Alleluia, He is risen! Easter Blessings to everyone from Swaziland, Africa!
We have concluded a very busy Easter season as many have around the world. The Kukhany ‘Okusha Zion Church are very friendly and gracious hosts. We arrived in Africa about 10 days before the 3 days and 3 nights of sharing praise and worship, choir competitions, meals outdoors, and holy communion related to the Easter season. The Bishop Samuel Mkhonta is here in the Manzini area of Swaziland, but the Archbishop is from South Africa. The Archbishop came to Manzini accompanied by many church and choir members. The hosting rotates among the 3 regions of Swaziland and South Africa, so next year this celebration will be hosted by a church in Durban, South Africa.
Many preparations began beforehand with the ordering of 1 or 2 cows to be slaughtered, invitations issued to all Zion churches in Swaziland as well as South Africa, and scheduling of worship, choir competition, and eating. Then the church building was cleaned and decorated. A tent was put up as an “overflow” area at the side of the church, and people walked, took taxis, or drove and parked in the front and the back of the church. Fortunately, the church owns the plot of land directly behind it, so there is enough space to park, to fellowship together, to practice for the choir competition and even to curl up on blankets to nap. Maundy Thursday services began in the evening and continued to 4 AM of Good Friday morning. Some people who come from afar arrived for the Good Friday 9 a.m. service which continued until about 5 p.m. Then they had an eating break, and began services again around 8 p.m. The much awaited choir competition did not begin until about 11 p.m., and concluded in the wee hours of the morning.
There are 3 categories (“gospel” & “classic” & “modern”) and a 1st place, 2nd place, and 3rd place in each category receives a trophy, then the others get certificates. Competitors are of widely varying ages, including children around age 8 and adults who are likely grandparents like us. Our good friend Thanda is in a choir that won 1st place in the “classic” category, and 2nd place in both of the other 2 categories. All who participate have colorful costumes, dance a bit during the song, and sing without accompaniment. We thoroughly enjoyed the competition, and did not envy the judges in trying to determine which ones were to get trophies or certificates.
After the competition ended around 3 AM, some folks continued to praise and worship until Service around 9 AM, while others slept in cars or lay down on their blankets in various spots around the church to get a nap. Saturday the “main” praise and worship service began around 9 a.m., bringing the 6 hours of spontaneous singing to a stop, breaking for a meal and / or nap in the late afternoon. Beginning again at about 8 p.m., services were led by young people. (I was pleased to see many young people attending this celebration.) This day instead of choir competition, the congregation shared holy communion, starting at about 11 p.m. Services continued until around 8 a.m. Sunday morning, then the clean up began as folks said goodbye and headed for home.
Our many new experiences so far include such things as spending the afternoon visiting the home and family of Bishop Emeritus Amos Dlamini, having dinner with Pastor Gideon Diamini and his family, and spending most of a day with the people at Mthombe, one of the church Neighborhood Care Points (NCP). The folks at Mthombe were so very gracious, insisting that we eat lunch with them. The preschool children sang several songs to us, then shook our hands while telling us their names, ages, and where they live, all in English! We got to visit with their teacher, the pastor, the Headmaster, and a couple of primary students. We saw the remains of the preschool teacher’s 3 room house and the school’s toilet that were destroyed in a recent storm.
Looking back at the Easter services, the Zion church, of Swaziland and South Africa, came together for 4 days, to try and understand the suffering of Jesus, from the time of his betrayal by Judas on Thursday evening, until his recognition by Mary on Sunday morning.
Thursday even the messages were combined with praises for the lamb, the Savior of mankind, a remembering of the Last Supper, the Passover meal and how that is relevant for all. During the sermons, someone would sing out a praise, which would raise many in rejoicing and a walking sort of dance. If enough joined, the dancers would come out of their rows and into the aisles in joyous dance and praise and finally in a whirl-wind circle of dancing, spinning, and singing with such devotional fervor as to raise their voices in praise straight to heaven. Up until this time I had read of King David, dancing and singing glorious praise to God, but until now, I did not fully understand the relevance of the body dancing to the rhythms of song, all together in full and complete reverence to the single “I am” and God’s word that became flesh, Jesus Christ. All of this joy for the Messiah on a late Thursday evening, intermixed with the somber betrayal of Jesus by Judas in the Garden. Such a series of messages, intermixed with songs of praise and songs of loss, along with dances of joy with dances of sorrow and loss. Such joy mixed with loss I have never before experienced in a Maundy Thursday service. By about 2 AM on Friday, our weariness mixed with spent emotions, so we retired to our beds for a brief sleep, but the services of the Kukhany ‘okusha Zion church continued on.
We rejoined the “Good Friday” services of the church in mid-morning. Today, the messages, dance and praise were about the scourging, punishment, conviction and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Most of this day consisted of sermons by various Zion Bishops and Reverends about remembering what Christ did for each and every one of us and how we should ask Jesus into our lives as our personal savior; how we all are the visible Christ to those around us; we should maintain a prayer life along with a praise life to Jesus; we should keep a room clean in our hearts for Jesus to come in and be with us. These were only a few of the sermons, mixed with praise for our Savior, Jesus Christ. Just as the night before, there were obvious times that praise, often mixed with dance, was to happen, and other times when a person who was moved by the message would begin singing praise. Typically, whenever one began praising, others joined, and just as often this praise would result in combined praising and dancing. What often began with only one person, often eventual involved several hundred people singing and dancing, forming a massive circle of dancers, with praises being sung throughout the church. As the joyous praises to Christ got louder and louder, the dancers began to spin, all while dancing in a circle. This dancing and praising slowly moved toward the front of the seating area, as if to symbolize a long journey. One of those praising and dancing made a “shuffling” sound, like the sound of sandals scraping along a long path. Once at the front, some formed a dance circle, and around that, there was another circle of praise singers. Lasting around 20 to 30 minutes, the singers praised louder and faster, as the dancers danced faster, also spinning/twirling while dancing in that circle. Drenched in sweat, dancers slowly dropped out and became praise singers, until there were only a few dancers left. That end often resulted in an interlude, then a new sermon.
Near the end of Good Friday and the time that Christ died on the Cross, the dancing, praising, and sermons ended. It was time for the choir competition, with choirs from various districts in Swaziland and South Africa. For more than 6 hours, all ages of choir groups sang for trophies and certificates in three different categories. Around sunrise Saturday morning, the choirs had finished, the awards and certificates handed out and then people took a break for breakfast.
By 9 AM Saturday morning, the sermons, as well as praise songs and dancing began again, and would not stop until sunrise of Sunday morning. The sermons were fewer than before, but with a mixed message of hope and the wonder by a few of the disciples “Was this the end?” Early on in Saturday there was a feeling, what if Christ had never come, and what are we to do now? As Saturday wore on into darkness the praise music dominated with longer and more frequent times of dancing and praising God for God’s son, Jesus Christ, that had been sent for all of us. Often simple praise songs of “Amen,” “Jesus is Powerful” (Jesu Mandla), “Jesus is Love” (Jesu Thanda), and so forth. The reverence of the Swazi people and the Zion church were in evidence during this time. As only remembering of going to an American Christian Church, I can never remember an Easter Service with such an outpouring of awe and reverence for a Savior that died a terrible death on a cross, for all humankind.
Toward the midnight hour there was a praising of Christ throughout the church. Up until this time, it was not uncommon to find people sleeping in cars or on mats and rugs, but now, nearly everyone was awake and taking part in the service. At the end of the sermon near midnight, praising and dancing reached a near fever pitch with people from all districts and every Zion Church praising and dancing. Lasting for nearly an hour, one by one the dancers dropped out in exhaustion. Sitting by the President of the Kukhany’Okusha Zion Church at the head table, I heard him say, “Now only Swazis left.” The dancing and praising went on for maybe another 20 to 30 minutes. With about 8 to 10 Praise dancers left, the Bishop of the Kukhany’Okusha Zion Church stop the singing and dancing, while Stephen leaned over and said, “Many become sick so we have to stop at some point.”
It was only then that I fully realized what I was taking part in and a revelation that I had not thought of before and one never told to me. From the time Christ was taken prisoner on Maundy Thursday, after being betrayed by Judas, through the mockery by his own people, being put on trial, being innocent of charges, being condemned to death, then placed in Scarlet with a crown of thorns, being mocked and scourged by the Roman soldiers, and finally being forced to carry his cross through a crowd of people cursing Him and spitting on Him. When it all became almost too much to bear, Simon of Cyrene picked up Jesus’ cross and they both walked on to the “Hill of the Skull,” Golgotha. Finally the nails were driven through Jesus’ hands and His crossed feet. While on the Cross, Jesus watched two other criminals also being crucified, and while on the Cross He saved the soul of one of the criminals, later taking that criminal into Heaven with Him. Many hours later he died. With this Biblical information in mind, the Kukhany’Okusha Zion Church attempts to understand the sufferings of Christ, from late Thursday and Christ’s betrayal by Judas to sunrise Sunday Morning, and Mary’s coming to the empty tomb, first seeing the Angels and turning around and seeing an arisen Christ. The need for trying to stay awake is most likely because Christ never slept from the time of the Last Supper, to his Crucifixion, something that I had never before contemplated.
At this point, between late Saturday evening and early Sunday morning, was set aside for Holy Communion. Being a Disciples of Christ member, Holy Communion is taken every week, so that we are sure that all have access to the Lord’s Table, whenever they come to Church. This Holy Communion was different. In time it lasted between 1 to 2 hours. First, a call to communion was given. For the first time, I saw a Bishop from one of the outer districts of Swaziland come forth to offer the call. I assumed that all would come forward, but only about one/half of the people came forward. After those who wished to take communion were seated, the washing of the feet commenced. Despite our large numbers, meaning that hundreds of feet would be washed, there was no complaint, only quiet reverence as this Swazi Bishop with a deep voice read scripture. I then noticed four Swazi Bibles, each open to one of the Gospels, of the story from the Last Supper to Christ’s crucifixion. As feet were being washed, this bishop with the deep voice (to my ears the Barry White of the Bishops) read in siSwati the same account, from the perspective of 4 different disciples. After the foot washing was over the bishop broke the bread. When the bread was to be handed out, people kneeled to accept the bread, and the same was done for accepting the cup. Following this was a time of prayer, led by the bishop, and by the time all had their feet washed, had their “bread and drink”, and had been led in prayer, I was convinced that siSwati was made by God for Holy Communion. I have never been moved to such a degree, never been a part of such a service, and never felt closer to my personal Savior, Jesus Christ, as I was during these hours with the Kukhany’Okusha Zion Church on a very early Easter Morning.
The rest of the next 6 to 8 hours were for brief sermons, testimonies and praise singing. Many came in and out of the church those last hours, as they packed to go home the next day, following the rising of the Sun and the revelation that Christ Indeed is Risen! Those who had a long way to travel said their goodbyes and departed between 8 AM and 8:30 AM. Those who lived close by stayed and cleaned the church that had hosted close to a thousand Christians.
Victoria, Diana and I were welcomed by nearly every one of those wonderful Christians from Thursday to Sunday. Without a doubt, we now have two congregations in our heart, Kukhany’Okusha Zion Church in Swaziland, as well as our home Disciples of Christ Church in Kansas.
Asking God to bless each one who reads this,
Terry, Diana, & Victoria Hutter
Terry and Diana serve as Long-term Volunteers with the Khukhan’Okusha Zion Church in Swaziland. They serve as coordinators of the development programs.