Monday, December 10, 2007

Revisiting the Past

I swore that I would never return – and yet, yesterday, I went back...

The 1980’s were a politically turbulent time in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. I was the pastor of a small, white, rural (read politically conservative) congregation. These were very loving, caring people who sacrificed much for one another, and saw themselves as epitomising the love of Jesus to those less fortunate. But these dear people never paused to ask why the distribution of wealth was so sharply divided along racial lines: their prevailing culture just assumed that black was poor.

I tried to say to my congregation that responding to poverty demanded more than handouts and kindly feelings. I noted that much of the deprivation was politically engineered by Apartheid, and we needed to work at ways of empowering people to shape their own lives. I helped the Black Sash establish an Advice Office, and became its treasurer. I spent time encouraging the political activists in the area. And sheltered children caught up in the school riots, rubber bullets and tear gas. The congregation indulged me – until the day I was arrested by the security police. Then the heads nodded knowingly: “No smoke without a fire” said one at a church meeting; another said to my wife “I knew he was up to no good”... and a well meaning colleague of a sister denomination prayed in his Sunday Service that the Methodists would be “kept from the evils of the socialist gospel”.

And my congregation stopped paying. The money simply dried up. And people stopped coming to church. And the Bishop was forced to withdraw me from the church.. .and when I left I swore that I would never return. And yet, twenty-two years later, I went back...

The congregation was celebrating a 50th anniversary. I walked in to a church full of the variety that is South Africa: I saw white and black members holding hands and embracing one another. I saw worship led by a team that transcended culture. And heard of a variety of community empowerment programmes initiated by the church.

And I wept inside of myself:
• I wept for myself because most of the congregation do not know my history of struggle with that church.
• And I wept for those die-hard members from the past who came over and shook my hand as if nothing had happened. Either they are choosing to re-write the past, or – more probably – what was a cataclysmic moment of change for me was nothing more than a blip on the radar for them.
• But mostly I wept for joy because the Gospel of Jesus truly is subversive: that tightly knit, conservative, white enclave has been blown wide open. And the church has been changed.

Pray with me for many more such changes in the Christian Churches of South Africa.
And pray for me that I might let go of the hurts of history and grow in the ways of Grace.


digitaldion (Dion Forster) said...

Very moving Pete...

You know, this is why I think the cross cultural emphasis of our Church's phase 1 program is indespensible.

Healing and Transformation... Indeed

Scout with the Cross said...


I always enjoy reading your blog, but this one just blew me away. The Lord works in mysterious ways and it would appear you have played your part. You took a risk going back, but you have given yourself the opportunity to grow more.


Jen Tyler said...

Thanks for sharing this, Pete. A beautiful witness to the transfomative power of the Gospel.
We have a long way to go and a lot of work left to do, but it is encouraging to see evidence that the broken roads we travel are not being left unchanged as we move on.

rebecca said...

I tried to say to my congregation that responding to poverty demanded more than handouts and kindly feelings. I noted that much of the deprivation was politically engineered by Apartheid, and we needed to work at ways of empowering people to shape their own lives.

Sometimes doing the right thing, (which you did) there is a cost, but look what GOD did--to me that is the whole story of the Gospel

the pain is great. thank you for sharing.


Denise said...

My husband and I attended his 20th college reunion last year, and the only person I saw on campus that I recognized? The person who cost me my job, who had no appreciation for my investment in students "on the edge" of campus life.

The man seemed genuinely pleased to see me, genuinely interested in where my life has taken me. Scars are so surprising, how they last so long after situations melt from existence. How offhandedly we hurt one another, not even remembering it later...

There is something important embedded here, Pete. I will pray for you.

Anonymous said...

Rejoice in the Lord always - and again I say rejoice!
We often do not know what the seeds are that we are sowing - nor the ground into which they are being sown. A tree, I believe, would not recognise the seed from which it grew - probably thinking it was always a tree. That's what happens in people's lives too - unless there is a culture of deep reflection encouraged, we soon lose sight of the past or where we have grown from. Blessings multiplied to you. Beryl

bugs said...

Hi Pete, I borrowed some words from my friend Jess (beautiiful struggle)to help me say what i need to say:

"when i heard me
when i needed were there for me
when i`m gave me your word of wisdom and encouragement
when i`m were patient
when i`m calmed me down
when i`m cheered me up
when we were still patient
when things weren`t were still, still patient.
how could i ever thank you?
before i was crumbling...but you encouraged me and had hope.
thanks for believing in me.
thanks for being so patient.
n most of all, thank u for having faith.
without faith being our firm foundation, it will never work out."

Thanks Pete, for being who you are!