Ezekiel Mphahelele wrote Down Second Avenue in 1959, describing growing up under the white supremacist policy, "apartheid." He describes it thus:
It is unfair to ask me to subsist on mission school sermons about Christian conduct and passive resistance in circumstances where it is considered a crime to be decent; where a policeman will run me out of my house at the point of a sten gun when I try to withhold my labor. For years I have been told by white and Black preachers to love my neighbor; love him when there's a bunch of whites who reckon they are Israelites come out of Egypt in obedience to God's order to come and civilize heathens; a bunch of whites who feed on the symbolism of God's race venturing into the desert among the ungodly. For years now I have been thinking it was all right for me to feel spiritually strong after a church service. And now I find it is not the kind of strength that answers the demand of suffering humanity around me. It doesn't even seem to answer the longings of my own heart."
It broke my heart to read Ezekiel's book, his autobiography, written in exile. My only comfort was that that era was past. Apartheid has been broken and replaced with the New South Africa. The horrendous laws and police oppression are over. The rainbow nation is winning over the centuries of bigotry and fear.
But we haven't won yet. It isn't the end of the story and the fat lady has not sung.
South Africa is still in the midst of violent struggles around economic discrepancies, residual color issues, and opportunists capitalizing on the pain, poverty and shame of others. You name a problem, we have it: human trafficking, sex trafficking, drugs, assaults, rapes, murder, poaching animals to extinction, blood mining . . . and it all seems so much worse in contrast with the beauty of this land.
So it is a huge privilege to be here. I'm reading as much as I can to understand the backgrounds and the stories of the people that I meet. But I am saddened. I am a missionary, the child of missionaries, and I've grown up in the conviction that missionaries are committed to changing the world, advancing the Kingdom, bringing Light.
But here in South Africa, missionaries did not exercise that freedom. The fear of expulsion from the godless state convinced them it was wiser to "go underground." And they did not preach the good news and release to the captives. Instead, in Mphahlele's words:
. . . before Father Trevor Huddleston came on the scene--and that's only 1943--missionaries had let politics alone and consequently the forces of evil have had a start of about 300 years. During which time missionaries have abetted, connived at or stood aloof from, the white man's total disregard of justice and other human values. Even so, Trevor Huddleston was a lone fighter. The rest of the church in South Africa didn't speak his language.
And that is the setting into which we have now come. Missionaries were the silent partner. The "accomplice after the fact".
No wonder we don't tell folks we are missionaries here, we call ourselves "charitable volunteers." There is a cargo hold of baggage associated with what the church and missions have done in the past, either from fear or a desire to be comfortable.
As the scales have fallen from my eyes on this issue, I see even more clearly what a privilege it is to be here. What an opportunity we have to change what has been done: to redefine the Family God and the Kingdom of Heaven for people who have been victimized by the so-called Church.