It’s 17:45 at Bellville station in the eastern suburbs of Cape Town. I stand waiting for a train, the same one I’ve been taking three days a week. I’m waiting for a church train.
The locomotive rushes into the platform, and gospel hits my ear from one of its carriages. I jog alongside as the music escapes through missing windows. Four men stand in the entrance, jamming the doors open with their feet to let fresh air into the packed car. I have a minute to squeeze in, finding space in front of today’s song leader. She holds a homemade steel bell that she rings in harmony with the singing, clapping, and drumming of hands against the train walls.
The song stops, and the preaching begins. The word of the day tells us to put our faith in God. Meanwhile, a lady guides a blind man with string through a small door between carriages. The man plays a keyboard strapped around his body, and the lady jingles a few coins in a metal cup. They sing in unison: “Thank you Jesus, amen.”They plead for spare change, but the passengers stare back hard, annoyed at the interruption. Still, some donate a few rand while the rest continue to fix their attention on the “pastor”, who continues the service. The duo shuffle on to the next carriage.
Among the congregated are gardeners, maids, office cleaners, and the unemployed; they fill these trains in search of a better life. Mobile churches have chugged along since the Apartheid era, as long as black South Africans have trekked from their dusty and isolated township homes to their more central, urban places of employment. Many leave home early and return late, seven days a week; there’s no time to attend church and no choice but to take God with them on their long rides.
Church trains fill this void across heavily religious South Africa. No formal structure guides their existence: there is no scheduled mass, no fixed location. Friendships forged in mobile worship keep the tradition alive.
Luphumzo Sokoyi is a 35-year-old receiving clerk from Delft Township, outside of Cape Town. She’s also the car’s preacher. She started in 2011, when she and a colleague decided to bring their bibles along on their hour-long train rides from work. “We saw how people around us were sad and hopeless, and we thought public transport is a great place to use the word of God to empower and give hope to the otherwise hopeless poor of South Africa,” says Sokoyi. There are now about 50 regulars in her church—those who take the same train five days or more a week. The rest just pass by or find themselves in the wrong carriage.
The train reaches its final destination, Cape Town station. Patrons call each other by name, bidding goodbye. Most hop onto new trains to share in other services with other train-church friends. And tomorrow, it will start over again.