In a visceral way, my parents’ house in Johannesburg will always be one kind of “home” to me, because I lived there for the longest time and it’s where I grew up. Beyond that, I have felt more and less attached to the various houses and flats I’ve lived in over the years, depending on the circumstances. Mostly, I think a house or a flat is just a place to keep your worldly goods… as comedian George Carlin says, “A pile of stuff with a cover on it”. It isn’t necessarily “home”. I’m also not a big fan of nationalism, or of fanatical identification with a place because of tribal history, so South Africans who have lived in the UK for decades and still call South Africa “home” even when they have no intention of returning there permanently, tend to get my goat. So where does that leave me? If I don’t know what my home is, am I rootless? Without identity? Is that a bad thing? Those are all fabulously open-ended and rhetorical questions, and I hasten to tell you I haven’t a clue what the answers are.
All I know is this. I realised yesterday that there is a building that feels truly like home to me. Nearly ten years ago, a friend invited us to her daughter’s confirmation at the local church and we went along. I was struck by how good the choir was, and my friend introduced me to a friend of hers who sang in the choir, and before I knew it, I was signed up to attend a practice the following Tuesday evening.
Since then, I have spent hundreds, no, make that thousands of hours in that church. I’ve sung countless services and concerts there, I’ve been a part of insanely ambitious productions, including one where I played the Devil in a red business suit and bondage heels and frightened the Bishop. I’ve stood on the roof at 4am on the Summer Solstice and watched the sun come up. I’ve swept every corner of it and cleaned the loo. I’ve attended weddings and funerals, seen babies born, baptised and grow up. My own children were baptised in the 900-year-old font. It was in that church (and for the life of me I can’t remember the exact occasion), that I got my first glimpse of the man who would become my best friend and my love. And it was in that church that Matt walked me up the aisle to marry that man.
There are two ways of defining “church”… the building itself, and the people inside it. Let’s begin with the people. I’ve made friends that I know will be with me for the rest of my life: friends who have shown such kindness and generosity I will never be able to repay them. Like any group of people gathered for a common purpose, they’re a motley lot: old, young, educated, a bit rough around the edges, tolerant, intolerant, funny, scary and downright barking. But all of them have come through the door with one purpose, however clearly or fuzzily they are able to define it. They have come to look for more. They have come to be more, be better people, to give thought to the way they live and move through the world. And they come to give.
A friend once said that she liked her children to come to church because they would grow up seeing that people could be generous and selfless with their skills. There are so, so many talented people there who give hours and hours of their time and skills for free: musicians, flower-arrangers, organisers, caterers, even accountants and IT specialists, and those who sweep, hoover and polish in the church every week and garden in the churchyard. They sustain the church so it keeps going, and they give to the outside world, in charity, in community activities, and, I hope, by example.
Then there’s the building, as higgledy-piggledy as its inhabitants. The oldest parts of the church, on the North side, are hundreds and hundreds of years old. Then there are newer bits, from the Victorian pews to the organ, refurbished in 2000. I shan’t bore you with the history, but there’s a fair bit: the odd celebrity buried here and there, a Green Man hidden by ancient craftsmen in the woodwork of the ceiling, a grave-robbing scandal and more. For a girl from an upstart mining town (Johannesburg was founded in 1886), a building with that weight of history delights me.
There’s been a church on that site for 1,000 years, and it was a pagan sun worship site before that. Imagine all the people who have stood or sat or kneeled there, talking to their God. Those stones, that earth, have for all those centuries been drenched in prayer. Words of suffering and hope, contemplation, repentance, love… they’re built into the fabric of the building, the stones I walk on, the trees in the churchyard, the air I breathe when I go there. I believe in the power of the words, and there is no doubt that powerful words have been spoken there, over and over for centuries. And I can feel it.
So what is it that I feel there? Is it God? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that for a few weeks now, I’ve been battling a nameless feeling of fear and disquiet, an irrational dark mood I just haven’t been able to shake. Until yesterday when, in the happy chaos of the Harvest Festival, among the yelling children, the music and the amusingly shaped vegetables, I felt my mood lift, just a little. Just enough to know that ultimately, things would be okay. I haven’t quite made it to the peace that passes all understanding, but I think I got a step closer. It feels like coming home.