While anti-immigrant violence was tearing their city apart, 150 believers at a small Baptist church stood together to ask God to bring peace to their country.
An elder at the church in Johannesburg, South Africa, called out the ethnic groups by name: white South African, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Mozambican, Zimbabwean and a dozen more. Everyone stood – black and white, young and old, joining hands across the aisles and singing together, “We are one in the spirit.”
“It was beautiful,” an International Mission Board (IMB) worker said. “We saw beautiful unity within the body of Christ today.”
Christians throughout South Africa are calling for further displays of solidarity against ethnic violence in their country, aware that historically their churches have not always been a strong voice for unity – some supporting the violence, others refusing to get involved.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Haber
Victims of xenophobic violence in South Africa wait for aid at a makeshift camp outside a suburban Johannesburg church.
“South Africans, both white and black, usually observe without interfering,” the worker said, “so pray that the church would find boldness to both speak out and defend those being attacked. Pray that the church would not be passive right now.”
Although South Africans and immigrants normally live and work side-by-side, historic racial hostilities run just beneath the surface in this multiethnic society. The latest firestorm erupted in late March after the Zulu king publicly called for foreigners living in South Africa to “go home,” blaming them for a sluggish job market and increased violence in the country.
In an apparent reaction to the king’s comments, Zulus in a township near the city of Durban reportedly responded with riots and violence, killing five, injuring hundreds, looting and burning businesses and running people out of town. Since then the xenophobic attacks have moved to South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, and its surrounding areas, causing widespread panic as thousands of immigrants have fled their homes.
Another IMB worker and his family helped at a makeshift camp that sprang up practically overnight next to a Methodist church near their home. The church led in organizing efforts to assist victims of the attacks, and several IMB workers volunteered their time and resources to help.
The church cared for more than 1,000 people who were housed in tents in the middle of the suburb where it is located, the worker said.
In addition to meeting the physical needs of those in the camps, volunteers and members of a local Baptist church found opportunities to share the gospel with the people seeking refuge there.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Haber
Volunteers provide bags of food for victims of xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Christian workers and national believers alike are praying that such actions will be undertaken by more churches as they rise to the challenge of demonstrating peace, taking a stand against fear and hatred, and boldly sharing the gospel.
Even when the violence subsides, thousands who have lost homes and businesses will have to rebuild their fragile lives from nothing.
“The immigrants that I know are very fearful for what is going to happen to them next,” the IMB worker said.
Melanie, a South African Christian blogger, reminded her readers of the words of scripture in Leviticus 19, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. … Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
“Our country is broken,” she noted. “Our country is hurting and afraid. What we need is a revolution – not a physical revolution but one in people’s hearts!”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Nicole Lee is a writer for the London Bureau of Baptist Press.)