Mkondeni - the suburb that wasn’t one. Held at arm’s length from the town of Pietermaritzburg it was once a pasture land for cows. During the Second World War it became a suburb under siege, home to Italian prisoners of war, captured in the deserts of Northern Africa. Provided only with basic housing for their bodies, these men desired a place of worship. They built a tiny stone chapel and patterned it with love. Two ornamental lions guarded the door.
The chapel rang with hymns sung in a foreign tongue echoing their longing and prayers for their homes so far away. Before a handful of years had passed the war was over. The men were repatriated to their homeland. The temporary suburb was dismantled, the housing carried away and the grass left to grow across the rough roads. The lions guarded the door of a chapel that became a forgotten memorial. It had never seen a wedding or rejoiced in a baptism.
The rains fell and the winds blew. Vandals forced the door and broke the windows. Anything moveable was removed. Anything unmoveable was damaged or defaced.
Before ten years passed the suburb that never was grew up again. The roads were cleared and houses erected almost overnight. Road builders moved in. A bus service came from town to carry children to the schools and housewives to the shops. The chapel was ignored.
The chapel was ignored until a roving band of children exploring their neighbourhood found it. Shrubs nudged the walls and tall grass masked the lions. The children were ignorant of the men who were prisoners of war. The chapel was first a mystery and then a secret place. Discreet enquiries solved the mystery but they were told not to play there: the chapel was unsafe. This is why it became a secret place.
With a besom made of branches broken from the shrubs they swept the floor and removed the cobwebs within reach. The floor was a beautiful picture of stone marquetry; sections were broken by fallen masonry. With infinite care they searched among the sweepings for pieces to fit back in place, removing the fallen stones to the sides of the room. There were still many gaps and it became part of the privilege of use to search among the grasses for the missing sections. Still the lions guarded the door. It was many weeks before one of the boys climbed a lion and sat on its back. Their games were centred on the chapel.
The road builder’s tenure lasted for a brief two years. Their work was done; the houses were loaded onto lorries and carried to a new location. The bus service ceased. The rains fell and the winds blew. The grass grew across the temporary roads. Once more the chapel was forgotten.
It was another score of years before the marketplace housed in the town centre needed more space when the town grew and the stall holders increased. Suburbs were encroaching on the grasslands around the town. Mkondeni was chosen by the town management as the natural home for the marketplace. The chapel was rediscovered.
The overgrowth was cleared and experts were brought in to assess the worth of the small building. Despite the ravages of time and weather and the improper use made of it by vandals, the building was in remarkably good condition. Besides that, it was a memorial of war. The decision was taken to restore the chapel and to return it to its proper use.
Suddenly, despite its limited size, it became a fashionable venue for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. They planted a garden. Lawns replaced the field grass. A reunion linked the people of the town with the prisoners of war once more.
The prisoners of war poured their talents into the building. They returned to their homes in Italy. The children who first played in the chapel loved it with their industry, rejoiced in its broken beauty. They grew up and went their separate ways.
The games we play, the enjoyment of life, is made up of many facets, not the least of which is in the making or preserving of something beautiful.
The little chapel is like our lives: often neglected, broken, marred. We need the loving touch of an expert, of the Lord who created beauty, to refashion us and make us worthwhile, pleasing to Him. His mercy mends our lives. His Son brought restoration. The Lion of Judah guards the doors of our lives.
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