“It was one of the most meaningful services I have ever attended in my Christian walk,” said Trevor Jennings a member of a Nelson Mandela Bay church leadership task team that arranged a healing and reconciliation service at which four victims of apartheid-era forced removals from South End, Port Elizabeth, shared their memories of that painful time.
Likewise, Dutch Reformed Church dominee Danie Mouton, who led the service on Friday December 16 (the Day of Reconciliation) in the South End Museum, in which white Christian leaders asked the speakers for forgiveness for the injustices they had suffered under apartheid — and washed their feet as a symbol of Christlike humility — described the day as one of the most meaningful in his life.
“I witnessed the reciprocal process of repentance and forgiveness in such an authentic way and was amazed at the deep, effect the processes had on both parties participating,” said Jennings.
He said the experience demonstrated “the powerful role healing and reconciliation can play in our desperately hurting country”.
“I believe the Christian Church is uniquely placed to lead a national healing and reconciliation initiative as a matter of great urgency,” he said.
In an unexpected twist, the urgency of the need to heal old hurts was illustrated when Sydney Prince, 69, — a local soccer legend and one of the four former South-Enders who shared their stories at the service — died two days later on Sunday, after coming home from church.
Jennings commented on Facebook: “Sidney left us 48 hours after he had heard the apologies & requests for forgiveness from people who stood in the gap for past generations for what happened to him and his family in South-End.
“Sidney could not stop thanking us for what had just taken place at the museum. He did not die a bitter man.
“Great sense of humour. When Mike Smith was washing his feet he called out for all to hear ‘Don’t forget my hands and my head’.
“We are honored to have bought healing & reconciliation into his life before he passed away. Sidney we will honour your memory. Rest In Peace my brother.”
During Friday’s service Port Elizabeth artist Duncan Stewart did charcoal drawings which captured something from each speaker’s painful memories as well as something healing and hopeful. After they have been framed the drawings will be donated to the South End Museum which commemorates the forced removal of some 8 000 people from the previously vibrant, multicultural community in 1965.
The unique memories of each speaker — being “thrown out like dogs”, a father losing a thriving business built up over decades, a mother dying of a broken heart as bulldozers demolished surrounding homes, and children who clambered eagerly over the locked gates of a whites-only park after-hours to play on the swings and roundabout — brought the past alive in a very human way.
A speaker Hazel Gallant, 71, said it was difficult to put into 10 minutes a history of 50 years but she expressed gratitude for the opportunity to speak about the pain she had carried for so long.
Doxa Deo church leader Braam Botha and Dutch Reformed Church minister Eldré Bester participated in making a public apology for the removals and honouring the speakers for their resilience and lack of bitterness. Pierre van Wyk of the Uitenhage Minister’s Fraternal led the congregation in a prayer of repentance.
At the end of the service Jennings presented a plaque with a message of forgiveness and reconciliation to South End Museum administrator Colin Abrahams.
“This is to say we care. Let today, December 16, be the day to remember in PE. We have initiated the healing process where church representatives meet with families affected by our past history,” Jennings said.
2016 has been a year in which it became painfully clear that despite 22 years of democracy, racist attitudes and bitterness from our past are still causing much pain, division and dysfunction in our country.
The government is responding by pushing for new hate speech laws which Christian leaders say would not solve the problem but would threaten freedom of speech and religious freedom.
Will 2017 be the year in which the Church of Jesus Christ leads the nation in promoting healing and reconciliation? Recently there have been signs of the Church taking a growing lead in reconciliation initiatives — such as serving as mediators during recent unrest on campuses, the mass Sacred Assembly at the FNB Stadium in Soweto which emphasised reconciliation with God and each other, and most recently the South End Museum service.
During the first four months of next year NGO Heartlines will be promoting a national initiative called ‘What’s your story?’ which aims to promote understanding, trust and reconciliation through personal storytelling. Churches and Christians are urged to participate in this initiative. More information about ‘What’s your story?’ is available online at: http://www.heartlines.org.za/media-campaigns/whats-your-story/the-campaign-whats-your-story/