Buildings – a sign of community

WW1EAfricaCampaign regularly tweets items from the East African Standard telling us about auction sales and other daily events which continued despite the war being fought a bit further south in German East Africa. It’s also been rather insightful looking into the lives of Indian (that is the sub-continent – today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) settlers in East Africa and their war-time involvement. It appears to be very little. The Indians who served in East Africa were contingents which had been raised on the sub-continent specifically for service in East Africa once it had been determined they were not needed in Europe. The Indians in East Africa were building businesses and running the railways, although there is an indication in Pandit Shanti’s (1963) The Asians of East and Central Africa that a handful did get involved in wartime service.

Further south, in South Africa I’ve been working on various histories of Presbyterianism. One concerns the denomination as a whole and its position in South Africa, but another is more local – to the town I grew up in. There the Presbyterian Church building turned 100 years old on 25 November 1916 – well, that’s the date the foundation stones were laid. In the more general history, comment is made about a church in Meikle Street Johannesburg having its foundation stone laid on 20 May 1917.

I’ve often wondered about church buildings. I love the one in Boksburg. It’s an old friend – one I was baptised, confirmed and married in (and the image I use for Minority Historian). The names on the walls are family and friends. I was in St Paul’s Cathedral in the week before Easter to listen to a friend play in Bach’s St John’s Passion. A beautiful building but with awful acoustics and a little ostentatious for my Calvinist background. Then there’s Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The former is my preferred building – the inside, at the time I last visited, still needing to be completed because they’d run out of money so the ceilings were painted black rather than be covered with colourful mosaics. Yet, the two places of worship that top my list are a tiny wooden church in a village in Senegal and one of the oldest mosques in Kenya. I happened to visit the church in Senegal one Christmas Day. The rough branches that had been used to create the structure were lopsided and the gaps between enough to allow enough light (and rain) through whilst keeping the heat of the day away. A hewn piece of wood resting on two stumps formed the communion table decorated with a jam jar filled with a few cut wild flowers. The pews were rough wooden boards resting on stumps and a goat stood on the dusty sand floor looking round the door.

The mosque was just as simple. A small white-washed rectangular building split in two – one side for men and the other for women. The building not big enough to cater for all its adherents.

Another church building I have close connections with is one in Northwood, UK. This church building was completed in 1915, the foundation stone being laid in March 1914. On the outbreak of war, the community offered the building, then a tin tabernacle as a VAD Hospital. This was accepted in November 1914 and by the time of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the newly constructed sanctuary was also turned over to the War Office becoming a hospital. The mother of artist Roger Hilton, Louisa Simpson, captured the interior in a watercolour she painted whilst working at the hospital where her husband was the senior doctor.

Why was there this need to continue building religious buildings during war? As indicated by WW1EAfricanCampaign’s tweets, life goes on and people in uncertain times look for sanctuary.  But is a building necessary? On a previous visit to SA, I was told by a young Malawian that his community back home was desperate for a church building. They were currently meeting under the trees. Given the poverty of the area, I wondered, what will a building help? Yes, it will provide shade, but the trees already do that… It will keep people dry if it rains, but that happens so seldom, I wonder if it’s worth the community investing the amount of money required.

Having asked the question on numerous occasions before and since my Malawian encounter, what is the purpose of a church (or equivalent), I came across an answer in Calvin Cook’s history of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa. He says, ‘Buildings are a sign of community.’ It’s a thought provoking statement. They’re a place communities can come together, passers-by recognise and assume they know what goes on in buildings of a certain look – there’s a logic behind a church building’s construction as noted in How to read a church (wikipedia; video). The same with a mosque and synagogue. The latter I was told in South Africa only being allowed if there were ten or more Jewish families in the area.

The interior often tells you much about that community – the people who contributed much to its development or who are significant to its identity. I can’t help but think of the Rand Club, set up by Cecil Rhodes and others, which has recently gone through some financial struggles and uncertainty regarding its future as a result of the mining houses undergoing various changes since the end of Apartheid. Parliamentary buildings too, tell a story about the communities they represent (or try to control). Many of these buildings are no longer fit for purpose, yet many are reluctant to see any changes – the historian in me rails against removing bits of our past – I’m often caught by visitors who say things like ‘it’s good to see there are still pews’, ‘oh, and that’s a real organ, wonderful!’ Churchill too, was reluctant to change the set-up of the British Parliament in 1945. Nostaligia reigns.

I wonder what an all-inclusive, genuinely equal, building would really look like? I already see a difference in approach: Africa vs Europe vs Asian …