As the swell of music slowly dies down in the small local church known as Rock of Ages in the township of Joza in Grahamstown, the preacher asks all to pray. The followers are advised: “Shout until the negative that is inside you is out.”
At once, each speaks to God.
Their voices rise, meshing in a thunder of noise. As a plea, the man wearing a yellow and brown plaid jacket exclaims “Jesus” from the front row, and throws up his arm. His prayer continues in the native language, Xhosa. The women filling the pews either stand with hands palm to palm at their chin, gently swaying and speaking at a normal level, or pace, stomp and sharply motion with their arms, even yelling out in bursts of desperation. One woman with eyes shut covers her left ear while tilting her head to the side in an effort to focus her thoughts over the others’ cries.
Christianity is widely practiced throughout South Africa and in Grahamstown. Nearly 80% of the country’s population is Christian, according to MediaClubSouthAfrica.com. Muslims and Hindus are scattered among them; only .2% are Jewish.
On most days, people dot the landscape of the townships, walking tangled paths. Women wash laundry in buckets or complete other chores while men may work on cars or lounge about, wasting away the day under the influence of the bottle. Children run in packs, playing in the streets or picking through trash, collecting glass bottles to exchange for rand. But on Sunday, dressed in their finest clothes, worshipers walk with purpose to attend a township church service.
On this Sunday, the congregation is made up of 22, only four of them men. The parish is known as a “home” church because the members share responsibility for leading the service and launching the congregation into song.
With the accompaniment of a keyboard, hymns begin with a single female voice. Before the first verse is completed, all voices join as one, mingling in perfect harmony; the congregation drips in sweat. The only relief is a wave of the hand to stir the air or a dash to the back to drink from a communal jug of water poured into a single glass cup that’s shared by all.
The service continues with many from the congregation speaking about their hopes and plans for devotion in the New Year. The final speaker, Otto Ntshebe, the worshipper in plaid, addressed the group with a motivating message on the importance of devotion in 2011.
“This year is a double blessing from God,” Ntshebe says. “In 2011, we must remember where we are coming from … from God.”