I was probably around 10 years old when I first heard about South Africa. I was sitting on the floor of my grandparents’ living room listening to my great-uncle and -aunt, Rev. Leonard and Hattie Verduin, talk about their trip to South Africa.
Apartheid had been policy for more than a decade by then, and my aunt spoke with tears in her eyes about the disadvantages faced by black South Africans, expressing her concern for their babies in particular. My uncle, never one to mince words, must have been quite vocal while he was there, for he ended by saying: “They’ll never let me come back.”
What I heard on that Sunday afternoon was formative. From childhood into adolescence and beyond, I listened acutely to news from South Africa. When the Reformed Journal printed one article after another by Christian Reformed Church leaders protesting apartheid, I read each one carefully. I even noticed when CRCNA synods focused on South African matters.
The many visits that I read about that took place during those years were headed primarily by CRC leaders engaged in ecumenical matters. Discussions were pointed, and there were strong differences of opinion.
Fast forward to 1997, three years after the end of apartheid, when I was grateful to accept an invitation to be a visiting lecturer for a short term at Potchefstroom University (now North West University), the university of the Reformed Churches in South Africa. The post-apartheid transformation was evident everywhere I looked, from college classrooms to shopping malls, but tensions were high.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa for the fourth time. It had been nearly 20 years since my first visit, and even greater change has occurred. South African society is delightfully diverse, representing great progress toward the ideals of its Constitution and Bill of Rights. But for many black South Africans challenges remain in employment, housing, and inclusion.
During this visit, I had the opportunity do my own ecumenical visiting. I met with leaders from four of the main Reformed denominational groups in South Africa. Some of the discussions were about substantial matters such as the Belhar Confession and same-sex marriage. [Check out the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee report in the Agenda for Synod 2017 for more about these issues and our Reformed brothers and sisters in South Africa.]
Yet not all was weighty. Imagine singing a capella familiar hymns in English and the Venda language—with incredible African harmonies. Consider the delight of retired CRC pastor Carl Kammeraad being reunited with a young South African man whom he had baptized 23 years earlier. Picture taking communion in the church that was home to Archbishop Desmond Tutu before his retirement.
Apartheid is past, but the brokenness of human relationships in South African society and the church remains. I believe that a new chapter of ecumenical efforts with our Reformed brothers and sisters in South Africa, as well as with other ecumenical partners around the world, is before us. One South African church leader said to me: “Please help us Reformed denominations learn to work together to impact society in ways that you do in North America.”
Our ecumenical past has often involved addressing theological issues and their implications. Our ecumenical future is shifting, however. We as Christians must learn to speak more and more with one voice, and to act in unity, as the church faces decline in one hemisphere and explosive growth in another, and as issues of displaced people and disruptive relations based on socioeconomics, race, and ethnicity lead to immense needs and great societal divides.
In our ecumenical relations, as well as in our homes and congregations, may we be on our knees, praying the words of Jesus from John 17: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
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