Farewell to Father Athanasius
Fr Athanasius Akunda, who has served in South Africa for nearly 13 years, will be leaving us after Pascha to serve at the Patriarchal Seminary “Makarios III” in Nairobi, Kenya. We will be sad to see him go, but wish him well in his new work.
The Dean of the seminary, Fr Evangelos Thiane, came to spend about a week in South Africa to meet Fr Athanasius. Fr Evangelos preached at St Nicholas, Brixton last Sunday. This was very good, for a number of reasons. Fr Evangelos was able to see the work that Fr Athanasius has been doing, which means that Fr Athanasius will be working with someone who knows where he is coming from, and what he has left behind. And people at St Nicholas, where Fr Athanasius has served since 2008, were able to see who Fr Athanasius will be working with in the coming years.
Fr Athanasius was born in Bunyore, in western Kenya near the Uganda border, and attended the seminary in Nairobi, where he was ordained deacon by Archbishop Seraphim, then Archbishop of Kenya. Fr Athanasius then went to study at Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA.
Archbishop Seraphim had in the mean time been appointed as Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, where a group of leaders of the African Orthodox Episcopal Church, led by Archbishop August Thamaga, had asked to be received into the Orthodox Church. They had originally asked to be taught Orthodox theology, of which they knew little, but the problem was that there was no one in the diocese who could teach them. Most of the priests spoke very little English, and in any case were busy with their parish duties. So Archbishop Seraphim asked Deacon Athanasius to come to the Archdiocese as a missionary teacher. Deacon Athanasius was multilingual, speaking Lunyore (his mother tongue), Swahili (the lingua franca of East Africa), English and Greek.
It also seemed appropriate, because the African Orthodox Church (AOC) in both South Africa and Kenya had been started by Bishop Daniel William Alexander of Kimberley. The Kenyan branch had become part of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in 1946, but the South African branch had split into at least six different deniominations, of which the African Orthodox Episcopal Church (AOEC) was one.
Deacon Athanasius arrived in South Africa on Ascension Day 2002, and found lodgings in Soshanguve, 30 km north-west of Pretoria, and began teaching the the local congregation there and other leaders. Within a few months he was ordained priest by Archbishop Seraphim and many people in Soshanguve were baptised. In May 2003 Fr Athanasius and I held a week-long course for leaders, mainly of the AOEC, but also from some of the established parishes in Johannesburg. This was very useful, but unfortunately was never followed up.
In May 2003 a Catechetical School was started, originally in Sophiatown, but it later moved to Yeoville, and Fr Athanasius was put in charge of it. It was a full-time residential course, and so Fr Athanasius was unable to continue his teaching ministry in Soshanguve. In Yeoville, however, the Catechetical School chapel also became the centre for a local congregation that gathered at the school, and Fr Athanasius led the students in outreach to the local community.
It was perhaps the wrong time for such a project, as none of the students at the school continued in active full-time ministry in the church, but it was a good witness in the local community in a time of xenophobia. Yeoville was a multicultural community and the Catechetical School was a microcosm, with students not only from South Africa, but from various other countries, including Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eventually the school closed, as Fr Athanasius was the only full-time teacher, and all the others were part-time.
Fr Athanasius also registered to study for a doctorate in theology in missiology at the University of South Africa (Unisa), with a thesis on Orthodox dialogue with Bunyore Culture, on the inculturation of Orthodox Christianity in western Kenya. I was his co-promoter, and so he was my teacher, my student, my colleague and my friend. He graduated with a DTh degree in October 2010.
In 2008 Fr Mihai Corpodean, who had been the parish priest at St Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church in Brixton, left South Africa for New Zealand, and Father Athanasius became the parish priest there. St Nicholas was founded as a mission parish, and Father Athanasius encouraged the parish in its missionary outreach in the neighbourhood, with youth activities and social service to the poor.
When the African Orthodox Episcopal Church was asked to be received into the Patriarchate of Alexandria in 1997 its Archbishop, August Thamaga, became a layman, and was baptised as Simon Thamaga, and he and his assistant, Johannes Rakumako, were later ordained as priests in the Orthodox Church when Fr Athanasius left Soshanguve to take charge of the Catechetical School.
Fr Simon Thamaga died in September 2004, and Fr Johannes Rakumako died in April 2011, and so Fr Athanasius resumed his ministry in Soshanguve, going usually on one Sunday each month to serve the Divine Liturgy there, and to teach the leaders in the congregation. His leaving will leave a grave gap there.
On the positive side, Fr Athanasius’s rich and varied pastoral experience during his time in South Africa will surely be an asset as he teaches at the seminary in Nairobi, preparing students from various parts of Africa for ministry.
So we also pray for someone to replace him here, and with all that he was doing, it will probably need three people to replace him — a parish priest for St Nicholas in Brixton, a mission coordinator for the Archdiocese, and a travelling teacher and preacher, visiting places like Soshanguve, Bloemfontein and Maputo in Mocambique.
For more on different aspects of Fr Athanasius’s ministry in South Africa, see: