Church has always been a part of my life and I do not remember a time when I did not go. My mother’s late uncle, who was a pastor at St John’s Apostolic Faith Mission, the church I still attend, introduced me to church and God when I was seven years old.
I tagged along when he went to the weekday 7pm prayer service. We would return from the service at 9pm — and I still had school the following day. This did not bother me; I loved attending the prayer services.
I treasured the old hymn book umalume gave me to use during services. I sat in front at church and I would sing my heart out.
When I was nine I left kwaMalume in Maclear in the Eastern Cape to stay with one of my grandmothers in my village of Hlankomo in Mount Fletcher.
Umamakhulu was a devoted member of the Anglican church. On Sundays every child in her house had to go to church. There were no negotiations. I became an active member of the church too.
One Sunday after the service, our pastor, umfundisi uMvumvu, called me to the front of the church. My heart was beating fast. “What had I done? Why is umfundisi calling me to stand in front of ibandla?”
Once in front of ibandla, with all the eyes piercing, umfundisi uMvumvu held my hand and asked me to point out my mother. I sheepishly pointed at umamakhulu. Umfundisi went on to sing my praises about how disciplined I was in church for a small child. He was mostly impressed at how I used the hymn book throughout the service. Umfundisi Mvumvu gave me R2 and told me to keep it up.
Unlike my peers, who went in and out during a church service, I stayed for the whole time. I loved church.
Even at university, where I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted to, I never turned my back on the church. After a night of partying with friends, I would spend the next day in bed to ensure I was well rested for the evening service at His People Church.
My friends would tease me for my dedication — even when I was suffering from a hangover.
And then Covid-19 happened.
Suddenly something that had been an integral part of my life since I was a little girl was gone. It was surreal. I missed church. I missed congregating with other people. I missed the singing. I missed the people.
I know there are people who do not see the need for church; people who tell you that you can pray in your home and do not need to attend a service. I get that and I respect their views. But that is not me. There is something about congregating with other people. The singing together. That one person who preaches straight to your heart. That one person who sings all your favourite hymns as if they can see into your heart.
During the Covid-19 pandemic many of the churches resorted to livestreaming, but my church has neither the resources nor capacity to livestream its services.
But something happened in May. I had not been to church in months and I received a voice note from my pastor’s granddaughter. It was my pastor, utat’Jwili, singing one of his favourite songs, Asimbonanga ofana naye. I cried.
It was as if utat’Jwili knew how much I had missed his melodic voice.
In weeks to come his granddaughter would send other voice notes of utat’Jwili singing or preaching. This was very comforting.
In moments when I really missed church I would play these voice notes. I would play them after a long day at work and I would play them on Sunday mornings when I woke up, to remind myself what I was missing.
In July, when our church was still closed, utat’Jwili died.
When our church finally opened, utat’Jwili was no longer there. His melodic voice was not there. His chair was unoccupied. We sang his favourite hymns. We remembered him, mostly between sobs.
Our church did not reopen after the announcement by the government in December that churches would close again. We are yet to return.
I watch sermons on YouTube, I listen to Imvuselelo on Umhlobo Wenene FM every Sunday. But none of this comes close to attending a church service. I miss everything about church.