Before he attended Alpha for the first time, Ayanda Luthuli had been trying really hard to earn his ticket into heaven. He was doing his best to please God. But no matter how much he tried, at the end of the day he always felt like a failure. Nothing he did was good enough.
Ayanda's life began in a small place called Embo in KwaZulu-Natal. He was the last of six children born to his mum, who raised, provided for and supported the 4 boys and 2 girls herself by working as a domestic. 4 Years after relocating to Kwanyuswa, Ayanda’s mum could finally afford to buy land near a church, build a room on the plot and, with Ayanda and his sisters, moved into their new home.
For him, the transition was to mark the beginning of a course of education which would prove impossible to pass. Ayanda started to attend the church near their home with his mum. Soon enough he became a Christian. However, his new-found faith made little difference to the way he lived his life on a day-to-day basis.
He recalls those days, saying, ‘I went to church but I was living like everyone else. I heard the pastor preach but there was no depth. I was a Christian but I followed my friends to do what my friends did. And we would do all the wrong things together at school.’ While with them, he totally forgot that he was a follower of Jesus. And then, at home afterwards, he would become another person altogether. Completely oblivious to this contradiction, he developed a double life: the one he lived with his friends and the other which only came alive when he was with his church community. During these formative years as a believer, Ayanda was taught that he had to do lots of good works in order to be acceptable to God. If he dutifully performed certain activities, the Father be happy to allow him through the pearly gates when his life reached its end. ‘I was a Christian but I was also taught laws. I had to work for salvation.’
So with zeal he threw himself into a routine that appeared to be holy. He went to prayer meetings on Wednesdays and Fridays, church services on Sundays, and on the other days he attended Bible studies or went preaching house-to-house. ‘I was convinced that if I did these things I would go to heaven for sure. I was trying to live a religious life – and I was trying by all means – but what was on my mind most of the time was that I was failing to please God.’ It was only when he had done something right or when his pastor was pleased with him that he felt like a real Christian. Instead of building up his self-esteem, these activities led Ayanda into an endless cycle of despair.
At the end of every set of good works that he did, there was always a pit waiting for him. And when he fell into it, he took a hard knock, because he had been taught 'If you break a promise, it is like you are destroying the house that you have built.’ As a result, whenever he did something wrong, he felt like he had just destroyed all of the good works he had done, and everything was lost. He believed that if he died in this state, he would surely go to hell for his sins— and these thoughts haunted him, so he was compelled to start afresh and once again become worthy of heaven. Although it was a heavy burden to bear, and a lot of pressure, Ayanda was driven to continue the cycle because he believed he needed to earn God’s approval.
In 2012, one of Ayanda’s friends invited him and two others to try Alpha. The course was being held at the church that this friend attended, so the four of them went through for the opening session. Although the host church was multicultural, many of its members were white. And having grown up in predominantly Zulu communities, Ayanda’s default position in such situations where he found himself surrounded by lots of white people was to stand back and say, ‘I won’t do this and this,’ and also to wait until the end before going to get things like food. This time, however, there would be no reason for him to hide on the fringes.
He was greeted with so many smiles and such warmth when he walked through the doors that it was just awesome. Their welcome touched his spirit and heart, and came to be one of his most-cherished memories of the course. The kindness did not stop there. There was food – delicious food at that – and when mealtime came, Ayanda was surprised by the fact that the new people were taken to the front of the line to be served first. Even the way that everyone spoke around the table during the discussion of the video set him at ease. He felt as though he was not a first-timer. The measure of dignity with which he was treated that night impacted him.
To witness the hosts give such a practical demonstration of valuing others more highly than themselves moved Ayanda deeply. It was remarkable to be on the receiving end of such treatment. Not because they were white or black, but simply because this was a genuine expression of what was in their hearts. ‘It was this that led my friends and me to come again and again.’ Indeed, it became a trait that, in the aftermath of Alpha, he would aspire to emulate in his interactions with others. Of all the videos that they watched during the course, the session on the Holy Spirit was the one that left the greatest impression on Ayanda. ‘It was the Holy Spirit weekend. It was too amazing. This was a topic that was not introduced so much in the church where I grew up. Instead, they made Him out to be something that you should be afraid of.’ What Ayanda discovered during the session about the Holy Spirit, though, gave him much freedom. It released him from the pressure he had felt to make himself acceptable to God.
Ayanda’s identity as a son was also another thing that he began to process as a result of the course. He started learning to walk with God as his dad. Reflecting on this, he says, ‘knowing that God is my father has filled the gap of growing up without one. As a child, I trust my father. I look to Him. I am a son to Him. I know that I belong to His family.’
The session on prayer was particularly helpful in setting him off on this journey. Through the talk, Ayanda saw that when he prayed he was simply a child putting his life into his father’s hands. As a result, it gave him confidence in the fact that God heard and would answer his prayers. In the years that ensued, Ayanda continued his involvement with Alpha along with some of the friends that he had made on the course. They became group leaders. Ayanda invited lots of other people to try Alpha. He saw many of them start their own relationships with Jesus. And all through these things he was still undergoing an important process of change himself. This is not to say that Alpha answered all of his questions - ‘I have a lot of questions,’ he says. ‘We are always curious'.
'I thought salvation depended on me. Then that question was answered'. Alpha is a foundation. You learn why Jesus died for you and all that. It is difficult for people to just take the Bible and read it. But Alpha helps you go into the Bible.’ And it helped free Ayanda from the need that drove him to work for God’s approval.