Steve Heilmann, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Morris, is used to giving sermons on Sunday mornings. He also delivers sermons at other occasions and presides at weddings and funerals and other events.
But in the Kingdom of Swaziland last month, he found himself in the midst of dozens of churches joined together for Easter observances, giving a sermon at 1 a.m.
“I preached so long my voice started giving out,“ he said.
Heilmann was a member of a delegation, sponsored by a Christian group called ZEMA, or Zion Evangelical Ministries of Africa, that traveled to the small African country.
It was quite an experience, he said. He even gave one sermon with the queen of Swaziland in attendance.
Subjects of his sermons included God’s dwelling places, the resurrection, polygamy and justification.
The church members to whom he ministered were African Zionists, a religion that has quite a colorful history and is a combination of Christianity and traditional African religions. Their belief in some values, such as polygamy, was one reason Heilmann was there.
The religion is the dominant religion of southern Africa, representing 15 to 18 million of the area’s residents. It actually was begun by a congregation — The Christian Catholic Church — in Zion, Ill., in the early 1900s. According to Heilmann, the church let the African movement grow on its own, and it became huge.
When the church in Zion reconnected with the African Zionists in the mid-1980s, they found that the African ministers had merged Christianity with African religions. Many ministers were also the local witchdoctors, Heilmann said, and polygamy was encouraged.
“They aren’t witchdoctors any more,” he said. “Their fear was that they believed when you change religions, your ancestors would come back with a fury. The missionaries have taught them that God is more powerful than their ancestors.”
Heilmann’s sermons were translated into Swazi, sentence by sentence as he spoke.
Those who attended his sermons were all dressed very colorfully in the vibrant robes adopted by their individual churches. The ministers could be identified by the tall staffs they carried.
They were very faithful, he said. They always brought their Bibles, they took notes and they asked questions.
“But their questions were never on what the sermon was about,” he told a group of his church members during a slide show presentation last week. “One question was whether they celebrated Passover long enough.”
A local pastor answered that question in the Zulu language, comparing how Americans and Swazis observe Easter. Heilmann could make out the words, “Easter eggs and Easter bunny,” when the pastor explained why Americans only have one or two days off to observe Easter.
“They were asking if four days was enough to celebrate Easter,” Heilmann said. “They could teach us a lot about worship.”
Heilmann said members there were thirsty for Biblical teachings, but they had the worship part down. Easter services were a big deal there, he said, often lasting all night long with singing throughout. Participants often walked miles to reach the church tents set up for the festivities.
“If you could see the heart and the spirit of these people,” he said, “you’d be amazed.”
One belief he did his best to dispel while there was their opinion that God judges them harshly for being black and that the fall was due to them.
“We tried to affirm to them that this is false,” Heilmann said, “and that God loves them just as much as he does anyone.”
One of the biggest concerns of his delegation was the high rate of AIDS in the country. Swaziland has the highest percentage of HIV infection in the world, with 26 percent of adults infected. Life expectancy is only 32 years there because of the disease.
Heilmann visited one old mining town where the top tier of housing rows was dedicated to orphans whose parents had died of AIDS.
Heilmann was also able to do a little sightseeing while there, touring a national wildlife preserve and photographing water buffalo, impalas, rhinos, elephants, giraffes and other wild animals.
His driver was particularly cautious of the rhinos, which he said could charge at a moment’s notice. When one small group began walking in the direction of their vehicle, the driver quickly drove off.
It was a particular treat to see lions, Heilmann said. Their group saw three in one pride, which their guide said was unusual.
Swaziland money depicts five of the country’s indigenous animals, Heilmann said. One coin has a depiction of the front of a rhinoceros on one side of the coin and the back end of a rhino on the other.
Swaziland is a relatively small country on the continent, with an area of 17,364 square miles — not much larger than the Chicagoland area, which has an area of about 11,000 square miles. It lies just north of South Africa, near the eastern coast of Africa.