This is the first installment of a new section for my blog, called #thegodproject. You can read more about the premise behind it here.
They say ‘write what you know’ – so I thought I’d start this project off with Catholicism. I was brought up Catholic (I was dragged to Mass by my mother each Sunday, practically kicking and screaming). I remember how our parish priest, Fr Kelly, would ensure his lips extracted the very last drop of wine from the chalice after communion. Just before wiping the golden cup and putting it away, he’d tip it riiiight back and have a good sluk. I also remember him urgently puffing on a cigarette – still in his vestments – the minute he was outside after Mass and shaking people’s hands.
Although I rejected Catholicism a long time ago, my mother is still a pious Catholic. She no longer attends Mass (“I refuse to go until the Church deals with all that molestation stuff.”) But if she sees the pope on TV she still makes the sign of the cross.
Taking my background into account, choosing the Rosebank Catholic Church was at once a no-brainer, and also a bit difficult to do. I hadn’t kneeled before a crucifix in decades – the last memories I have of the Catholic Church are probably from my confirmation camp at the age of 16, where I befriended a rebellious teenager who went to Holy Rosary Convent. We used to bunk Mass and smoke beadies, and she’d tell me how she took great glee at shocking the priest in confession with her tales of experimental lesbianism. I left the Church straight after I was confirmed – part of a pact I was forced to make with my mother (“You can do whatever the hell you want, but not until you’ve been confirmed!”). And now, of course, my ‘lifestyle choices’ are an abomination of note.
Be that as it may, I had to start #thegodproject somewhere. 2Summers came with to take the photos, and Germaine tagged along ‘for curiosity’ (she was raised Methodist).
The Rosebank Catholic Church is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and has been going for the past 80 years. According to their website, the parish includes a very diverse congregation of at least 1400 Catholic families. The church itself is a beautiful building; the sanctity practically hums within its walls – a phenomenon I’ve never experienced inside Protestant churches, only in Catholic ones. Germaine confirms this and is uncharacteristically respectful.
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest of the Christian churches, with over 1.25 billion members. In a nutshell, Catholics believe the same things as other Christian churches (like Jesus Christ is the messiah, he died for humanity’s sins, he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven after being crucified, and that he’ll come back on Judgement Day). But there are a number of differences that separate Catholicism from Protestant churches (the pope is the head of the church and he’s infallible; there are statues and saints, and there’s a whole lot of emphasis on Jesus’ mother, Mary). A big distinction is also that Catholics believe when they partake in communion (eating the bread and drinking the wine that represents Jesus’ Last Supper, and known as the Eucharist), they are actually eating the body of Jesus and drinking the blood (called transubstantiation). Catholic dogma dictates a whole bunch of things, like how sin is categorised (minor, or venial; major, or mortal), as well as how one should lead one’s life (based on Christian ethics like the importance of forgiveness).
An interesting aspect about Catholicism – that many non-Catholics are not aware of – is that there is generally not a literal reading of the scriptures; one is encouraged to ‘interpret’ them, and that the Bible, as a whole, is to be viewed as more of a metaphor. Another misconception is that Catholics worship statues and the crucifix – again, these are symbolic. The Catholic Church is vehemently opposed to abortion, contraception, divorce, IVF, stem-cell research, and homosexuals (to name a few). The current pope is Pope Francis.
It feels unnerving to sign myself with holy water; to be inside a church again. While 2Summers takes photos, I take Germaine to light a candle in front of a Mary statue. The woman before us softly mutters her Hail Mary mantras, as if she has Mother Teresa Tourettes. She gently kisses the statue after she lights her candle.
I was put into contact with the church by a Bez Valley resident, Hanli Buber. She loves to dance wildly at the Radium, and she has the positive enthusiasm for Catholicism that only a convert can possess. She said I had to speak to a Reverend Brent Chalmers, who often performs sermons at the church.
Chalmers is a deacon, which is an ordained clergyman, but not a priest-proper. “In the Catholic Church deacons are permitted to be married, so I have a wife and kids and grandchildren and a bond on the house, and a job – the church doesn’t pay for us,” explains Chalmers. “What we do is assist the priests. It’s an ancient order, established about 1000 years ago – St Stephen was the first deacon.”
I ask him if he was always spiritually inclined. “I was born a Catholic, and my mother frog-marched me to Mass every Sunday,” he replies. “So, no, I wasn’t.”
Before setting off on his spiritual path, Chalmers was a commissioner of the PGA, then an army colonel. “I was really attracted to the army; I loved the artillery.”
“I’m an ordinary guy,” he adds. “Not at all a holy or saintly man.”
But about 9 years ago, he says he was “called” to the church. “I was very interested in theology so I studied it; I met a couple of people who had a huge influence on my life. I was a member of this parish and I came to confession here once, as Catholics do. There was a visiting priest called Fr Michael Fish, from the Redemptorist Order – it’s a specialist preaching order. He was in the confessional and he just clicked with me. There was just something about this guy … I just kneeled in front of him and confessed all my sins and all the things I had done, the things I hadn’t done. Instead of the normal lecture they give you, he just got up and hugged me, and held me in his arms and said, ‘God loves you’. You can’t believe the difference that made to my life.”
Fr Fish became a personal friend of Chalmers’, and he often sought spiritual advice from him. Fr Fish is now a Camaldolese Benedictine hermit at a hermitage in Big Sur, California. “It’s right near to where Janis Joplin had her concert – you’re much too young to remember,” adds Chalmers. The hermitage is a tiny Benedictine monastery (the Benedictines place a lot of emphasis on silent contemplation and solitude. Fr Fish has a website; I suppose he checks e-mails after vespers?)
Chalmers and Fr Fish did, in fact, stay in e-mail contact throughout the years; with Fr Fish eventually telling Chalmers that he should consider becoming a deacon.
“I said, ‘Are you nuts?’ But he told me I had a gift for public speaking; so I studied sermonising and eventually I was ordained in 2007.”
According to Chalmers, The Bishop of Johannesburg came to him one day with a request, because Chalmers “had knowledge of e-mail”. “He wanted me to head up the Diocese Communication Agency; he wanted to focus on the internet, and non-traditional things. We got offices at St Vincent’s School for the Deaf – which is a great place to have a communications agency!”
“I had to get inside the bishop’s head so that I could communicate on his behalf. After a while he told me that they had to close the agency due to lack of funding; I was really pissed off. The e-mail list was doing quite well, and I asked him if I could carry on in my personal capacity. He agreed to it. So I started the Soul Provider Trust in 2008 – that e-mail list now has 61 000 people who get a daily meditation from us.”
One of the members of the trust is Julia Lamberti, a jazz singer. At the time, she was performing at the Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank. She told Chalmers about all the food wastage at the hotel.
“The next day I get a phone call from the top dog at Investec Bank. He said that his girlfriend had just died of cancer, and he needed someone to do the funeral. I agreed to do it – she was an attorney at Webber Wentzel; the church was packed with Jews and Muslims and all sorts of non-believers. So I kept it pretty light-hearted. Afterwards the banker asks me how he should pay for it – I told him to just put some money in an envelope and give it to the church, whatever you can afford.
“He said, ‘Listen, china. I’m the head of credit at Investec; I can afford anything.’ So I thought back to the conversation I had with Julia Lamberti. I asked him if he happened to have a second-hand truck, and I told him about how I wanted to deliver the hotel’s excess food to the poor. So he agreed to buy a truck, with one condition: ‘On the side of the truck you paint the name ‘Cindy’. I don’t want any tombstones or crap like that’.”
Chalmers’ food drive now operates in four centres in SA, and they feed 7500 destitute people every day. “PnP, Woolworths, loads of hotels – they’re all on our books. The moment croissants are leftover at Fournos, we get a call and our trucks are over there. We feed mainly old age homes and orphanages.”
According to Chalmers, he is able to “get really deep” into the scriptures. “The sermon tonight is about Abraham being called by God to sacrifice his son. You try preach on that.”
I ask him about the parish itself at the Rosebank Catholic Church. “The congregation is made up of all sorts of people. This used to be a youth Mass – but you’ll see the guy playing guitar is about 80 in the shade. It’s not a High Mass with an organ and incense. It’s much more casual – a lot of young people used to come to this Mass, but now, there’s black, there’s white, there’s old, there’s young, there’s rich, there’s poor.”
He asks me why I’m writing this piece, and I start telling him about my blog. But five minutes in, like an ADD squirrel, he blurts out, “You see that crucifix on the alter?”
“Yes. I’m pretty familiar with them,” I reply.
“When the sun shines from the east in the morning, you can see two red stains on the marble, running from His hands.”
“Are you implying it’s stigmata?” I ask, cockily.
“I’m not implying anything,” he says. “But if you look at photos of this church when it was first built, the stains weren’t there. Over 80 years, those two stains have come up in the marble. There’s a lot of little things like that at this church.”
The Mass is about to start and I shake his hand. Germaine and I join Hanli in a pew right at the back, so as to be an inconspicuous as possible. But the woman next to me stares at me the entire time – except when she’s praying. I genuflect and bow my head at all the right places. The elderly parish priest has a very strong Portuguese accent (“In da naeme of da Father, aend of da Schon, aend of da Holy Schpirit. Amen.”), and the Mass is schizophrenic – one minute there’s bells and formal recitation; the next the congregation bursts into awkward quasi-charasmatic guitar-song. Rev. Chalmers gives his sermon – I don’t take in much as I’m trying to stifle a panic attack in the pew (I do remember he spoke well and with fervour, though). Just before communion, Germaine feels like she’s going to pass out from all the religion, so we sneak outside while people start forming lines.
I ask Germaine what she thought of the whole experience. She takes a long, pensive pull on a cigarette.
“I didn’t realise there was so much kissing of things in Catholicism.”
The awkward singing starts up again, this time it’s distant and wafty; it reminds me of a Born Again Christian with a bad hangover.
“But maybe,” she adds. “Maybe I’d like to try it again sometime. Can we go when there’s incense and chanting, and shit? There’s definitely something about the ritual of it all and the sense of the sacred that somehow appeals to me.”
And that’s what #thegodproject is about – it’s an attempt at exploring Joburg’s sacred side – whether it’s found on the alter of a church, whirling as a dervish in a temple, or if it’s the whispering of ancient chants on a hill, beside Ponte.
For more images from 2Summers, go see her post here.
If you’d like more information about Brent Chalmers’ work, visit his website, The Soul Provider. There is always a need for food to be donated for their feeding schemes, especially from those in the catering industries who have excess food – go here for more info on how to get involved. For more on the Rosebank Catholic Church visit their website.