South Africa? What would make a team of four men travel fifteen hours, over 9,000 miles to the African continent – a country with a history of political, economic and social upheavals?
This beautiful country on Africa’s southern tip is an emerging Orthodox frontier. The two of us, Edward Bearse and John Sedor, were both honored to be selected by the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) to join Fr. Michael Miklos and OCMC staff member Andrew Lekos on a fourteen day teaching mission in and near Johannesburg and Pretoria during October of 2010. OCMC is a Pan-Orthodox mission organization based in St. Augustine, Florida. Teaching, medical and construction missions are established by OCMC world-wide, following the Lord’s Great Commission to his disciples:
“….And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28: 18-20)
The Great Commission is the driving theme behind every OCMC mission project developed. And, for the missionary,
“… I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send….Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.” (Isaiah 6: 8)
Behind every missionary are those people who are unable to travel, but who also “Go Forth…” through their prayers and support and, in this way, accompany the missionaries by providing the means necessary for the work to be completed. These benefactors were with us in our prayers throughout the mission!
The mission to South Africa was requested by and accomplished under the auspices and direction of His Eminence Archbishop Seraphim, Metropolitan of Johannesburg and Pretoria, who is under the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Our goal was to teach the Orthodox faith and personify the love of Christ and the Orthodox Church. A big part of our mission was to generate hope and Christian love!
Our parish priests gave us encouragement, academic and theological feedback, and prayerful support! In January of 2010, after we received notice of our selection for the South Africa team we “met” our team members through e-mail, and devoted the months ahead to fund raising, the preparation of our assigned teaching topics, learning about the country and culture, and most important of all, to prayer! Working with our team leader Andrew Lekos, each of us prepared three or four different forty-five minute presentations. For example, one of John’s topics was Holy Icons and the iconoclastic period, and one of Ed’s was the creation and importance of Holy Scripture.
There are about fifty million people in South Africa. The majority, about 80% are black native Africans. Approximately 9% of the population is white, mostly of English and/or Dutch origin. The colored population, which is any person of mixed race, also comprises about 9%. Finally, approximately 2% are of Asian origin or from India. English and Afrikaans are the primary languages. In addition, about nine “tribal dialects” are spoken. However, everyone we met, including children, quite naturally communicated with us in English. Housing is somewhat racially / and culturally grouped; most of the outlying communities, termed “townships”, are comprised of either black or colored people.
The Orthodox Christian Church is present in well-established ethnic communities. We attended worship services in Russian, Serbian, Greek, Afrikaans, and English. In addition, since the end of apartheid, the Metropolitan has actively encouraged outreach to the residents of the black African and colored townships, and mission churches are developing! With hope for men called to the Holy Orders, a seminary education program has evolved and a small number of black priests have already being ordained.
The Metropolitan delegated the daily local supervision of our team to Fr. Athanasius Akunda. “Father A”, as we were wont to call him, is originally from Kenya and had just received his second Ph.D. degree. He is the Dean of the Johannesburg Diocese and parish priest at the racially integrated Church, St. Nicholas of Japan, in Brixton. It is impossible to speak with him and not see, in his smile, the love of God!
On our arrival Fr. A welcomed us with such joy that we felt like “family.” We were transported to our residence, “Stegi-agape,” an Orthodox retirement home. From this “home base,” our team traveled daily with Richard, our driver, who consistently operated within a type of “African time!” Nevertheless, we finally would get to our destinations after exciting rides (sometimes for two hours) through the densest traffic and / or on dusty, winding, desolate, dirt roads with ruts as deep as “craters.”
Hope for the children of Tembisa! Our first visit was to the township of Tembisa (a Zulu name for “There is Hope!”). Tembisa was planted in 1957, when apartheid moved and re-settled the black population into various locations. It is one of the largest townships with a population close to 500,000 people. Crime is rampant. We visited St. Athanasius Orthodox Christian School, grades K-8th. It is served by the Orthodox Mission Church of the Virgin Mary, and shepherded by Fr. Johannes. Over 200 students come from the surrounding community; this includes some orphans housed with local families. The older children were well aware of the local street crime in their community. Ed asked the 7th/8th graders, “what would happen if I walked your street alone at 11:00 P.M. tonight?” One girl responded, “Sir, we might never see you again.” When talking about “life choices” we found children wanting to be engineers, doctors and lawyers and other admirable goals. One young 10-year-old boy beamed with joy when John recognized his artistic talent and inspired him to use it as a life skill. We hope they heard our message of faith in Christ, living the sacramental life of the Church, making positive educational choices, and not engaging in drugs or crime. How will these youngsters reach their aspirations? Our hearts are filled with prayer for these lively students, who have hopes and dreams in Tembisa!
Hope for the emerging church in South Africa! Fr. Johannes also serves at Soshanguve, our next visit. The women of Soshanguve welcomed us with joy and a hand clapping, acappella serenade, “God be Praised,” in their native tongue. We presented our seminars outside under the trees with beautiful sunshine and the ever-present breeze. Our audience consisted of the leaders of their mission “house church,” and a sense of hope seemed always present. Upon departure, we were again serenaded, which was very uplifting! We joined them with a silent prayer for this vibrant, small, loving Orthodox community.
Our team hosted three days of seminars at Atteridgeville, with Fr. Fruementios, priest of the Archangel Gabriel & Michael Mission “house church.” Atteridgeville is a crowded black community; housing there consists of shacks built from cast off metal or wood panels. The people there were really engaged in our presentations; attendance increased each day. Each one of our team members received many questions, especially Fr. Michael. There is no question here, that the “Church” is the people, who demonstrated a strong thirst for learning Orthodox Catechism. One young man present exhibited the talent for and has a goal to enter the seminary when the Lord wills. It was an honor for us to teach and learn from these intelligent and motivated young people. The hope at Atteridgeville is for a church building, (even a tent), to help this Christian body grow in faith and worship. We left with prayers filled with love for this wonderful and joyous community.
Hope for the Orthodox Community of South Africa! We visited two monasteries, the seminary, St. Nektarious Church and St. Constantine & Helen Mission in El Dorado a colored community, that primarily spoke Africaans. Finally, on two occasions we attended Vespers at Fr. Athanasius’ church, St. Nicholas of Japan. We attended services at most of the visitations, and then followed with our prepared material or panel discussions that stimulated much interest and lively dialog with our hosts. Presenting prepared material is one thing. Discussions and questions are quite another challenge. We simply discussed everything; racial relations, crime, language in the church, catechism questions, wealth, dividing resources, plus many other topics! Race relations and interchurch matters involving the black, colored and white churches continue to be most challenging. We saw the people’s hunger for learning Orthodox Catechism, and we saw hope in these dialogues!
On three occasions, it was our pleasure and honor to participate in a radio broadcast. Marie Dzerefos, the producer / host, and His Eminence Archbishop Seraphim interviewed us on programs that were broadcast over the entire continent of Africa. Our team had the opportunity to deliver a positive message of hope to a widespread audience through this medium. In fact, a listening priest not known to us heard the radio show, called the producer and arranged to come to the station to express his appreciation personally for our efforts.
Hope for the Orthodox Community of South Africa! Spending only fourteen days in a country as complicated as South Africa means we know very little; however, we have been touched very deeply! Many years of the infamous apartheid system has left a vestige of political and economic misery to the majority. Crime is always present everywhere! In the metropolitan areas the homes are surrounded and gated by 7-foot high cinderblock walls topped with sharp spikes and electrified or concertina wire. We asked a parishioner “how often do you experience fear?” The answer simply was, “every single day!” How will the children of Tembisa rise above the crime-infested community they call home? Who will answer the call for clergy indigenous to the townships? How will the house Churches meet their needs for resources? Moreover, how can the laity meet their deeply expressed desire for Orthodox Catechism?
In Matthew 28:19-20, our Lord and Savior commands us to Go! Make Disciples! Baptize! Teach! Despite their struggles, the emerging Orthodox faithful of South Africa appear strong in spirit and desire to grow in faith, worship, and vocation! As Christ commands us all, “Here am I, Lord. Send me!” He promises to be with us always, “to the close of the age.” With God, all hope is possible! It is to personify this Hope, that our team humbly answered the call for this mission!
A photo gallery of the trip to South Africa can be viewed here.