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Talks toward merger stir hope among South African Baptists

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (BP)–South African Baptists still bruised by apartheid continue to move toward a level of unity that promises to make them a powerhouse in evangelizing the rest of the continent.
During a forum in Colesberg, South Africa, in May, delegates from the formerly white-dominated Baptist Union and black-dominated Baptist Convention decided to put the past behind them and reconcile their differences.
” … We have heard God that there is to be a merger of the two groups,” they said in a joint statement. “… We urge the respective executives to implement our obedience to God in the speediest possible way.”
A joining of forces would give South Africans a powerful platform from which to work, said Bryan Houser, a missionary with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. IMB missionaries have worked across racial lines and with various Baptist groups — including the convention and union — even during the most tense days of apartheid.
“It’s been a beautiful thing the way God has been moving,” said IMB missionary John Gordy, who has worked in South Africa since 1990 and is now an associate director for missions strategy for the region.
“If the Baptist union and Baptist convention can reconcile — I mean true reconciliation — what does that say for any Baptist group in the world?” Gordy continued. “There’s no deeper bitterness or hatred or hurt in the world. You can imagine through the apartheid years what those people experienced.”
Houser sees South African Baptists poised on the brink of making a great contribution to the African continent as a whole. Whereas in the past the rest of Africa saw the country as a white-controlled anomaly, they now see it as a neighbor and friend, he said. With that entree, plus the leadership, financial resources and personnel South African Baptists have available to them, they can have an impact on Africa like never before.
But before they can unleash that potential, leaders from both groups are seeking to gain support for unity from local churches and associations. First, they say they plan to help church members and local pastors deal with issues of past hurts and bitterness, just like they did in Colesburg.
Both leaders and grassroots Baptists have yet to work through the more practical issues, also, such as one South African society as a whole faces now: how — or whether — to make restitution for property that apartheid gave whites the legal right to take from blacks.
Apartheid was a social system set up by South Africa in 1948 to deal with the racial struggle that emerged as the country became a world power. The policy preferred whites over blacks, whom the government often moved out of their homes and into impoverished but self-governing communities.
The Baptist groups also face issues of philosophy and theology. In some convention churches, years of oppression spawned what some Baptists in the union saw as liberation theology, a philosophy that justifies militancy to free people from social, economic and political oppression.
During the years of racial oppression, the two groups operated on separate tracks, but relations between them hit a tense low in the mid-1980s when talks of consolidating resources broke down amid anger and mistrust. Hope stirred again in 1996 when Southern Baptist Convention President Tom Elliff led a spiritual retreat with a dozen leaders from each group after another round of talks had reached an impasse.
At the most recent meeting, “a time of sharing deep hurts, anger and bitterness took place,” the joint statement said. “Much was shared about our historic background which brought us to this time. Careful reflection took place over the hurt inflicted by both sides upon each other.
“God clearly moved in our midst as brothers and sisters forgave each other and were reconciled to one another.”

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  • Marty Croll