This Trainby Sydelle Willow Smith / 21.11.2010
The yellow and grey train squealed into the station, late, as it usually is on a Monday morning. The overwhelming sound of singing drew us closer. Women who had been joking with us about our market value as makhotis in a lobola economy a few moments prior, began to bang the sides of the carriage beating in time to the hymn’s rhythm, letting new train passengers know that their carriage was a “church”.
Rachel, Cassandra’s sister led us through, quickly finding seats as the space filled up. The smell of fresh laundry and Vaseline hung in the air. Women, mostly middle aged, were clapping their hands and swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the songs, stamping their feet, beating the rhythm of the hymn into the metal walls of the compartment.
The sect of Christianity described as Evangelism, that Cassandra associates herself with as “a born again”, is grounded in the belief that one’s duty is to be a “spiritual agent” that spreads the word of God to as many people as possible. A key objective of the agent is to offer their chosen audience the chance to choose the path of salvation by accepting Christ as one’s personal saviour. The train becomes an important player in achieving this aim as it allows the expression of Cassandra’s devout belief in God to be heard by countless passengers, travelling daily from their homes to work in the city, on a journey that lasts over fifty minutes. In an article in the US edition of Newsweek, journalist Lisa Helem relates the experience of encountering “Subway evangelism” (2005). A key aspect of this method of preaching is enforced by the mobility offered by public transport, spreading the word of God through the “innards of the city”. In a similar manner Cassandra and the other preachers we encountered use the space of the train as a “stage” from where they give their passionate performances to a captive audience.
Cassandra, her eyes closed, fists clenched, delivering her thoughts and reciting passages from the bible, is careful not to communicate in an aggressively evangelical manner. She was not urging people to attend church, or giving them a list of orders to follow. As a non-believer, I tend to find evangelical methods quite intimidating, and invasive of personal space. Whereas I enjoy people busking in train stations or reciting poetry, I have personal prejudice against “righteous” religion. Cassandra’s fundamental approach to an inner belief system highlights the physical process of embodying one’s belief. She explained this sensation by dividing her spiritual work from her physical work. She argues that the work conducted on the trains ensures her own spiritual nourishment and ideally offers nourishment to others, as a way of faith healing, and it is not something she can force, it comes to her sometimes, other days she does not preach at all.
She views her work as a domestic worker purely as work of the flesh, based in the physical realm. While in one space Cassandra may be viewed as “working class” fulfilling the role of a disempowered domestic worker, in the train space, her spiritual power presides. On various morning train journeys we observed what could be described as an intimate spiritual atmosphere in a public space. The intimacy described above appeared to be achieved through various methods of evangelical performance employed and informed by the history of particular preaching styles, further influenced by rhetorical methods in terms of voice intonation and bodily gestures. One preacher with a deep scratchy voice that resonated through the carriage, held a bible under his arm and in an oral story-telling mode he delivered his sermon.
He delivered his performance for more or less thirty minutes, unperturbed by passengers and a sweet seller who bumped him while moving through the crowd, in between his recital. Ironically, the sweet seller had a ZCC badge attached to his jacket, aligning his beliefs with an African spiritual Zionist church that merges traditional African beliefs with Christian ones. This pluralism brings to light the intertwining of traditional Xhosa practices with Western Christian conventions, that we, as Anthropology students, observed on our early morning train journeys.
*All images © Sydelle Willow Smith.