BENONI, South Africa
— On the fourth and final night of the Southern Africa Bible College lectureship, the voices of 500 Christians rang out in praise.
The diverse crowd — a mix of blacks, whites and “coloreds,” as those of mixed races are known in South Africa — sang first in English.
Then Clive Landsberg, a Zimbabwe-born immigrant, led two hymns in Venda, one of 11 official languages in Africa’s wealthiest and most developed country.
“It helps with unity,” said Landsberg, who a few nights earlier joined attendees in worshiping God in Zulu, another official language. “People feel welcome.”
A loud chorus of “Amens” greeted that night’s guest preacher, David Duncan, minister of the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston, when he pointed out that Jesus did not speak English.“We are all here today because someone shared their faith with us,” Duncan said. “And we are called on today, no matter what country we’re from or what culture or what color we are, to share our faith in Jesus with other people.”
Fifteen years after the end of apartheid, signs of racial harmony can be seen in Churches of Christ in this country that former president Nelson Mandela touted as a “Rainbow Nation” in his 1994 inaugural speech.“The change is unbelievable,” said Kurt Platt, a 1989 graduate of Southern Africa Bible College, a preacher training school in Benoni, east of Johannesburg.
Interviewed at the recent lectureship, Platt described himself as one of a few black and colored Bible college students educated “under the radar” during the apartheid era.
“To look at the church now, this is the way it’s supposed to be,” said Platt, academic dean at African Christian College in Swaziland.
Even during apartheid — a government policy of segregation and racial and economic discrimination against non-whites — some black and white Christians found ways to fellowship together.
Youth groups from the white Benoni Church of Christ and the black Davidton Church of Christ would arrange to run into each other “by accident” at a park. The teens would play soccer, throw Frisbees and enjoy time together, said Stephen Sheasby, then a young adult leader at the Benoni church.
“That was great fun — to kind of stare at the face of government and go, ‘We don’t care. We’re going to do what God calls us to do,’” said Sheasby, a 1995 Southern Africa Bible College graduate and founder of Mission Providence, which helps widows and orphans affected by Africa’s AIDS epidemic.
“To see what we see today is wonderful,” he added. “We don’t have to worry about the government trying to impose legal problems if we meet together.”
For all the racial strides, myriad challenges confront post-apartheid South Africa — including one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
“The crime has made a major impact,” said Fred Bergh, director of Southern Africa Bible College and a former South Africa ambassador to the United Nations. “You can’t just go and knock doors now (to share the Gospel). People won’t even answer their doorbells anymore.”
Amid rising fears of robberies and sex crimes, razor-wire fences have become a common sight at homes and businesses.
Private, 24-hour security squads provide rapid response to alarms at more affluent homes.
The Bible college erected an electric fence to deter criminals.
“Since we’ve had the electric fence, praise the Lord, we haven’t had a problem,” Bergh said. “We’ve even got cameras in some strategic places.”
Violent crime, coupled with concerns about affirmative action limiting opportunities for advancement, has sparked a steady exodus of whites from South Africa.
As many as 800,000 out of a total population of 4 million whites has left since 1995, Newsweek reported.
Churches of Christ, particularly traditionally white ones, feel the impact of white flight.
At the Benoni church, for example, attendance was approaching 500 in 1992, said Al Horne, the former longtime minister and founder of Southern Africa Bible College.
Now, it’s closer to 250.
While there are no reliable figures, rough estimates put South Africa’s total Church of Christ membership at about 30,000, leaders said.
“Many of the congregations are either stagnating or declining due to factors like a lack of workers … or in many cases, whole families emigrating due to crime or for better opportunities,” said Benedict Little, evangelist at the Central Church of Christ in Goodwood, a suburb of CapeTown.
But Little, a 2005 Southern Africa Bible College graduate, said the Central church is among the culturally diverse congregations thriving in the post-apartheid era.
Little preaches in English and Afrikaans and said he can “get by” in two other languages: Zulu and Xhosa. In South Africa, English is the language of business, politics and the media, but it ranks only fifth among languages spoken at home, according to the government.
“I don’t see the diversity of languages as a negative,” Little said.“In fact, people of a different language group appreciate it more when you speak to them in their mother tongue.”
Most churches in South Africa cannot afford to support a minister, which makes many young men reluctant to go to Bible college and become full-time preachers, leaders said.
“Many preachers have to earn their basic income by doing other secular jobs,” said Sherman McLaren, a youth and family ministry deacon at the Benoni church. “This has, sadly, resulted in many preachers and many graduates of the Bible college abandoning ministry in order to fulfill secular commitments and support their families.”
In other cases, aspiring preachers attend Christian universities in the United States and never return home, Horne said.
“Ninety-eight percent of people who go to America don’t come back,” he said.
When asked what message she would share with her fellow Christians in the U.S., Tarryn Roy, 21, a white South African in her second year at Southern Africa Bible College, replied only half-jokingly, “Stop stealing our boys.”
A small child when apartheid ended, Roy said racism remains a problem for some — even in the church.
“I can understand where they come from because that’s their mindset, and that’s the way they’ve been brought up,” she said. “That doesn’t make it right. … You try to lead by example, by being friends with black people, and if someone does say something racist, by coming back with something not racist.”
In the post-apartheid era, Southern Africa Bible College has seen dramatic shifts. Once all white, the student population is now about 90 percent black.
“It’s more representative of the demographics of the country now,” Bergh said.
At the same time, the college’s leaders, including Horne, say the declining number of white students is a concern. In some cases, white parents seem reluctant to send their children to a predominantly black college.
William Tengani, a black student, talked about his passion for ministry as he grilled “boerewors,” a South African sausage.
After his graduation, Tengani said he and his wife, Beulah, plan to return to Port Elizabeth, about 760 miles south of Johannesburg, and plant new churches. Tengani, who speaks Afrikaans, English and Xhosa, hopes to promote unity among blacks and whites.
“Apartheid tore us apart. Really, it separated us,” said the 41-year-old father of three. “But there is no need that we see each other as black or white or whatever. The blood of all of us is red.
“We just have to be united and love one another because we are all God’s created people.”