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A letter from Doug Tilton in South Africa

June 2012

Dear Friends,

I want to share my recent experience at a Sunday service at Madadeni, South Africa. You can watch a U-Tube video from the service at

We arrived at the church about 8:45 am.  Two large marquee tents had been erected on either side of the church—one with a large-screen television for the sanctuary overflow, and one for the luncheon to follow the service.  Rev. Loyiso Bashe from JH Soga congregation was on hand to represent Mthatha Presbytery and lead the worship, and Rev. Sibusiso Gwala, from Rev. Zepe's home congregation, Auld Memorial in Amatola Presbytery, was the morning's preacher.

I got to enjoy some of the choir warming up a bit before the service before we gathered in the vestry for prayer. The service got under way pretty promptly at 9:00. Of course the sanctuary was only about half full at that stage, but it wasn't long before it was filled to capacity—mostly with women, the vast majority of whom were wearing UPWF uniforms (with both black and white hats!).

Rev. Gwala preached on Matthew 4:1-11—Christ's temptation in the desert—drawing out lessons for the congregation.  He counseled them to choose their ministries not simply because they were socially relevant, but because they discerned God's call to that ministry.  Noting that Christ rejected his tempter's encouragement to fly, he counseled them not to be seduced by a craving for "spectacular" ministry, but to seek to demonstrate God's love and compassion in ordinary, everyday ways.

When the formal worship service concluded, one of the elders took over as emcee, and we moved immediately into a time of sharing—both the sharing of stories about Rev. Zepe and the impact of Newcastle UPCSA's* ministry, and also the sharing of resources to further that ministry.  There was a long string of groups, including representatives of neighboring congregations from a variety of traditions, who expressed their appreciation for Newcastle's ministry and witness.  The first speaker represented the 11 schools in which Newcastle provides nutritional support to indigent children through their school lunch program. (Unfortunately, most of the speeches were in Zulu and interpretation was only intermittently provided, so I was not able to catch a lot of the detail.)

I was, of course, given an opportunity to bring greetings, which were much appreciated.  At one stage they also read out a brief message of greeting received on behalf of Silver Spring Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Having the service fall on Pentecost (which, surprisingly, did not seem to be otherwise acknowledged) also provided rich opportunities for talking about God's capacity for breaking down the barriers of language and culture and uniting us as one family of Christ around the world.  I also noted that Pentecost was a time of "commissioning" the disciples for a life of ministry and service, so it was a very appropriate occasion to recognize not only Rev. Zepe's ministry and what it has meant to the Newcastle congregation, but also the ways in which the congregation is serving as a living witness to the good news of Christ's redeeming love for all people in the wider community.

Each of the speakers was expected to make a financial contribution, which, astonishingly, typically ran to R2000-R5000.  Auld Memorial kicked in R10,000 and Newcastle itself raised R150,000, so the total offering amounted to just shy of R240,000.  Pretty impressive. I was touched by some of the non-cash gifts, too: heaters, catering equipment—one group danced down the aisle with an enormous enamel bowl piled high with fruits and vegetables.

And, naturally, everything was punctuated with beautiful and energetic singing.  At one point what seemed to be a school choir performed.  It was astonishing to hear such rich, mature, and powerful voices coming from this small band of 10 young people.  The congregation was clearly very impressed with them.  Another fun bit was a group of Sunday School children telling the story of Rev. Zepe's life and his ministry at Newcastle in verse, complete with hand motions.

The service finally wrapped up about 3:30 in the afternoon, by which time the congregation had dwindled markedly.  (I subsequently discovered that people had been filtering out to take advantage of the extravagant luncheon that had been laid on for the congregation in a beautifully decorated marquee.)  Unfortunately, by this time most people were heading home, so I did not get as much chance to meet people and hear about the congregation's vision and ministry as I had hoped after the service, so I was pleased to have been able to pick up some of this during the service.  I also spoke to Rev. Zepe before I left, and we have agreed to find more time to talk at the UPCSA General Assembly in July, which we will both be attending.

Doug Tilton

*UPCSA is the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa, one of the PC(USA)'s partner churches in South Africa.


The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 112

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