Monday, 26 October 2015


Ten of us were priested in St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg on 29 June 2001. (This time I didn’t wear mother’s pearls). We were a strange mix of middle aged self -supporting whiteys and black full timers yet we had grown extraordinarily close. We’d studied together, survived the discernment, been deaconed and shared inevitable hurts.

My wonderful Sowetan parish was there in full force.

Our new bishop, Brian Germond (my first rector), washed our feet and dried them with white towels – one for each of us and with our names embroidered on them. I still have mine which reads ‘Moruti Loraine’. Moruti being southern Sotho and Tswana for teacher or priest. Genderless, it is far more useful as a honorific for women than ‘Father’.

As I’ve mentioned before, my son has referred to me as ‘Dad’ since my ordination which leaves some folk assuming that I am lesbian. Among many special gifts I received that day was a bunch of dried imphepha.

In African tradition the herb is burned to ward off evil spirits and it was from one of several black priests who had taken the time and trouble to teach me about his culture.

Celebrating in another language
I was determined to not just celebrate the Eucharist in English and opted to learn to do parts in Sesotho because I had spent much time in Lesotho and had a small vocabulary. Again my black friends galloped to my rescue.

Mind you, I was admonished by one priest for not opting for Zulu. I lacked the courage to confess that I was trying to clear my system of the detested Fanagalo. This Zulu-based pidgin language was used primarily on the mines and often adopted by employers to speak to their domestic help.
Looking back I am amazed at how embracing my parish was. They never made me self-conscious of my white skin or my ignorance of their cultures and traditions. Yet I must have made some terrible mistakes.

There’s the wonderful story of how the renowned Fr Trevor Huddleston, who also strove to celebrate in the vernacular, had over many years begun the Eucharist using a word that meant ‘erection’. 

No one ever had the heart to tell the much admired anti-apartheid activist.

Another culture
My rector, Fr Charles May, now also a bishop, was generous and gentle as he allowed me to assume more parish duties. One of my favourites was being sent to bless the mokoti, the traditional ceremony when a new daughter-in-law is welcomed into her husband’s parental home. 

On a Sunday before the wedding she arrives with a kist filled with gifts such as linen and pots and pans and is accompanied by female relatives and friends.
Mateli and Tembakazi’s wedding photo: Monica Dart
Photographer Monica Dart blogs about the first isiXhosa traditional wedding she was asked to shoot. She writes of her heart racing with happiness and how it felt like being in a new country. I can identify with that.

Dancing at the mokoti event or in the bridal procession and singing choruses was an exciting taste of a different spirituality. I was beginning to understand why the late Duncan Buchanan, known as ‘the dancing bishop’, had taken so much trouble to explain that it was okay to be an extrovert in the Church. 

A sad side too.
The HIV/AIDS pandemic was cutting a swathe across Africa. In South Africa the situation was exacerbated by the fact that our State President Thabo Mbeki had been persuaded by global denialists that HIV did not cause AIDS.

The pipe smoking intellectual had succeeded our beloved Madiba and was a popular choice among most whites and the business community. 

What endeared him to them were statements such as: "I am certain that South Africa will not succeed in its efforts to rebuild, reconstruct and develop herself if she does not inspire all our people, black and white, to accept that they share an equal and shared responsibility and opportunity to work together to ensure a happy future for all."

But his AIDS denialism struck terror in some of us. In 2000 Mbeki scoffed at the claim that the HIV virus could cause a deficiency syndrome i.e. AIDS in the South African context had entered an unholy era. One that would court charlatans and cost taxpayers a fortune.

Denialism would also subsequently be blamed for 
300 000 AIDS related deaths – by far the majority being black people.

Singing off the same hymn sheet was our Minister of Health. Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang declared the desperately-needed anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) poison. She preached that the only solution was nutrition. Garlic, beetroot and lemons topped the list. 

                   It was great fodder for cartoonists.

Sadly, while nutrition is key for infected folk, that wisdom was tainted by denialism.

I have often wondered about that. Manto was a friend. She’d earned her medical degree in Russia and had registered some major achievements in other African countries. Did she really believe that HIV didn’t cause AIDS or was she pandering to the President to hold her cabinet post?

Although the virus was creeping into the white community many of the infected enjoyed the benefit of medical aid and had access to ARVs. For them it was becoming a manageable chronic disease. 

Moreover, their doctors and medical aids were sworn to secrecy so publicly HIV/AIDS was viewed as being suffered primarily by black, gay and promiscuous people.

Stigma a killer
What a potent brew. Its name was Stigma and it ruled supreme in religious circles where AIDS was all too often pronounced as being God’s punishment. (My, how we religious folk excel at exhorting the bible and God to underpin our own ignorance and prejudice!)

Very few Sowetans had access to medical aid. Everyone else was at the mercy of the public health system. Because of the social stigma people at risk weren’t testing. They didn’t want to be spotted at the AIDS clinic. By the time they sought help their CD4 counts were so low little could be done.

Beetroot was no help at all.

Sometimes I felt I was involved in a fast funerals franchise. In Avalon cemetery graves were being dug less than a metre apart. The space between two open graves would sometimes crumble and I had a server whose job was to stop me from falling in. It never happened but there were several close calls.

In those days funerals were usually held over a week-end so mourners could attend. This translated into traffic jams between the church and the cemetery that could hold the cortege up for over an hour. 

There were so many burials at a time that occasionally I couldn’t find ‘my’ burial site. The lay ministers had standing instructions to do the internment if I didn’t make it.

Initially I thought it was my white ignorance but felt better when I learned it had happened to Fr Charles as well.

One major mistake I did make was when a prominent parishioner died of natural causes while Fr Charles was out of town. Imagine my delight when I discovered how easy it was to spot his grave – the family awning had his surname emblazoned across the roof. Such a sensible arrangement. Problem was, so did at least a dozen others. I hadn’t realised that the deceased had owned a funeral parlour.

Back to the AIDS debacle
There were other complications. Grandmothers who should have been cared for by family in their old age were having to raise their grand-children. This was invariably on their meagre pension. 

Our orphanages were filling up.

Although government did introduce a child subsidy many grandmothers didn’t seek the much needed financial help because, as one shared with me, “I don’t want my grand-children to be known as AIDS orphans”.I am told we have about three million children orphaned by AIDS today.

Of course it is about so much more than statistics and funerals. It becomes personal as one interacts with the infected and the affected. But I was inordinately blessed to be working for an archbishop who would declare, “We must shout from the rooftops that AIDS is not a sin.” 

He'd imported Revd Ted Karpf, with the blessing of US President Bill Clinton, to head up the Anglican Church’s HIV/AIDS desk in Africa.

Njongo knew that one of our biggest challenges was ignorance among our clergy and Church leadership. To this end we added a PowerPoint presentation to our arsenal. Although it was my job to produce it I had a great deal of help from Ted and Jongo kept a beady eye on the project.

One slide showed a grandmother with half a dozen orphans under her care. (we had permission to use it.) Little did I know that it would cause me immense personal pain.

The presentation had just been approved by Jongo and was ready for use when I got an evening call from my diocese asking if I could help out. The person who was scheduled to do a Clergy Day presentation in the morning had called in sick. Was I able to talk on anything?

Yes, I could. There was much scrambling to find a projector and next morning I faced my fellow clergy, all bushy tailed and eager with our new presentation.

Big mistake! 

In that environment I was not representing Njongo, I was a newly ordained junior priest at my own Clergy Day. Looking back I should have prefaced the presentation with more humility and care.

When that slide came up. An angry priest accused me of being racist. I tried to explain that white grannies were highly unlikely to find themselves in the same situation. But the discussion escalated. There was deep resentment that I was talking about good black Anglicans being infected. I, who was so used to being accepted by my black parish, was being treated with anger and suspicion. It hurt. Badly.

I didn’t handle it well. The person who had arranged the day didn’t do too well either. A friend who tried to come to my rescue admitted afterwards said he’d been caught flatfooted.

I went home to lick my wounds and was followed shortly by a priest who I doubt had ever spent much time in a township. He had come to berate me about my ‘overt racism’ and need to respect senior clergy. 

In a way he was a blessing. Armed with my former newsroom vocabulary I was able to let off steam by kicking him out.

Nonetheless I was deeply hurt. The scar still itches. But it was an invaluable lesson in humility and PR, the game I was supposed to be so good at. 

It was also a clear signal that most clergy were woefully ignorant and not well equipped to minister in the AIDS arena. Although AIDS Committees were being formed and candles were being lit.

Later two ordinands in my diocese died, despite our bishop’s commitment to HIV/AIDS. One was a large hearty young man who had attended theology classes with me. Asked to visit him in a hospice, I didn’t recognise the skeletal patient I was directed to. He died in my arms 15 minutes later. 

I remember howling like a banshee in the middle of the street outside. Even without access to ARVs he could have been saved if we’d only known early enough.

Although by that time their parishes had AIDS Committees neither of the young men had felt they could reveal their status or ask for help.

Njongo and Ted had an uphill battle and it is a credit to them others that the World Health Organisation (WHO) would come to recognise faith based communities as key to the fight against the pandemic.

I am yet to have a parishioner come up to the altar rail and ask for special prayer because he or she has tested positive. Stigma still rules.

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