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01
Jun

A Journey Well Worth Taking

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Representatives from the churches in Southern Africa were in attendance when the inaugural congress of what became the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) took place in 1905. Rev. and Mrs. F. G. West from Pietermaritzburg (umGungundlovu in Zulu), Natal, and Mr. T. Burnham King from Kingwilliamstown in the Cape were among the “delegates” attending the London meetings.

In his brief address at the congress, Burnham King called the meeting “epoch-making,” and spoke of the enthusiasm for the congress displayed by Baptists in the colonies of South Africa. He praised the unity of the “composite” churches he represented. These churches, he said, comprised “not merely ... British members, but ... Dutch, French, German and Kaffir.” Once considered a neutral term, Kaffir is now regarded by many a pejorative reference to Black South Africans.

When in July 1998, 93 years after BWA’s founding, the General Council met in Durban, South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was one of the guests. In his memorable address to the council, Tutu spoke of the miracle that was happening in his country that had seen its first democratic election with full adult suffrage, followed not by violence perpetrated by those who had undergone years of oppression, but by an unprecedented process of healing and reconciliation. Tutu celebrated his country’s victory over oppression and explained that, wherever reconciliation occurs, God is the author of it.

A resolution approved by the General Council applauded the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission for its “role in helping to bring healing following the end of apartheid and the establishment of democratic rule in South Africa.” The resolution also commended Baptists in South Africa for their “continuing resolve to work under God’s inspiration and guidance toward a just reconciliation” between the union and the convention.

As the 21st Baptist World Congress in Durban draws near, I recall, with pleasure, my first visit to that city. What a privilege it was to be in South Africa during a historic week in 1994!

I had gone to South Africa as one of the United Nations observers at the first truly democratic election in the country. During the final training course in Johannesburg, I was to have a firsthand experience of a tornado. It was not without some relief that those of us who were assigned to KwaZulu Natal left Johannesburg by bus for the long ride to Durban.

Our relief was tinged with some apprehensiveness because we did not know what was awaiting us in our assigned province. Although mechanics had to repair the bus we were traveling in, after it broke down near Bloodriver, we arrived safely in beautiful Durban, after a long and memorable ride. Once in Durban, we made it clear to the powers that we expected to fly back to Johannesburg. We would not be returning there by bus! They graciously agreed.

After staying overnight in Durban, we set out on a northward journey. Shaka’s Rock in Ballito on the KwaZulu Natal coastline was my base of operation and, from there, I made several journeys from April 26-29, 1994, to observe the elections and to record my findings. The Enembe School in Sundumbili, the Hayinyama and Thukela Schools in Mandeni, and a center in Hlunguini, are some of the voting stations that I monitored.

I treasure the memory of the wonderful sight of long lines of people waiting with patience and discipline to cast their vote. Many were voting for the very first time. In scenes of jubilation, thousands waited – hope etched on their foreheads and freedom treasured in their hearts.

High in the hills of Hlunguini, I met an elderly Zulu man who told me much more than I expected him to know about celebrated Jamaicans such as Marcus Garvey, Michael Manley and Robert (Bob) Marley, all of whom had made a contribution to the unfolding drama in which this man was participating. He gave me his Zulu rod, which caused some consternation on my return journey home when I displayed the rod proudly.

Some of the Baptists of South Africa who will welcome us at the upcoming congress may arrive with their rod. This will be a multiethnic group whose representatives collaborated in the Local Arrangements Committee. This diverse group of South African Baptists will show us that the miracle continues in their country. As BWA General Secretary Emeritus Denton Lotz told those attending the General Council in Vancouver, Canada, in 1997, South Africans understand that gatherings that aim at reconciliation do not constitute an event; instead, they are part of a journey. And this pilgrimage toward reconciliation, like some other journeys, is well worth taking.

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Neville George Callam, a Jamaican, has been serving as general secretary and chief executive officer of the Baptist World Alliance since his election in Accra, Ghana in 2007.

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