The People’s Zion

Greg and I began our seven-hour drive north on the N3 highway that expands Durban to Johannesburg with the African sun warming our vehicle despite the crisp weather of early spring. In recent years, together and alone on our long drives, I enjoy reading aloud as we go. Greg and I share a wide range of interests; recently we’ve read such books as Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela and Paul, Women & Wives, by Craig Keener. As we settled into this journey, we looked forward to beginning our next opus: The People’s Zion. This book, by Joel Cabrita, is a historical account of Zionism. It’s not about a national movement seeking a Jewish homeland in Israel, but rather the religious movement that began in our own homeland of Illinois, and what Joel calls Zion’s “transatlantic story.” We anticipate an exposition of the beginnings, and reasons, our ministry exists. I’d like to tell you more and will, possibly even again, as time goes on.

The People’s Zion is available on Amazon. To view, click above.

Raised in Swaziland, the author, Joel Cabrita has committed her life to a growing understanding of African beliefs.  Dr. Cabrita was a University Lecturer in World Christianities at Cambridge University (see note below), specializing in the development of African religions. Dr. Cabrita was commissioned by the university to compile research for what has become, The People’s Zion, Southern Africa, the United States, and a Transatlantic Faith-Healing Movement.  We met Joel in Zion for a discussion over lunch, in July of 2012. At that time Joel had just begun her research for this project.

Since then she has spent considerable time on several continents, with Zionists. Living at Sunbury for a week, relocating again to Southern Africa for two years, and traveling regularly to those places unfolded by her research, Joel has ascertained testimony from “Zionists” of both North American and African descent.

Consoled by what promised to be a worthwhile account of Zion’s history, Greg and I settled into the story and our long drive ahead. Chuckling through a bit of Cambridge-like language, at the end of the twenty-four-page introduction, Greg smiled. “So that’s what we’ve been doing all these years!”

Says Dr. Cabrita, “three enduring features of transatlantic Zion are nonetheless discernible. First, Zionists on both sides of the Atlantic have first and foremost been egalitarians, propelled by the belief that all Christians are equal regardless of status, and committed to attacking and bringing down hierarchies of all kinds. Zionists argued that ministers, clerics, and other specialized experts occupy no privileged position in the Kingdom of God.” Secondly, Zionists are reformers, “…their endless propensity for dissent, criticism, and rebellion against established ways of being religious …springs from the heartfelt zeal that characterized their faith.”  Quoting Alec Ryrie, “from the beginning, a love affair with God has been at the heart of [Protestant’s] faith.” (2017, p.1). Finally, “Zionists in both the United States and Southern Africa were cosmopolitans who rejected the notion that humanity could be divided up according to race, nationality, or language…drawing on a long tradition of Christian thought … that presented the church as a template for a redeemed society unified under God and across biological and social differences.” 

Note: This past June Sanford University’s, Centre for African Studies announced that Joel would be joining their faculty in the fall semester of 2018.

From Zion to Shembe

Around the time that Dr. John Alexander Dowie was beginning his church movement in Zion, IL (see October 2017 post, “Who Are the AmaZioni?”) an African by the name of Isaiah Shembe began to gather followers in South Africa.  “‘The Word,’ had come to him from God,” he said. And “he was anointed to save the African people.” This was the beginning of the Shembe in South Africa. The “spirit of Shembe” has been passed generationally to his successors. The amaNazaretha, the name Isaiah Shembe gave his church, was a million strong when disputes arose regarding Shembe’s successor in the 1980’s, and the amaNazaretha began to splinter.

However, the Shembes are still known, alive, and continue to assemble in South Africa. Not as numerous as the Zionists, they have a similar zeal. Their hope is directed to Isaiah Shembe. “Shembe is the Way!” commonly adorns the side of taxis and bumpers on cars. We were recently privileged to be invited into an amaNazaretha church after Greg had preached at an engagement celebration for an amaZioni couple. Zion churches combined to celebrate the engagement, along with others from the surrounding community.

Our pale faces create a bit of a stir, and even more so when we’re able to converse, and Greg teach, in their language. Lifting up the authority of Scripture, he invites people to a Bible school. Not knowing which Zionists are truly followers of Jesus, and which are more committed to African tradition than their belief in what the Bible says, Greg always shares the Gospel in a way that’s relevant to the purpose of the meeting. This service ended, and we enjoyed their celebratory meal. Getting ready to leave, a gentleman hurriedly caught up to us before we could get in our vehicle. “Will you come to my church and teach?”

Greg responded, “Alright. What church do you attend?”

“AmaNazaretha, …But we worship, on Saturday.”

“That’s ok. I can come on a Saturday.” Greg was somewhat surprised. “But I teach about Jesus …from the Bible.”

“That’s ok. We want to hear the Bible. We like to learn from the Bible too,” was his response.

The men exchanged phone numbers, and for the next two weeks, on Friday Mr. Ngcambashe called to see if we could come the next day. “No, I’m sorry, my wife and I need to attend a funeral tomorrow,” Greg said the first week. The following Friday he hesitantly responded again, “No, I’m sorry I can’t come tomorrow. I’ll be teaching at one of our Bible schools.” Then, sensing his refusals could be misunderstood, “But I’m not busy next Saturday. May I plan to come then?”

Glad for our willingness, Mr. Ngcambashe indicated we could come to the early service at 9am or the later service in the afternoon. No all-night services for the Shembes, they have two shorter services that span the day, with a meal in between. Driving to our place of meeting, we wondered at what we anticipated would be a brand-new cultural experience, even after 25 years!

Arriving at their place of worship the following afternoon, the leader, a man we hadn’t met before, was quick to size up these “abelungu”(white people) arriving at his temple site. As is typical for African congregations, the men were situated on one side and the women on the other. So, we separated to join our respective congregants. With long strides, the leader moved quickly to intercept Carlene before she entered the temple area. “The shoes must come off” He spoke in a friendly, but slightly aggressive manner. And then, “Those. Those, those are ok. But the shoes must come off!” indicating my nylon hose. “Ok,” she responded trying to figure things out. Should she put them somewhere specific? Where did everyone else put them? “That’s fine.” Not seeing many shoes lying around she took them to the car thinking, “I get this. Many Zionists do this too.”

In her black skirt, entering the crowd of white-robed women, Carlene wondered if her stockings would survive the day. Still wearing her black dress hat, it was only as she descended the hill into the crowd that she realized, “he was actually processing his own convictions! The stockings shouldn’t be here. If only I’d realized! I would have taken them off!!!  Too late!”

Bombarded with surprised looks and pleasant conversation, the Shembe women soon recognized she was comfortable mingling in an African setting. The ladies welcomed her by taking pictures, asking questions, and they confidently replaced Carlene’s hat, with a colorful, African “indwangu” (singular) to tie around her head. Most of the amaNazaretha wives had ornate woven bands tied around white “izindwangu” (plural). However, izindwangu of any design is typical African attire; it was a welcoming gesture.

After conversing with the men for a time, Greg followed as they moved toward the temple site. Watching, Greg observed each person kneel before crossing the threshold, “Senzani?” (What are we doing?) “We just kneel to pray for the service before we go inside,” was their reply. Greg considered their actions, knelt, and prayed silently that Jesus would be honored by our presence with the Shembe that day.

The service was quite liturgical. Congregants sang and followed an order of service using a book of Shembe songs and praises. First, an elderly woman spoke, and then the leader who intercepted Carlene. Everyone either knelt or sat on the ground. The leader explained that Shembes are intentional about keeping their heads low, “because we must keep ourselves low to God.” Though people were free to come and go as need be, there was little movement and no dancing at this service, such as we are accustomed to with the Zionists. From his kneeling position, the leader spoke clearly, probably more to the “abelungu” than to his assembled followers. He clearly explained, “God sent Jesus to the save the white people by setting Jesus among the Jews. But he sent Shembe to Africa, to save Africans!” He was careful to reference the Bible in support of his words; lifting up Shembe, he acknowledged God. 

Finishing his teaching, the leader invited Greg to “give a greeting.”  Desiring to share more than a basic greeting, Greg requested permission to speak from the Bible. In respect for the Shembe people gathered that day Greg preached a 20-minute sermon from his knees.

Greg’s 20-minute sermon. That’s really short for an Africa preacher! Remember he was just supposed to, “give a greeting.”

“To get to my house,” Greg said, “you must follow the signposts to ‘Sunbury Christian Camp…'” There are several signs before you arrive at Sunbury, and I won’t belabor the point to you our readers. In typical African style, Greg told his tale of following these signposts to be sure you arrive “at my house …to talk to me.” Then he changed the story, by telling of God’s signposts, which he unfolded from the Old Testament. Starting with Adam and Eve, with Abraham, and then at the “Pass-over” of the Jewish exodus, with big motions to illustrate the angel of death “passing-over” the house,  God required “the blood of a sacrificed lamb.” Greg stated simply, “The Bible shows us that God’s signposts along the way, point to a blood sacrifice.” Then again, with clarity and African pizazz, he described how we can know that Jesus was God’s last sacrificed lamb. He was the last signpost, because the curtain to the holy of holies was torn, “from top to bottom! In two pieces! So that we can follow the signposts to arrive close to God.”

When Greg finished, the leader of this beautiful, gracious congregation of African followers of Shembe, raised from his seat on the ground, resumed his kneeling position as spokesman and thanked us for coming. He thanked us for being courteous to accommodate their African traditions and said, “If Madame had come wearing pants, I wouldn’t have let them in. But they arrived respectfully, and took off their shoes, ‘Not a problem!’ they said. I like their hearts.” Then he invited us back and insisted that Carlene take whatever pictures she would like of those assembled together.

We transported Mr. Ngcambashe back to his home and gave him a tract that tells about our ZEBS schools. Do they really want to know the Bible? Who knows what God will do, and at what time? But we’re thankful, in awe, and privileged to watch and wait while He works. It is amazing what can be said when love and finding common ground is our focus. Unity in diversity, even in the face of opposing convictions, is a beautiful reflection of our Trinitarian God. It was a beautiful experience. We left that service, still wondering at what door God may be opening. Will they really invite us back again? Or was that just a kindly gesture, knowing it will never happen? Whichever, we were privileged to vividly experience that God can be lifted up without condemnation when love and humility is our common ground.

PS. Be sure to take a look at our updated  PRAYER REQUESTSHAPPENINGS, PHOTO ALBUM, and OUR MINISTRY  pages!