As the Good Book suggests, God moves in mysterious way, and He certainly did for a man of the cloth visiting Burnley from South Africa.
Fr Barnard Litabo has a smile as bright as the skies above Table Mountain and has been taken to the hearts of his hosts at St Peter’s CE Church.
At home he runs two parishes, one formerly exclusively white, is similar in some ways to St Peter’s in Burnley. His second charge, just three miles away, could not be more different.
The congregation at St Peter’s in the Zamdela township is primarily black, and at least 500 people pack the pews every Sunday to hear Fr Barnard, as he is known, preach his sermons.
He started his working life selling insurance and along his way to the priesthood even chauffeured a Government minister. At one time he almost became a police officer and then a prison warder, but something always stopped him.
He beamed as he recalled: “After finishing my matriculation, higher education, I wanted to become a policeman and went through all the training. We were supposed to be being picked up at 3 a.m. for the job but I went out that night and didn’t come back. The same happened with the prison warder job, I ran away. Later I came to realise it was God telling me he wanted me to become a minister.”
44-year-old Fr Barnard’s religious vocation was drip fed. Initially, he became a lay reader. Clergy called in on his home town about once a month and, because there was no regular minister at the church, he found himself taking services and conducting funerals.
During the week he carried on selling insurance and in 1994 became a Deacon, working part-time until he went to the seminary two years later to train for the priesthood.
It was while working part-time he had a job that introduced him to the life of South Africa’s political elite. A friend’s father was an MP and Fr Barnard became chauffeur for the Minister of Education in the Homeland Government.
“In South Africa there are the very rich and there is an awful lot of poverty, but we also have a middle class, such as the members of my white church.
“As a black man there was a time when I would not have been allowed to preach at St Michael and All Angels. We have churches standing practically next to each other that were solely black or white, but now people choose. Quite a few black people come to the white church, and I think it could well be for the shorter sermons.”
At St Michael and All Angels fingers point at watches if they go on longer than five or seven minutes and the services last little over an hour, but it is a different story in the township.
“There is a vast difference between the white and black churches”, said Fr Barnard. “Instead of an hour and 15 minutes the service lasts three or four hours. If I try to stop after an hour they shout ‘No Father, we want more’. At St Peter’s you cannot predict when it will be over, you never know, and you dare not make any arrangements for afterwards. I just go to bed, I’m exhausted, but I enjoy it”.
Like St Peter’s in Burnley, the church is steeped in music, but there is not an organ or Handelian run in sight. “We don’t have an instrument; people sing wonderfully, wave their arms and clap, and some even collapse on the floor. It is charismatic.”
Endemic poverty in the township had led Fr Barnard and his teacher wife Zicca to set up soup kitchens and a winter clothing centre, as well as for orphans and children coping with the impact HIV and Aids has had on their parents’ generation.
The work is being supported by parishioners at St Peter’s in Burnley. “People at St Peter’s play a very important role in what we do,” said Fr Barnard. “The word goes out very quickly when we have a soup kitchen or clothes to give away. The whole township turns to us. HIV and Aids is a taboo subject. People don’t die from it, the family will say they have had pneumonia. It is a denial that is killing the country, but fortunately, more people are beginning to speak about it.”
Even though his township parish is poor, relatives lay a huge emphasis on ritual when there is a death in the family. Fr Barnard has noticed a huge difference in funerals. “A service I attended here lasted 35 or 40 minutes, but in South Africa it is at least 1 hour and 20 minutes, in church and another hour at the graveside, and, no matter how poor the family, it is traditional to slaughter a cow so the dead person does not go into the afterlife alone.”
Fr Barnard is in Burnley through links created by his own diocese and the Blackburn See, and it is hoped there may be a reciprocal visit by his host, Canon Tom Bill.