Thursday, June 11, 2009

Enfolded in a Warm Blanket of Singing and Dancing

As we approached the township of Tembisa, the change in scenary was jarring. We’d passed the sprawling developments on the outskirts of Johannesburg, illustrated with bulletin boards praising progress and promising a glowing future life (the streets of “Egoli” paved with gold). But there was not much of that visible here. The same matchbox houses we saw in Soweto, with the occasional more luxurious dwelling, alongside shacks of corrugated metal built from the cast-offs of the elite.

Like other South African townships, Tembisa was built for Africans who had been “removed” from white areas in and around Johannesburg. Established as a township in 1957, Tembisa (from a Zulu word meaning “promise”) was one of the flashpoints of anti-apartheid “unrest” at the height of state repression. Also as in other townships, criminal gangs such as the notorious “Toasters” and “Section 12”, established themselves. But Tembisa is also a bustling area which as many as one million South Africans call home. Most of them are formally unemployed, though the “informal” sector is alive and well.

We pulled up beside the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (left), a smallish church building at a busy intersection (the noise of cars frantically hooting would form the counterpoint for our worship). The EPC is a small denomination, with historic ties to the Swiss missionaries that evangelized and educated Africans from the mid-nineteenth century. The pastor, Rev. Wilson Rambau, greeted us warmly outside. As we filed into the church, we found a simple sanctuary, with benches for pews, a communion table, and a pulpit. There was neither piano nor organ. A plaque behind the communion table bore greetings from the mayor of Hartford, Connecticut. We would later learn its significance.

We took our place in the choir seats and watched the congregation enter a few at a time. The church was not full during the service, though as Tinyiko Maluleke explained to us there had been a service the day before and consequently some would have stayed home.

The service began with a greeting—and a special welcome to our group. The first hymn was announced, and members paged through worn, dog-eared hymnals and service books. There were not enough for our group, and the service was in Tsonga and Shangaan (two of South Africa’s eleven official languages). But that didn’t seem matter. Strangely I found myself able to follow along quite well with the spirit of the worship.

And what spirit (or Spirit) there was! As the congregation raised their voices in that characteristic polyphonic, four part harmony, I felt myself enfolded as if wrapped in a warm blanket. There was a welcome familiarity. I was back in Africa, and Africa was holding out her arms. Soon the announcement of hymns became redundant, and people sang spontaneously—or so it seemed—in that wonderful African “call and response” way. Choir after choir got up to sing, and we soon learned that there was no need for accompaniment.

And then it was our turn. We’d rehearsed Amazing Grace the night before, and delivered a quite competent rendition, I thought, which was received appreciatively. The pastor called Bob Evans forward, who gave greetings on our behalf and explained the purpose of our visit to South Africa. He called on Rev. Christopher Byaruhanga, one of our members, to present our gift to the congregation—a beautiful batak cloth from his native Uganda. The response of the church leadership was deeply moving. An elder named Victor Nesangane came forward and promised that the church would take care of the cloth, and that if we returned in ten years time we would still find it in good condition. The significance of this should not be underestimated, given the xenophobia that had enveloped South Africa just a year ago. The fact that something from the other side of the Limpopo would have a permanent dwelling place amongst this people is deeply important.

But it was the response of the congregation that took us aback. They broke into song, left their seats, and danced up the aisle of the church toward the front. We found ourselves dancing too—and soon we joined the congregation circling the front of the church. It was quite a sight to see—all of us academics shaking our limbs and moving our feet in joy and praise!

Everything else followed in rapid succession. A sermon, prayers, and benediction. The service ended with the offering—people coming forward, dancing, as they placed their tithes in the baskets on the communion table. It was announced that a “small finger lunch” had been prepared for us—something neither we nor the sisters at the retreat house back in Johannesburg had known about. We could not, however, refuse. As it turned out, the “finger lunch” included massive bowls of potato, carrot, and bean salads, beets, and chicken pieces.

Actually, we should not have been surprised. For we’ve found nothing but generosity among the poor here. But this is an especially generous congregation. Let me return to that plaque behind the communion table. On one of his first visits to the EPC in Tembisa, members of the congregation expressed surprise to Bob that there were poor people in America. Bob, who is based in Connecticut, spoke to them about Hartford, the second poorest city in the U.S. The congregation immediately responded by taking a special collection “for the homeless of Hartford”. The grand sum of $35.00 was raised. Later, theological ethicist Donald Shriver would write, “I discovered the meaning of stewardship and commitment in Tembisa.”

We did too, that day. We learned a generosity not seen in the bureaucratic spaces of Parliament, nor the polished halls of the Constitutional Court. It was among God’s people, gathered in the name of Jesus, that we found—and I apologize for sounding romanticistic—a true wealth, the streets paved with gold anticipating the communion of the New Jerusalem. That city, unlike Egoli, has neither temples nor townships. For there, all gather to share the wealth of Yahweh.

That is the true "promise" of Tembisa.


Shriver Jr., D.W. 1992. “A night in Tembisa.” Christian Century 109, no. 18: 535. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed June 11, 2009).

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