This morning (Sunday) I was privileged to worship in Soweto at Regina Mundi Roman Catholic Church. There is no way I can describe the experience with words, but I’ll do my best to give you a snapshot of yet another moment that was so rich, so deep, so beautiful, such a gift from God that afterward I thought, The trip can end now. If we left right now to go home, it would be a complete pilgrimage.
(As a quick side note, this experience reminded me again what a gift it is to worship in unfamiliar circumstances. I think it would be a healthy spiritual exercise to intentionally seek out worship with a community different from our own at least twice a year.)
Soweto is the oldest township in South Africa, established in 1902 as migrants were moving to Johannesburg from around South Africa and neighboring countries looking for work. They settled unoccupied land outside the city, and a century later, Soweto is home to half of Jo-burg’s 8 million people (it’s a huge city just on its own terms!). It’s well-developed now: the roads are 100% paved, and trash service, water, sewers all work well. It’s a very different place from Khayelitsha (the photos I shared last week). Still plenty of racially-segregated poverty and all the deep-rooted issues connected to it, but beautiful in the way Harlem is.
I felt embraced by God before setting foot in the sanctuary. I don’t want to be too self-centered, but this felt like a message for me, as much as I’ve been focused on pilgrimage on this trip. We took our seats in the huge (probably seats 2000), relatively bare space. It felt like a Catholic sanctuary, but they clearly don’t have extra money. The worshipers were beautiful, dressed in their Sunday clothes. Nothing special or flamboyant, but it was clear they were dressed for church nevertheless. I think we were the only white folks there––the priest welcomed us in particular during the announcements. It was the only English I heard him speak; the service was being conducted in Zulu, with Latin appearing in the words of the Mass that appeared in songs. I couldn’t understand the words. Would I meet the Word?
There was no prelude music. But when it was time to start, someone in the processional group at the back started a song that everyone knew, and the congregation broke into song. Four-part, South African accapella song. It was so beautiful I immediately began to cry. We weren’t able to stay for the whole service (or we would have literally been there all morning), but in the 45 minutes we were there, the congregation was singing for 30 of those minutes, always in harmony, sometimes with drums, sometimes swaying in unison, never with instrumental accompaniment. The voices mixed and swirled around that cavernous space in a way that I can only describe as divine. I couldn’t get enough. I just stood there, stunned at the beauty, overwhelmed that I was worshiping God with the people of Soweto, the neighborhood of Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and so many other heroes. When the singing would wind down and talking would begin, the tears would stop. Then, within a few minutes, it would be time for another song, and the tears would begin again. The songs were repetitious––like African Taizé choruses––and I’d eventually start humming along with one of the harmony parts, reveling in the chance to join such musical perfection.
It wasn’t just an experience of aesthetic beauty. It was that same kind of soul-swelling connection to God that’s beyond words. I felt embraced by something global, something bigger than context or culture, something truly universal. I felt safe, deeply rooted, reassured. I was reminded that the challenges that lie ahead of me––of us––are wrapped in the strong arms of the same God who is bringing the noble people of Soweto through the worst that racism could manage.
It was a gift from God that felt like part 2 of the Friday-morning reconnection to my sense of pastoral vocation as prophetic community leader––a vocation that scares me. The call of the prophet comes with significant challenges and costs, so reconnecting to that core of who I am becoming means facing fears about those things. Worship this morning, and being greeted with the “Welcome Pilgrims” sign was God saying, It will be okay in response.
…Where have I heard that before?