Riding with Bathwell
April 20 2001 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

Riding with Bathwell | Friday, April 20, 2001

Friday, April 20, 2001

Riding with Bathwell

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor KHAYALITSHA, South Africa - It was early still on a cloudy Saturday morning when Bathwell Mketsu came to fetch me in a red Toyota that was worn, but well maintained. I had been warned not to expect punctuality from my South African hosts but a looser understanding of appointments called "African time." Bathwell had much to show me, however, and he was eager to begin. We exchanged the traditional handshake among black South Africans that consists of two "normal" shakes sandwiched around a thumb grasp and began our journey. Bathwell is pastor of the Great Commission Baptist Church in Khayalitsha (the word means "New Home"), a sprawling black township south and east of Cape Town. But he is also church planter, advisor or friend to several other faith communities, and we are out to visit them.
Pastor Bathwell Mketsu, left, celebrates new growth and ministry at Zolami Baptist Church with James, a church member.
As we leave the N1 highway and turn north toward Worchester ("Wooster"), Bathwell suggests that we might want some snacks for the road. He pulls into a modern convenience store/gas station/fast food restaurant that would not look out of place in America except for the cheerful women stationed at the gas pumps, clad in company uniforms, ready to serve. Bathwell selects peanuts and raisins, potato chips, peppermint candies and a Coke. At my request, he picks out the most flavorful variety of biltdong (a local type of beef jerky), and I go for a can of cold peach juice.

We drive through miles of hilly green vineyards splayed out like a carpet beneath rugged mountains. Clouds hug the mountaintops, shaped like swirls of frosting by the prevailing winds. The road twists through the Hugenot Tunnel and on through a grassy veld as we wend our way northward.

Between snacks, Bathwell tells me about the work at Zolani, two hours away. "They asked me if I would go and try to do something with this church that was dead," he explains. "And so I drove to the place and I found three or four members of the church. They said to me, 'Why do you come here? There is no need for you to come back to this place. We cannot give you money for petrol. We cannot give you food.'

"And I said to them, 'Do you think I am coming here for your food or for petrol money? I will spend my own money for petrol and for food. I will come here because of Jesus, and not for your money.'"

After several Saturdays of visiting the people and leading worship services for them, Bathwell found greater acceptance. "A young man came to me and said, 'When you come here, you can come to my house and have my food.' Another person said 'If you want to stay overnight, you can have my bed.'"

The church is doing well now, Bathwell says, but is still struggling to complete a new building. The congregation meets in a small "Wendy house" (a prefabricated wooden building) that offers little more than shelter from the rain. It sits beside the tin-roofed metal framework of what the church hopes will be a new facility. The rusting frame has been in place for three and a half years. A businessman donated 2,000 cinder blocks, which are stacked on the dirt floor. Another 3,000 blocks are needed, Bathwell says.

In America, such slow progress would be discouraging, but in South Africa, it is typical. Church buildings are often works-in-progress for years because the people are poor, and church loans are rare. Church members take pride in the progress they have made.

The Zolani community includes houses that range from small to tiny. Some are nothing more than shacks of wood and metal. Here 65 percent of the people have no work, Bathwell says, and most of the available jobs are for just six months per year, when the fruit canneries in nearby Ashton are running.

Unemployment is even worse in Khayalitsha, he says, and there are more who live in shanties, and there are many children who sleep without bread. "I go to the Pic n Pay every week," he says, "and I ask them for bread that is left over, so I can give it to the children of Khayalitsha. They told me not long ago that they wanted to cut down on 'wastage,' and would not give it to me any more. I said to them, 'Bathwell - you are cutting him down! That bread was feeding more than 400 children every week.'"

While praying about whether to shut down the Saturday soup kitchen and food distribution effort that operates from the Great Commission church, a phone call came from a businessman who offered to give 300 loaves of bread each week for two months. It is not enough, but the program continues. There are other needs to meet.

"We always have a worship service before we give out the soup and the bread," Bathwell says, "but one day there was no bread when the people came. I was sad and I told someone to go and tell them there was no bread. And they said, 'but what about the service?' Oh! Then I was feeling very sorry for saying there was no service because there was no bread. They were hungry for more than bread."

We have arrived in Zweletemba, a township near Worchester. Bathwell shows me another metal frame standing tall beside a tiny Wendy house. Goats walk past the sign that identifies the place as Zweletemba Baptist Church, stopping occasionally to nibble at the sparse grass.

"The people are very poor here," Bathwell says. "They are clean, but hungry." A barefoot boy walks by in his pajamas, carrying a shovel. "I live by faith," Bathwell says, "and I teach my people to live that way. All that I have ever done, I never had enough money or enough material, but I say let us go and do it - when the Lord has opened the door, we must go in."

A distant Mketsu relative walks by, dressed in a suit and carrying a Bible. He is a 7th Day Adventist minister, and it is Saturday. The two men speak rapidly in Xhosa, a language that includes pops, clicks, lip smacks and other sounds unique to the indigenous languages of Southern Africa.

Back in the car, we drive through the town of Robertson, where a new work has just been started, but we continue on to Ashton. It is raining, but hundreds of people are walking, many of them clad in bright green or blue scrub suits worn in the town's two main canneries. We slow for a dump truck filled with people looking for a quick way home, and Bathwell notices an elderly church member named James. We offer him a ride, and go on to Zolani. Like virtually all black townships built during the apartheid years, Zolani is located in a defined area at some distance from the town proper.

James and Bathwell show me the unfinished building at Zolani, and as we head back to town he offers a ride to another church member, a young woman named Bukiwe. They carry on an animated conversation in Xhosa. I have no idea what they are saying, but I can sense Bathwell's excitement.

"Bukiwe and her sister have learned to install fiberglass bathroom fixtures," he says, "and they are willing to teach others how to do it so they can find work when the canneries are not running."

We leave Bukiwe in Ashton and drive toward Montegu so Bathwell can show me an impressive arch where a short tunnel was blasted in the mountain "during the war." I ask which war, but he doesn't know. Our conversation lulls. Bathwell slips a dusty CD into the car's after-market stereo, and we listen to the Gaithers singing "I'll meet you on the mountain" as we stop to watch a troop of baboons cross the road and climb the rain-soaked hillside. The mountains are starkly beautiful, haunting in the mist.

The road takes us back by the hillside township near Robertson, where the new work is struggling. "When we go into these places, I may not be accepted," Bathwell says. "You may not be accepted. But you are there to cross the boundaries. We need to take down the walls and cross the boundaries."

I ask Bathwell why he is involved with so many church starts. He seems embarrassed. "I say this humbly," he says, "but when people know that you work hard, they come and say 'Will you do this, too?'"

It is 2 p.m. when we stop for lunch in Worchester. The "San Diego Spur" restaurant features a motif from the American west, complete with a logo profile of Geronimo. The menu is heavy on meat, including platters of local sausages and a hamburger with monkey gland sauce. I order chicken and ribs, and ask for monkey gland sauce on the side. Fortunately, it has nothing to do with monkeys or their glands, but is a chunky sweet and sour sauce made from the monkey gland plant. Bathwell chooses lamb chops.

As we eat, Bathwell tells me that his church sometimes breaks with tradition. The subject is food again. In traditional African settings, men eat first, women eat second, and the children eat last. "In my church," Bathwell says, "the children eat first."

Bathwell warms to the topic of tradition and culture. "Some people hide behind their culture," he says. "I say we all should live by heaven's culture. Let us drop all cultures, and live by one culture."

On the way out of Worcester, we drive by Avion Park, a huge new township where the Western Cape Baptist Association hopes to begin yet another new work, and then the road begins its descent back through the mountains. We take a different route and stop at an overlook high above the city of Paarl. The panorama is dreamlike, with a light mist that leaves its beauty slightly blurred. I think I can see the Indian Ocean in the distance.

"When I look at the mountains and the hills," Bathwell says, "I enjoy looking at what the Lord has made. But when I look at the sea. . ." - he sighs and speaks more slowly - "when I sit and look at the waves coming to shore, I get a peace in my heart."

We dodge more baboons on the way down through wine country to the town of Stellenbosch. Vineyards flash by, and I notice that some sort of flower is planted at the end of each row. Bathwell says the strong-smelling flowers attract the birds and bees, so they do not damage the grapes.

Outside of Stellenbosch, we visit the township of Khayamandi. We creep through a street market where men sell stuffed sausages cooked over wood fires in split metal drums and chickens marked for sale sit miserably in overcrowded cages by the roadside. Bathwell stops to consider purchasing a chicken for his family, but decides against it. "They are not beautiful," he says.

In Khayamandi, nicely paved streets wind through rows of homes to which the word "hovel" would impart excess dignity. We look for the church site in a nicer section and find a member, but she knows the pastor is not home.

Bathwell again becomes animated as we drive on to Kalkfontein, where he shows me the house where church services were held before the church obtained property. The former host family is gracious. They invite us in for a chat, and two other members join us. The walls are covered with packaging material, and the sun shines through a hole in the rusted metal roof, but there is great warmth in the hearts of the people there.

Bathwell takes me to yet another Wendy house parked beside a steel framework painted a dull red. It was just erected in November, and the people are excited about the possibility of a new church building. Marvelous sounds are coming from the Wendy house, where a young woman named Thandi leads choir practice for the children and youth. I ask to record their singing, and take their pictures, and show them what they look like on the camera's LCD screen.

From Kalkfontein we drive to Mfulani, where Bathwell introduces me to pastor Mashia Zola. The church was started five years ago, he says. It meets in a small wooden building whose walls lean at a noticeable angle.

The sun is sinking behind Table Mountain when we finally make our way back to Khayalitsha and the Great Commission Baptist Church, where Saturday night programs are underway. The women meet in the Sanctuary, each clad in black, with a white collar. "It is their church uniform," Bathwell explains. Bathwell's wife, Gloria, teaches a class for the women on Saturday nights. The class is over, and food is being distributed. Each woman is given a piece of sliced pumpkin and a bunch of grapes.

The men are meeting in Bathwell's home, located no more than 10 feet from the church. Their meeting is over, too. They are watching soccer on Bathwell's TV.

Bathwell points to the houses surrounding the church. "A sangoma lives there," he says. "A sangoma lives there ... a sangoma lives there." Sangomas are traditional African spiritualists. Some would call them witch doctors. "We battle against much that is evil," Bathwell says.

I want to stay and talk to the children. I had been told to drop my agendas and relax, being satisfied to live on African time. But now it is I who have forgotten the clock, and Bathwell who says "Tony, can we go now?" It is late when he returns me to my lodging. I realize that no arrangements have been made for supper, but it doesn't matter. I've been well fed.

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4/20/2001 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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