Today’s reflection is from Perkins student Matthew Bell, Master of Divinity degree candidate (2017):
Today was non-stop. We skipped lunch in favor of getting to the Bridgman Development Centre! It’s a ministry of hope (“Timba” in Zulu) of the United Congregational Church of South Africa. The leaders there were gracious and welcoming.
Every day around 2 p.m., children from the neighborhood come to Bridgman to study, worship, and fellowship before their parents pick them up.Today, we led them in worship. Somehow, we were not aware we were responsible for this task, so we designed a worship service for kids in under five minutes, music and all! Thanks to Perkins’ outstanding quality of theological education, it was a success. In return, the children sang a few songs for us. This is where the message of hope truly rang out. Their song “Look at the mountain” and “Never can you say that you love, if you don’t give it away” were sung with such heart, and it brought a tear to my eye, really.
This is in Soweto, what used to be, and very much still is, a poor “township” which was decaying during apartheid and hasn’t improved much today. Desmond Tutu and the beloved leader Nelson Mandela lived in Soweto. These two Nobel Peace Prize winners even lived on the same street! So, we couldn’t pass up a visit to the Mandela house! It was small and overcrowded but worth the ticket. Since it was over quickly this meant a little time for shopping. But before we could do that a group of tribal dancers began a routine from which we could not look away. Jonathan Allen asked for a dance lesson, and I couldn’t help but join in. We’ll show you if you ask when we get back.
Mandela and Tutu’s legacy — and why his house is so venerated — is because the suffering experienced by the people in Soweto, and all across South Africa during apartheid, was desperate and in need of liberation. Soweto is known for an event occurring in 1976 called the Soweto Uprising. It was the occasion of the death of Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy who was participating in a protest march against the government policy that all people in Bantu (black) schools learn Afrikaans. This was the epitome of oppression and so was resisted.
Another law of apartheid government was that black folks could not gather in groups of more than five. Well, a protest march is definitely more than five; this one was 15,000. On these grounds it was illegal for them to gather, and so police enforced the law by shooting live rounds into the crowd of unarmed school children, one of whom was Pieterson.
An iconic photo of a boy carrying Pieterson’s body is the centerpiece for the Hector Pieterson museum and monument. After we toured the museum, we went outside to his monument, where other tour groups were lingering and construction workers were hammering. In the midst of all this our group took a moment of silent prayer and offered up praise to God for Pieterson and all the youth in Soweto. Our bursting of rhythmic praise caught the attention of the people around us and even got our tour guide riled up. This brought yet another tear to my eye. When we got back into the tour van someone said, “A lot just happened.” And she was right.
After this we toured Regina Mundi (Queen of the World) Catholic Church. For a while this church, the largest Catholic Church in all of South Africa, was home to Desmond Tutu. It was where the protestors of the Soweto Uprising went after the shooting. They knew they would not be shot within a church. However, this did not stop the police from shooting the church. Today, it still has bullet holes in the ceiling from where they were shot through the stained glass windows in 1976. Police also came in and broke the altar table.
New stained glass has been put in, retelling the story of the uprising. In one of the last stained glass windows is Nelson Mandela representing his leadership and crucial role in liberation from apartheid and these kinds of injustices. Juxtaposed to all of this, just beneath the stained glass, are all the Stations of the Cross. This is a great juxtaposition because the story of Jesus is not so different from the story of Soweto. Considering the story of Jesus results in heavenly glory, I assume the same will be for Soweto.
So, there are signs of despair and decay in South Africa: confusion regarding identity, poverty next to super wealth, racial discrimination, and human trafficking. But there are signs of hope too: activists who have the courage to say what we’re all thinking, children in church who will grow up to love and forgive, and churches committed to suffering alongside those who need to know they are beloved children of God.