s a seat of honor. Only the matriarchs of the church sit in front of me with their amazing Sunday hats. Pumla sits with me, and explains more about her church and how it operates, how each deacon group has its own choir. The first Sunday of the month is communion, followed by another communion service the following week, more of a house church/deacon group on the third week, and a community singing celebration on the last Sunday of the month. I’ve made a note to go back for a fourth Sunday if I can schedule it on my next visit.

Pumla heads off to sit with her deacon group, and I am sitting on my own with some other visitors. I’m the only white person in the church, certainly a curiousity for many. My knowledge of Xhosa consists of the word Xhosa, the singing style “isicathamiya” (for which I haven’t mastered the click yet), and the word ‘Molo’ which means hello. The entire service is in Xhosa, so I don’t expect to understand much.

As the service starts, the men/deacons of the church walk in, and seat themselves across the front of the worship platform. One of the ladies sings the first line of a hymn and the whole room fills with song. There is no pianist, no accompaniment, not even a hymnal, but everyone knows the song in full harmony. I can’t even begin to describe how glorious the sound is in the reverberant hall. It rings through me in a visceral way. This is how I sing. As the hymn comes to an end, another woman in a different section of the church launches into a new hymn. There were three or four hymns flowing one into the next. I didn’t want to be the gawking tourist videotaping with his phone, but I can’t help but turn on my voice recorder.

There are several preachers. The first one, I make out the words “Sunday School” from time to time. The last one, I hear “Ah, Beh, Ceh to Zed.” He’s clearly got their attention, and there is some good laughter through the church. There’s more singing at the end as the deacons line up at the front of the church, and everyone goes through the receiving line shaking their hands. Afterwards, I see Pumla’s deacon again, and share with him how moving the service was for me, especially the music, how I want to learn the language to share more fully when I come back.

In the car, Pumla tells me a bit about the preaching. June 16 is a holiday for South Africans, and the church is hosting an event for the school kids to keep them out of trouble. They are also hosting a job fair for recent graduates, many of whom struggle to find employment. The last pastor was talking about visitors and teaching them. He said his teacher asked him to write “egg” on the board on his first day of school, but he couldn’t because he hadn’t learned his ABC’s. But he had eaten an egg for breakfast and could draw a picture of an egg. It seemed like a great message of understanding and accepting people where they are, and I can’t help but wonder if I was a part of the inspiration for the message that day.

After church, we drop off her Aunt, and I’m invited into their house. Her cousin is there along with her niece who is adorable. They’re watching a South Arrican soap opera. They offer me tea, and at first I decline. But they seem intent to offer me hospitality, and I get the sense I really shouldn’t refuse. We wait around for a bit. They mostly speak in Xhosa to each other, so I don’t understand a whole lot, but I still feel comfortable and welcome. Her Uncle is busy getting ready, and I get to meet him before we finally head out. We need to stop by her mom’s house again before we head back to the city for my flight and for Pumla to get to work. I go in to her mom’s house, and introduce myself. Her brother is also there, and seems very keen on asking me questions. Again, I’m a bit of a curiousity. There are some other women relatives in the kitchen cooking, and it smells amazing. I find out later, that both houses were hoping to feed me lunch, and I’m a bit disappointed I missed out on that.

On the drive back, I talk to Pumla about her family, about her work at the hostel, and about her hopes for the future. She has a degree in hospitality, and would like to have her own catering or restaurant business. But the staff at the hostel have been like family to her. Part of me hopes she is still there when I go back, but I more hope that I get to see her at her own restaurant. We also talked about the townships. These plots of land were built around racial identity, and it wouldn’t be safe for me to go there alone as a white man. I’m not part of that tribe or group, I’m not a known entity, and I haven’t built a relationship with that community at all. It occurs to me that this is one of the greatest challenges left over from apartheid. In the main city, everyone lives together, but out in the townships it separates back out. If you’re white and living in the city, it’s easy to ignore or write off the townships as dangerous. It’s hard to reach out to that community, to deepen those friendships and build relationships. I’m hoping I can link together some of my connections I’ve made to do just that in the months ahead.

I get back to the hostel where I meet Hilary. We’re off for one last lunch at a lovely cafe on the water. The view of Table Mountain is spectacular. Looking across the bay to the city, I can pick out Table Mountain, Lions Head, Devils Peak, and the Twelve Apostles. I’ve gotten comfortable with this land, and am going to miss it. There’s something spectacular about this city around the mountain. Wherever you go, it is always there, watching over you. If you ever feel lost, you just need to look up to get your bearings. It’s hard to leave this last little glimpse of heaven. It’s hard to think that I will shortly begin the thirty-some hour trek back to Baltimore.

I set out on this trip a nervous wreck. I’d never travelled this far, never really travelled alone, never tried to navigate a foreign city. I knew from the moment I saw the sunrise over the African horizon on my flight out that something was happening to me. Now, I’m calmer traveling, more confident, more open. I’m ready for the adventure of life again. I have changed, and it’s time to bring that change to Baltimore.

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed your blog so much! It was very inciteful, and culturally sensitive. I have a veiry good South African friend, who has since movied to New Zealand. She was from Pretoria, which I got the impression was harder to live in than Cape Town.
    I am so glad your adventure was so good. Have a great summer until we meet again at the chorale group.
    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences! Sincerely, Karen Otto


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