Today this parish – this community – is being asked to write down what our life together is like. Who are we? What makes us a faith community – a Christian community? What does it mean to follow the way of Christ – to be disciples of Christ? Now, in our particular time and place, with our society’s particular challenges and problems. Last week I talked about the ever-changing world we live in and the way our journey needs to acknowledge the changes and difficulties.
Think for a moment what it must have been like for those very first followers of Christ. They had no blueprints, no district strategies, no buildings to maintain or repair or replace, no trained leaders. What would it mean to follow this new path? How would they plan their lives? How would they plan their communities? How would they gather together in groups that were so totally different from the carefully ordered groups and classes of Graeco-Roman society? Sometimes we forget how much they had to start from scratch, and, more importantly, how much they went by the promptings of the Spirit of God. Much more than we do. The final question of every Methodist Conference is: ‘What is the Spirit saying to the Church?’ I’m not convinced that we really take this seriously, surrounded as we usually are by suitcases and people making final travel arrangements and trying to have farewell moments with particular people before they go out the door. Or even that we really want to hear what the Spirit is saying to us, especially if the Spirit is pointing us in an entirely new and challenging direction.
We have had our own disasters recently, both in this city and nationally, and many of us have spent time and energy working through these and finding new paths to travel. But I’m not going to dwell on these today. I want to tell another story. A story of a new beginning.
There’s a small coastal village in South Africa. It’s called Hamberg – not exactly an African name – but it was named by settlers from Germany and the name stuck although most of the Germans are long gone. It was a fishing village until the water became contaminated. So the men went to work in other towns, leaving their wives and children in Hamberg. And it was the time when HIV-AIDS was spreading through the country. Many of the men were infected. They came home and infected their wives. The village community became mostly grandmothers looking after the children.
Then two German doctors, husband and wife, came to Hamburg. They succeeded in establishing the area’s only AIDS hospice and treatment centre, and raised funds to provide the first-ever drug treatment for the many HIV positive members of their adopted community. But it didn’t stop there. Carol Hofmeyer had a fine arts degree well as a medical degree. Her ministry to the people of Keiskammer valley extended beyond medical care to involving the local women in a series of projects that use art as a means of commemorating the lives lost to AIDS and of consoling those left behind. She also began to think about ways to help the grandmothers find the means to raise the children. Embroidery was one of the local skills so she encouraged the women to make rugs and cushions-covers for local markets, partly as a way. Then she brought in some technical experts from London who encouraged the grandmothers to focus on a particular regional style of working and develop it further. The ladies became so skilled that their fame spread beyond the district, and they were asked to embroider the panels that hang in the Parliament in Capetown. They deigned their own version of the Bayeux Tapestry using the history of South Africa’s Eastern Cape up to the end of apartheid. It took more than 100 women six months to complete this, and as they came to the end, they asked Carol Hofmeyer for another equally challenging task. And she did.
She went home to Germany on leave. While she was there she visited the church in Colmar with the famous Isenheim altarpiece. It’s a plague altar, commissioned in the early 1500s by the order of St Anthony to celebrate the regions deliverance from a plague caused by ergot in contaminated flour. She thought: my people could tell their story like this. She took photos and made measurements and took them back to Hamberg. And the women talked and planned and drew up patterns and went to work. And now I’ll show you how they told their story.
I saw the altarpiece quite by accident in San Francisco. I had climbed the hill to the Cathedral. It was a hot day so I thought I’d go inside and rest for a while – and there was the Keiskammer Altarpiece. It was being toured round America as a fund raiser. It’s enormous! Far bigger than our Aldersgate screen.
It took 120 women, including those with HIV, working in three teams to complete it, and many of the young ones died during that time. Their names are embroidered on the third screen. It’s a triptych – three sets of pictures.
Closed, it tells in sombre colours, the story of mourning, and the saints who were part of the backbone of the village. There is a central cross, but instead of the body of Jesus, the image is of a Xhosa woman in the traditional blue dress of a recent widow. She is surrounded by the children – many of the orphaned by AIDS, as well as the grandparents and other older members of the community who were called on to look after the orphans. Instead of the usual saints on the outside panels, there are two well-known, respected older women: one, Susan Paliso, mother of a dead son, the other wearing the formal dress of members of the Hamburg Anglican church. On one side is one of the bereft grandmothers, and on the other, one of the deacons of the village church. The bottom panel shows the funeral of Susan Paliso’s son. The
But then the first set of doors open onto a blaze of colour. On the right side of the central panel is the image of Vuysile Funda, a local character known as Gaba – “the prophet’. He dances on the beach in the early mornings and his feet trace patterns one the sand. He wears a dress when he dances, as an expression of solidarity with the women. One the left side there are images of the village buildings and people in traditional dress representing the earthly life of the village, and the village choir and church representing the spiritual life, while angels and birds fly overhead. The image on the left panel is of a fig tree, which both shelters and nourishes the people of Hamburg. On the right panel there is a great spiral depicting the animals of the earth and fish of the sea – the local flora and fauna as a never-ending circle of life.
When the altarpiece is fully opened, there are dramatic, life-sized black and white photographs printed on canvas, of three local grandmothers and their grandchildren. Despite the demands put on them in old age, these women look out on the world with a confident, direct gaze. They are strong, nurturing women, most emphatically not victims. The canopy above them is of amazing, three-dimensional embroidery, of green and orange,
The outside panels, suffused with warm reds and deep blues represent the areas outside Hamburg where the AIDS victims are buried. They are unpeopled landscapes in contrast to the busy crowded landscapes of the other panels. The Keiskamma River meanders through the left panel, and in both side panels there are the ghosts of great trees, both present and absent, suggesting memory and eternity, the continuity of life and fortitude in the face of adversity.
Carol Hofmeyr herself wrote: “The Keiskamma Altarpiece represents a turning point in one community’s relationship with HIV and AIDS. Miraculously, this work of art – which has no single creator – embodies not just our fears and our losses but the slow restoration of hope in our community. Every time I see the altarpiece, I am a astounded anew by the forces within a community that can be summoned to something so apt and so beautiful.”
This is the story of how one small community worked its way through devastating loss. What can it tell us. Perhaps the first learning is that you don’t try to ‘carry on’ as before. You can’t paper over the cracks. You can’t forever try to wish yourself back to ‘how it was before’. It would be easy just to give up, but instead, take the hands that are held out to help. If the people of Hamburg hadn’t put their trust in the young foreign doctor, and taken up the possibilities she laid before them, what would have happened? For those of us who try to follow the way of Jesus, there will be times after any death or disaster when we can’t feel the love that holds us; times when the path ahead is too dark. It probably happened to Jesus. The euphoria of the moment of baptism and the recognition of his ministry was followed by the time in the desert. It’s a case often of one small step at a time. It’s a case of hanging on in, and celebrating each moment of joy – because there are always those moments of fellowship and joy.
We can do a new thing. Blessed be our God who knows us all by name and is with us wherever we are.