100 years of giving courage

2012-05-21 00:00

THE Young Men’s Guild of the Methodist Church, which has 24 250 members, is celebrating its centenary this year. But its origins stretch further back into the 19TH century and to the ministry of Charles Pamla and Gideon Baqwa, who worked in the Umzimkulu area.

“In 1866, there was a huge Christian revival under the visiting American evangelist William Taylor,” said R. Simangaliso Kumalo, director of research and postgraduate studies in the school of religion, philosophy and classics on the local varsity campus. “Pamla became his translator, and this brought him to the fore as an instructor, evangelist and a leader.”

According to another authority on the subject, Sibewu P. Ndlumbini, the “rapport between the two men was the catalyst that changed the Methodist Church from a eurocentric small, missionary church to an African church with the largest membership.”

Pamla went on to become one of the first four black men to be ordained as Methodist ministers in 1871. He subsequently ministered in the Umzimkulu area and it was there in 1903 that Gideon Baqwa, who had been mentored by Pamla, started a group for young Christian men known as Imbumba. This would later become the Young Men’s Guild (YMG) or the Sons of John Wesley. “Imbumba means something so united you cannot break it,” says Kumalo.

In the late 19th century, traditional structures were breaking down.“It was a time of conflict. There were intertribal conflicts, as well as the colonisation process, plus the intervention of the missionaries,” says Kumalo. “Men felt they were losing a sense of control over their families, and Christianity was seen as a cause of this loss of control and the imbalance in society.

“It was a time of depression for African men. Imbumba saw a few young men in the church begin a movement intended to address this situation. It started out as a prayer-group affair, but men drew on it as a source of courage and empowerment. It became a vehicle for them to unite against all the forces ranged against African men, and enabled them to be themselves.

“The rise of an African church was a reaction to the missionaries, and an expression of freedom on the part of Africans. Baqwa said that ‘your only source of freedom is to remain united — so you are Imbumba’.”

Women were also members of the Imbumba movement, but the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and gold on the Witwatersrand saw the emphasis move towards men, as they left the rural areas to work on the mines. “Men in the mine compounds transplanted their rural culture, and one of the things they imported was Imbumba,” said Kumalo.

White Methodists weren’t keen on Imbumba, disapproving of its use of music and dance, but they were unable to prevent its spontaneous spread. It gained in strength during the early 1900s, paralleling the growth of other African organisations and congresses. “Post the Union of South Africa in 1910, black people found themselves excluded and so they became organised and politicised in response to this exclusion,” said Kumalo. “Various native congresses took up the fight, but church people were not sure if it was right to join such congresses.

“Even black ministers were unhappy with Imbumba. They said it was bringing pagan traditions from rural areas into the church and they requested Reverend Win Meara, then in charge of the black and white congregations at Braamfontein and Crown Mines, to excommunicate them. ‘Before I do that, I need to see them’, Meara told them.

“They came to see him singing a well-known hymn, Sikuyo Indlela Yelizwi Lobomi, and when Meara pointed this out, the black ministers objected, saying that they were also dancing. ‘This is not Methodist’, they said. But Meara responded: ‘I don’t see anything wrong with the men. They seem to have some fire in them to do this’.”

As a result of this meeting, the YMG was formally constituted in April 1912, the name Imbumba falling away. “This saw some of the power in the movement fall away as well,” said Kumalo, “especially the political and socioeconomic reasons for its founding, and the YMG became more prayer-oriented.”

The YMG — founded in the same year as the ANC — provided a home for church people who didn’t want to become politicised. “The YMG saw black men fighting for their identity from within the church,” said Kumalo. “It sees black Christian men asserting themselves. The YMG Africanised the Methodist Church.”

Not only were the YMG and the ANC founded in the same year, but they bore certain similarities. Both organisations were closed to women. While the ANC later allowed women to be members, the YMG has remained exclusively male.

But there were also plenty of differences between the two organisations. “The ANC was for the elite,” said Kumalo. “It was started by the amakholwa elite and those who were not among this elite fell back on other movements, such as the YMG.”

A hundred years on, this is no longer the case. “Now the most educated people are joining,” said Kumalo. “They are coming to search for their identity and their roots. They are asking: ‘Where can I find part of me that is African, even in the church?’.”

* * *

The centenary of the founding of the YMG was celebrated by members of the Natal West District in Pietermaritzburg, with a two-day conference at the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre, followed by the unveiling of a monument to past YMG presidents at the historic Georgetown Church, popularly known as Edendale Methodist Church, on April 28.

“The celebration was not just about looking back, but looking back so we can see forward to the future,” said Reverend Vuyo Dlamini, the minister of the Edendale Methodist Church and current president of YMG in the Natal West District. “We need to look at what the future of the YMG in its present context should be. It is our challenge to see forward — as well as to reclaim the YMG’s glory of the past.”

Looking back over the last century of the YMG, Dlamini said it had been an “important vehicle for bringing people into the church, mostly men who otherwise would not be interested in church”.

Dlamini said this had been brought about by programmes of preaching and street evangelising, often featuring vibrant music. “This created a space for many people in the church, not just men. Many people were brought to Jesus Christ by the preaching of the YMG.”

Dlamini said the current goals of the YMG are evangelising, devotional, educational and socioeconomic. “Education sees us involved in teaching inside the church, while on the socioeconomic front, we are busy developing people and assisting in sustainable projects so they can take charge of their lives.

“Going forward, the YMG will be involved in community projects,” said Dlamini. “It should not just be focused inside the church, but that focus should also be put outside.”

Dlamini cited issues of abuse of women and children. “Wherever there is abuse, there are usually men involved. We have created forums and platforms to talk about these issues, and talk about how Christian men should deal with them — how do we take the lead in our families and live exemplary lives, and how we take the message out to others who are engaged in evil.”

Kumalo said the YMG provides a platform for older African men to nurture and counsel younger men. “What does it mean to be an African Christian man, to have a family and to be part of society?

“The YMG says to men: ‘take responsibility for your families. Curb the scourge of HIV/Aids, of child and women abuse’. No other organisation in this country is able to field such a large number of men. The church is the only institution in this country that brings men together on a weekly basis.”

Kumalo speaks from experience. “The YMG is where I cut my leadership teeth. I will always be grateful to those older men, the age of my grandfathers, who mentored me. That’s where I learnt my skills and I have never looked back.”

Now the most educated people are joining … They are coming to search for their identity and their roots. They are asking, ‘where can I find part of me that is African, even in the church’.

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