Monday, 28 April 2008

Easter in Eastern Cape

Easter in Eastern Cape 2008

We were invited to the Easter celebrations (they call it Passover celebrations) in the Lutheran church in Eastern Cape Circuit. After some deliberations the circuit commission and Dean Maho asked me to give a lecture on “Salvation and Grace according to Luther” to be held on the Saturday.

There are a few obstacles on the way to and in connection with such a celebration. The way is long: from Cape Town to Stutterheim, which is roughly 100 km inland from East London, it is 1050 km; everything is said and sung in Xhosa; the worship services are very long. It could make it quite difficult to join if you don’t master the language, but I made my way through having people interpret some of the basics and by taking part in the rhythmic singing and dancing, at least to some extent. It is a memorable experience, not to be forgotten, but this was my fifth time for Easter in this part of the world.

We were in a village church on a hill outside town, in this beautiful hill country, I and my wife Barbro, the only ones who were not speaking Xhosa, from Maundy Thursday afternoon to Easter Sunday. It was quite an insignificant black community of about 200 people having come together from the whole region/circuit; and yet it was one of the most profound experiences I have ever made in my life.

My talk on Luther took place late on Saturday morning. I could sense, through the marvellous interpretation by my old friend Joe Jongolo, that people could follow what I was saying: that works make us dead in terms of religious faith, that faith and the promise that goes with it, still always entails works as a result of one’s faith. I was given an hour, but the questions and discussions lasted even longer. One young woman thought our church was out of touch as we did not teach and practise healing, but most speakers elaborated on the matter of faith as the unavoidable entry point for what God does for us, through Christ, especially in the Good Friday events and on Easter Sunday. I could not refrain from repeating what I preached in the same circuit some 25 years ago, namely the significance of Easter Saturday; a day of rest, it seems a day of faith in the waiting, faith deferred… but that is not the whole truth. In an African context one should talk about what Christ did among the dead, who in Africa at least are the living dead, in the kingdom of death. If Jesus Christ was not only human but also God, without restriction, it goes without saying that he would not only be resting on Easter Saturday, he would also bring the good news to the living dead. One man later told me that he found this thought exiting and meaningful, a help in his struggle to make sense of the fact that there is this void, between earth and heaven that we know so little, or nothing about.

However this moment of theological exchange with ordinary congregants, of which few or none had a degree in anything, was not what made this Easter unforgettable. It was the corporate manifestation of the life and faith of these largely rural people, many of whom are poor.

Saturday afternoon had come. Due to an important funeral far away, that some had had to attend, it was uncertain to what extent there was going to be a Saturday night vigil and lay revival preaching. I was told that perhaps nothing would actually take place. But I insisted finding out and ended up in a genuine revival meeting that became an event. One reservation is of necessity. I am personally not very fond of too much of witnessing and emotionalism; I prefer honest, clear cut and well thought through information and in that sense I was not a very good listener, because listen I would have to do, listen…

It turned out to be a typical revival meeting with only lay people preaching. Two or three pastors were there, but none of them spoke that night. First the men and later on the women came in more and more. I was fortunate to have Joe’s wife Glory at my side. She was my interpreter and her role was just to indicate what each one person talked about, not the details. I thought perhaps that the message somehow would be coloured by the moment, the Eve of Christ’s glorious resurrection, but no. What I was forced to listen to was low-church pietism and in my silent meditation I blamed the Berlin Mission who started work in this part of Africa in the early 19th century. For example, when the resurrection was spoken about, and it was about Christ, but also about how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the pious road was used instantly. Now the talk was about how Jesus could remove the stone that was (at) my heart so that I could be given a living heart. I became upset because I wanted to hear about the great miracle when God woke Christ from the dead, this cosmic event, historical and yet profoundly an event dependent on my and your faith, but I did not hear it. But I could have missed it, due to the Xhosa spoken.

The preaching was revivalist, loud, it was in fact preaching by shouting, a thing that never would impress me, but there it was, and on this evening it was somehow acceptable even to me. But there was much more to it than that. The preaching came from the heart of this individual Christian, more often than not it was about sorrows and pains in life. I heard the word ‘bridge’ repeatedly in a young woman’s testimony and I asked Glory, what is this? Why is she saying this? The answer was stark: she is mentioning a bridge in Port Elizabeth from which young people, despairing of a meaningful life, jump to their death. But typically it was a total mix, a lot of humour also pervaded through the preaching this evening. People laughed at least as much as they sighed. One man, who started off by saying that he was proud to be a Lutheran who was saved through his faith in Christ and who also was proud of being a leader in the church, was a taxi driver. When he talked people laughed their heads off nearly. I asked, why, what is he saying? He just mentioned that he one day had to take a whole group of mourners to a funeral. When they came to the little church it appeared that there was nobody to take the funeral, Glory said. The man then continued, so without further ado, I offered myself to take the funeral as well, for a little extra cost (in addition to the taxi fee).

The preaching was however not only shouting. It was a constant interaction between preacher and congregation. It was not primarily the usual ‘alleluias’ and ‘amens’ but all kinds of responses, sometimes in the form of long sentences, even jokes and laughter, and of course a lot of other sounds typical of the Xhosa idiom and sighing. For a time I thought it was a bit like Hyde Park Corner in London on a Sunday afternoon. But the bottom line was of course dead serious. It was also very pastoral and caring, for example when one mentally and the other physically challenged person took courage, came forward and gave their word. The woman with the hunch back was doing very well but you could feel the love with which people listened to her story. The man, very short and not quite up to it mentally, made several attempts to say something but lost what he was going to say repeatedly. The congregation encouraged him to continue by singing a song dancing thereby giving him space to breathe. Eventually he was able to say something and it was very brief but it was a word and it was embraced by those who listened.

It was Easter Saturday and we were going to have it confirmed that Christ did not just die for our sins, he was also raised from death for our justification.

It is virtually impossible to even make an attempt at describing the atmosphere and the process unfolding this evening. I have not even come close to what I wanted to say: the shouting, the sweating, because it became very hot in the hall, the joy and the sorrow, it was all there, very tangible. What was creating the momentum and the basic structure in everything was however the singing and the dancing, totally inseparable. It is collective, typically women moving forwards in the church in different formations, sometimes with one particular leader, who, after a while, would give over to someone else. But the men also did not do so badly, but they are clearly secondary to the women, regardless of age.

Myself being completely comfortable with African culture as I have come to know it, especially the musical and rhythmical part, I felt I was a part of all this, but not completely, I never thought it would be possible, but I was definitely not an outsider, regardless of what others might think, I did not think so. But I simply cannot do what they do, even if it is natural to sing and dance, I could never become what they are, of course not. But that did not disturb me in the least. Here I was enjoying myself finding one of not so many instances in the world where worship, singing and dancing formed one perfect whole, encompassing everybody, very monotonous in terms of the music taken in isolation, very powerful if seen in conjunction with the other two elements, the dancing and the praying.

It so happened that Joe, my friend, also was going to preach, after all, and he first wanted to involve me even more in the dancing than I had hitherto given proof of. It was about 11h00 p.m. and Joe pulled me into a small group of men, four of us, and he made me take part in a circular dance with certain steps required at a regular pace. We continued like that for about ten minutes with a lot of other people doing similar things nearby. Here I was in church, near the altar (it was not much of an altar anyway) dancing with a group of elders, incessantly, laughing, enjoying, yet conscious of the seriousness of things. Those ten minutes were important to me. It proved to me that I was indeed a part of all this and I thought this is a lesson to be learnt by all.

I am not as naïve as to think that we all should do like this on Easter Saturday; not at all. But we could at least start taking this kind of worship seriously. It is authentic, it is real and it is there in the Eastern Cape at Easter. It doesn’t help that thousands of young South Africans have left this kind of African church for something even more charismatic and American and I can assure you they are not enjoying this kind of singing and dancing.

This Easter Saturday revival service with its low church, pietistic preaching in fact had an added dimension thanks to the way in which things were done. What emerged through the evening was an embodiment of faith and I mean it literally: you become one with the message in your body, because you dance until it has become integrated in your whole being, the body being the ultimate frame work. So, despite pietistic dualism, there came a wholeness that made people feel very good about themselves, which was all too apparent seeing all the beaming faces, and in doing this they in fact also embodied the very message they preached, to the extent that the whole congregation became a visible sign of the glorious resurrection, body, soul and spirit.

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