My first visit to Queenstown as a newly appointed alternate high councilor in the Durban South Africa Stake was to be the beginning of many unforgettable experiences. Those experiences would lead me to understand better how our Heavenly Father touches the hearts of his children of all races and how he extends his love and protection to those who try to serve him.
Queenstown is located in the eastern part of the Cape Province, surrounded by mountains and situated between states inhabited by the blacks of the Ciskei and Transkei. I was assigned to Church units in East London, on the coast; Queenstown; Sada and Cimezile in the Ciskei; and Illinge in the Transkei.
As a recent immigrant from Harare, Zimbabwe, I served at first as a companion to Brother Dennis Raubenheimer on these visits. He was familiar with the areas we covered because he had served in the district presidency.
The Queenstown Branch has a unique meetinghouse—a funeral parlor provided rent-free by the owners, who have no affiliation with the Church. It has wood-paneled walls, soft lighting, special pews, and an organ. The final speaker in sacrament meeting is usually interrupted by the clanging of bells from the church next door. The noise sometimes continues for several minutes, and the speaker must decide whether to be silent for that time, or to speak louder than the noise. Branch meetings begin at 7:00 A.M. on Sunday so those who will be visiting the outlying branches in the black states will have time to travel.
After that first visit to Queenstown, Brother Raubenheimer and I departed for Ilinge, where we met with branch president Augustine Mjiba and the more than seventy Saints there. They met in a rented school classroom with a corrugated metal roof and a dirt floor. They share the building with another religious group, which uses African drums to lead its singing. But in spite of the interruptions by the drumming and singing, we felt the Spirit in abundance and experienced a warmth and love for the Saints who meet in such conditions.
Our next visit to Queenstown included stops at the Sada and Cimezile branches.
Church members at Sada met in a school building similar to the one at Ilinge, except that the floor is of pine strips. President Headman Gquola greeted us with his beaming smile as we arrived. Once again, each member of the sixty-strong branch stood in line, awaiting their turn to greet us eagerly with a handshake.
In these branches we use translators because the majority of the Saints can not understand English any more than we can understand their native Xhosa. (This handicap is being overcome, as high council members have been instructed by the stake president to learn that language.) The singing in these branches is a delightful experience. One has to hear the unique harmony and volume of their singing to appreciate fully the joy of their pure, resonant voices.
After a most uplifting meeting with the Sada Saints, we traveled to Cimezile on a winding gravel road. One has to be constantly alert to hazards such as wandering sheep and goats on these roads, as well as the perils of crossing rocky river beds; on one occasion, the muffler was ripped from the exhaust system of my car.
In Cimezile I met one of the most spiritual families that I have ever known, Wilson and Judith Nqunqa and their eight children. Brother Nqunqa had done the high-quality stone work of the outer walls of their typical rondavel African home. Pictures of the Church president and General Authorities and posters with the words to our hymns line the walls of their spotlessly clean home.
Brother Raubenheimer remarked that in their humble home, where even the children spoke in soft tones, the reverence and spirit we experienced was as it might have been in the house of the Lord.
Shortly after those early visits, Brother Raubenheimer was called as bishop of the East London Ward, and my family and I moved to Queenstown. With the aid of the missionaries in Queenstown and my family members, I visited each of the outlying branches on a weekly basis for a time, rather than the previous monthly visits.
This continued successfully until violence flared up in the parts of Queenstown inhabited by blacks. Church meetings became disrupted as violence increased. Part of the Sada school was burned, so members were left without a meetinghouse. For safety reasons, missionaries were recalled and visits to the troubled areas only took place as prompted by the Spirit of the Lord.
On one such visit, I traveled with my son Richard to Sada to find that all of the brethren in the branch, along with all the other men in the area, had been forced to attend a political meeting. But we were able to offer some spiritual encouragement to the sisters. We also administered to a sister who had been suffering from severe headaches.
Cimezile was our next destination; we visited Brother Nqunqa, who told us a group of local youths had terrorized several families the night before, breaking into their homes and beating them. The Nqunqa family had knelt in prayer and sought the Lord’s protection. When dawn came that Sabbath day, their home was undisturbed.
On a later visit to Cimezile, Richard and I found Brother Nqunqa very ill. We blessed and passed the sacrament—but not until after he had risen and dressed himself, insisting that he had to have his jacket and tie on to show proper reverence for the sacrament. He wept as he told us that he knew Richard and I would come that Sunday and that the Spirit had witnessed to him all would be well. Before we left, Richard and I blessed Brother Nqunqa through the power of the priesthood.
The next day, I went to Brother Nqunqa’s home to see how he was feeling. His wife, Judith, assured me he had been completely healed—he was down in the fields, attending to his plowing.
One Sunday I felt uncomfortable about going to meet with the members in Sada. I told my wife that I felt I would be letting them down if I did not go. “Ernie,” she replied, “if the Spirit is prompting you not to go, then you must listen to that warning.” I did—and my next visit to Sada proved the wisdom of her counsel. Had I visited that Sunday, I would have been caught up in a riot. Police used tear gas to break up an angry mob, and the Saints were forced to scatter when the gas drifted into the meetinghouse.
The government of the Transkei was able to restore a measure of peace, and regular visits to the Ilinge Branch continued. There was violence, however, in the Queenstown and Ciskei areas. Attendance at sacrament meetings in Sada declined rapidly.
Once again, I felt prompted not to travel to Sada for Sunday meetings. This time I heeded the warning without question. President Gquola told me later how fervently the members in Sada had prayed I would not keep my appointment that day. A group of men, convinced that President Gquola was an informer and I was a government spy, had been waiting to deal with me.
Sadly, I recommended that the stake president close the Sada area until the unrest abated. This was done, and the branch remained unvisited for the next four months. When Brother Brian Schimper and I returned to Sada in order to determine conditions there, we found that the members had weathered the four months well.
It has been a privilege to be associated with the members of the Ilinge, Cimezile, and Sada branches, as well as those of Queenstown, and the faithful missionaries who have given of themselves so freely. They have helped me gain a testimony of the great work that has yet to be accomplished as we labor to share the gospel with the people of Africa.