"It is well with my soul, with my soul it is well, it is well, it is weeeeeeellllll, with my soul!" This is one of my most favourite hymns of all time. Picture me as a teenager singing it with all my might, attuned to frequency Heaven, hands raised to the sky, eyes closed, heart open. Church was more than a building. More than benches and hymn sheets. It was the meaning of Life itself. It was a sanctuary, a place where the reset button was and a pastor with the power to press it. Poof! Fresh start.
It was always a big part of my life.
Sundays were hurried. Waking up was early. Our first morning breath taken in with the smell of chicken browning, as mum got a head start on the roast and accompaniments. Pumpkin and green beans steaming and potatoes frying as were my pigtails. Till they were shiny and sleek, ribbon and flick-worthy thanks to the metal comb that joined the pots and pans on the red ringed stove.
Us kids were always rushing, doing our shoe laces as we raced up the embankment towards the gate, checklisting everything. Bible? Collection? Confession?! Stove off? Door locked?!
In our haste we clocked up the minor sins of frayed tempers and soft expletives as finally, we bundled into the small red Datsun that confirmed we were off with an obligatory puff of exhaust fumes.
Church was not only a place of worship but an outing too. I remember my dad sweating and complaining in the hot car about the fact that mum was always the last to leave. There she was, mantilla pulled off, allowing a polite goodbye to relent to news of the week and stories shared about this or that with sister so and so. "Really," mum would exclaim and we knew that it was just better to hang around the car park than sit like dad, broiling softly.
What I felt during those years was indescribable. A peace, a sense of belonging, an assurance that no matter what went wrong, someone was in charge. When I prayed, I did so sincerely, always mindful of the martyrdom of Jesus with his beatific face, thorn crown encrusted forehead and hands and feet nailed to the cross. I remember my mouth turned to a microphone, eyes damp, as I sang about his sacrifice and love for the lost, channeling angels and conjuring up heaven.
'Bless them Lord, cover them in your blood and bring them safely home,' was the devotion.
God wasn't just for Sundays. He was for every day and everything. In our family no journey could begin until the blood of Jesus was pleaded on every tyre and even over the road. "Bless them Lord, cover them in your blood and bring them safely home," was the devotion fervently sent up by a senior member of the family as we joined hands at the gate.
For a long time I have been defined by religion. Either through presence in it or absence from it.
My earliest memory is of water. Of me at an age I can't remember wearing a white robe, hair braided, taking tentative steps downwards into the pool of transformation where our pastor was standing. Him receiving me, baptising me, sanctifying me, going in sinful, coming up pure. Old left behind, to emerge new and shining into the outstretched arms of a towel bearing adult and the applause and praises of the congregation.
God and prayer has been with us since we were little and my parents 'got saved'. To this day I know that my mum, Aunty Maureen wakes up at five am to beseech God to bless her children. To 'make them the head and not the tail.' I have been grateful for those prayers over the years even though my own faith has been packed away and stored in the closet under the cloak of my enlightenment.
In the years between Christianity and now, Islam happened as its Quran relegated the Bible to a lower shelf on my book case. It came with musallahs (prayer mats) and beads, head scarves and Arabic. And an intense connection to praying not just the obligatory prayers but the recommended ones too. Night's edge would find me waiting as I stayed up to pray Tahajjud, a special prayer. Not for me a single month of fasting in Ramadaan but an extra month to make up for the years I was not Muslim.
Religion, if it wasn't before, became everything after 'reverting'. I was intoxicated by it. Every breath was taken with praise on my lips, every awe inspiring scene like a sunset or dawn appreciated with the words ' tabarakallah ahsanul khaliqeen' praise be to god the best to create.
And so when the mini earthquakes came, challenging all beliefs associated with a concept of god, it was as if my very essence was being threatened. I had only ever known myself inside a religious context. But I followed the path that unfolded for me, taking me to a life of self-reliance and full accountability for my actions and omissions. It was scary at first. I had to unlearn calling on god for help. Even now, I still instinctively ask for help, even though I am almost positive no one is there to listen. But those are stories for a different day.
For now I have learned to appreciate that what I do is up to me, that I will do good because I can, and that the punishment for my sins, will come as a consequence of my actions right here on earth. There is no eternal bliss or eternal suffering to hope for or be afraid of. It's a frightening and weighty thing, to take full responsibily for my actions, to know that there can be no supernatural absolution. I wear my right and wrong in the here and now.
I don't know how this story ends, whether it might mean a turn to the past or to a place further ahead than where I've come. What I do believe in is in the power, often underestimated, of us as humans to do the most incredible things for ourselves and others. Miracles are not only for the supposedly supernaturally endowed, but for us mere mortals who can show mercy, forgiveness and most of all love.
Ahead of Easter 2017, The Huffington Post South Africa is delving into what faith and spirituality means to South Africans here and now. Against the backdrop of a renewed wave of thought around decolonisation, a new generation are rediscovering their traditional beliefs, while some are reconciling with Christianity. And on another note, we tell South Africa's real good news story: our remarkable and peaceful religious diversity. In a world fractured along religious extremism, we have a large Christian population with significant Muslim and Jewish communities, who often come together peacefully and with purpose, as has been evinced at the memorials for departed struggle stalwart, Ahmed Kathrada. Read the rest of the special report here, or choose from our selection below:
- Decolonising Faith: Here's How Some Africans Are Rediscovering Their Ancestors And Spirituality
- Sipho Hlongwane: I Was Taught Not To Remember My Grandfather. This Is Why I Do.
- South Africa's Untold Success Story: A Christian's Nation's Peaceful History With A Muslim Minority
- It's Nearly Easter: Here's What You Need to Know In The Run Up