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On Fringes of Racism Forum, Some Believe in Miracles

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seated inside a circle of white concrete blocks on a sunbaked field, about 200 men and women listened intently to their preacher describe one of the many miracles worked by their prophet: It was the miracle of employment.

“Shembe came to the man in his dream and said, ‘Why are you worrying?’ ” the Rev. Oscar Mngadi chanted into a microphone Saturday afternoon. “The man said, ‘Because I am not working,’ and Shembe said, ‘You will have a job soon.’ And he had a job.”

A few blocks away, thousands of delegates from more than 150 nations were gathered under the auspices of the United Nations to develop an action plan for helping victims of racism. As the participants bickered about the Middle East and the transatlantic slave trade, the worshipers outside were quietly practicing a faith that has served for generations as a spiritual and temporal antidote to the very wrongs the delegates say they want to address.

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The worshipers call themselves followers of the Holy Church of Nazareth Baptists. It is a name that does little to convey the faith they practice, which draws on elements of Judaism, Christianity and Zulu tradition.

In the shadow of early colonialism, a black South African named Isaya Shembe said he heard the word of God, and as a prophet he was able to address the social and economic ills afflicting his people. Today, his revelations are the basis for South Africa’s oldest independent church, which is loosely related to the American Pentecostal churches. It has as many as 1 million followers and is growing.

“These people are addressing the last two centuries,” said Robert Papini, a researcher with the KwaMuhle Museum in Durban. “It is a uniquely African response to the loss of land, epidemics that wiped out their livestock, disease, wars and the collapse of black peasantry as a self-sustaining, autonomous group.”

In the convention center, where delegates to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance spent a second day arguing over the Palestinian attempt to label Israel a racist state, and African Americans pushed for the United States to pay damages for its 250 years of slavery, former South African President Nelson Mandela implored the delegates to work together to wipe out what he called an “ailment of the mind and the soul.”

“It kills many more than any contagion,” the 83-year-old father of modern South Africa said of racism in a recorded speech. “It dehumanizes anyone it touches.”

It is exactly that dynamic--the dehumanizing effects of colonialism, apartheid and the intense poverty in modern-day South Africa, all with their roots in racism--that gave birth to and now nurtures the mystical faith of the followers of Shembe.

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“It is an all-encompassing solution,” said Papini.

On a busy street across from a fast-food restaurant and beneath a “Food Emporium” sign, men and women rushed inside the circle of stones--which they call home--for their midday prayer service. The men wore white robes, some over traditional Zulu skirts made of animal skins and pelts. Each man wore a fur-wrapped ring on his head, almost like a crown or a yarmulke. The women were dressed in white church gowns, and many wore boxy Zulu headpieces decorated with beads.

“I had no place to live, no cash and no job,” said Thabani Zuma, 25, who prayed during the 90-minute open-air service. “After I became a member, I prayed to Shembe, ‘Please give me a job.’ ”

Zuma said he landed a job the very day he was blessed by the fourth Shembe, the descendant of Isaya who carries on as the community’s spiritual guide.

“I said, ‘Praise the lord.’ It was a blessed day. It was a miracle,” Zuma said.

The followers of Shembe all talk of miracles--otherworldly events that have eased their pain and suffering or opened doors that are routinely closed in a society that has marginalized them first with apartheid and now in poverty. Miracles are the measure by which they gauge the credibility of their faith.

“Amazing things happen,” said the reverend who ran the service, his green ankle-length cape distinguishing him as clergy. “When my first wife was eight months pregnant, the doctors told me she was having a girl. I went to Shembe III and said: ‘Please, I have enough girls. I want a boy.’ He said, ‘I will change your unborn child to a boy.’ And it was a boy.”

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Christian missionaries worked the vast region now called KwaZulu-Natal, a stronghold of the Zulu tribe. Though the converts believed that their new faith would offer them entry to heaven, it did nothing to address a very serious aspect of the afterlife. The Zulus believed that any relative who died a violent death would leave what amounted to a curse on future generations. There was no mechanism in Christianity for cleansing the deceased relatives, though there had been in the practices the missionaries labeled as savage.

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At the same time, the early 1900s saw blacks being forced off their land through restrictions that culminated in the 1913 Land Act, which essentially required peasants to agree to slavery if they could not pay rent.

In 1870, Isaya Shembe was born, and he went on to offer an alternative Christianity with a program that still opened the door to heaven but also provided a vehicle to cleanse the deceased relatives. He also offered a pragmatic economic program that eventually won his followers 218 acres of land, leading some academics to suggest that his mission had more to do with worldly security than with religion.

“We do believe in Christianity,” said a church spokesman, Enoch Mthembu. “But the difference is we do believe in our ancestors too. Prophet Shembe is a link between us, God and our ancestors. When Jesus died, he said he would send the Holy Spirit, and we believe that Holy Spirit lived in Shembe.”

The Nazarites, as they call themselves, spring from what is broadly known as South African Christian Zionism, an Old Testament-based school that believes in faith healing. The Nazarites are one of about 6,000 such congregations around South Africa, Papini said, adding that most exist for no more than a few years, or as long as their charismatic leader can appear to be performing miracles.

The Shembe followers celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, like the Jews, but they believe that Jesus was the son of God. They do not eat pork, drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, and on the Sabbath they do not eat any hot foods. Polygamy is permitted, but for three months of the year, husbands and wives do not sleep together so they can focus on their faith. The faithful also make an annual pilgrimage up a local mountain and use traditional African dance as a means of prayer.

They believe that God chose the Shembe family to serve as his messengers, and so one descendant from each generation emerges as their spiritual leader.

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“If you look into the Bible, you don’t hear about African persons,” said Mthembu, the spokesman. “So God decided to send us Shembe. It shows Africans that God loves us too.”

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