The Burden of Tradition (3): The Lutherans in down-town Cape Town
Every time I pass Searle Street on my way to the city centre of Cape Town my heart sinks, filled with sadness. Here we had a wonderful church, but about 30 years ago it was sold prematurely under the pretext that the area where it was situated was rezoned an industrial area and that apartheid had come to stay. The area had furthermore been declared a white area and black church folk should not bother to hang on to such property.
Had we kept this church until today (a cross knave church built in the 1920s with thick, strong walls, easily holding several hundred people), we could have had a church in down town Cape Town and we would own a property today worth ten million Rand or more. The predominantly black Lutheran church (formal name: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa, ELCSA, with roughly 700 000 members divided into seven dioceses in South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland; there are no white members except a few expatriates) is today referred to the impoverished Cape Flats on the eastern side of Table Mountain. Our church does not provide worship for our members in down town Cape Town. Instead, some of them have opted for the German based, previously and still in terms of leadership and race an all-white Lutheran church, either in Long Street (St Martini) or Strand Street (Strand Street Lutheran Church).
My heart sinks when I pass Searle Street; if I care to cast a glance I would only see a huge office complex covering the whole block except for the old, beautiful parsonage, built in Cape Dutch style, now harbouring an executive office of some kind. It sinks also because of discussions that were held there already in late 1976, when plans were being formed about a new youth centre for the church. One idea that was proposed from various quarters was to have the youth centre right there at Searle Street. It would have been possible to restore the dilapidated buildings, including the adjacent school into a functioning place for the training of young people of the church. Even though our members at that time already had been shifted out to Cape Flats, due to the almighty Group Areas Act (I recall three families still staying there), communications from Cape Flats to Cape Town were very good as buses and trains passed nearby.
Mr Tore Bergman (who passed away on Ascension Day in Uppsala) came to Cape Town towards the end of 1976, representing Church of Sweden Mission, also our employer. We held discussions with the leaders of the church about plans for a youth centre, which Sweden was prepared to finance, and all seemed to agree that Searle Street was the right place. Monday came, and the mission secretary from Uppsala was gone. Soon I would (in two consecutive meetings that dealt with other issues altogether) to my great surprise hear that Searle Street was not viable, mainly for reasons already indicated above. There was simply no faith and no hope in a future at down town Cape Town. The winners were the whites; they had taken it all. There was nothing I could say, after all I was just an expatriate, coming to serve the church for a couple of years. My heart is really filled with sadness while writing this text. It could have been so different. But the sad story also has a sunny side.
I accepted the argument that a centre for young people should be near where they lived and subsequently and I would say very successfully we would in due course embark on developing a major centre for young people, for leadership courses and conferences, and for a student hostel in Athlone, today a very well-known centre in the country and internationally (formal name: Lutheran Youth Centre, Athlone, telephone +27216966612, individual guests are also welcome at a very reasonable rate, ten minutes’ drive from the airport).
This youth centre was opened on 1 Advent in 1980 and has since then served thousands of people. But in the long run this success story of Athlone does not take away the fact that we missed out on something that was ours and should have been kept ours.
At the heart of the matter is again the burden of tradition. Sermons, at this time, as I remember them, were agreeable, in the sense of always focusing on salvation in Christ. But it would have been impossible to say: Christ has liberated us from all our sins, and he will also liberate us from apartheid (one day). The last part of the sentence would have been impossible and therefore at this time there was not yet a clear stand by the church against apartheid. The kind of theology that the missionaries brought to South Africa was devoid of social and political critique, completely. The legacy, the tradition that had become a burden was this: in the South African context the Lutheran theology brought in by the missionaries prohibiting local Christians to protest a gross violation of their human rights, a crime against humanity, had in effect created a slave mentality.
It took quite some time for the newly independent (1975) church ELCSA to up-root this mentality and to take a stand against apartheid. In the late 1970s we did not hear much. One should however note that from early1980s and onwards ELCSA broke away from this legacy and became very vocal in publicly denouncing apartheid. The Soweto uprising in 1976 and the ecumenical movement through the SACC (South African Council of Churches) had had their impact also on our church.