News Articles

Baptists in South Africa working to forge unity

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (BP)–South African Baptists are trying to break free from deep racial wounds of the past and forge a new unity.
Baptist leaders are certain it’s time to undo the havoc wreaked by one of the modern world’s most racially charged social systems — the government-sponsored apartheid that until recent years preferred whites. But they’re also convinced only God can make things right.
Relations between the white Baptist Union and the black Baptist Convention worsened in the mid-1980s when talks of consolidating resources broke down. Apartheid’s social pecking order — and its twin, economic disparity — fueled mistrust, anger and hostility between the groups.
But now many seem ready to forgive and, more than that, leaders of the two groups are talking to each other about working together again. A turning point came last fall when Southern Baptist Convention President Tom Elliff led a prayer retreat with a dozen leaders from each group after talks had reached an impasse.
“There was a real moving of God’s spirit, a significant breakthrough as the spirit of God moved towards a new openness between leaders of the convention and union,” said Terry Rae, general secretary for the union. “We actually haven’t solved too many problems, but what we have done is faced each other on a spiritual level as brothers in Christ.
“In that spirit, we have made progress.”
In August and during another prayer retreat three months later, the groups realized the futility of hashing out their concerns and reliving their anger. “The new move is praying together and seeking God’s face together, and a spiritual approach to our tensions, suspicion, difficulties and hurts,” Rae said.
Convention General Secretary Desmond Hoffmeister said the groups decided it was premature to discuss plans for working together. But they agreed they wanted to prevent their relationship from sliding any further. The “new spirit of mutual forgiveness and repentance” that resulted holds out hope of finding common ground, he said.
A timetable of joint meetings and worship services scheduled over the next several months offers evidence things have changed. Hoffmeister spoke during the union’s annual assembly in October, and Rae spoke at the convention’s December assembly. In February members of both groups met for a worship service.
Still scheduled are an executive leadership prayer retreat of about 120 people; a broad-based joint meeting for prayer, repentance and confession; and a celebration timed to coincide with a Baptist World Alliance General Council meeting in June 1998.
The “Kempton Park Tembisa Resolution” is more evidence of a break in the logjam. Delegates at the November prayer retreat penned the page-long statement.
“We met in the context of years of protracted struggle and conflict,” the statement says. “However, the commitment to reconciliation apparent at this meeting convinced us this process is of God.
” … We have resolved to commit ourselves to beginning a process that will lead to us becoming a united Baptist body. … If we love God, we cannot but seek to accept and love each other, for love is of God.”
The resolution also asks members and pastors of the 450-plus churches that align themselves with the convention and the union to join the reconciliation process:
“We appeal to our members to pray for us, to support us and to commit themselves to this spiritual challenge,” the statement says. “… We call upon our constituencies to join us in this process of mutual affirmation, and inclusion, as we allow God to change our attitudes and behavior in relation to each other.”
Missionaries and others who have worked with both bodies say the healing process is at a delicate stage and could easily be ruined. Rae and Hoffmeister, however, seem determined to stay the course.
“We are committed to walk the road, regardless of what it’s going to cost us,” Hoffmeister said.
Rae speaks from the same heart. “We want to follow the direction of God’s spirit. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be pursuing this, because it’s too painful. But God is at work, and we must follow.”

    About the Author

  • Marty Croll