What God Joined Together: Chapter 1 — Getting acquainted with God’s higher ways

In front of our house in 30 Combrinck Street District Six with some relatives, holding the hand of my favourite ‘Aunt; Patsy Roman, our neighbour

A serialisation of a new book by Cape Town missionary and author Ashley Cloete about love across the colour divide in the apartheid era. Each week we will publish a new chapter

Until I reached the age of about nine, the world as I knew it consisted solely of the single square mile around our family home in the bubbling slum-like District Six in Cape Town. As a little boy, I did not think in my wildest dreams that I would one day get to any other country, let alone get married to someone from a place far away. I can vividly remember the few instances that I stepped outside the District Six neighbourhood. What a big deal it had been for us to attend the Van Riebeeck Festival at the docks when I was six; and what a memorable outing it was when we watched the documentary ‘A Queen is crowned’ at the Bijou Cinema in Salt River a year later. Although both venues were only a few kilometers away, they were located in another world from my perspective.

The Whites living in Vredehoek and Green Point were geographically nearby, but it may as well have been overseas. This is how disconnected our society was at that time.

The Blacks of Windermere and Langa, represented in my world by the coal-blackened men who brought fuel for our stove, were to be feared and resented. The radio was something I only started listening to after we had left District Six, and even then it was only ever to hear rugby commentary on a Saturday afternoon.

From an early age, I made a habit of roaming all corners of District Six. I knew the names of almost every street by the time I was six. When Aunty Bertha Roman, our neighbour, found me in a dark alley that I was not supposed to be in, I knew that I was in for a double hiding– one from her and one from my mother. “Sit die hond agter haar!” I retorted ingenuously, telling my friends to let the dog go after her. It was thus with great relief to my parents that I could start my schooling career at Zinzendorf Primary School in Arundel Street.

Through God’s grace, possibly also as an answer to the prayer of my parents, we moved away from the area where I had already started mingling with the wrong folk.

As a mere fifteen year old teenage boy, I started to become acquainted with the idea of a sovereign God. My then best friend Nicholas Dirks invited me along to an open-air rally, where Dr Oswald Smith, a prominent Canadian evangelist at the time, was the main speaker. Amongst a crowd of a few thousand faces, I found myself feeling deeply challenged by the evangelist who beckoned us to ‘come to the Cross.’ However, due to a lack of discipling that would have helped me to pursue a relationship with God, my spiritual growth was stifled. It was only when I visited the DRC Sendingkerk [Mission Church] in Tiervlei (now called Ravensmead) that I was freshly challenged to wholeheartedly put God first in my life. I also realized at this occasion that this might mean putting other passions aside to better align myself with God’s will for my life. The pastor of the church there, Dominee Piet Bester, subsequently took on a mentoring role in my life. He was also the one who got me interested in missionary work. Raised as a ‘Coloured’ in apartheid South Africa, I never considered that I would ever end up in another country, though – no more so for missionary purposes.

As far as my education was concerned, it was always clear that after completing secondary school, I would go on to be trained as a teacher. Many members of my extended family were practicing this profession and it seemed to be the obvious choice for me as well. However, the financial situation at home was a major constraint, so it was decided that I would go and work after Matric to enable my older brother Kenneth to complete his two-year teacher training at the prestigious Hewat Teacher Training College.

After a few unsuccessful attempts at finding white-collar clerical work, which was as a rule reserved for ‘Whites’ in the apartheid era, I settled for a menial job, cleaning machines at the Nasionale Boekhandel printing works in Parow. After working there for only a few weeks, I came home one late afternoon and learned that I, like my brother before me, had been accepted as a trainee at Hewat Teacher Training College. I was quite surprised when my parents disclosed to me that they felt I should go to Hewat despite the absence of funds for this. Our mom had been challenged by that day’s ‘watchword’ from the Moravian textbook. It read, “My ways are not your ways …” (Isaiah 55:8). My parents wanted to trust God to see us through financially for that critical first year of teacher training. This was quite exceptional, as “faith ventures” were fairly unknown in the ‘Coloured’ society of South Africa and even more so in the Moravian Church of the 1960s. However, their faith was completely vindicated.

Looking back, I believe that God used this parental obedience to set a pattern in my life, in helping me discover that God’s ways are indeed higher than our own. After completing the two-year teaching diploma at Hewat, I landed my first teaching post at Bellville South High School. I was actually qualified as a primary school teacher, but was offered a position due to the dearth of high school teachers at the time. I taught there from 1965-1968, whilst simultaneously doing some part-time studies towards a B.A. degree.

While I was still completing my teacher training, an inner longing to also become a pastor began to tug at my heart. Chris Wessels, a young pastor who had preached in our church, had challenged me to take up theological studies, but I was adamant that the Lord should call me clearly and personally if becoming a pastor was in line with His plan for my life.

The decision to wait for His divine calling did not in any way lessen my involvement in evangelistic work. I myself had started preaching at youth services from the age of fifteen, still looking like a primary school boy, and soon began inviting teens from other denominations to preach at our local Moravian youth services.

Through a mutual friend, I managed to get Allan Boesak, who would later become an extremely prominent political activist, to speak at one of our youth services. Allan’s dedication to the Lord made a deep impression on me. When he mentioned the ‘stranddienste’ [beach services] of the SCA (Students Christian Association) he sowed important seed on the fertile soil of my heart. The SCA got Christians from different denominations together to evangelize. One of their big projects involved students sharing God’s love to guests at beach resorts during the Christmas holidays. ‘Coloured’ students were assigned to Harmony Park near Gordon’s Bay and I had no hesitation in signing up for this event, which started every year on Boxing Day (26 December).

As I was getting ready for this outreach, I suddenly began to panic when I realized that I was not at all equipped for a task like this. I felt so spiritually empty myself. How was I going to evangelize in this condition? In desperation I cried to the Lord to meet me anew. I had nothing to share with anybody – unless God would fill me with His Spirit. And that He did. Something supernatural happened that day. In one brief moment I felt touched and lifted from the feeling of complete barrenness. I was suddenly energized and keen to join the other young folk in Harmony Park.

The sense of unity and love of the young vibrant believers, who came from different church backgrounds, was a completely new experience for me. As we joined together in the outreach, there seemed to be some very special power at work. I was spiritually set on fire and the experience changed my life completely.

After this, I started to consider God’s potential call on my life into full time service more prayerfully. I put it before the Lord time and time again that I was fully prepared to proceed with theological studies if this was His calling.

At the beginning of 1968, one of my teenage heroes, Reverend Ivan Wessels, contracted leukemia. He passed away a few weeks later in his hospital bed at Groote Schuur. He had been such a prominent and influential figure in our community that almost the entire Moravian Church establishment gathered in the suburb of Lansdowne for the funeral. The church had lost one of its great sons, and South Africa as a whole had lost one of its unsung fighters for justice. Bishop Schaberg challenged the funeral assembly: “Who is called to fill the gap caused by our deceased brother?” I felt personally addressed. Back home in Tiervlei after the funeral, it was not difficult for me to say, “Lord, I’m prepared to be used by you to help fill the void.”

The next day we went to the mission station Pella for a Sunday School Conference. I was completely surprised when a member of our church board approached me with the question of whether I would be interested in a bursary for theological studies in Germany. I was overawed by the perfect timing of the Lord! If this offer had been put to me a few days previously, I might have declined it. The temptation to study abroad would have been very attractive, but I wanted to be absolutely sure that it was God’s call. I told the minister that I saw this as clear confirmation of the call of the Lord the previous day.

Barely a few months later, I was packing my bags for the great trip abroad.

Next week: Chapter 2 — Don’t marry a foreigner

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  1. Hugh G Wetmore

    I had heard of Ashley, but had not known his story – It is fascinating, in a way that only God could make it!


    what an inspiring testimony of your upbringing Brother Ashley!