On 1st October 2018, I was privileged to be part of a group of 13 clergy, academics and activists involved in liturgy who accompanied the minister of the United Presbyterian Church of South Africa in Klipspruit Soweto to the home of Monica Mofokeng and her 16 year-old grandmother, to pray for Monica, who was suffering from advanced cancer. This is a description of the liturgical communion service offered to God on that day. As we entered the small living room, some of us sat on chairs around a wooden dining room table, where Monica was also sitting, in a crumpled heap- her head bowed, her shoulders slumped, like a small bag of bones with nothing to hold them together …. The men and one or two women stood behind the table and against the wall all the way round the tiny room. I sat in the far corner, part of the inner circle round the table with Gogo and Lebo the table, and witnessed the liturgy unfold as I participated in it.
Rev Khanyiswa told us the story – Gogo has suffered much in her life. She has lost her husband and home, then her daughter, and now is critically ill, and only has her granddaughter Lebo to care for her. Gogo told her last time that she is tired and has had enough. She explains to Gogo and Lebo that we are here from all over Africa, and we come to share God’s love and offer our solidarity, and to listen to their stories if they want to talk about them.
As we sang the first hymn, Rev Khanyiswa began to lay out the bread and wine ready for our holy meal. Tears began to roll down Monica’s ashen face. She called Lebo, standing behind – to bring a roll of toilet paper to wipe her face. Lebo brought the tissue and sat on the chair beside her, her forehead furrowed with worry.
As we sat in 2 concentric circles, the women’s voices formed an inner circle, which were held by the outer male harmonies. Together we surrounded this little lonely family – a widow and an orphan- in a warm soft womb being held by a strong body.
Khanyiswa invites Rev Gertrude to pray:
Our God, we see your presence in this house
You take care of the widow and the orphan-
And you instruct us to take care of them too.
But often we fail you.
We pray for Monica and Lebo, that they would know your presence,
And your healing touch, whether in body or spirit.
Help them know that, whatever their problems, you have put people in place to care for them.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here.
We pray that they may know that you surround them,
By our being here, in our conversations, in our prayers.
A second hymn is sung, and Monica sings a few of the lines, looks around a bit. Khanyiswa then asks Rev Boitumelo to share a short message. Rev Boitumelo stands up, not in front, but behind Monica and Lebo, her hands on each one’s shoulder, and speaks, ever so gently, directly to them in isiZulu. She prays for God to bring them peace and stillness. She strokes them ever so gently as she prays.
Gogo’s back visibly straightens up a bit more. Rev Boitumelo looks up at explains in English:
I have been speaking about the woman with the hemorrhage who reached out and touched Jesus’ robe as he was on his way to heal a little girl. She didn’t want to interrupt him but thought if she could just touch his robe, she would be healed without disturbing him. But he felt power go out of him and stopped – because she was worthy. I shared with them that we are here to pray with them but also to listen, that we are here as a reminder that God loves them. We want to help them carry the load a little bit of the way, in the hope that it can make it just a little bit easier.
I invite you to split up after our prayer and spend time listening and chatting with Gogo and lebo, as you feel moved by the Spirit.
She closes by leading us in the chorus: It is Jesus:
Oh it is Jesus, oh it is Jesus,
it’s Jesus in my soul;
for I have touched the hem of His garment,
and His blood has made me whole.
Rev Dumi, a tall man, is on the right of Monica, and his hand joins Rev Boitumelo’s on Gogo Monica’s shoulder as we sing – and it is as if he has closed the circle surrounding Gogo Monica and Lebo.
Rev Khanyiswa led us in the prayer to consecrate the bread and wine – setting them apart from their common use for our holy use…. (mixing isiZulu and English). She passed the elements to the person next to her, and invited us to share them with each other, rather than administering them to each person herself. The elements went right around to all in the circle surrounding them, and then went into the circle to feed Gogo and Lebo. Rev Boitumelo fed them to Gogo, holding her head in her arm and stroked her head, hugging her ever so gently, as we sang a very gentle hymn, the men humming the harmonies.
Rev Khanyiswa handed the hymn book to Gogo Monica, who was now standing up straight and looking up – and invited her to choose the next hymn. Gogo’s face lit up as she chose a favourite, and she sang right through with her eyes shining.
Gogo had been transformed from the sick recipient of our prayers to one of those leading the worship!
Khanyiswa invited David as the youngest amongst us- a 20 year-old minister in training- to close in prayer:
“Jesus, we come to you as our brother
We thank you for the pain and the hurt you have known in your life. Thank you that in this brief moment we could share in this meal with you. That you have reminded us, and you move forward with us.
As we close, we ask that Gogo and Lebo be deeply aware of your presence as their intimate high priest, that they become aware that they are never far away from your mind.
We pray for those who have not received this gift of community – and we are reminded of your community with us. We pray for the community in this street – for your renewing in this place.
And we pray for ourselves as your Church- that we may be broken and drunk as we have broken the bread and drunk the wine – that we would not fear our differences but become more aware of being one with you in our community.
Lastly, we pray for all people – the churched and the unchurched – that we may be love to one another.”
The service ended and some people sit with Gogo while others go out to sit with Lebo. There followed a time of listening and engagement with their stories and their lives.
Before we left, we collected money from all of us and 4 of the women commit to buying and bringing groceries in the morning.
The next morning, the small group of women indeed brought the promised groceries. They helped Lebo unpack them. They check if Gogo and Lebo had eaten, and upon hearing they had not, they gave them both food, which as eaten up with some pleasure.
Lebo had bought some Coke to welcome her guests with, which was shared after as short, frank, gentle conversation about concrete practical ways forward, words of affirmation and a shared prayer.
From hardly managing to walk 5 steps from her bed to the dining room chair for the prayer the day before, Gogo walks us to the gate, a little wobbly but with pink in her cheeks and a smile on her face. Lebo walks alongside her to make sure she does not fall.