Dr Xapile and the J.L. Zwane oddyssey

2017-05-25 06:00
on the couchTarzan Mbita

on the couchTarzan Mbita

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In case you didn’t know. The Reverend Dr Spiwo Xapile, DD, will be leaving the JL Zwane Presbyterian Church in March next year.

I also did not know this until one Sunday afternoon, when my teary-eyed sister, Sigi Mbita ­– a congregant of the church ­– came home to share with me the near tragic news: “Yho. Umfundisi uyahamba next year.”

It was in the meek manner in which she uttered those words that I could see the pain in her eyes and imagined the agony of other congregants on hearing the sad news.

I surmised that for her and many others, it was not one of the best of the leader’s morning sessions that day, worst still, I also could surmise that even the church service that followed must have just been a mere formality, as their hearts must have wandered beyond the realm of the present to a world of the “what happens after he is gone” scenario.

So many questions in my mind, so little time. That’s what happened last Tuesday when I paid him a visit and sat him on a couch, and fired the first salvo, filled with anxiety, and asked if he had been pushed. No! not at all, he said. So, why are you leaving?

“I’ll be turning 60 years of age and I figured, it is best to hand the baton over to others to run with. I had decided to put the date forward so as not to spring a surprise on any one, least of all loyal members of the church.” Blah, blah, blah.

So 60 is the new 40, I quip. He starts to giggle. Xapile looks a lot younger for someone who will be referred to as a pensioner come his next birthday. Then he lets the cat out of the bag; he had previously planned to retire at 55 years, but decided against it on account of the work still needed to be done in the church and the community at large. So its delayed agony, I suggest, but whatever the case may have been, they would have gotten over it by now, and they will still get over it after March 2018.

Are you going to reconsider? “Nope. I’ll be gone for... Preparations are ahead, so that whoever takes over finds a smooth sailing entity, and I will hand over everything so I don’ stifle the incumbent. I do not want him to be an extension of who I am. Even when I came here, if the elders had expected me to continue in the fashion of my predecessors, they must have been very disappointed.”

So true! 28 years ago he took over a church that was riven by factions and moulded it into a place of hope for the destitute and a haven for the needy.

In 1989, he and his wife Zethu, including their two kids Nonkuthalo and Hlalumi undertook a life changing journey to Cape Town, after being invited by the church to lead them.

Despite the factions by day, though, by night, the church played its part as a terrain of the Struggle for liberation, for just as the sun set, it was the norm to transform it from a venue of hymns and psalms into one of revolutionary songs, with the attendant fervour.

Sadly, a greater tragedy was also looming on the horizon.

By 1989, Aids had just reared its ugly and ravenous head, and in Gugulethu residents, he found a listless and fearful people, despite the facade of bravado. And Apartheid repression, in its last throes, was wreaking havoc in communities across the country. He arrived smack back in this tumultous era, where even nobody trusted the Aprtheid government to take care of the pain wrought by the disease.

Each was pulling this way and that a way. His work was cut out for him, he avers.

His was the only church where sufferers of the dreaded disease could find a home, and Xapile led from the front, even by the standards of the Presbyterian fraternity. With acceptance, came the numbers. Suddenly, the building seemed old and bursting at the seams. He also wanted to get people talking about everything; their fears, hopes and dreams, he says.

So, initiative by initiative, the building was rent asunder, only to rise like the phoenix from its own ashes.

These “conversations” also straddled borders, into Africa; The USA, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Uganda and Zambia.

Ministers from these countries were invited to take part in seminars and to tell their own stories of suffering from the disease. It was during one of these conversations in the new millennium that it was revealed that in Uganda, the church was the leading voice behind the acceptance of people living with HIV/Aids.

Xapile had said then: “Because church ministers, like their congregants, were as much affected and infected by the disease, which explains the enthusiasm among them to fight the disease side-by-side with their flock.” Uganda had recorded a decline in new infections.

Xapile believes the conversations have helped to shape theology and its teachings. “We started conversations between the church and society. Solutions to their challenges. We got people talking of their shared experiences across all denominations.”

He says he has noted that ministers enjoy working with congregations that want to cross boundaries.

He speaks highly of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the USA, which, he holds, has managed to cross racial boundaries. He also mentions the Anglican Diocese of Port Elizabeth.

Xapile also says the church has moved away from just being about sinners and their condemnation, seeing people from their weakest points...

“I see people from their strong points, because that’s what God wants. Don’t condemn, affirm. God wants harmony among people.”

His Alma mater, Stellenbosch University, seems to be the only place that offers him the space he needs for his “conversations”.

There is a new kind of theology that seems to permeate the air; a theology of appreciative enquiry, of working with people.

“A more vertical relationship with God, and not being horizontal to one another.”

This has not been an easy journey, he admits, as his generation and the one before him were trained in a more conservative credo of theology. He says though that the church will always be one up in the hearts and minds of believers, the promises and manifestos of politicians notwithstanding.

“The church possesses the gift of the promise of heaven, which we can paint(with words) in their minds with more conviction than politicians can promise a better life for all; they cannot even portray with as much conviction the society they would like people to aspire to.”

“We are able to create compelling images of heaven, politicians fail to even paint an appealing image of South Africa...

“I mean, if the church can convince people to eat grass...,”

Not that he condones such actions, but the conviction rate of the church far surpasses that of politicians, he asserts.

As for the listless and fearful people of Gugulethu he ministered to on arrival from the Eastern Cape, Xapile said he is pleased to have managed to imbue in them a consciousness shift and identity affirmation.

“We have managed to deconstruct the narrative of nothingness to one of usefulness. I see a deep sense of pride in whatever they do or commit to,”.

There are stragglers, of course, and his take is that there is nothing he can do- after so many years- about people who still cannot fathom the message of the Gospel.

He attributes this to what he calls a “necessary confusion”, but fears that these laggards tend to take others with them on the downward spiral.

He is also pleased with the number of successful women in his congregation, he say, as 28 years ago, very few in his congregation owned cars.

Today, signs of prosperity are there for all to see.

“We have so many young and very successful men and women in the church today.”

He says he won’t be lost to the church. Whatever the journey though, come March 2018, the JL Zwane Presbyterian Church will never be the same again. So, who’s getting on the bus, or off?

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