We all find God in different places

Friday.

I’m standing outside the Christelike Gereformeerde Kerk — that’s the Christian Reformed Church — in Durban’s Albert Dlomo Road.

I lived around the corner from the church when I was a teenager, but never actually set foot inside it. 

There’s a contribution to the Mail & Guardian’s annual God Edition to be produced, so a quick visit to the nearest church made sense: a bit of research ahead of the gig; some atmosphere; some colour — perhaps even some spiritual inspiration.

It could have waited until Sunday, but that would have meant going to the church when it was full of Christians, which generally spoils the place for me.

I prefer churches when they’re empty. 

They’re way more godly then — less ego, judgment and self-interest.

Way more peace.

The church is directly opposite what used to be the Willowvale Hotel.

I worked there for a year as a cook.

The Goundens mutton bunny was born in the “Indian” bar at the back of the hotel. 

The hotel is a student residence now, but the bunny remains the Durban gold standard.

A culinary act of God.

The church has and hasn’t changed over the years. 

It’s the same structure, sloped roof, yellow paint, but there’s a whole load of razor wire I don’t remember and signs for services in English and Swahili on Sundays that definitely weren’t there when I was growing up.

God is great.

I’ve never been much of a churchgoer, even as a youngster.

My maternal grandfather — George Scott — was a street sweeper during the week and a Bible thumper at weekends, some strain of Free Presbyterianism, who preached to the seamen in the Belfast docks.

After he set off a pipe bomb that he swept up in the street and lost his hearing in one ear and his sense of balance, Geordie turned pro.

It was pretty dour, extreme stuff — no pictures on the walls, no watching TV, no dancing — a whole lot of thou shalt nots; not very much love.

That pretty much put me off church, christianity, religion for a good while.

I did have a bit of a moment at a Student Christian Association camp which we went on for a laugh the one Easter when I was still in high school.

I also got stoned for the first time that same weekend, so the moment of conversion — of finding God — may have been a result of the ganja.

We all find God in different places.

For the next few decades, the only time I went to church was for political meetings — or to smoke bud with Fano, the caretaker at the Anglican in Musgrave Road. 

That didn’t keep me away from God though. 

For 11 years I watched God at work, every weekend — and sometimes on Tuesday and Wednesday nights — performing miracles at Highbury and away, for the Arsenal Football Club and for the Netherlands, in the Premiership and in the Champions League.

Dennis Bergkamp.

The Messiah.

God 10.

I did end up in a tent church on the New Dawn sportsfield in Newlands East one Sunday morning along with my bra, Jazzy, when I was in my early twenties.

Jazzy’s dad, Richie, was an ex-gangster who had turned Christian; a heavy cat who had made it clear to us that we were coming with him to the service, whether we liked it or not.

We hung around at the back of the tent, trying to mingle with the Christians, until Richie began preaching about cleansing those among us with demons and the deacons started moving our way.

They thought they had us cornered, but we burrowed under the tent like rats and burned it into the bush before they could drag us to the front and beat the devil out of us.

God is great.

The next time I went to church was in 1988 for a meeting to pray for Robert McBride, who was on death row for the Magoos Bar bombing, at the Central Methodist Church in Aliwal Street. 

Political organisations had been banned under the state of emergency, but the regime couldn’t touch the churches, who were still able to do God’s work. 

It’s all incense and incantations until word spreads that Harry Gwala, who had been released from jail not long before, is on his way to address the meeting.

The crocodile takes over.

Hymns morph into struggle songs; the hall is bouncing by the time the old man arrives; heaving.

Most of the bishops bolt — Gwala was fire — and the prayer meeting erupts into a rally, right in the middle of the Durban central business district.

Right there and then, God walked among us, as the Lion of the Midlands preached a different — and no less righteous — kind of gospel.

I haven’t been to church much since.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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