The instability of the past year prompted Christian students to challenge their personal routines and evaluate their relationships with God and their churches.
There are certain habits and practices a group of people tend to perform, whether alone or together, which eventually turn into a culture within that group. For Christians, regardless of the specific denomination or group within the religion, these often include collective worship, fellowship of the word, and prayer.
A common theme between these foundational points of the religion is that they all rely on gathering to encourage a sense of community and support among people.
The covid-19 pandemic had several effects on the country, especially with regards to social interactions between people. As the country kept moving through lockdown alert levels to reduce the spread of the pandemic, one thing remained constant; human contact was significantly reduced. For the Christian students in the country, this meant having to change the way they interacted with each other to curb the loneliness that comes with isolation.
Although the country was moved back to alert level 1 on October 1, 2021, which means that restrictions on gathering were significantly eased, since the onset of the pandemic places of worship have been subject to a number of fluctuations about how to gather.
According to a research paper written by Prof Asonzeh Ukah, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Cape Town, Christianity has heavily influenced the cultures and ways of life in the continent. This point is further supported by the fact that South Africa’s population is said to be 73% Christian.
Restrictions meant that church services had to be reduced and gatherings such as cell meetings, prayer sessions and Bible study groups either had to stop meeting or find a way to exist in a different format. For many students, the second option is the one they chose.
For many Christian students, continuing to practise their faith and religion over the past year has meant moving to online structures and finding other ways to support each other, since gathering in person was no longer an option.
An article published on April 3, 2021 on the Mail and Guardian online publication stated that although church attendance and tithes dropped in the time, congregations grew.
According to Dana Mahan, an adviser at the University of Pretoria (UP) faculty of religion and theology, a huge factor that might have led students to church is that sermons became more easily accessible in a format they were familiar with.
“The availability and accessibility of the services online could be a factor that drew students to church,’’ Mahan said. ‘‘But also, when it feels like the world is falling apart, like with the pandemic, people are looking for sources of hope and comfort, which the Christian faith tradition provides. That is where they could rediscover some sense of normality. Maybe they also needed to be around people in any way.”
An event that highlights Mahan’s point about normalcy and comfort can be seen through the Seventh Day Adventist Student Movement (SDASM) at Wits University (Wits). The SDASM is a student branch of the Seventh Day Adventist church, which aims to encourage students to seek God through music and fellowship of the Bible.
Saturday, October 30, 2021 was the first time the group was allowed to gather and hold services since the first national lockdown in March 2020. The service was held in the John Moffat Building on the Wits main campus.
“It’s been a while since we gathered like this, so today was necessary. We were not sure how many people would want to come, but here we are, and our community is still so strong. It feels like only last week that we last met like this, even though it’s been more than a year already,” said the SDASM’s public relations officer Sanelisiwe Mtumane.
Kagano Sedupane, SDASM chairperson at Wits, said the past year presented several challenges for the group, particularly with regards to keeping students engaged through the year, and its fluctuating lockdown levels. “We had to cut down service times, from the whole day to two or three hours, because when we are online we want to prevent our members from getting fatigued,” Sedupane said.
Before the pandemic, Wits SDASM also had many other activities done together, such as occasional soccer games and events that would help establish a community spirit. Sedupane says that in the last year, with fluctuating lockdown levels, most of these events had to be stopped.
He told Wits Vuvuzela that moving online had benefits and setbacks, which sometimes affected church attendance. “The biggest challenge we had was that some of our members fell into the more regressive habits of Christian life. For example, choir members would attend practice less, or preachers would refuse to be present. To counteract this, as the committee, we had to try and meet students where they were.”
According to Sedupane, ‘‘meeting students where they were’’ meant relating to them at places where they were still engaged and participatory, such as soccer practices or other informal social events. “By doing this, we were able to make sure that students were still engaging with the Word, and they continued to pray and praise the Lord.”
A bright side of moving online, according to Sedupane, was that Zoom meetings allowed the organisation’s members to interact with pastors and preachers from other cities and even other countries. “That was a privilege, because we could not have afforded to bring these guests over on our budget,” said Sedupane.
While the SDASM shows an example of successful adaptation to the pandemic, some student groups were not able to properly adapt to the shaky conditions of the past year, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). The chairperson of the student branch at Wits, Motlotleng Moobi, said the biggest challenge was finding a way to include technology in the way the group interacted, without disrupting their core values.
“We are an extension of an old traditional church, and technology isn’t a thing in it. We were forced to find alternatives which included Facebook and WhatsApp groups.” Moobi said even though the country was back at lockdown alert level 1, the group was unable to properly recover from the disruptions of the past year. “Most students are still at home, so we are still doing everything online. A lot will have to be done to revive the structure,” Moobi said.
While the year challenged Christian student structures, it also caused individual students to re-evaluate their personal routines and structures. An example of this is Catholic student Casey-Jean Hutton, who said the routine in Catholicism was something she had found comforting her whole life.
Hutton said she attends church now that the country is at lockdown level one, but they no longer host events such as Easter celebrations. She said the pandemic and the past year had forced a major change on her church: “Archbishop Buti Thlagale announced last year at the start of lockdown that missing Mass is no longer considered a sinful act due to the times we find ourselves in. This has given many individuals a free pass to skip Mass.”
Hutton said that despite her greatest efforts, she sometimes struggles to maintain the religious and academic schedule she had before. “Everything has become a mix-up of everything. The leniency in the rules introduced last year has caused me to put church and my religious commitments on the back burner sometimes, because I am able to access a video of the Mass later in the week rather than setting apart the time on a Sunday morning as usual.” She says, however, that she has developed a friendship with a fellow Catholic student at her res, and the two of them try to watch online church together, as well as initiate Bible study plans.
She is not the only student who had to re-evaluate her religious routine over the past year. Francis Machipisa, a student at University of Pretoria (UP), told Wits Vuvuzela he found being consistently rooted in his faith during the past year challenging. Machipisa, who was briefly a part of the Shofar Christian Church’s UP youth committee, said that during the lockdowns there was a sense of community and interaction that was missing.
“A large part of what drew me to Shofar and church, in general, was the interpersonal relationships I was able to form with all sorts of people. The pandemic made it difficult to maintain those and for them to feel authentic through a screen,” Machipisa said.
He also said online services were a challenge for him to attend and take part in. According to him, the fact that church services, youth meetings and all the other usual church interactions were no longer held in person meant that interpersonal relationships were significantly affected. This led him to go to a local church in his home town of Emalahleni instead, where he attends Friday Bible study classes and a Sunday service.
Machipisa said his choice to find a church in Emalahleni was largely motivated by a sense of loneliness. “There is just a deeper significance to being able to be in a like-minded community, helping each other and learning together,” he said, mentioning the positive effects that going to church has on him. “This was mostly because my community was set up to offer a lot of accountability my way, and many of the activities we did together were ones that in some way or other involved God.”
Machipisa and Hutton, despite being of different denominations, were both established in their faith. On the other end of the spectrum, however, sits Simon Mutsvangwa, an information technology student at Rosebank College in Braamfontein. Mutsvangwa began attending his church mid-pandemic. His church, Acts Church in Tembisa, mainly has youth and students as congregants. “The congregation was so welcoming that I was even made one of the youth leaders shortly after I joined,” said Mutsvangwa.
He said that the more intense lockdown phases were particularly hard on him. “As a youth leader, and someone who was new to church, I take direction and motivation directly from the elders in the church, and in the harsher lockdown days I was supposed to lead the youth, but I felt I didn’t know what I was doing, especially because I, myself, was so isolated. I didn’t feel as connected to God as I should have been.”
Langazelwe Dlamini, a University of Western Cape student who also attends the Acts Church, said her struggle came from being away from her church for half the year. For Dlamini’s first semester, she could study remotely and attend church in person, but after July her schedule changed.
Dlamini said this was hard on her, because even though she was far from home she did not want to attend any other church. The church did not have an online extension and she often missed services. “I had to train myself to devote a certain amount of time to studying the Bible and praying, because during the time I was at school, I no longer had a pastor teaching me every Sunday and Friday and now I had to be my ‘own teacher’ so that my relationship with God would continue to grow and I wouldn’t be stagnant during that time,” Dlamini said.
According to a study published by Prof Vasu Reddy, a sociologist at University of Pretoria, the isolation brought on by the social distancing periods caused by the pandemic is bound to leave a long-lasting effect on individuals and the public. This means that even after the pandemic is over, and the country has somewhat recovered from it, some of the ‘‘survival- based’’ reactions we presented as a society may not be things we can recover from. In this case, however, students have shown that when the world looks a mess, sometimes the only way to get through the confusion and chaos is to look to God.
FEATURED IMAGE: Wits SDASM Members during prayer to open up the service on October 30, 2021. Photo: Rebecca Kgabo