Zionist Christian Church
Today I’m going to write about my experience with a rather strange African religion called Zionist Christian Church. I’ll be describing ceremonies I don’t understand as an outsider, and I’m counting on any member of ZCC who happens to be reading this to appreciate that any wonder and confusion I express stems from a lack of understanding that can only be resolved through open dialogue and learning more. (Although the church I attended was very welcoming, I don’t really expect every member of the church to be as open to an outside perspective. What I’m really counting on is that most South Africans aren’t familiar with blogs. I don’t actually think there’s anything in this post to be mad about but I know that won’t stop some people.)
It’s hard to get any reliable information about ZCC. If its members evangelize like some American Christians do, they certainly don’t evangelize to white people. The Wikipedia article is full of maintenance tags and it lacks citations, so all I really have to go by is hearsay. As far as I can tell, the church only has branches in Africa, and the “Zionist” seems to mean that they obey many of the laws from the Old Testament. They don’t drink, don’t eat pork (not that pork is terribly common in South Africa) and I’m not sure what else. Members can often be identified because they wear a green ribbon on their shirt with a felt black circle, and a star or a dove pinned to that circle. Let me just say right now that I have no idea what any of these symbols mean and I will probably never find out. Except for the dove, which is obviously peace, and they say “peace” a lot as a greeting or an amen.
My host sister-in-law is a member of ZCC but the rest of the family isn’t. The day before, I thought I’d be a good PCV and ask to go to church with her. She seemed rather surprised by this, but she was willing to take me once assured that it was what I really wanted, and not some ordinary Roman church. The service was to begin at 2 in the afternoon, which was fine with me because it gave me time to polish my shoes and such.
Around 1:45 or so (I suppose African Time is winning over me; I really don’t keep track of time much anymore even though I wear a watch) we were ready to leave, although my sister-in-law asked me to wear a “jersey” first. I got my suit jacket despite the intense heat. My sister declined to go with us because she isn’t ZCC, but she kept giggling as if she knew what I was getting myself into. We hadn’t walked far when my sister-in-law said she was going back because her two-year-old daughter was crying. I didn’t hear anything, but I believed her because that girl is always crying. After dressing the toddler and wrapping her in a towel the way South African women carry babies, we started walking in earnest to the church in the next village over.
The path to the church was long and improbable. Parts of it went through a green forest and over a hill offering a pleasant view of the village, and parts of it turned corners around someone’s barbed-wire fence as we walked past houses in the middle of the untamed wilderness. But most of the path was rocky and uphill, and lined on both sides by those white thorny plants that seemed so beautiful when I first got to South Africa but now are just annoying, especially since my suit jacket once got snagged on one and damaged at a funeral.
When we got to the village, it was obvious which part was the church because of the singing. I couldn’t have told by the infrastructure. There were some small unremarkable buildings that could have been offices or outhouses for all I knew, and the people were gathered on a roofless concrete plaza. I remembered to take off my hat as I passed through the gate; at formal events like these, women must cover their heads in a wrap while men must keep their heads completely uncovered. I delicately sidestepped the guy throwing water on people at the entrance and I was told to go over with the men. Some of the church leadership interviewed my briefly because they weren’t expecting me, and I sat with the men on the plaza under the shade of a tree. There were a lot more women than men; in fact, I had trouble figuring out where to sit because I mostly saw women and boys, but they directed me to sit on a plastic chair in the shade, rather than on the ground in the sun with the women.
Because we had arrived late, we were right on time. The service began shortly and soon everyone got on their hands and knees to pray, and I was directed by the man beside me to do the same. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but everyone was saying something different. They could have been speaking in tongues for all I knew. Once that was done, the preacher introduced me as Mr. Magodi (the surname of my host family) and I was given a warm welcome.
There wasn’t any one preacher, but rather several men took turns speaking at the pulpit. Some were wearing business suits while others were wearing what I guess is a ZCC uniform, which looks like khaki military fatigues. A couple even had medals pinned to their chests. One of the men punctuated every sentence with the Venda word for “peace” and the congregation answered. It’s understandable that my host sister didn’t want to come because that’s her name.
Aside from the throwing water and the praying on all fours, the service didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Surely, I thought, the people who said this church was strange were exaggerating. The only thing I found jarring was that once in a while, someone in the congregation would scream or move to the middle of the plaza otherwise do something that would normally draw your attention, but everyone ignored it except me. It wasn’t that often. Just rare enough to surprise me every time.
As I was thinking this, a lady knelt down in the center of the plaza and clapped three times, facing me. I avoided eye contact, not wanting trouble, but the guy sitting beside me took me by the arm and together we walked away from the plaza, to a corner near the fence. There was a small group of people there already, bent down on all fours with their heads in a circle, and soon I found myself in a similar circle with two men and the lady who had clapped at me. She placed a clean cloth on the ground under her head and soon started speaking hurriedly. She sounded like she wanted to cry or sneeze at the end of every sentence and I considered offering her a tissue but I figured she knew what she was doing. As she spoke, a man in the circle took notes. She was really into it, and before long the cloth was covered with specks of dirt and trails of spittle. I surmised what was going on: this must be the prophet that my host sister-in-law told me about. I didn’t give it much thought when she said it because with her English, “prophet” could mean anything.
When she was done, the man taking notes explained that she had made some predictions for me. I am not lost, he said, and God will visit me in my sleep and show me my purpose here, and I must pray all the time. He went off to translate his notes into English for me while I went back to the service. In addition to that prophecy, there were some things that must be done before I left: singing a couple of hymns, and burning three pieces of paper. I hoped they had their own paper because all I had was my dictionary and I didn’t want to tear pages out. Everything went uneventfully until the end, except that I was called out by the preacher for another welcome, and given some homework for next week.
At the close of the service, everyone stood up and started singing. A man brought out a yellow bucket of water and a cup and people stood in a circle around him. I backed away, because it was pretty obvious what that water was for. People standing in the inner circle would get water thrown at them, twice in the face, and then they turned around for another shot at the back of their head. Backing away was no use, though, because one of the preachers grabbed me and took me to the front of the line. He also took the prophet’s predictions for me and, while correcting the spelling, made a mental note of what had to be done with me. Beside me, the people who already had water thrown at them had moved on to the paper-burning part. A man would take strips of newspaper and light them on fire, wave it in front of the recipient, then drop the burning stubs in his hands, where he bounced them around until they were just ash. I didn’t have much time to focus on this because soon it was my turn to be hit with water. Three times in the face, once to the back of my head, and then my hands. They got around to burning paper for me before my hands had dried, but even still I fumbled them pretty quickly because I’m sort an amateur at bouncing fire in my hands.
This went on for a while, with other people undergoing various other rituals which I won’t describe here, and finally the singing came to a stop and I figured it was time to leave. I grabbed my backpack and started looking for my host family when I was approached by one of the preachers. “Excuse me,” he said agreeably, “I just want to…” and then he started patting me with a little sheet of paper, on my shoulders and chest and finally on my head. When he was done, I turned around and saw that a line had formed behind me so everyone could be patted down as well.
On the walk home, naturally I had a lot of questions for my host sister-in-law. I decided to start with the end. “Back there, what were they doing with the papers? You know, when they were patting people…”
“Okay!” she said once she understood. “To pray.” And that was the end of that.