The two most senior members of the HUMCC, Pastor Moema and Reverend Thandekiso, had different approaches to theology, to preaching, and to my presence as a researcher. This was reflected in the somewhat different roles that they expected me to play in the church community while I was doing my research. Pastor Moema was consistent in his conviction that I, like the other church members, should be a ‘born again child of God’, and as such he expected me to be directly involved in the spiritual activities of the church. Reverend Thandekiso was more understanding of the conventions of academic research, and recognised the importance of recording and documenting the church activities. However, he too sought to engage me in the work of the church in a practical and activist way.
These two different approaches by the two church leaders often put my role as researcher and participant observer to the test, as can be illustrated by a few anecdotes. The first involved the practice of individuals giving testimonies in church services. After several Sunday afternoons in church services, I realised that while testimonies were normally offered voluntarily, there were times when individuals were called upon to give testimony. In case I was called, I prepared myself by book-marking a verse from the Song of Solomon in the Bible that I took to church services. I marked it ‘e.t.’, my code for ‘emergency testimony’.
Inevitably I was called upon to testify on a day when I had left the Bible at home. Unsure of what to do, I decided in the moment to make this an opportunity to give a progress report and update on my thesis. In doing this I was able assert my position as researcher as opposed to being a fully integrated church member, and remind congregants of my role. When I was returning to my seat, a church member asked: ‘What about the role of the Lord Jesus Christ in your life?’ Caught out, I hesitated, and replied somewhat dishonestly, ‘I think that I have covered that.’ His was, indeed, a difficult question to answer. While I had a deep appreciation for the way in which the church served to articulate a complex identity in the lives of the church community, I remained in other respects a nonbeliever.