Saturday, 12 September 2015


The day of my interview loomed. 

Would the rector at St James in Diepkloof have me ? Was having a white, middle aged woman ordinand who needed a lot of training in keeping with his plans for the busy parish?

We set a time and he gave me directions. Along the way I took a wrong turn. No problem. Ask a policeman. 'Sure,' he said. 'Follow me.'  Which is exactly what a I did - through several suburbs. 

Sure enough we pulled up at St James but it was a Catholic Church. I explained that I was worried about being late for my important interview. 'Don't worry,' he assured. 'I'll ask another policeman.' 
Soon we were travelling through more suburbs in a convoy of two police vans and my Merc.

It proved to be third time unlucky. But, you've guessed it, we met another policeman and he had the the good sense to call my potential rector for directions. 

By now there was total buy-in to my future in the Anglican Church. I was going to be embarrassingly late so the lead van used its blue emergency lights.  I arrived at St James with three cop cars in attendance feeling like the Queen of England.

It was my first taste of what it would be like to work in Soweto. Those guys really cared.

You may recall that I had permission to only spend six months in the township but I knew there was no way I'd learn enough in that period.  Confession time. I didn't give the rector the bishop's letter which meant he could honestly say he'd never read it.

That afternoon marked the beginning of some of the best years of my life.

Another interview

There was another game changer.  

A friend in my original parish knew that I had counted among my PR clients the government of Lesotho. I'd conducted communications campaigns for two of the Mountain Kingdom's leaders besides various government departments. 

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane had succeeded Desmond Tutu and needed a speech writer and media consultant. My friend recommended me.

This interview was at a classy hotel in one of Joburg's better suburbs. 

When Archbishop Ndungane was installed as archbishop one of our Sunday papers  ran a cartoon in which an extra large mitre (That high pointed headgear bishop's wear) was half way down his face. The implication being that he had a very large one to fill.  

As a huge fan of 'The Arch', as we still call the beloved Tutu, I must admit to wondering if there wasn't a great deal of truth in the cartoon. 

Archbishop Ndungane was very serious, quite shy and went to a lot of trouble explaining how the  Anglican Province of Southern Africa worked. 

While Desmond Tutu's focus had been on apartheid. His successor was deeply involved in a campaign to abolish the debt of developing countries and combating HIV/AIDS. 

He'd spent three years on Robben Island, was big on theological education and had formerly served as Bishop of Kimberly.

At one point in the interview I asked what I should call him. 'Your Grace or Archbishop.' was the reply. 

Now you have to understand that I'd been calling my chief executive clients 'doll' for years. I opted for 'Your Grace'. Initially it didn't roll off my tongue easily but growing respect helped.  

This was no Tutu. He was his own man

A hint to all ordinands, don't call your archbishop doll. It won't advance your career.

Understood by God

I got both jobs but looking back I see yet another God-incidence. 

As mentioned in my previous blog, ordinands sit at the bottom of the clerical pile. It was tough for someone who'd dealt with leaders of countries and major corporates. Archbishop Ndungane drew me into a world that included Bono, Jeffrey Sacks the world renowned economist and even (at arms length) the White House.

Prof Jeffrey Sacks

Writing speeches for him to make at the White House
There was another great turnaround. 

PR practitioners have to stroke the media to get coverage for clients. I now had journalists clamouring for interviews with the Archbishop on every conceivable subject. 

Mind you, I did turn down a plea by one TV station wanting him to comment on a tagged penguin that had swum from Cape Town to Robben Island.

Indeed, working for Jongo, (which I didn't call him to his face) made my internship much easier.  Largely because I was experiencing Church in action.

I'd given up my HIV/AIDS work at the Joburg General Hospital in order to cope but  the infected and affected would remain part of my ministry. 

I cannot tell you what it meant to write speeches in which the archbishop declared 'We must shout from the roof tops that AIDS is not a sin.'  Or to be with him when the medical staff at a major AIDS research centre gave him a standing ovation.

It was the height of the AIDS pandemic and people were, as they are now, being destroyed by the stigma surrounding the immune deficiency.

A tattered spirituality

There was study, ordinand training, looking after my existing clients, working for the archbishop, serving in a new parish and finishing my house.  God was becoming a pinpoint on a distant horizon. Every now and again I'd collapse in a heap at St Benedict's, my favourite retreat house run by the Sisters of the Order of the Holy Paraclete (OHP). Filled with new resolve I'd emerge and jump straight back on my hamster wheel.

My Spiritual Director suggested that I  become an OHP tertiary. I needed the gentle, sensible, spiritual discipline. A thread to run through my perpetual busy-ness.

She knew that St Benedict, father of western monasticism, would appeal to me. He was the guy who broke ranks with the self-flagellants. Instead he embraced humanism, art and thought. His spirituality is all about balance between prayer, work and play. Hospitality is important. (Thank heavens I didn't have to give up my dinner parties.)

As a tertiary I would develop my own vows and my journey towards priesthood assumed a new rhythm and perspective. I learned to say, 'sorry I can't do that, I'm too busy.'  I knew that if God wanted me to be a priest  I would be one. 

Despite a new prayer discipline  (not too hectic but in place) my work diary worked better.

When I went through my formal discernment conference for priesthood the first question was: 'What will you do if you are rejected today?' 

The answer I once would have given (with downcast eyes) was:  'I'll accept God's will.'  Instead I was able to joke: 'I'll probably have a nervous breakdown.'  

The committee considering my physical well-being asked about my exercise regimen. I assured them that if ever I did feel that energetic, I lay down 'til the feeling passed.   

I hope St Benedict smiled when the conference voted to allow me to be ordained.  I had a permanent grin for at least a week. The ordination to the diaconate was barely two months away and I had an after party to organise. 

By then I'd learned that a genteel tea and cakes was not going to crack the nod in my new parish. Meat was essential. But I did make the awful mistake of trying to pin my darling rector down on how many to cater for. 

He kept avoiding the issue. Silly me. In Soweto you don't send invitations for an ordination party everyone is welcome (the parish roll must have had over a 1000 names). 

I had some serious shopping to do!



Loraine Tulleken said...

Linda Galliard, Richard Girdwood and Judy Nunan like this.

Marlene Bichler-Whitehead Love it Loraine! I hope Archbishop Njongo Ndungane reads this and responds!
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Njongo Ndungane Been called many names : 'Milkman of Athlone becomes Archbishop;' We pray for our Archbishop Jonah Lomu; We welcome Archbishop Emirates Njongonkulu
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Marlene Bichler-Whitehead Loraine's wonderful story could be the start of a collection of different people's memorable experiences of +NN....a book I would definitely buy and enjoy reading!
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Njongo Ndungane Thats a thought!!!
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Loraine Tulleken

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Sharone Savage Daniels Dol you sure are a colourful woman! Like Arch Tutu said, rainbow nation of your blog!
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Loraine Tulleken said...

The comments above were cut and pasted from my FB post