Troyeville, a suburb of spirit
Square metre for square metre, a little suburb in Joburg comes up trumps with its number of churches.
Troyeville is watched over by a park of life-sized angels.
This is artist Winston Luthuli’s outdoor workshop and it’s where his divine winged creatures gather.
There’s a church every couple of hundred metres.
Some date back to the turn of the 20th century; some are transformed warehouses, with the only clues they are churches revealed in the signage.
Words like “tabernacle”, “kingdom” and “ministry” tell you their story.
Some have signs in French or Portuguese, some churches are neighbours of different denominations, but they share access gates.
It’s no surprise that Sundays buzz in Troyeville, especially in the weeks before Easter and Lent.
By 9.30am the faithful are seeking out the steeples that cluster along the horizon of this suburb, one of the city’s oldest.
Troyeville was established as early Joburgers looked to build homes away from the epicentre of the gold rush.
And with homes came churches.
Today Troyeville is one of the most bruised neighbourhoods – a casualty of years of neglect as the inner-city slump accelerated in the 90s.
There’s a distinct multicultural flavour, too, because migrants from across Africa have become the new locals, swapping the CBD for life in the suburbs.
The maroon-bricked Baptist Church is one of Troyeville’s grande dames and is the oldest surviving Baptist church in Joburg.
The original tin structure dated back to 1897 and was set up by the Goldfields missionaries who arrived on the reef when Joburg was becoming a boom town.
Inside the church, panels of stained glass catch the morning sun.
A projector screen blocks out the view of the organ pipes, but it provides a big-screen guide to latecomers who slip into the back pews.
There’s a constant trickle of congregants who pass through the doors – they’ve seemingly ignored the starting time.
But Pastor Colin Diesel knows flexible timekeeping is just how some in the community worship.
They’re still there for religious succour – give or take a half an hour.
“I call the church an oasis of peace,” says Colin, who has ministered there for nearly five years.
“Life is difficult for many people here. There are many broken homes and a lot of social problems like unemployment, overcrowding, crime and prostitution. Over the years, we have seen the church demographic change from the white families who used to live here to newcomers from the Congo, Malawi, Zimbabwe and everywhere north of the Limpopo.”
Colin says they settled on English as the language of service, but this was only to establish common ground.
There’s a blend of the evangelical and the orthodox. Easter celebrations include a Service of Shadows – a night-time meeting held by candlelight on the eve of Good Friday.
It’s followed by a weekend of outreach activities, more services and more blessings.
“Easter is what identifies you as a Christian. People who haven’t come to church the whole year may return to church at this time of year. Here we mix things up.
“Churches are about what’s familiar to people, what’s welcoming, and it’s why people seek out churches when they first arrive in the country.
“People are free to sing and worship in French, Zulu or whatever language; we believe God sends us whoever He sends us,” Colin says.
Pastor Musa Makamu would agree. His church is the Divine Fountain Church, around the corner from the Baptist church.
At this Pentecostal service, a band is playing and musical beats escape the windows of the mint-coloured building.
It has the architectural hallmarks of Portuguese churches built in Joburg 40 or 50 years ago.
Musa says: “There is a space for all the churches here. You don’t walk into a food court and ask why there are so many choices. It’s the same with churches.”
More people arrive and join other congregants who are on their feet, swaying, singing with arms raised and palms facing the heavens.
Sundays are for celebration, but it’s not the backbone of the church, Musa explains.
“On Sundays you come here with a good suit or a big car. It’s only when we go to people’s houses and we see how they are living, and how they are suffering, that we pastors do our work.”
Like the Baptist church, the buildings surrounding the church do double duty.
At the Baptist church there’s a preschool facility for the poorest of the poor who can’t afford regular fees.
It took in refugees at the height of the xenophobic riots in South Africa in May 2008.
At Divine Fountain, the hall is used for everything from aerobics classes to music lessons – whatever may help the community.
Randy Lukalu is a member of the Faith and Victory in Jesus Christ Ministries.
The 23-year-old arrived from the Congo 10 years ago.
He works as the sound man during the services and says he doesn’t mind giving up his time for the church, or fasting for Lent.
He says: “Coming to church is my spiritual growth. We give up 36 days for fasting from sunrise to sunset before Easter. It’s our way of giving back 10% of our year to God.”
Randy is on usher duty outside the iconic gothic-styled church.
This former Dutch Reformed church was designed by FLH Fleming, a partner of Herbert Baker, and building began in 1898.
In 1985 the church was declared a national monument. The old congregation, though, is long gone.
Now it’s Randy’s place of worship and also serves dozens of other mostly Congolese faithful who arrive to listen to Pastor Mike Lwambwa, also originally from the Congo.
His sermons are conducted in French and English and more recently in Sotho, since his new South African daughter-in-law, Queen, joined in at the pulpit translating.
Amen to that
There are shouts of “amen” and “yes, yes” from the arc of pews that wrap around the podium.
Mike is speaking about winning in God’s army, about the role of women as “useful and powerful children of God”.
He’s talking about defeating muti and witches.
Mike knows he’s a minister to those with huge challenges, but his message is of abundance and victory. He says it’s working – and that in the past decade, he’s seen positive changes.
“Ten years ago, when we first came here, people sold drugs openly on the streets near the church. There were gangsters, criminals and prostitutes, but they’ve been saved. Slowly, slowly we can see the mentality and behaviour changing.”
Next door to his ministry is the Apostolic Faith Mission. The two churches share an entrance on Sundays.
“There is no competition here between us, because we preach in Zulu and Xhosa – we are all children of God,” says Pastor Sibusiso Ngcobo.
The only competition perhaps is if, as a passerby, you stand directly in the middle of the two churches as each of the two congregations break out in song.
For passers-by, Easter sees many in his congregation descend on Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal for a national gathering of all the Apostolic faith churches.
“You will see many tents and rows and rows of buses. It’s wonderful because we share and learn from each other. Easter is a special time,” he says.
Some ancients speak of ley lines, a kind of sacred track carved into the earth.
Maybe Troyeville rises along these lines of intrinsic, invisible knowledge held in the geography; maybe it doesn’t.
Either way, it doesn’t stop people coming to Troyeville’s churches or seeking out the nearby hilltops and koppies as the higher ground for worship.
Whether seated under trees; on aged, varnished pews; or on sun-bleached garden chairs in a warehouse, the faithful are here, all waiting for “Thy will to be done”.
- Ufrieda Ho