Father Simphiwe Mhobo recently reminded me of a cassock I had given him in the early 1990s. He was an altar server then at St Francis in the Boland town of Zwelethemba.
The cassock is the working overall of a priest and we wear it as we go about our routine of visiting the sick and housebound members of our congregation.
The late Charles Albertyn would tell the story about a comment he overheard while on a huis besoek in the Parish of Bonteheuwel.
He had attracted the curiosity of a group of adolescents gathered at the gate of the house next to the one he had just visited. There was a speculative whispering about his possible identity as suggested by his clerical garb.
“He’s an imam,” suggested one. “Naai,” declared another with the decisive wisdom of the streets, “Hy’s 'n moffie.”
Albertyn’s dry wit and deadpan expression often suggested that he might know more about a soul summoned before him.
He would, like a midfielder, playfully hold up the flow of play as he, with a glint in his eye, asked a question here and there.
A little easing up of the tension. And then, when your defences were down, he would strike - like the centre-forward of his soccer-playing days - and before you knew it you were Isaac Hayes singing I Stand Accused.
He was fair in his judgement, despite his Chunky Charley guile, and when the “praat net’ie waarheid” offer was accepted, you knew that he had your back. Justice would be applied according to the relevant canon of church law and contextualised by motive and a discernible contriteness.
All premised on the words that affirm a shared humanity and fallibility: “And pray for me who is also a sinner.”
His nephew, Karl Groepe, retires from the priesthood this year and is a decisive chip off the Albertyn block; as priest and as a descendant of the Tambookies Clan of the Eastern Cape.
The cassock I gave to Simphiwe Mhobo was the one that Groepe had bought me as I prepared to leave for the seminary in Grahamstown. I had been a youth worker employed by the Parish of Christ the Redeemer and Deacon Karl had taken me under his wing.
He has a photographic memory which would occasionally irritate me when I, for example, would refer to a parishioner, and he would reply with the street name and number of said person.
“Oh, so you worked as a postman before you became a priest,” would be my feeble response.
In those days Groepe was more weighty, and once while standing next to him at an open grave at Maitland Cemetery I am sure that I saved him from a premature retirement.
It was during winter and the ground was well-soaked and unstable.
During the singing of Great is Thy Faithfulness, I became aware of Mfundisi slowly sinking into the grave.
To his credit he was calm and perhaps in a state of deep centredness and reflecting on the words in the last verse: “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided”.
I grabbed hold of him and I too started descending, but some of the mourners dragged us both back on to solid ground.
Many of our colleagues have been rebaptised by Groepe. Such as in the case of the late and much-loved Chris Davids,known as “G-Boy” or “Gif Koppie”. This was in reference to when Father Chris would deploy spit missiles when speaking in the enthusiastic and descriptive way particular to his nature.
“Mfundisi,” I once offered, when introduced to the latest inclusion to the Groepe lexicon of nicknames, “you know that you are not an oil-painting yourself”.
His reply was a roar of happy laughter.
Simphiwe Mhobo no longer fits into the cassock I gave him in our Boland distant days. But I am glad that I could pass on a lesson I learnt from my elders in the Lord: Live without judgement. Love without reserve and don’t think twice about doing the right thing. Karl Groepe lives these truths, wonderfully so.
* The Very Rev Michael Weeder is the Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.