From the book: Side by Side by Helen Joseph
Forty years is a very long time to be away from the faith into which you were born and baptised, the faith in which you were brought up and confirmed. Yet it happened to me and I cannot really account for it.
There was a period of about two years between leaving convent school and going to university; because I matriculated at sixteen and could not be accepted at London University until I was eighteen. During this period, away from the convent, away from any familiar church, because we had moved to a new area, I became very apathetic about going to church and very spasmodic in my own devotions.
By the time I started at King's College in 1923, my faith had been pushed to one side, where it remained for nearly forty years. I was never an atheist and I do not think I could even have been called an agnostic. It was complete indifference, although I would never have denied the existence of God.
Once while I was in India and a few times when I first came to South Africa, I did go to church to please friends, and it would have been embarrassing not to accompany them. In church I would go through the forms of prayer and make some sort of apology to a god in whom I suppose I still claimed to believe. Thereafter, I made no further effort towards any prayers nor to go to church on my own. Yet, probably like many a "lapsed" Christian, I would pray desperately in times of anxiety or distress, "please. God, help me to bear this...", whatever it was.
Once I was married, I moved into a new society in which I no longer met any practising Christians and I moved even further away from my former faith. It took gaol to jolt me out of my indifference ”” gaol and Hannah Stanton, even though we spoke only once of my lack of faith.
It seems to me, in retrospect, that it would have been impossible to share a cell, as I did, with a committed Christian like Hannah, and not be moved by her example, almost to envy of the joy and strength her faith brought her. I had to admit to myself emptiness in my life, but I remained obdurate, behind the wall that I had built between all things spiritual and myself.
Perhaps I had been more affected by those first weeks of solitary confinement than I had realised at the time. Gaol indeed strips you of everything that belongs to your normal life. If you are alone it is worse and I had suddenly been removed from the daily close contact of my fellow accused.
I know that Hannah's example brought me to the recognition of faith as a real dimension of living. I always acknowledged it in the religious life of a convent and also in the church congregational life. I did not deny the value of the church ministry, but I deplored its failure to go beyond this, to take up the struggle for freedom, for justice, for the full recognition of human dignity.
I once, only once, tried to express this feeling to Hannah, but it was with bitter words about what I saw as the failure of the church. One day when Hannah and I were together in the exercise yard, the commandant of the gaol came to us to inform Hannah that a priest would be coming to give her Holy Communion. Turning to me he said, "Not you! He says you're a heathen."
Quite unreasonably, I felt outraged and insulted though I said nothing to Hannah about it. However, when the other women detainees arrived, they wanted the padre to visit them on Sundays. I was amazed for there wasn't a Christian amongst them but they still accepted his visits even after Hannah had gone. I think mainly because it broke the monotony of the gaol weekend and because they had established a pleasant, if non-religious, relationship with the chaplain.
I was still smarting under the epithet of heathen and refused to join the other women for the chaplain's visit. For this I was called to the matron's office, where I gave my reason that since he had said I was a heathen, I need have nothing to do with him, adding defiantly that I would rather Fight on my feet than on my knees. The matron informed me a few days later that the "heathen" had been the commandant's touch, not the chaplain's, but I still would not accept his visit.
Hannah was deported and left us. The other detainees went home after a couple of months and I was alone again in the gaol except for going to court most days for the trial. I was still in the great dormitory where we had all been together. It seemed enormously empty, especially at night and during the weekend. The matron told me that, despite my earlier refusal to see him, the prison chaplain would like to visit me on Sunday afternoons. I shrank from it at first but finally agreed, partly out of relief at the idea of having someone to talk to, even if only for half an hour.
The chaplain came. He knew of my attitude to the organised church, of my abandonment of my early faith. He talked to me, but not about religion, said a short prayer and gave me a prayer book. That was all. I accepted the prayer book with hesitance, as I did not want to hurt him by refusing. During the week that followed I began to look at it. I also had a very small, carefully hidden transistor radio, which I had smuggled into gaol one day, a gift from Bram Fischer for us. I used to bring batteries from court, hidden in the knot of hair on top of my head. I could listen to the radio through earphones, always on the alert for the clanking of keys outside the door. The reception wasn't very good but it was a precious link with the outside world. I found myself listening to church services on Sundays, a little at sea at first, then recognising more and more the familiar phrases, hidden until then in my childhood memories. The psalms and prayers I read in my prayer book were familiar too; it was almost like coming home.
Soon I began to talk to the chaplain. At first I was almost too ashamed to pray myself to the God I had neglected for two-thirds of my life. Yet the priest convinced me that I would not be rejected, so I began to pray again, very simply, often returning to my childhood prayers.
When it became clear that the Emergency was dragging to its end and we should soon be released from gaol, returning to our former trial lives, I was full of doubt about what might happen to this renewal of my faith. Would it be strong enough to survive?
It was as I had expected and feared. My faith and my prayers did not survive my return to ordinary life. After a very few weeks the flickering light of my faith was blown out by pressures of all kinds, office and political. Then I would feel ashamed and pray again for a week or two, making resolutions and forgetting them again. I once went to a church service, but I did not feel part of it. I was only on the outside, looking in. Yet I had love and respect for some of the very few Christians I knew and especially for the priests of the Community of the Resurrection who were supporting us so well in our work for the banished people.
Then came house arrest. From the beginning I received magnificent moral support, both nationally and internationally, for the Minister of Justice had succeeded in making me famous. I was surrounded by warm, concerned friends. All this had helped me to suppress to some extent the feeling of loneliness. I used to say, defiantly. "I may be alone, but 1 do not know what it means to be lonely!" That was only partly true. I was becoming aware of a deeper level of need, spiritual need, which I suppose was being brought a little nearer to the surface by the enforced solitude of house arrest, just as it had been in gaol.
I became deeply depressed over the major heart operation, which Amina had had to undergo. I used to visit her almost daily during my office lunch hour after reporting to the police, for she lived nearby. I feared that she might not survive the operation and somehow this forced me to acknowledge my isolation as nothing else had done. Yet it was at this point that I also became conscious of some indefinable concern and care over my personal agony, of a feeling that I was not really alone, that I never would be, that there was help and love for me if I would only reach out for it. I began to pray again, as I had not done for the three years since I came out of gaol and this time I found myself able to persevere with fewer lapses.
I had come a little closer to my faith, but I was still outside the church. I began to listen regularly to the religious services on the radio and as I listened, some of the voices became familiar, almost personal. Once I heard the Dean of Cape Town say. "A lonely Christian can't be a real Christian." I thought about that a lot and realised how inadequate my own life was, how self-centred my reaching out for faith. I had so often condemned the Christian churches for keeping apart from political issues, but I had not bothered to make Christian friends, apart from the priests of the Community of the Resurrection.
I observed them in their Priory. Their concern and love for all men was wonderful. I thought of Trevor Huddleston and his courageous stand against apartheid and the Sophiatown removals, his commitment to the struggle for freedom and justice. Such people seemed to be the true essence of what I believed the Christian church ought to be.
I realised that if I were to come back fully to my faith, then I ought not willfully to remain outside the church. True, I was under house arrest, but that did not prevent me from being a member of a Christian church ”” unless it was to be included in that strange definition of "Organisations that attack, defend, criticise or discuss any principle or policy of the government of a state". If that was so, then almost any church that ever there was must fall into that prohibited category. I soon discarded that line of thinking and decided that it was not for me to exclude myself from the church. That could be left to the government if it wished to take action against me.
I thought long and seriously about what steps to take to return to the church. I finally discussed it with Leo Rakale of the Community of the Resurrection, talking to him many times in the peaceful Priory garden. I found that I could talk to Leo more easily than to anyone else. Eventually I could say to him that if the church would have me, then I wanted to come back, instead of standing aloof”” even after forty years of drifting and utter neglect. I wanted to go to Mass again. I wanted the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
Leo handled me gently and with great understanding. He knew that I must not be pushed into this important step, nor even persuaded into it. I must come back at my own pace, in my own time. I do not believe that it was just the loneliness of house arrest. I was a prodigal returning to the father, to complete forgiveness and to a loving welcome. In time of need, yes, but the need was the instrument to satisfy a want, which had been suppressed for many years.
The friendship of the Community enriched my life. I was cut off from many friends of former days. They were now in gaol, banned or gone from South Africa. But here was a group of men living under vows of poverty and obedience, having all things in common, inspired and strengthened by their faith.
I became aware of the rhythm of their life. Sometimes when I was working in the library there I could hear their voices in the little chapel singing the cadences of their midday office. Theirs was a life dedicated to God and also to the world. They did not shut themselves away; all people were important to them as individuals.
It was in the fourth year of my house arrest that I at last opened myself to what I hoped would be a new life and to new joys. I had to find out whether I could go to Mass in the hours when I was not under house arrest. The Minister of Justice, however, had declared on an earlier occasion, I discovered, that banned people were not prohibited from attending bona fide religious services.
Father Rakale suggested that I should find myself more at home in the multiracial cathedral in the centre of Johannesburg than in the local Anglican church of Norwood, where there would be an all-white congregation. The Rev Gonville ffrench-Beytagh was then the Dean of St Mary's Cathedral. He was famous for his "political" sermons and for his forthrightness and courage on racial matters, both in the pulpit and out of it.
The only Mass I could attend was at seven o'clock on a working morning. I could leave my house at six thirty and then go on to work after Mass and a quick coffee and toast with the Dean's friendly secretary in her nearby flat. Sometimes I would go to the Priory in Rosettenville for their early Mass and a "breakfast for two" with Father Leo Rakale. My Sunday house arrest prevented me from going to the High Mass in the Cathedral where there is always a large, totally racially integrated congregation.
St Mary's congregation consists of blacks and white, coloured, Indians and Chinese, worshipping together, singing together in the choir. Black and white priests celebrate the Mass side by side. Holy Communion may be received from a black or a white hand. It is a sad comment on the Christian church in South Africa that this should be almost unique.
The Dean asked me whether representations should be made for me to have a couple of hours freedom on Sundays to go to Mass, but I refused because I did not want it said, or even thought, that I had returned to the church merely to get a couple of hours out on a Sunday morning. I said I would reconsider it if the house arrest bans were renewed when they expired the following year.
My second house arrest shocked people even more than the first. Since I now belonged to the Anglican Church there were church protests at all levels, from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who wrote me a most concerned letter, to the congregation of St Mary's. I had not yet met most of them, but they cook part in an all-night vigil of prayer and protest on my behalf.
I agreed that the Dean should lead a deputation to the Minister of Justice to apply for me to be given permission to leave my home on Sundays so that I could attend High Mass at the Cathedral and also attend the midnight Masses at Easter and Christmas. Permission was granted and I was glad, but I realised that it recognised the power of the Minister of Justice.
Two years later I learned from Winnie that when she was interrogated about me. Colonel Coetzee had in fact said that I was not a sincere Christian and that I only went back to the church so that I could dodge part of my house arrest.
My return to the church brought me one very great honour. The Archbishop of Canterbury came on a brief visit to the Anglican Church in South Africa. He wanted to meet Helen Joseph, the Anglican under house arrest. It had, of course to be a meeting of two people only. We met for breakfast at the house of the Bishop of Johannesburg. I don't think I have ever been so shy or so tongue-tied, despite his genial kindness. After a few minutes it became easier to talk and answer his interested questions.
The Archbishop asked me what I intended to do with my theological knowledge when I had completed my studies. I don't know whether he thought I might say, "become a woman priest", but I replied, "nothing, it is an end in itself. He clapped his hands together in obvious delight, exclaiming, "that is the only way to approach learning!"
I was so overcome by this accolade that when he said that he was going to give me a blessing I forgot my ecclesiastical manners and did not kneel for it. Fortunately he is an extremely tall man and could place his hands upon my head without difficulty.
Today I know that I should not agree completely with his attitude towards knowledge, for I am convinced that knowledge and service to humanity are inseparable, that learning ought not to be an end in itself.
The cancer operation of 1971 brought at end to house arrest. I came out of hospital to a "freedom" I had not known for nine years and to full freedom of church worship, no longer by favour of the Minister of Justice.
I went to the Cathedral for the High Mass on the first Sunday I was out of hospital. I took part in the Offertory procession bearing the bread and wine to be consecrated for the Holy Communion. I walked up the aisle, thankful to have a stalwart man beside me carrying the bread in case I stumbled on the way. The Dean had not known I was coming because I wanted to surprise him. When he saw me his face broke into a broad smile of loving welcome, despite the solemnity of the ritual. I walked back to my seat, this time by myself, but not alone, for there were smiling faces on either side in the pews to welcome me back to the cathedral, to life and to freedom. The whole congregation seemed to come alive in greeting and in gratitude to God.
It was in that same year that Father Cosmas Desmond publicly defied his house arrest by attending a church service on Sunday, not once, but every Sunday for six weeks. He had taken a courageous stand. His banning orders did not prevent him from attending religious services, but his house arrest did at the weekend. To violate house arrest could invoke a gaol sentence of up to three years' imprisonment with no option of a fine.
At first I found it difficult to decide whether Cos was politically correct. I had accepted that individual defiance had minimal political value. Mass defiance should be the goal. Cos's Christianity and his priesthood brought a new dimension. He was deliberately confronting the state, denying its right to interfere with his duty as an ordained priest, to celebrate Mass, to conduct religious services on Sunday, denying its right to dictate whether he should or should not worship God in church on Sunday, as Christians are constrained to do.
I came to the conclusion that he had been right to refuse to ask permission to break the house arrest. I realised that I had been wrong earlier in allowing that deputation to approach the minister on my behalf, for in the end I had had to make the application myself. Cos had refused to do this and defied arrest and he was right.
Surprisingly, no police action was taken against him and he was even given a relaxation of his ban to allow him to attend any church services in Johannesburg on Sundays. He had indeed won a victory.
I had returned to the church in 1966, the same year that my second book, Tomorrow's Sun, was published in England. I received a very inspiring letter from an Anglican nun in England. Sister Angela of the enclosed Anglican order of Poor Clares, explained that her order was completely enclosed within its convent walls, having no physical contact whatsoever with the outside world. Theirs was a life of contemplation and prayer but also of intercession for the troubled world. They had need, therefore, to keep themselves informed of what was going on in the world by reading newspapers and books. They had no radio or television.
Sister Angela had read my book and felt she wanted to know me. The Mother Superior had given her special permission to write to me and that was how it began, a close and deep relationship. It was at first only by letter and then she was allowed to make tapes to send to me. Legally I could not make tapes for her, for that would be reproducing the statements of a banned person. However, occasionally I managed to send one to her.
All this drew me right into the heart of the enclosed community and it became, in a way, part of my own enforced enclosure. I had photographs of the convent chapel and of their lovely garden. I felt I knew every part of the convent from the kitchen and the nuns' cells to the roofs onto which the nuns climbed by ladder to repair them.
I cannot find words to explain how it was that such a deep bond of love and understanding grew between us. We had never met and never thought we should meet, but our lives seemed intertwined. Later there were also occasional brief telephone calls. We accepted our separation, for she was enclosed in a convent and I was without a passport and too stubborn to plead for one, even when I was no longer under house arrest.
In 1973 the miracle happened. Angela was allowed to visit her seriously ill mother lest she should not live to return to England to see her daughter again. Angela left her English convent and flew to Sydney. It was Angela, not I, who obtained travel brochures to work out that it would cost no more for her to fly via Johannesburg than via Tel Aviv. She obtained the permission of her Order to spend one day at the Johannesburg airport before flying back to England, but she had to remain at the airport. She was not allowed to come to my house because our being together at all had to be part of her journey so that it would not violate her enclosure.
It was Angela, not I, who thought of booking a room at the Airport Holiday Inn rather than spending our precious time in empty airport concourses. I am sure that never before was any Holiday Inn so blest, for Father Leo brought Holy Communion for us and said Mass with a makeshift altar on top of the central heating pipes. The time was short for us but unforgettable as we laughed and talked all day, Angela the enclosed nun and Helen, the political committed person. Somehow I knew that our closeness would continue always, that she would go on inspiring me with her eager faith and that I should always be stumbling along behind her.
The congregation of St Mary's Cathedral is completely integrated in form. The people, the priests, the choir are black and white together. Yet every Sunday, when the Mass is over, only the memory of that fellowship remains. The reality is dispersed and the people go their ways again, to the white suburbs and the black suburbs, to the white homes and the black homes, with the un-Christian disparity between them. I realised that the very fact that the cathedral was in the centre of a large city would militate against a completely integrated congregation, both socially and politically. Those who come on Sundays come from widely separate and different parts of Johannesburg, Africans from Soweto, Indians from Lenasia, coloureds from their segregated suburbs and the whites from the northern suburbs. I learned to accept that the wonder lay in the very fact that Sunday after Sunday these people of all races come from all areas to join together in worship, to create, even if only for two hours, a unique togetherness. It was that which Winnie had welcomed when she said, "In there I have seen what we are fighting for." Nevertheless, I knew a sense of disappointment that although my own involvement in the church had brought me personal and spiritual peace, the cathedral and its members were not prepared to walk along the road of involvement with the suffering people of South Africa.
In 1977 there had been that all-night vigil to commemorate the Soweto dead of 1976. That had brought people together for one night, yet many of those at the vigil had come from other congregations or no congregations. The cathedral worshippers had given little support. Was it fear that had kept them away when the Minister of Justice had interfered so ruthlessly? Would they have come otherwise?
Although the Cathedral shuts apartheid outside its doors, the struggle for justice and freedom seems also to have been shut out. The non-involvement of St Mary's congregation is equally true of the Anglican Church in general. I have written about St Mary's because it is the church to which I came back to hopefully and to which I still belong.
In the Anglican Church and in other churches, there are outstanding committed Christians whose care and concern for the black people of South Africa has taken them far along the costly road of sacrifice. I think of Bishop Trevor Huddleston, of Bishop Tutu, of Father Cosmas Desmond, of Dean ffrench-Beytagh, of the Rev Beyers Naude ”” and of others. I pay tribute to them all. But there are not enough and the masses in the pews are still silent.
Nevertheless I feel a strong bond of fellowship and communion with St Mary's, its priests and its congregation, just as I do with the priests of the Community of the Resurrection and with Sister Angela and her enclosed community. It is true that I have not entered into the usual activities of my church, nor is it likely that I shall ever do so now. Age and physical disabilities make it difficult for me even to attend Mass on Sundays. My loving friends of the Community of the Resurrection often bring the Mass to me instead. The sacraments and worship of my church are precious indeed.
Sometimes my atheist friends ask me what I really believe and I find myself then most inarticulate. Gandhi has said part of it for me:
God is that indefinable something which we all feel but which we do not know. To me God is truth and love. God is ethics and morality. God is fearlessness. God is the source of light and life and yet He is above all these. He is even the atheism of the atheist. He is personal God to those who need His touch.
The atheism of the atheists I have encountered is an utterly selfless devotion to a cause, the cause of justice. Most of my friends are professed atheists, they are dedicated people and they have made immeasurable sacrifices. Christians claim to follow Christ. Atheists make no such claim, but they set an example many a Christian could follow.
I am among the millions of Christians who need God's personal touch. I lost it and then found it again. It was God's touch that reached me in gaol and during house arrest. That is what made it possible for me to come back to the Christian faith. A faith I accept in its totality, to which I try to witness as best I can in my personal and political life.