Saturday, 19 September 2015


Ever shopped for a cow? I hadn't and didn't know where to start. But if I wanted to celebrate my ordination to the diaconate properly I needed a mountain of meat. 

In Soweto egg mayonnaise sandwiches were not going to crack it.

We had this amazing butcher shop a few doors away from the church where you could braai (barbecue) your meat at a fire in the yard. 

A typical buy and braai set up in Soweto
Because services in the township end when the Holy Spirit decides I would emerge ravenous after as long as three hours.  Across the road from St James was a small supply store where I'd pick up a couple of lovely fresh buns. Next door was a tavern that stocked my favourite red wine. They'd sell it to me by the glass which I'd carry with my buns to the butcher where I could buy fillet steak for a song.  

My mouth waters as I write this. Those lunches were to die for dolls! 

I learned later that all the surrounding shops knew when I had preached because the congregation would emerge at least half an hour earlier.

Who needs a mic?
Speaking of preaching, I am always amused when wealthier parishes panic if the sound system packs up. We had a huge congregation but no microphone. So the norm was to trot up and down the aisle as you preached at the top of your voice. 

If you don't have a mic you trot up and down the aisle to preach

It's a wonderful way of connecting. One thing I never had the courage to do was to start a chorus while I was expounding on the readings of the day. My rector, another who has since become a bishop, would do this with such aplomb. 

What I did learn to do was worship with my whole body. I didn't have a singing voice but oh the joy of dancing to those choruses! Many year later when I was serving a traditionally white parish I was touched when a parishioner shared  that she had prayed for me before the service - until she added, "that you will stand still during the hymns."

Numbers don't count But, back to my ordination and the after party.  I still couldn't pin my rector down on the number of people I needed to cater for. Silly me. The system is to do the best you can. If the food runs out that's life. 

There was no way I could afford a whole cow even though my favourite butcher gave me a good 'clergy' price. So we settled on a quarter cow and several boxes of whole chickens. The Mother's Union, who volunteered to do the cooking, also gave me a shopping list for side dishes like rice and three bean salad. 

Wonderful township food
The feast they produced was memorable. 

More importantly the township approach to catering taught me an invaluable lesson. So three extra people pitch for Christmas dinner. Bring in extra chairs from the garden and share. It's the company that counts. There were times during those years when  I felt as if I was witnessing the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. 

You can imagine how I cringed on one of our ordinands' training week-ends. Held at another Soweto parish, the deal was that we would all bring lunch and share. We whiteys duly arrived with our cooler boxes, serviettes and cutlery but there was huge resentment when the rector invited his Mothers Union to join us. Horrors they hadn't brought any food!! Several indignant ordinands shunned the hall and took their cooler boxes to a spot where they could eat without sharing.  

I was so ashamed but the miracle was that we all had ample lunch that day and the fellowship made the event special. 

In these circumstances it would have been easy to romanticise the whole Soweto thing but God had given me Archbishop Ndungane to work for. Among the gems of his sage advice was to insist on punctuality "there's no such thing as African time". Another was to always stay on the right side of the Mothers Union in the parish. Often a good translation for "It's not in our culture" was "I don't want to do that."

Spectacular on a small  budget
Another practical lesson was how even a relatively poor parish (60 percent unemployment) could stage a spectacular event. Typically, when the archbishop visited our parish for an AIDS service the huge parking lot was carpeted with our congregants' finest rugs. Everybody, including pensioner grannies caring for their orphaned grandchildren, contributed. It was a feast of note.

In that congregation there was no discussion about whether tithing should be calculated before or after tax and I often witnessed the power of the widow's mite. My years in that wonderful community underscored what the archbishop was telling the world as he campaigned for the cancellation of the debt owed by the by the most impoverished African countries to the World Bank.  

He also argued that South Africa’s foreign and domestic debt, since it was incurred under the apartheid regime, “should be declared odious and written off”. 

An interest treadmill
Although I had been a political journalist I was surprised to learn that Africa was on an interest treadmill. Original loans had been repaid several times over. In an era when international handouts to our continent were the norm, more money was streaming out to the developed world than was coming in.

At a grass roots level I was learning that people aren't poor because they are lazy and choose to be.

My ordination date galloped closer, there were stoles and to be designed and clerical shirts to be tailored. Invitations to print and distribute (Okay, I'll admit I was still a bit of a kugel.) 

St Mary's Cathedral
Buses were hired to take my congregants to St Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg's city centre. Another was hired to transport my rather nervous white friends and family to the after party. They had to be convinced that they would emerge  from the township alive, their jewellery and handbags intact. (The effects of segregation were insidious and still are.)

Thank goodness those of us who were to be deaconed were placed in a conducted silent retreat at St Benedict's. I stepped off the merry-go-round into the oasis where I had first received my calling, where I was now a tertiary. It was a profound experience. 

I felt loved by God, loved by the nuns who I had grown close to, loved by my parish, my friends and my family. 

So often people who know I only really became a Christian at the age of 50 will comment on how I must have experienced happiness for the first time. Do they really think I was miserable until then? In fact I've been happy for most of my life. 

What I did experience at my ordination was unprecedented joy. Except for one small problem, I wore my mother's pearls for the service and, as we prostrated ourselves for the long litany, those damn beads really hurt - a touch of reality. 

Advice: Don't do this wearing a string of pearls!
PS: See my guest blog on TheologyMix

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