New church puts down roots in Yeoville

Despite the large presence of both formal and informal churches in Yeoville, Joe Muthee has endeavoured to start a new church in the suburb introducing what could be called “the gospel according to Joe”.

Ushers greet visitors with hugs as they walk through the doors of St Mark’s Presbyterian Church hall in Yeoville. Buzzing conversations echo against bare walls. The plastic chairs stacked in rows across the 180m² wooden floors can seat about 80 congregants. The Pentecostal church, Cornerstone Yeoville, which was launched here on Sunday October 5 2014, is the realisation of the seven-year-old dream of Kenyan-born pastor Joe Muthee.

This new church, launched in the St Mark’s hall on the corner of Kenmere and Frances streets, is a recent addition to the plethora of churches in Yeoville. On Kenmere Street alone there are seven, four of which share the hall. Cornerstone Yeoville is the fifth branch of the Cornerstone church in Johannesburg. The others are in Bedfordview, Rosebank, Braamfontein and the South.

Yeoville was established in 1890 and has always been home to migrant communities. Having evolved from a Jewish neighbourhood to a bohemian and political hub in the 1980s and ‘90s, it is now mainly home to African migrants.

Muthee moved to South Africa with his parents in 1996. He previously attended Cornerstone Bedfordview and now voluntarily heads Cornerstone Yeoville. He works as a full-time salesman in the mechanical engineering field. Seven years ago, while walking and praying on the streets of Yeoville, he saw a need for a religious revival.

“We realised the place was in need of the truth … This place needs to be impacted by the gospel.”

SPIRITED SERVANT: After evangelising in the Yeoville community for seven years, Joe Muthee (centre) will be voluntary pastor of Cornerstone church. Congregants from different Cornerstone branches in Johannesburg came to the opening of the new church on October 5 2014. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

Cornerstone is affiliated with New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI), a ministry team that originated in Johannesburg in the 1980s under the leadership of Australian pastor Dudley Daniel. Its presence has since extended to more than 80 countries across the world, under the leadership of Tyrone Daniel, who is based in Denver, Colorado.

NCMI helps pastors “plant” local churches. Church leaders can voluntarily partner with NCMI, which is non-denominational. The partnerships are not legally binding. Cornerstone shares the NCMI’s vision of spreading the gospel beyond borders by having church elders like Muthee “plant” churches.

“We believe we have been called to impact nations in local community and into the world. We believe that’s a command Jesus has given to us,” says Muthee. The tithes (10% of earnings) and offerings from congregants and businesses at Cornerstone Bedfordview were used to establish Cornerstone Yeoville. Muthee hopes Cornerstone Yeoville will become self-sustaining.

To join Cornerstone, potential members are invited to complete a four-week course in which they learn about the church’s values. People are welcome to stay if they agree with the beliefs and principles of the church: Jesus Christ, the Bible, the trinity, humanity’s fall, the Holy Spirit, baptism, communion, apostolic Christianity and one universal church. If they do not, they may choose to leave, says Muthee.

Compared to the established Pentecostal churches in the area, with their flamboyantly coloured curtains, bouquets on the altars, red-carpeted stages, full-worship bands and pastors in tailored suits, Cornerstone’s gatherings are minimalist.

Sundays at Cornerstone

It’s Sunday morning. The service starts promptly at 9am. The skeletal band leading the worship includes two guitarists, a keyboard player and a percussionist beating a box drum. Muthee, dressed casually in a blue shirt with white pinstripes, jeans and sneakers, can easily be mistaken for a congregant. A woman pointed him out: “He’s the black guy over there.”

A countdown is projected against the wall as congregants eagerly count: “Five, four, three, two, one!” A praise song, Mighty to Save, begins and the congregation claps to its rhythm and sings along. Some dance and wave their arms, raised to the ceiling.

People of different nationalities, races and ages are singing together. A sign-language interpreter leads some of the deaf congregants in worship. As the tone of the session changes from celebration to a time of spiritual connection, the congregation is led with the hymn How Great Thou Art. People start to weep. The worship leader prays for Yeoville and the work that Cornerstone will do there.

A prophetic word of encouragement is given by one of the worship leaders. She reads from John Chapter 14, verse six: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The congregants are led in prayer before settling down to hear the message.

SWEET ANOINTING: Congregants ‘anoint’ Joe Muthee and his wife Cathy with clothing to represent spiritual gifts of healing, teaching and preaching, at the opening of Cornerstone church on October 5 2014. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

Muthee preaches about his upbringing, his parents’ divorce and how he ended up attending church. He graduated from high school and, with no means to go to university, he took the chance of meeting potential employers at church. To impress them, he joined the church soccer team and in 2004 he became a born-again Christian.

Muthee says the conversion came firstly by the “love of Christ” and secondly, the people (Christians). He says their generosity and kindness spoke to his heart. Since becoming a Christian he has been concerned for people, especially in Yeoville. “There are lots of different people here. Most of them are hopeless, destitute and lost.”

Starting the church wasn’t easy. Muthee and his team of 12 battled to get their ministry off the ground, because “there are plenty churches here”. There are in fact 25 churches formally registered as non-profit organisations in Yeoville. On top of that there are many informal churches.

“We can’t control those,” says Nandipa Masilela, who works on the ward committee of health and social development. There are penalties for churches which aren’t registered, but they have mushroomed due to a lack of monitoring.

Johannesburg City Council town planner Angeline Ramahlo says the municipality is currently developing a church policy with which all churches will have to comply. One requirement is that the church design should be aesthetically pleasing and not intrusive to the public.

All these churches in Yeoville accommodate the different migrant communities in the suburb. Most of the pastors of Pentecostal churches are West African, mainly Nigerian and Ghanaian. Foreigners gravitate to these churches through a need for belonging. Pentecostal churches are particularly popular because they are more “global” and the teachings are in English, explains Simbarashe Nyuke, a researcher from the Wits University anthropology department. “For them it brings a sense of community, of brotherhood.”

After they have being baptised, these foreigners feel they belong to a family of believers. Tatenda Kufandada (22), whose family lives in Zimbabwe, found a home when he attended Cornerstone church meetings at the invitation of Muthee. He says people were nice to him and made him feel welcome.

BELONGING: Living a life away from home isn’t easy, says Zimbabwean Tatenda Kafundada (22) who moved to South Africa 18 months ago. He says he found a new home and sense of belonging at Cornerstone church. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

The popularity of Pentecostal churches among foreigners also has to do with churches promising “prosperity and protection” when they move to South Africa, says Nyuke. Johannesburg is seen as a “city of gold”, where foreigners can have a better life and prosper. Most foreigners, however, struggle to make progress here. Churches step in to provide the hope that Johannesburg fails to give them by offering prayer and spiritual deliverance that manifest physically as blessings of wealth and professional progress.

Miguel Matu, who has been attending a Pentecostal church in Yeoville for seven years, says that his life has been “blessed” since joining his church and following the word of God. Matu, who hails from Angola, says he didn’t have money but put the little he had into God’s work. “I saw the blessing of God come in my life.” He believes that, since he followed the Bible, God has blessed him with a house and a business.

Muthee and his team started working in the Yeoville community three years ago. They evangelised on Rockey Street on Wednesday nights, inviting people to church services in Bedfordview. “We found that it is quite far. Many people don’t have cars.”

Group meetings were then initiated on Thursday nights, in the St Mark’s Presbyterian Church hall. However it was difficult to get it off the ground as “the culture is that church happens on a Sunday morning”, says Muthee.

Over the years the number of people attending meetings has fluctuated sharply. Immigrants often relocate, says Muthee. For one season they might have many people coming through for meetings and then the next season these numbers would drop again because people had left Yeoville. “It’s not very constant.”

“It’s God’s work, everybody is supposed to be God-like”

But now that they have finally found a building for their Sunday services, work will be easier, he says. It was very hard to find a suitable property in Yeoville. They were “opposed by [local] government” because churches have a bad reputation in the community. Churches often operate beyond acceptable hours and make excessive noise. “We tried getting the recreational hall and the government said no,” says Muthee.

The council does not let churches use the recreation centre or the park. “If we give to one church then we must give to all,” says ward councillor Sihlwele Myeki. Designating a public space as a place of worship is not fair on the rest of the community, he says.

The development planning department at the Johannesburg City Council deals with applications for church properties. The department also handles complaints, and town planners conduct assessments. Myeki says complaints from residents are always related to noise, or blocked roads due to inadequate parking in the areas where church services are held, often houses or compact venues.

Neliswa Ndlovu, who has been living in Yeoville since 1998, says there are churches in Yeoville “on each and every street”. She complains about the new churches opening in private houses and the excessive noise.

Myeki says residents like Ndlovu often point out that churches take up accommodation space, while there is a housing shortage. “Unfortunately there is no land available for churches.” Yeoville is an old suburb and has largely been built up. New churches therefore often have to resort to occupying houses.

After negotiating for three years, Cornerstone reached an agreement to sublet the St Mark’s hall from the Presbyterian Church. Muthee says they did not have to follow formal application procedures with the municipality because the Presbyterian Church owns the hall.

CORNERSTONE: After spending three years finding a venue, Cornerstone Yeoville has found a home at St Mark’s Presbyterian Church hall. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

The Presbyterian Church allows up to four churches to use the hall. They are not seen as competition. “It’s God’s work, everybody is supposed to be God-like,” says session clerk Giyani Matampi. More churches mean more people will convert to Christianity. The churches pay according to the frequency of their use of the building. The money goes to the maintenance of the premises and water and electricity bills, says Matampi. Cornerstone uses the hall up to three times a week which means they pay more than R3000 a month.

Muthee hopes that one day they will get their own building. “Yeoville is exceptionally expensive and it’s very difficult to find a suitable property.”

Another problem, he says, is that, in Yeoville, many churches have “hurt” people. “Many people have said that churches are meant to give, but here churches come and take.” He says the Cornerstone team is “adamant” about changing these negative attitudes.

A pastor from another Pentecostal church on Kenmere Street, Sebastian Muanza, agrees with Muthee. “Churches have abused people by telling lies and extorting money from them.” Muanza says their job is difficult because they have to correct the mistakes other pastors made in the past.

A common perception among community members is that churches are businesses or scams. Aletta Kock, who has lived in Yeoville since 2006 and attends the Old Apostolic Church, says churches preach about helping people struggling on the street but no one does anything. “People’s lives are not different. It’s still the same.” She compares the churches to spaza shops: “People only want to make money.”

Linda Nxumalo, who sells craft jewellery at the Yeoville Market on Rockey Street, has been going to a church in Forest Town for the past 40 years. She does not like the places of worship in Yeoville. “There are no churches in Yeoville, they are businesses.”

How the churches demand money from their congregants. By: Lameez Omarjee

Muthee and his team acknowledge they face many challenges in Yeoville. “Firstly we need to introduce Christ to them.” He stresses that the difference between Cornerstone and other churches is that they teach the truth effectively. “You don’t solve a broken glass by leaving it broken or breaking it more. We fix it.”

Muthee says that, in order to grow, they will continue their Wednesday night evangelism, inviting residents to attend Sunday services. They also plan to have an impact on the community through social upliftment efforts like feeding schemes and entrepreneurship programmes which will address employment needs in the area.

They are also considering clean-up activities so that residents “take ownership of the streets”. Muthee says no one seems to care what the streets look like. “We need to change that attitude so that people find a sense of ownership in where they belong, a sense of pride which is a difficult thing if you live in a rundown area.” He hopes the community projects will help the congregation to grow.

Asked if he would consider working with other churches in social development projects, Muthee says they hope to work with other local churches in time. “We need as many hands as possible.”  However, he is wary about following the lead of other churches in “speaking a lot” and not doing anything.

Three weeks since its inception, Cornerstone Yeoville has yet to start these programmes to improve the community.  Muthee says these plans had been stifled by the lack of a venue. “But now that we have a venue we will put programmes together.”

The gospel according to Joe

Before closing the service, Muthee gives congregants the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as their saviour. True to his word and cause, throughout his message he reiterates that the church preaches Jesus and not Cornerstone. He consistently preaches about the “supernatural” birth, life and death of Jesus Christ.

DELIVERANCE: Congregants go up to receive prayer at the conclusion of the service. Joe Muthee makes an altar call: ‘Salvation is a gift, not a right. We don’t deserve it. To get a gift you need to accept it.’ Photo: Lameez Omarjee

Muthee then asks to pray for congregants who are “sick, hopeless and in need of the truth”, and calls them to the front of the church to receive prayer. He quotes John chapter 16, verse 33: “Take heart because I have overcome it all.”

This message is different from the “prosperity” gospel of the many churches in Yeoville. His introduction of Jesus Christ could be the “truth” Yeoville has been missing.

FEATURED IMAGE: After evangelising in the Yeoville community for seven years, Joe Muthee (centre) will be voluntary pastor of Cornerstone church. Congregants from different Cornerstone branches in Johannesburg came to the opening of the new church on October 5 2014. Photo: Lameez Omarjee