Anchor of Hope in Central Port Elizabeth is a vibrant, multicultural, English-medium church that is bursting with life with a membership made up of 50% white Afrikaners and 50% black people from all over Africa. But it took a journey of “death” to get there, said its leader Giellie Noeth.
The writing was already on the wall for the NG Kerk Port Elizabeth Sentraal (Port Elizabeth Central Dutch Reformed Church) — as the church was formerly known– when he arrived as the dominee 21 years ago. Increasingly white Afrikaners moved out of the inner city area and black Africans moved in. Around about 2000 Giellie told his congregation he believed it was time they started reaching out to their whole community but they would have to consider changing their language.
“There was a united resistance within the congregation. So much so that I realised I was wasting my time and would never be able to accomplish this. So we just went on and nothing happened,” he said.
When a Xhosa man who spoke good Afrikaans joined the church he and his wife Marinda and a few like-minded congregants in the church evangelism team thought he might be the key to connecting with the growing black community. But it did not happen. Then a coloured man joined and they thought he might be the one. But it was not to be.
“You get to a point where you give up on your dream,” said Giellie.
Why don’t we go to the drug dealers?
But in August 2007 one of the men in the evangelism team issued a challenge:”Why do we always go to the Afrikaans people? Why don’t we go to the drug dealers? Why don’t we go to the prostitutes?”
The challenge was accepted. A team from the church visited Nigerian drug dealers in Western Road on a Tuesday evening.
“And I think we came back changed,” said Giellie.
“They were selling drugs and we knew that, and they knew that we knew. We confronted them with what they were doing and said there is an alternative. Their readiness [to hear the Gospel] was just amazing. And their need for Bibles was overwhelming. Nobody had a Bible.”
After another Tuesday night visit to the Nigerian dealers a team member, Pieter Lindi-Venter, was inspired to show The Cross and The Switchblade movie on a big screen at the church. Arrangements were made and the Nigerians and Ghanaian Christians who were using the Dutch Reformed Church’s hall down the road, were invited to the screening.
“And so on a Friday night we showed the Cross and the Switchblade and for the first time in its history [about 90 years] the congregation was mostly black,” said Giellie.
After the film, at Pieter Lindi-Venter’s suggestion, an altar call was made. “You don’t do an altar call in a Dutch Reformed Church. Everybody is saved — there is no need,” said Giellie, explaining the weight of the moment.
Nine Nigerians came forward and gave their lives to the Lord, he said.
“We prayed with them and told them ‘You can’t continue doing what you are doing. You cannot be a Christian and sell drugs’.”
He said the men wanted to know the time of the church’s Sunday services. Giellie said they told the men they were welcome but there was a problem because the service was in Afrikaans. He recommended several English medium churches in the area.
“To our amazement four of them pitched up on Sunday and said they wanted to join us. It was a challenge because they could not understand a word of Afrikaans. So I said ‘I will preach in English’.”
Over the next few Sundays the men came. One of them, Christian Emeruwa (who is today part of the church’s preaching team) had been told by God in a dream to stick with the Afrikaans Christians who had the boldness to challenge them about their drug dealing. Two Zulu men and a Tswana man and several other black people joined them over those first few Sundays.
After the third consecutive English Sunday service congregants complained and for a while Giellie tried to resolve the problem by conducting services in Afrikaans and providing a simultaneous English translation for the newcomers.
A process of death
“But it didn’t work. And I said to the congregation we must decide whether we are willing to make sacrifices as I believe the Lord wants to take us through a process of sacrifice. I did not realise it then but nothing new could come about if we were not willing to die. And the Lord has taken us through a process of death.”
A few Sundays after he challenged the congregation about sacrifice he read the scripture in English during a service. An elder and his wife stood up and walked out. They submitted a letter of resignation from the church the next day.
The resignations continued — for years.
To understand the anger and resistance that congregants experienced over the changes that they were being asked to accept it should be understood that their language and the Dutch Reformed Church are precious to many Afrikaans people, said Giellie. There are many who would die for their language but not for the Gospel, he said. And in a world that had changed so much since 1994 their church was the one thing that was still the same.
“It was such an emotional time in our ministry,” said Marinda remembering many tears as people left the church.
“We didn’t realise it but we were in mourning — the whole congregation was in mourning. It is only in the last three years that the Lord has lifted us and given us new hope and changed that feeling of loss to excitement about the new thing that He is doing,” she said.
Giellie said that the church’s income shrank as white members left taking their tithes with them. Not only did the growing new black membership not bring new tithes but many of the newcomers were unemployed and needed help with paying their rent and other financial burdens. Giellie’s salary was cut drastically and the church, hall and their home were falling apart but there was no money to do repairs.
“There was almost an emotional stench of death in the church. People were saying ‘You see. You’re going the wrong way. That’s why!’ But we knew that this is what we were called for,” he said.
“We were changed. For many years we had worked with people who were spiritually on a certain level. You feed and you feed but you don’t see much change. Then you see people who have no hope and no future — nothing! And we asked ourselves ‘How can we make a difference?’ But as we saw their hunger, their need, for the first time we realised ‘We’ve got the answer. Jesus can make a difference in their lives!’
“And although we were dying in some respects we were coming alive by seeing people’s lives change for the better.”
He said one Sunday, about three years down the road of transformation, he asked the congregation whether they were willing to continue the journey or whether they should close the church and join up with other Dutch Reformed Churches in the city.
“That day the whole congregation — even some who left us later — said ‘This [process of change] is the Lord’s will. We have to do it’!”
There was still much “dying” and “mourning” ahead of them as cherished old ways were dismantled and old congregants left.
Ds Danie Mouton, a senior leader of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Eastern Cape at the time, played a key role in encouraging and facilitating the process that Giellie was managing and with the blessing of the Church he was given a free reign to make changes.
“We decided to literally change and break down everything and to do only the stuff that the Lord called us to do,” said Giellie.
The church sold its hall and used the funds to renovate and redevelop the church building. The pews and other traditional features were removed in a quest to create a more informal space which resulted in “a new energy and looseness within the church”.
He said the loss of his salary was the best thing that could have happened. It freed him to raise his own salary through doing computer repairs (a talent which God had given him in preparation for this time) and from obligations of a paid minister.
He told the congregation that “the dominee must die” and that members would have to start operating in their giftings, performing some of his traditional roles and making a difference as the Body of Christ. The name of the church had to change as they came to realise that the Dutch Reformed Church sign on the building was a stumbling block to many black South Africans who still had a fear of white Afrikaners. The worship style and dress was freed up and the focus became building loving relationships with each other and with God. He teaches that Sundays are not different from other days other than as a day to celebrate what has happened during the week. They started “braai services” where they braai outside and chat and relate to one another. Marinda launched a monthly Kids’ Club which is touching children and their parents in the area. Through the ministry of Pastor Prosper Chungu, a Congolese evangelist and elder of the church, they are reaching a growing number of Xhosa people from local townships and run second services on some Sundays to accommodate this trend. And they began to concentrate on skills training as a way of bringing hope on a physical level as well as on a spiritual level.
In 2012 the registered an NPO, Anchor of Hope Community Development, to support their vision to provide relevant programmes and opportunities to empower people towards self-development and to equip them with employable skills. Currently they offer computer skills training, Adult Education Training in English, sewing classes, driver training and they are in need of more volunteers to assist with training and businesses people to support it.
The skills training ministry, for which trainees pay a nominal fee, is opening doors of trust to share the Gospel and to speak into areas such as the conflict between following Christ and worshiping ancestors.
Surprisingly, said Giellie, God has showed him that in all the change he has experienced in his ministry, his primary calling is not to the multicultural community of Central but to challenge the Dutch Reformed Church and white Afrikaner Christians about the things that many of them hold so dear such as their language and their racial attitudes. While it looks like no other Dutch Reformed Church, Anchor of Hope is still 100% a member of the Dutch Reformed Church family. He said he believes that what God is doing at Anchor of Hope is impacting the wider Dutch Reformed Church through the sharing of feedback and through members who are visiting as part of the Fresh Expressions programme which encourages Christians to consider new, creative ways to bring the Gospel to people.
Anchor of Hope can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or 041 585 3700. The website address is www.anchorpe.co.za. Giellie Noeth can be contacted at 084 261 8501. The church address is 1 Edward Street, Central, Port Elizabeth