Our conference theme was “Poverty and Suffering — A Challenge to Practical Theology and Ecclesiology” and Pandor, as a member of the South African Parliament, had much to say on the topic.
Having arrived one day before the conference began, I was booked into a guest house, a lavish Cape Dutch villa with white and yellow walls, three servants, a swimming pool, a rose garden and a high wall around it all. I found a guide to go into the poorest of the townships, Kayamandi. However, after awhile, the car and my camera attracted too much attention. I felt intrusive. The contrasts I saw in that one day were as overwhelming as in our own country.
On the Sunday before Easter, palm branches beckoned me into the predominantly white congregation of Stellenbosch United Church (Presbyterian/Congregational). The minister spoke of the significance of the lowly beast upon which Christ rode into Jerusalem, and its model for servanthood. What a contrast, he remarked, with the costly vehicles of some “ministers” of government.
During the coffee hour afterward, we were warmly welcomed by lay leaders Terry and Jane Plantinga, who informed us of the “sister” Presbyterian church in the township I had visited the day before, the former Reformed Presbyterian church of Kayamandi. Would a visit to this yoked congregation be of interest?
To re-enter that township was, for me, to put our conference theme, “Suffering and Poverty,” into a living workshop, a cultural context of suffering, AIDS and poverty. We were led into the sister church, a predominantly black worshiping church, by Terry Plantinga, a former CBS Middle East bureau chief and now a consulting writer and editor in Stellenbosch.
As we moved from one ecclesiastical milieu to another, the palm branch became an anchoring symbol. The palm branches fanned our memory of the One who rode the young ass into Jerusalem. The seemingly recycled palm branches on the floor and altar of Kayamandi Presbyterian were the visuals for “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” in the Xhosa language.
The minister, Vuyani Vellem, nodded to Plantinga in such a way that we knew there was a trusted relationship between the two men and the two congregations they represented. Vellem alternated between Xhosa and English for our benefit. We heard the familiar words of Scripture and these unfamiliar words in the sermon: “They had nothing but the palm branch to offer Christ. We are not here because we have many things or know many things. We have to ride the donkey with Christ.”
As he spoke, Vellem started a gentle rocking movement that resembled the way a cart would follow behind an animal pulling it. The sensory illusion was that the wooden pulpit had turned into a wooden cart. The lurching motion continued. We were invited to ride the cart behind Jesus. After the sermon, we were “rocked in the bosom of Abraham” by the deaconesses.
“We have nothing but the palm branch to offer Christ.” I studied those secondhand palm branches on the floor; the tips looked a little yellow and very dry, yet the palm branches became the one durable symbol in a situation of practical theological challenge and ec-clesiological contrasts. The palm branch activated the memory of a common Christian hope.
The next day, members of the academy attended vespers at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. As we entered this regal structure and place of ministry of Bishop Desmond Tutu, we passed under an arch of palm branches. In separate niches of the cathedral were statues of a black Madonna and Child and a statue of a colored Madonna and Child. Both statues were surrounded with palm branches.
As members of the academy sat on benches in a cell block of Robben Island Maximum Security Prison, our guide, Robert Sipho, said, “Welcome to Robben Island University,” and began to tell a story of the hope of the human spirit. Sipho was a former inmate, a political prisoner during Nelson Mandela’s incarceration in that same prison.
We were shown the cell where Mandela was held captive for 18 of the 27 years he was in prison. We saw the courtyard where he buried his manuscript, Long Walk to Freedom. We heard how receiving one library book was a privilege, earned slowly after emerging from maximum security and confinement.
We were taken to the quarries where the prisoners did hard labor. We learned of physical punishments and prison conditions from our guide.
The sign in a hallway still read, “Study Office.” Prisoners’ applications to study were processed in this office. Education was regarded as a privilege rather than a right and few political prisoners were granted permission to study.
With the pride of a devoted and long-suffering friend, our guide recounted the achievements of former inmates (one of whom had earned a law degree while studying in prison), some of whom are now serving in high echelons of South Africa’s government. Sipho, however, remains as a free agent in Robben Island Prison — a.k.a. Robben Island University — to serve as a living archive, to tend the memory of hope.
I returned from the International Academy of Practical Theology on Good Friday. When asked, “How was South Africa?” I did not know how to begin to articulate the challenge to practical theology and ecclesiology, the promise amidst the polarities. I was without words, without an image, until I entered my 9-year-old daughter’s bedroom. On her bookshelf was a symbol she had taken from our home church. It was a palm branch.
posted July 6, 2001
Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner is assistant professor of pastoral theology and Christian formation at the University of Dubuque Seminary.