“As soon as the President announced that lock-down would be taking place in three days’ time, we asked ourselves, ‘What can we do quickly to lessen the food shortages that will be happening in the next three weeks?’ We sprung into action to organise food parcels for our most vulnerable church members and neighbours,” explains Tsakani Sibanda, leader of Church of the Nazarene Khayelitsha. It had to be immediate due to the dire needs of those around the church, including daily wage workers who would feel it the most.
“We already knew that hunger would be an issue, and we also helped young women with hygiene packs, but as time went on we began to think about our space and how we could use that to serve people during this COVID-19 time.”
Knowing that the property and its location was key to ‘loving our neighbours well’, Tsakani and her associate pastor and others began to dream about using the space well. “It cannot stand vacant during this time. How do we use it to show compassion and love during this tough time? We are part of this community and we bear the brunt of this virus together,” she says emphatically.
Khayelitsha is one of the most densely populated areas of Cape Town, home to just under half a million people. Because of the deep, ongoing inequality and legacy of apartheid in South Africa, this community is far more vulnerable to both complications and death from COVID-19. “The need for both health promotion and disease prevention strategies, as well as creative care for those infected by the virus remains more urgent than ever,” says Tsakani. “On top of that, there are continued forced removals and widespread food insecurity as so many have lost their jobs and income.”
They offered their space to people who were subjected to forced removals in Macassar, but it was too far away to be of service. It was also obvious that people in crowded homes and spaces would find it difficult to self-isolate or practice ‘shielding’, so the church community agreed that the building would be used in creating spaces for vulnerable people.
“It’s not just about now though,” says Tsakani, “We need to make adjustments to our church building so it can be useful and a compassionate space in the future too, long after the COVID-19 crisis is over.”
While the use of the building is heavy on her heart, Tsakani has a bigger vision that includes mobilising and training community members in Community Health Evangelism (CHE), which is a strategy to equip communities to identify the problems they face and mobilise to achieve positive and lasting change. “I have a background in CHE and am aware that behaviour needs to change in terms of this virus, the community needs to be made more aware of how self-care and protection can make a real difference, and limit the spread and impact of this virus.”
The church has already started training 18 volunteers from the community to go house-to-house as part of a long-term community intervention to share prevention, shielding and care methods. The young volunteers will be helping set up ‘green rooms’ in homes, creating safe space for vulnerable people to self-isolate in their own homes, and giving out sanitizer and masks, as well as doing basic screening of family members for high temperatures and other symptoms. The training was done in partnership with the active NGO, MSF (Doctors without Borders).
“I want us to model a local, grassroots response that can make a big difference, that is not one of those ‘top-down’ ideas that do not work in our context,” Tsakani shares with passion. “Churches could have been the most impactful and effective responders, but sadly many were on their back foot with no idea what to do – the broader church followed in many cases, instead of leading the way. If we don’t know our role, we will not step up in times of crisis, like this.”
Tsakani is clear that church leaders need to be asking God, what is it you have called us to here in this time? And how can we draw the community in to make a difference at this time? She noticed that churches that respond to community needs and are connected to the vulnerable were ready to jump in during this crisis as it was a continuation of what was already being built, with a posture of openness to God and how best to love and serve our neighbours.
“I think COVID has made people think a lot about the church and ask a lot of good questions,” says Tsakani, “What is our role in serving the vulnerable? Who do we care for when crisis hits? What blocks the broader church from springing into action in a concerted way? Do we really believe in healing? Are we leading or following? We have to be honest in our response to what this crisis has evoked in us so we can learn for the future.”
One of the difficulties that Tsakani and her team faced, which is a common struggle in South Africa’s unequal society, is that there was great vision and capacity, but few financial resources for the immediate needs. Many churches have great wealth with little financial need within the congregation, and then there are the thousands of churches in the city’s townships who have enormous possibility and vision, but little finance with which to do it. The need for more effective partnerships and sharing of resource is crucial.
“I think God is showing the world something we have not seen before and there is a move of God within this difficult time – God is showing us in the cracks what we have not seen before,” she says, “And if you are sensitive to the Spirit of God, you can feel it. It’s the upside-down kingdom. A revival of holistic justice and peace.”
What the church needs is imagination for something different, she believes. “This is about the kingdom of God, it is not social justice, it is the upside-down kingdom and a call to the Church to lead the way in loving our neighbour well.”
If you would like to invest in the work and ministry of Church of the Nazarene Khayelitsha, please do so through this Back-a-Buddy Campaign or via our Donate page, and reference your donation with your email address + “RESPOND-T2”. You can also read more about their project and other ways you can support them here.