I experienced a remarkable, dual cultural immersion during my recent visit to South Africa. I accompanied 18 United Methodist youth from nine regional conferences across our Northeastern Jurisdiction (NEJ). The goals of our Mission of Peace, lasting from December 28 to January 15, was to broaden our cultural awareness, build bonds of peace among diverse peoples and learn about the vital mission of the church in the world. Truly our mission was about making disciples and seeking transformation.
Three of the impressive high school-age youth on this adventure were from our Eastern Pennsylvania Conference: Madeleine Devitis, Adrienne Newcomer and Mia Sanchez. I was one of four adult chaperones, representing the NEJ College of Bishops. And while this journey drew me more deeply into the well of my own Christian faith, it also gave me a double immersion—brief but meaningful-- into the culture of young people and the culture of South Africa.
The Power of ImmersionMy experience with youth culture was inspiring. Our young people are spirit-filled, curious, passionate about social justice, and immersed in social media. They sang, prayed, preached, befriended and encouraged one another throughout the trip. I also enjoyed watching them interact with the youth of South Africa.
My encounter with South Africa—a place where painful chasms are being bridged daily—was largely colored by the transformation the country is experiencing since the dismantling of its former system of racial segregation and discrimination known as Apartheid. During the years of Apartheid the racial minority, people of European heritage, sorely oppressed the overwhelming majority of indigenous people. They subjugated people of color through racial classification and population control, substandard education and restricted employment based on race, designated residential areas and a police state that harshly enforced those policies.
During this time in their history, from 1948 until the early 1990’s, many of the churches and church leaders supported the government regime. Yet, some took the bold step of opposing the painful oppression. One such prophet was Bishop Peter Storey, leader of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. During his 40 years of ministry he played a significant role in the anti-Apartheid struggle. His life was threatened many times by the police, and he even preached against Apartheid at gun-point. But he was undeterred.
Courageous struggle, resilient hopeWe had the honor of hearing him speak during our visit to South Africa. He reminded us that the church needs to stand for the truth, even when it is difficult. He commented that Apartheid could have ended sooner if the church had “been the church” in those early days.
Bishop Storey told us that an important role of the church is to bind up the broken-hearted and to live the Christian alternative to the world’s way of life. He taught us that we need to live like Christ in all of our dealings with people, and that during times of disagreement and struggle we should respond in non-violent ways.
We as the church today need to remember the words of Bishop Storey and to keep before us the principles of South Africa’s greatest leader, Nelson Mandela. He presided over the end of Apartheid when he became the nation’s first democratically elected president.
I thank God for the opportunity to visit this land of courageous struggle and resilient hope. The memories and principles of Christ-like living that I learned there will live on in my heart for years to come.