From its jazz to its cuisine to its people, we’ve seen that Capetownian culture is built on the blending of many distinct cultures and histories, and you can pretty much find any experience you’re looking for within walking distance of our guesthouse. This has been especially true in our few Sunday ventures out to various local churches. Our first Sunday here we stuck together and attended the Sivuyile National Baptist Church in the Guguletu township, a primarily Xhosa service. I’ve been to a number of Baptist churches in my day, and this was quite a different experience than any of my previous encounters. As I look back, what sticks out most is the music; they sang and swayed and beat their Bibles, dancing up and down the aisles to songs they all mainly knew by heart. They even sang a new song Vernon taught them and an older hymn in English for us. This church also had a sense of deep community—the children were running around and the older kids were watching after the younger ones, everyone greeted warmly as they walked in, and they even had candy to offer to some of the more adventurous in our group. It seemed like service was a free-form all-day affair and the only place to find someone on a Sunday morning (and afternoon, maybe even evening), and the congregation seemed to like it that way. I would be interested to see if this service was typical of most smaller township churches; perhaps we will have the chance to visit another before we head back to the states.
The next Sunday a few of us attended St. George’s Cathedral, a historic Anglican church in the center of downtown Capetown. I can hardly imagine a starker contrast. This was a highly liturgical (mainly Latin) service complete with a 20 page booklet of lyrics and call-and-response cues. The 40 piece choir sang semi-familiar old hymns and the Reverend carefully blessed communion and led confession. While this service was all in English, they offered Xhosa and Afrikkans translations. Despite all the formality, the Reverend delivered a sermon about social action and the parishioners around us were extremely friendly (one, oddly enough, even told us dated a girl from St. Louis). Music and scripture were key parts of this service as well, but in a quite different way than the week before at the Guguletu church.
This past Sunday we attended a Zimbabwean Catholic mass, which was almost a blend of both previous services. After a taxi in the rain and first thinking that we had missed the mass entirely, we were excited that a service was even taking place. The music was all in Shona and sounded similar to the Guguletu music, with flutes and drums and careful harmonies. The service was a very typical Catholic mass though (I was told by our Catholic housemates), despite being long because of the singing, and was mainly in English. Occasionally, the crowd would respond to the priest in Shona and our housemates who knew the format of a mass would respond in English, and this blend easily became my favorite part of the whole service. It was fascinating to think that while the 3 churches I had attended in Capetown were all worshiping in different ways, Catholic churches across the globe were worshiping in a similar way worldwide on that given Sunday.
Going back over each service in my head they are clearly distinct, but (in perhaps the most important ways) are also strikingly similar. Each was inviting and glad to have visitors, each shared a commitment to worshiping God and bringing the congregation into that worship, and each brought a message to the congregations about how to live out faith in daily life in South Africa. Ultimately, despite denominational boundaries, I’ve learned that churches in Capetown wrestle with similar issues and seem to provide a place for people to come in their own way (and generally in their own language) to worship, even though it looks completely different depending on where you walk in on a Sunday morning.