- Origin South Africa
- Cape Town, Thursday 15th June, 2023
We have to sing together.
I was never much good at visual art. My high school art teacher wrote "I don't think art is Colin's subject" on my report card.
But I remember one drawing I did as an eight-year-old child growing up in South Africa in the 70s. It was of a train carriage. It was red and black. And it had a sign above the door, which I had copied dutifully. It said "Slegs Blankes".
My parents noticed this at the time and commented on it. I may not have been much good at drawing, but I had full marks for observation. In 1970s South Africa segregation was mandated by law.
I grew up as a missionary kid. I had two sisters and my parents were involved in a local missionary society. They travelled the country preaching in tent missions, churches, community halls, anywhere that would have them.
And everywhere we went we sang hymns.
These were the hymns of the mission-field. Of course we sang standards like
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee
Alongside the tent-mission popular hymns like
Would you be free from your burden of sin?
There's power in the blood, power in the blood!
But one thing you'd notice wherever you went. The congregations were almost all of one colour.
My father preached in Zulu to Zulus. My Scottish mother in Afrikaans to Afrikaners and those of mixed race in the Cape. They preached in English in the suburbs. They preached to all who would listen. But the congregations didn't mix culture or colour.
We sang the same hymns.
Wil u nou vry wees van sonde se mag?
Daar's krag in die bloed, krag in die bloed!
Each in our own language. Each in our own suburb. We sang them with joy. But we didn't sing them together.
In the 80s my father proposed integration of the mission's segregated bible colleges. It was laughed out, and shortly after that we moved to the UK. But Africa was always in my heart, and in 2007 I returned to South Africa as a missionary to share the gospel and promote unity in the church through music.
This is the story of one event in the South African context.
By this time I'd earned separate degrees in music and theology. I'd practiced as a church music director and worked as an orchestrator and arranged of music. I'd founded ministries in Scotland and South Africa to use the arts in outreach, because most of the churches I knew didn't really have a high view of artistic pursuits. The arts are a bit frivolous - at best a sideshow to the Gospel, at worst a distraction from it. At least in the eyes of the church leaders I knew.
We needed to find a common ground to start bringing unity in the church. Surely if the church is more united, her efforts to reach the world will be more effective. My mother was saved in the Lewis Revival of 1949-53. One of the last great awakenings in the British Isles. She always told us that the revival stopped when the churches started arguing. I never forgot that statement.
Casting around for that common ground in the church in such a divided country I remembered the old hymns. They are still sung today. And while the segregation is no longer mandated, the reality is it will take generations for the full integration of society.
A good way for reconciliation and unity to develop is activity with others. Do something together. Make something together.
Could it work if we worshipped together? Standing next to each other worshipping the same God using the hymns that we have all sung in our isolated communities. The same words, the same God, only now doing it together? Sharing that one moment of joy, of devotion to Someone outside of ourselves?
One of our regularly scheduled events was Symphonic Praise. An evening of great hymns with specially commissioned orchestrations and arrangements, led by a choir and symphony orchestra, with congregation joining in on the well-known songs.
We set about using this as an agent of reconciliation in South Africa.
First we engaged the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. It is one of the finest orchestras on the continent, and we knew many of the players from ad-hoc appearances in our other events. We hired the city hall, on the front steps of which Nelson Mandela had stood and spoken to the crowds after his release from prison.
But how to pay for something like this when half of our target audience lived in poverty and a ticket was almost the price of a day's wage?
So we asked the wealthy to buy an extra ticket. And they did. Some bought ten extra tickets. Buses were hired. Visits were arranged to churches in impoverished areas of the city. We sat down with pastors and told them we'd have a bus standing by after their service on the chosen day and anyone who wanted to attend could do so for free.
Our own choir (the Cape Town Gospel Choir) was mixed-race. But we were small. And we wanted the reconciliation to extend beyond just the audience. So we spoke to the choir directors of an all-white choir, and another of an all-black choir and they agreed to join us. We rehearsed together. We sang and studied together.
And on the day of the event, we gathered in the afternoon at the City Hall. And the hall was filled with people and with the presence of God.
We sang songs in English. We sang songs in Zulu. We read the Scriptures in Afrikaans. We prayed. People who would never otherwise meet stood alongside each other and sang and worshipped our common God, with songs we had each sung hundreds of times, just never together.
We worship you for you are King
Gam'elihle linge lakho uyinkosi
Yours is the name most beautiful, You are Lord
Ukuthula kulo mhlaba wezono (Aleluya) igazi likaJesu linyenyez' ukuthula.
The blood of Jesus brings peace in this world of sin (Alleluia).
Elect from every nation, yet one o'er all the earth;
Her charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth,
One holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food;
And to one hope she presses, with every grace endued.
The pandemic followed almost immediately afterwards, and our voices and instruments fell silent. We were no longer able, for the time being, to worship together. This had been a mountain-top and now we were in the valley.
But I remember the joy on the faces of friends from one of the mostly black townships as the orchestra played a hymn they knew well but they had never heard in that context. And we sang it in their language.
I remember hands raised in worship and tears on faces.
I remember the message from the chairman of one of the secular choirs we engaged expressing his deep gratitude that we involved them.
I remember the email received after the event from a lady who had brought a friend who was disfigured with cancer, but who held her head up high and uncovered her face. "She felt like she was in heaven", we were told, and she sang her heart out. It lasted after the event. She walked down the street without shame.
I continue to pray that the reconciliation of people with people and people with God through worshiping together continues long after I put down the baton and the orchestra and choir are silent.
I take heart from the fact that art is also not my son's subject. His drawings are nearly as bad as mine were at his age. It must be genetic.
But unlike me, he won't have to draw a train with "Slegs Blankes" on the side. Though my wife and I took him down to a street outside the courthouse in Cape Town where there is preserved a public bench from that era. We showed him the sign embossed on the top wooden rail and reminded him of where our society once stood.
It's not enough to sing the same hymns. We need to sing them together.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died.
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Artistic Director, Origin Ministries