1968 – 1980
For me, following Jesus means to join the company of his followers. I cannot do it alone. I am not brave. I am like the Roman centurion who watched Jesus died on the cross from a safe distance and said, “He was a good man.” I witnessed the martyrdom of those who followed Jesus. They fought for dignity of all people and for justice in Palestine and South Africa, like Jesus did for despised, poor, and sick. I can also be compared with John Mark, Barnabas’ nephew in the Gospel and the Acts of Apostles. Like him I walked with people who followed Jesus, but when I came face to face with the real test of strength of my faith, I got scared and ran away.
People I accompanied were all followers of Jesus but in varied ways. I don’t look at their labels: they were moved by the same spirit, like the Roman centurion who might have been a pagan but reach the same conclusion about Jesus as his followers did. Though they are labelled differently, they followed the same Jesus in spirit. They could have been atheists, agnostics, humanists, Buddhist, Christians, or Muslims. They believed in and gave themselves for the cause of justice, love, and peace – salaam – shalom. They were followers of Jesus just the same, just like Mahatma Gandhi and Dalai Lama.
When a theological college awarded me an honorary degree, I did not feel worthy. I accepted it to celebrate those followers of Jesus and named them in my acceptance speech. I am a witness to those who paid the ultimate cost of discipleship.
People must wonder if I am a reckless adventurer seeking excitement by being involved in the struggles of Palestinians and South Africans. It was not like that. I took the job that came my way, and paid the price of the choices I had unwittingly made. I wanted to run every time I came face to face with harsh reality.
We went to Africa because after 11 years in my first pastoral charge. I wanted change. I applied for overseas posting with the United Church of Canada. Norman McKenzie, the personnel officer of the Division on World Outreach, asked me, “Africa or Asia?” I said “Africa.” “Lesotho?” I had never heard of such a country, but I said, “Yes” to Lesotho. That’s how I stumbled into the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in 1968. Was I seeking adventures? No.
Lesotho is a tiny land-locked mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa. The Paris Missionary Society of French Reformed Churches (La societe des mission Evangelique de Paris) requested the United Church to recruit an English speaking person with a graduate degree in Theology. So I went to Lesotho after a few months of orientation in Paris. Once in Lesotho I met colleagues like Desmond Tutu and Anthony Gann, and students like Steve Biko, Njabulo Ndebele, Jama Mbeki, and Shelagh Sisulu.
In January, 1971, I was detained for three days at the Detention Centre in Johannesburg Airport as I was returning from a conference in Tanzania. Thereafter, I was expelled and prohibited further entry into the Republic of South Africa. At the time I had no idea why such a thing could happen to me.
I stayed in Lesotho for five more years without being able to leave that land-locked country which is the size of Belgium. Dentists were available only in South Africa. I had to ask someone to take the car into South Africa for service. To go outside of the country, I had to fly via a South African airport where I was required an escort of a Canadian embassy staff. After five years without being able to get out of the land-locked country, the “prohibited Immigrant” status made it impossible to send my daughter to an English language secondary school. We had to leave Southern Africa.
I was recruited to take a position in the World University Service (WUS) International Headquarters in Switzerland. Our daughter went to a French language secondary school: no problem for a Canadian. The WUS position attracted me because it enabled me to continue to work with the same people in Southern Africa. My work involved administering funds to support people and their work who were engaged in the struggle for the freedom and justice for all people in South Africa.
While still in Lesotho, I asked the Canadian Embassy in South Africa to discover the reason for my detention and expulsion. It took several years for them to find it. Initially, however, the First Secretary of the Canadian Embassy in Cape Town dismissed my request for inquiry. This was how his letter began, “As a Canadian of non-European origin, etc., etc.” It sounded as though I did something wrong and Canada had two-tier citizenship. There was a strong protest from the United Church of Canada, spearheaded by Garth Legge, General Secretary of the Division of World Outreach and my home Conference of British Columbia. Mitchell Sharp, then the Minister for External Affairs finally apologized and informed me that it seemed the South African authorities saw me as undesirable because of my association with the kind of colleagues and friends I had. I didn’t choose them: they were there when I got there.
Who were my colleagues and friends? Desmond Tutu was one of my teaching colleagues in the Department of Theology at the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. John Osmers was the chaplain of the Student Christian Movement. Another colleague in Theology, an Anglican priest from Britain, Anthony Gann, also became prohibited to enter South Africa. The university had many South African students activists in the Black Consciousness Movement created by Steve Biko. They were there to avoid the racially segregated university education. Jama Mbeki was one. And Njabulo Ndebele was another, who later became President of the University of Cape Town. Jama was a brother of the second President of free South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. Jama simply disappeared from the campus in 1971. To this day, nobody knows what happened to him.
I was not looking for trouble. I was there for work. I had not done or said anything subversive about South Africa. In 1976, Mapetla Mohapi was found dead hanging in a prison cell in King Williams Town, Eastern Cape Province. He was probably killed accidentally while being tortured. The police were apparently trying to find the names of the overseas financial supporters of the Black Consciousness Movement (BMC), of which WUS was one. He was the treasurer of BCM. His wife, Nohle, wrote to me that it was the worst possible time for her. Their first child was just born and they just had a roof repaired. A year after Mohapi’s death, Steve Biko was beaten to death in the same prison. Other staff were banned – house arrest. Griffith Mxenge, who was a lawyer for the BCM, was found shot dead on the street of King Williams Town a few months after he and I had a meeting in Lesotho to discuss administrative matters. I always flew to Lesotho to meet with my partners in South Africa since I was not allowed in. The whole world knows what happened to Steve Biko. But other martyrs remain mostly unknown.
Two of my friends, both chaplains and Anglican priests from New Zealand, John Osmers and Michael Lapsely, were nearly killed by parcel bombs. They lost a few limbs but survived. The bombs were sent from Geneva by Craig Williamson who I had thought to be my good friend. In 1980, Craig was exposed to be a spy for the South African Police. He had pretended to be a political refugee and came to Switzerland. Abram Tiro also was blown to bits in his exile home in Gaborone, Botswana, with a parcel bomb.
I have also met brave people in Palestine when I worked for the Canadian Council of Churches from 1979 to 1990. I was assigned to a job representing Canadian Churches that supported the Middle East Council of Churches. Also for three months in 2003, I was a member of Ecumenical Accompaniment Program of the World Council of Churches and lived in the West Bank in a village called Jayyous. One day, some farmers who were prevented to go to their fields by a separation barrier and curfew, there was a tense encounter between farmers and the Israel Defence Force soldiers. Many young Israeli peace activists and my co-workers in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program rushed to be with the farmers to provide them safe space. There was tear gas shot into the crowd. Where was I? I was running away washing my eyes with a raw onion, an antidote for tear gas. I had to come face the fact that I was not brave.
Emil Aghaby, who was the coordinator of the Refugee Program for Palestinians in Lebanon, was found shot dead on the road, a victim of mistaken identity. He was a wealthy businessman who volunteered time to administer the Middle East Council of Churches’ program in the refugee camps in Lebanon. I met many brave Christian Palestinians in Gaza Strip and West Bank. Constantine Dabbagh, Doris Saleh, Albert Nursy, to name a few. They were all middle class educated Palestinians. I met them as the members implementing the Refugee Service Program of the Middle East Council of Churches. When a majority of those middle class Palestinians Christians left the homeland for better and safer living in other parts of the world, they stayed behind to help their compatriots who had no resource to migrate. Palestinian Christians are better educated hence have better chance to migrate and re-establish their life in safer countries. Palestinian Christians used to constitute 26% of Palestinian population in the Holy Land. Remaining Christians are now less than 5% of Palestinians. The Holy Land has been empties out of native Christians. Many of them claim their ancestry to the original Christians.
They followed Jesus and paid the heavy price. I am a witness for them.