Conflict exposes need for discipleship and unity among Christian students
Hundreds of students, parents and Christian leaders worshiped God together and prayed together at a joyful, Spirit-filled prayer service at NMMU (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) in Port Elizabeth on Sunday night.
For a few precious hours the rainbow nation — a phrase attributed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu which was especially popular during Rugby World Cup euphoria but which has lost credibility amidst heightened racial tension on campuses and in the public square — was visible as God’s presence knit hearts together with a vision of how good and pleasant it is when His people dwell together in unity.
The prayer meeting was organised by the collective Christian societies on the campus at a critical period in which chaos and confusion threatened to deny many students the opportunity of completing their studies and securing a brighter future, said Pastor Jay (Lingelihle Jadezweni) who heads up RUCC Force, the student outreach flagship of RUCC Ministries which aims to equip students “to be spiritually sound, morally upright and socially relevant, using the word of God as a blueprint”.
The strong and diverse presence of Christian leaders at the service had a lot to do with the exhortations of Pastor Afrika Mhlophe who has been part of a small group of city Christian leaders who have spent much of the past two weeks in the thick of the #FeesMustFall protest action as peace witnesses. Before the meeting he urged pastors to be at the meeting en masse to show students that they cared.
The meeting opened with soaring worship led by Christian students. Then followed prayer led by six city Christian leaders who each introduced a relevant prayer theme and facilitated corporate prayer that got the rainbow congregation praying together and listening to each other — and no doubt to the Holy Spirit.
And then it was the turn for a Christian student leader Hlonelikhaya Klaas to address the gathering. There was a brief shift in the atmosphere as his impassioned message caught many people 0ff-guard. He called the Church to come out of its buildings and to be present among the students in this time of crisis — referring to the salt of the earth analogy Jesus shared with his disciples. But hold on. What was he saying? That the pastors should stand with the students during the protests and be a voice of reason. That the protests had escalated into violence because parents and the Church were absent. He said the church should support the students’ struggle against injustice — bailing them out of jail, helping them when they were injured? Was he justifying violence, intimidation and destruction of property as legitimate ways to achieve their quest for the just goal of making tertiary education accessible to the poor?
Responding to the student leader, Mhlophe thanked him for his forthrightness but told him that during his time on campus he had seen Christian students — who made up about 50% of the protesters — crossing a line by singing hate songs and throwing stones. He said as Christians we were not ruled by our emotions or the justice of our cause but were answerable to God. There was no justification for using violence to achieve a just cause. He said it seemed that what had started out as a legitimate protest issue had been hijacked. He said the Church needed to stop focusing on building brands and be on the campuses, discipling Christian students and empowering them to respond in a Godly way and resist other influences.
In an interview this week, Mhlophe said that the crisis on campus was highlighting a great need — and opportunity — for discipling Christian students. He said he had noticed that two Christian student leaders had walked out of the prayer meeting when he spoke against violence as a protest strategy. But he said that by being present — where the teargas and rubber bullets were reviving memories of protest during the anti-apartheid struggle days — he was having many opportunities to engage with students who were open to biblical discipleship. He said that since the prayer meeting he has continued to have fruitful interaction with Klaas and other student leaders.
He said that the campus crisis was also creating opportunities to tackle Christian disunity at the university confirmed by the existence of about 20 separate Christian groups on the campus.
Commenting on Sunday’s prayer service, Pastor Jay said it had advanced unity, peace, stability and understanding among students, parents and university management, in their efforts to resolve the present crisis.
“The successive prayer items spoke to the very issues that affect students and our city at large. This alone brought us to the challenge that burying our so-called head in the ground as believers has opened doors of undue influence, thus creating a segment of Christian students relinquishing their values and godly beliefs, conforming to revolutionary tactics which obviously are undesirable.”
He said he believed the impact of the meeting was far greater than met the eye as it had helped to calm the atmosphere and facilitate further mediation.
Renewed confidence in spiritual leaders
“Christian Students now have renewed confidence in their spiritual leaders and Christian society to support them in whichever way possible and this alone is evident in their state of mind,” he said.
Commenting on the discipleship and unity needs highlighted at this time, he said: “Students have opened the door for greater support and assistance from the Church and as one of the main bodies within the university, we have committed ourselves to being more visible and to further strengthen our discipleship efforts on campus.
“We believe that as part of the same body of Christ, we have an obligation to unite and work towards shared goals and student development efforts. Our prayer is to do away with any possible selfish ambitions within student societies, and start to serve the student community as a collective more than before.
“We believe that intensifying both prayer and works will in the long run yield a community of believers whose mission and purpose is founded on godly principles. To achieve this, open lines of communication among student leaders will be vital.”