World religions large and small are all represented in Johannesburg, which has many places of worship scattered across its suburbs and townships.
THE small township of Alexandra is brimful of churches of all denominations, from traditional Lutheran and Baptist to African breakaway.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church has roots going back in South Africa 100 years. The impressive church stands proudly in Alexandra, still serving the community 80 years after it was built.
Hillbrow’s oldest church is the 99-year-old Friedenskirche or Evangelical Lutheran Church, completed in 1912. There have been Lutherans living in the city since its earliest days, and the Hillbrow church still plays an active role in the community.
A tranquil retreat rests on Langermann Kop in Kensington, the home of the Kensington Buddhist Centre under Rob Nairn, who has been a Buddhist for the past 36 years. His meditation and mindfulness courses offer Joburgers a quiet kind of rush.
This is the eighth in a series of articles on Johannesburg’s splendid places of worship.
African Methodist Episcopal Church, Alexandra (1933)
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was established in South Africa in the early 1900s through the initiative of political and religious activist Charlotte Maxeke. She had spent time in the United States, touring first in a choir, and then remaining to take a science degree before returning to South Africa.
While there, she became involved in the American Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), which was founded in the US in 1787, a breakaway from the Methodist Church which discriminated against black worshippers. Through an uncle of Maxeke’s in Pretoria, a branch of the AME was established in South Africa, known as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The church in Alexandra was built in 1933, a solid grey-plastered structure, with a square clock-like tower, two A-framed gables and attractive arched windows. The entrance is up a flight of stairs and the predominant feel in the church is of wood - wood panelling lines each side of the nave, and neat rows of new wooden benches fill the pew, seating 150 congregants.
Pastor Jacob Sefatsa says his congregation numbers up to 160 members, and most Sundays around 100 people attend the service. Members come from as far as Soweto, Midrand and Pretoria, mostly great-grandchildren of members who were forcefully removed from Alexandra by the apartheid government. These original members would have struggled to save the money to buy the piece of land on which the church is built, says Sefatsa.
Originally a nurse, Sefatsa converted 22 years ago and preached in the Vaal triangle, before moving three years ago to Alexandra, visiting his wife and children in Alberton every week. He lives in the manse on the site, a typical 1930s Alexandra house with stoep and four bedrooms.
He says that 58 percent of his congregants are unemployed, but still the church relies entirely on donations from the congregation.
He has ambitious plans for the church. He is renovating the generous basement, and plans to set up a crèche and community centre. The church has adopted the family across the road, paying for school fees, books and groceries.
“This is a happy church, and a wonderful community,” he says with a smile.
Friedenskirche or Evangelical Lutheran Church, Hillbrow (1912)
The first Lutheran church in Johannesburg was completed in 1900, on the corner of Hancock and Quartz streets in the CBD. A Lutheran missionary wanted to hold a funeral service for the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm 1, in 1888, and discovered there were other Lutherans in the bustling tent town that was Joburg. The site for the church was acquired in 1888, and a simple A-framed building was erected.
The Friedenskirche or Evangelical Lutheran Church sits snugly amongst the high rises of HillbrowThe Friedenskirche or Evangelical Lutheran Church sits snugly amongst the high rises of HillbrowBut it was soon too small, and the Friedenskirche was completed in 1912, between Edith Cavell and Twist streets in Hillbrow. At the time, it had a commanding view over the town, perched as it is on the hill. These days it is a little lost in the residential high-rises surrounding it.
Its sandstone foundation runs halfway up the impressive three-bell tower. Sandstone finishes are evident inside the charming church, in columns and window frames. These finishes are perfectly offset by the long rows of warm-brown wooden benches, striking wooden ceiling beams and the rounded wooden balcony, with its tall organ against the back wall. Unusual stained-glass windows contrast with the off-white plaster walls.
Pastor Kees Appelo says the wood and sandstone in the church has just had a thorough cleaning. The church was totally renovated in 1956.
There was originally a German school and a pastor’s house on the site, which have made way for the Andre Huguenot Theatre, a small block of flats and a crèche, run by MES, or the Metro Evangelical Services. A second pastor’s house still exists on the site, but is now used as a music centre.
Appelo says that there are eight Lutheran congregations in Joburg, one of which, the church in Bryanston, is German. The congregation of Friedenskirche numbers around 370 souls, half of them the original church community which used to live in Hillbrow.
The church is very active in the local community, he adds. The Lutheran Community Foundation has a range of projects on the go: kids’ week, arts and crafts, theatre, a music centre, a computer centre, a financial literary course, and a youth hang-out centre.
The philosophy behind the foundation’s work is “healing through skills transfer”. And it seems to be working. Appelo says that people who have learned skills at the foundation, manage to get jobs, even if they don’t use the skills they have learned. But they have learned self-esteem and confidence, which is often the key to unlocking other talents.
Friedenskirche means “church of peace”; it’s an appropriate description for a site that exudes peace in the middle of bustling Hillbrow.
Kagyu Samye Dzong Johannesburg, Kensington (1905)
The Kensington Buddhist Centre is in a Victorian house built in 1905 in one of the city’s loveliest suburbs. It is also known also as the Tibetan Meditation Centre for World Health and Peace.
The creamy finish to the Kensington Buddhist Centre, overlooking the eastern suburbsThe creamy finish to the Kensington Buddhist Centre, overlooking the eastern suburbsBuddhism is not a formal religion with a particular belief system, but it is the practice of recognising what is beneficial to life, and living in a particular way, says Rob Nairn, the leader of the centre.
“The Kagyu Africa centres in southern Africa are in the lineage of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism,” records the Kagyu Africa website.
They are under the spiritual guidance of Akong Rinpoche, the founder of Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Centre in Scotland, and have been active since the early 1970s. Nairn is Rinpoche’s representative in Africa.
To be a Buddhist means taking a vow to do two things: to “train your mind to develop your higher spiritual potential”, and to “develop wisdom, compassion and love to benefit all beings, which include all life forms”, explains Nairn.
This means that you vow not to kill, steal or tell lies, use sex harmfully, or indulge in intoxicants. Buddhism is not a religion of conversion; in fact, followers are encouraged to stick to their own religions.
The centre has been based in the double-storey Kensington house for the past 15 years, having moved from its base in Auckland Park. The house, which has been extended to double its size, contains offices and flatlets for visiting Buddhist teachers. At its heart there is a shrine and meditation room, with a small gold Burmese teak Buddha within a cabinet against one wall.
The Buddhist community of around 400 is a very mixed group, says Nairn, with Indian, Chinese, Thai and followers from other Asian countries joining the pre-dominantly white members. He estimates that there are about a thousand practising Buddhists in Joburg.
The centre offers meditation courses, but its mindfulness courses are by far the most popular.
Nairn, who travels all year to teach and run retreats in Cape Town, Scotland, London, the US and Zimbabwe, has been teaching Buddhism since 1975. In 1964, he was instructed by His Holiness The Dalai Lama to teach meditation and Buddhism. He resigned from his professorship in law and criminology at the University of Cape Town in 1980, and has since offered his “unique mix of training and experience in law and psychology” to explain “traditional Buddhist concepts from a Western psychological perspective”.
Regular activities at the centre are a soup kitchen, yoga and tai chi classes, and courses. And for those who find Kensington too far to travel, a new centre is about to open in Randburg.
Places of worship
There are many places of worship in Johannesburg, representing the gamut of religions. Some of the more notable ones are:
Temple Israel, Hillbrow, 1936;
St Alban’s Anglican Mission Church, Ferreirasdorp, 1928;
Johannesburg Melrose Shree Siva Subramaniar Temple, Abbotsford, 1996;
Coptic Orthodox Church, Parkview, 1999;
ZCC Church, Alexandra;
Dutch Reformed Church, Fairview, 1906;
Mosque, Kerk Street, mid-1990s;
Church of Latter Day Saints, Parktown 1985;
Grace Bible Church, Pimville, 2002;
Our Lady of the Cedars of Lebanon, Woodmead, 1991;
Greek Orthodox Church, Hillbrow, 1912;
Dutch Reformed Church, Cottesloe, 1935;
Christ the King Anglican Church, Sophiatown, 1935;
St Mary’s Cathedral, inner city, 1929;
Swaminarayan Mandir, Lenasia, 2004;
St Mary’s the Less, Jeppestown, 1889;
Regina Mundi Catholic Church, Soweto, 1964;
The Lions Shul, Doornfontein, 1906;
Mosques, Vrededorp, 1930s;
St Anthony’s, Crown Mines, 1976; and
St Peter’s Priory, Rosettenville, 1903.
Great churches and temples of Joburg
Great churches, small congregations
Joburg's great places of worship
Some great places to worship
Joburgers gather to worship
City's melting pot
Faith writes the city's history