At church this weekend: Brixton and Fietas
Every second Sunday we go to church at St Nicholas of Japan Church in Brixton, Johannesburg. This weekend was different in that we had a number of visitors. On Saturday evening at Vespers we had two visitors from the NG Kerk, Dieter de Bruin and Neels Jackson, whom I had met at a missiological conference at Doornpoort a few weeks ago. Both had asked me about Orthodox worship, and I said it would be much easer to explain if they had actually experienced it. To paraphrase William Golding, Orthodox worship is like the taste of potatoes. It cannot be described, it can only be experienced, especially since it is so different in many ways from worship in the NG Kerk, though it seems that my knowledge of that is somewhat out of date, and such things as men standing for prayer while women sit are no longer widely practised.
When we arrived we found another visitor too, Fr Philip Mugadizi, from Kenya. He was staying with the parish priest, Fr Athanasius Akunda, after attending a conference on HIV/Aids in Johannesburg. He is the Aids fundi for the Patriarchate of Alexandria, and coordinates the church’s ministry to those suffering from Aids. He also lectures at the theological seminary in Nairobi.
After Vespers last night Dieter and Neels came home with us and had coffee, and we talked about the differences between Orthodox and Reformed worship, and I think we agreed (though they could correct me if I got it wrong) was that Reformed services are more instructional, with an emphasis on the word, and the word needing to be communicated to the congregation, whereas Orthodox worship tends to be more focused on God. They noticed the frequent mention of the Mother of God in the Orthodox service, and also that we did not seem to mind repetition — “Again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord” — which Western churches tended to regard as undesirable.
On Sunday morning we travelled back to St Nicholas for Matins and the Divine Liturgy. It was a fine autumn morning, and in many places we saw the trees turning yellow. One place we pass through is Vrededorp, known as Fietas to its inhabitants. Fietas is next door to Brixton, where the church is, and in the 1960s was an overcrowded working-class suburb with a vibrant life, I imagine something like District 6 in Cape Town though I’d not been to District 6 in its heyday. I once rode through Fietas on the Newlands tram, just before the trams were replaced by oil buses in 1960, and there was one peculiar corner with a sharp bend where the incoming and outbound tramlines crossed each other. A little up the road the trams ran on their own right of way past Brixton Cemetery, and there was an enormous contrast between the urban bustle of Fietas, and the semi-rural tranquility of the cemetery. Later I drove the oil buses on the route, and always enjoyed passing through Fietas, because it was such an alive place, the streets crowded with people at all hours of the day and night, and the shops that lined the streets always busy.
But the population was mixed, and so it was anathema to the apartheid-era bureaucrats. Fietas had to be ethnically cleansed, though of course this was presented to the world as a benevolent exercise in slum clearance. The plan was to replace it with gentrified urban housing for whites only, which might be attractive to staff of the nearby University of the Witwatersrand, and the newly-established Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg). It somehow didn’t work.
So Fietas today looks as if it is inhabited by the survivors of a nuclear holocaust. There are empty lots, looking like places where teeth have been extracted, with graffiti on the walls of the houses facing them. The streets are almost deserted, and many of the shops are boarded up. And it has remained in this half-dead condition for 25 years or more. Apartheid may have ended, but Fietas was not resuscitated. I suppose you can’t go back, and what was lost back then has been lost forever.
So we pass through Fietas on the way to and from church, and those are the kinds of things I think about as we pass through.
Fr Philip joined us for the Divine Liturgy this morning, where he concelebrated with Fr Athanasius, and also preached. He was a student at St Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, and so our music was familiar to him, though many members of the choir were away. Like Fr Athanasius he comes from Western Kenya. It’s always interesting to have visitors from different places and different backgrounds, and when the parish was started the aim was that it should be a multi-ethnic parish, where people of different ethnic backgrounds would be welcome. That is why we chose St Nicholas of Japan as our patron saint — he was a Russian missionary who went to Japan, but he did not plant a Russian Church, he planted a Japanese Church.
People sometime ask about St Nicholas and we say that we are an Orthodox Church, and they say, “Is that Greek Orthodox?” or “Is that Russian Orthodox?” And we say, no, it’s non-racial Orthodox, just Orthodox, without an ethnic tag. And it has always had a wide variety of ethnic groups among the congregation. South Africans, some Greek, some Russian, some Bulgarian, Serbian, some Lebanese. Fr Athanasius comes from Kenya, and now we have quite a lot of Kenyans. The previous priest, Fr Mircea Corpodean, was from Romania, and we had quite a lot of Romanians, many of whom are still with us. The services are mainly in English, but at times there is a bit of Afrikaans, or Slavonic, or Greek, or Romanian, or Swahili and other languages thrown in. And Brixton itself is developing into quite a multicultural area. So perhaps at St Nicholas something of the spirit of Fietas lives on.