New kind of holy

2008-03-04 00:00

For someone writing a page of history, albeit a small one, the Reverend Bellina Mangena is remarkably matter of fact about her achievement.

She is the first black woman to be rector of the Anglican parish church of St Alphege’s and chaplain to St John’s Diocesan School for Girls, both in Scottsville. In fact, she does not see this as an achievement at all, but as a routine placement, “being where God wants me to be at this time”. She is also chaplain to the Anglican students on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and diocesan chaplain to St Agnes Guild, a group for young women.

She says: “I was sent here, I did not ask to be appointed. God’s people in this place need ministry and what’s important for me is to listen for God’s plan for this place and get on with what that requires.”

Mangena is the mother of two daughters: Khulisile (30) and Nqobile (18). When talking about being a single mother, she becomes animated. “This makes me unusual in the structures of the church. In conservative church circles people raise their eyebrows. Some want to assume that I am a widow, but I am not, and there are many women like me. The church is supposed to be all-embracing so it must embrace us too.”

Mangena sees her journey from the Johannesburg township of Soweto to a mostly white church in Pietermaritzburg as divinely inspired. “I look back and see God clearly at work in my life, sometimes without my knowledge, particularly at decisive moments, preparing me for what followed.”

Born in Soweto to a mother of Swazi origin, Mangena has two brothers. She was sent to board at St Michael’s Girls’ School in Manzini, Swaziland, when she was 11 because her mother had always wanted her to go to an Anglican school. It was there that her interest in the church began. She was first given the chore of sweeping the chapel, graduated to arranging flowers and then to being a server who helps to administer communion. In her matric year she was head server.

St Michael’s was a non-racial school in a time when South Africa practised racial segregation. That experience equipped Mangena for life. “I believe that formative school experience made me able to be comfortable in any context, including a church like St Alphege’s,” she says.

However, it could not prepare her for the prejudice she encountered when she returned home after completing O levels and went back to her home church in Tladi, Soweto. “I went to see the head server. He never spoke English, only Setswana, but he used an English phrase: ‘Over my dead body’. He was not going to have a woman server, but it did not stop me from going to church. I joined the choir, taught Sunday school and was elected to the church council, for which I took the meeting minutes.”

Mangena hoped to go to university but decided to try teaching first. She taught at a primary school in Jabulani, western Soweto for two years. “I was there in June 1976 when the riots happened. My school was between Morris Isaacson and Naledi High, the ‘hot spots’ in the riots, but we were unaffected and knew nothing about what went on. My first daughter, Khulisile, was born in 1977. I was 20 and it was a hard thing for my parents as I was supposed to be a ‘good girl’. After her birth, I joined a bank where I stayed for nine years.”

Mangena recounts with amusement examples of discrimination she encountered. “Someone complained that I wore trousers to church on Sundays, so I was told not to. However, I was allowed to wear them when I went to communion on weekday mornings on my way to work.

“In the eighties I trained as a lay councillor and was made a lay minister in the church. This meant I could wear vestments, help at the altar during communion services and conduct funerals. The Mothers’ Union complained that I did not cover my head in the sanctuary. The church council tried to buy me a hat and force me to wear it, but I refused.”

She became pregnant with her second daughter in 1989 and again she encountered intolerance. “I had to give up all my church responsibilities and was not allowed to take communion. However, I still prepared the minutes of council meetings from notes that someone else took.

“The rector said I could take communion again when the baby was born if I continued to go to church during my pregnancy, which I did.

“The first Sunday I was in church with Nqobile the priest, a visitor, refused to give me communion. I was very angry and walked out of church to go and complain to a senior minister. Needless to say I left that church and joined another.”

Mangena reflects on how many of the significant events of her life were not of her choosing, like going to boarding school and being recommended for ordination. “In 1995, without consulting me, the priest in charge of our parish put forward my name for ordination.

“Since about 1986 I had been feeling that something was missing and had begun to hope that perhaps I could serve in the ordained ministry. I was accepted for training towards ordination. I made it clear I wanted to go to theological college. Of course, my being a single mother was an issue again. The selection authorities were alarmed at the idea and wondered how a single mother with a child could be accommodated. However, it was arranged and I studied at the College of the Transfiguration in Grahamstown from 1998 to 2000 and Nqobile went to school in the town. I planned to return to Johannesburg after my studies.”

Mangena continued her studies by completing an honours degree in industrial mission at UKZN in Pietermaritzburg in 2001 and 2002. While there she extended her stay to allow Nqobile to complete primary school and was then invited to transfer to the Diocese of Natal, which she did. She was ordained deacon in June 2002 and priest in December of that year. She spent her “apprenticeship” in the white parish of Hillcrest, which also serves four rural black congregations in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. “I learnt a lot there as I had no experience of rural life or ministry. It prepared me for my first placement in charge of a congregation when in 2005 I was sent to live in KwaMakutha and serve the parish of Ezimbokodweni, which has three congregations.

“The congregation wanted to check that my Zulu was good enough, so I had to preach and lead a service. Fortunately, I passed their test.

“Coming from Soweto, I had no experience of visiting people in areas where there were no streets or house numbers. You follow landmarks and then park your car and walk to a homestead. I was humbled by the effort that some people made to get to church.”

Mangena appreciated her time in KwaMakutha, but says “I function better in an urban setting and in English. I derive a deep sense of fulfilment from serving God and God’s people. In this new place I want to adopt a gentle approach to steering people in a new direction. While we must reflect our ‘rainbowness’, we must also not marginalise people.”

Mangena’s life story has been punctuated with experiences of prejudice and discrimination in the church. Despite this, she seems to lack anger or animosity.

“I am glad that I came to ministry later in life because I am more mature. I would have been militant when I was younger. I recognise now that it requires a balancing of people and principles, and I am more sensitive to people. Previously, I would have put principles before people.

“The power structures of the church are still dominated by men and many women want it that way because of the way they were socialised.

“However, it is also important not to forget that I am where I am because some men listened to God and used their power positively.

“I have learnt to be strategic, to find out the rules of the game and try to make a difference by playing it, rather than heckling from the sidelines.”

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