Pilgrimage of Grace reflection: Rev Nelis Janse van Rensburg
“We need the movement of the Holy Spirit to unite believers in their resistance to division and discontent, against exploitation, shame and the abuse of power,” says Rev Nelis Janse van Rensburg, the moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church as he reflects on his participation in the Genadendal Pilgrimage of Grace, a three-day journey towards repentance, reconciliation, restoration and prayer in the Genadendal community, the Moravian Church and South Africa as a whole.
Runup to the Pilgrimage
Two events earlier this year made deep impressions and inadvertently became the spiritual and emotional background for Nelis’ very intense experience of the Pilgrimage of Grace.
While attending the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) 11th General Assembly in Karlsruhe in September, Nelis profoundly realised how serious the world church is about the gospel of reconciliation. “The theme of the synod, The love of Christ moves the world to reconciliation and unity, was not just a pretentious slogan – the delegates really meant it. After that, watching the age-old Passion Play in Oberammergau with my wife, I became deeply aware of the social implications of Jesus’ ministry. The script and the staging of the ministry of Christ was a very authentic and compelling version of the gospel.”
Nelis and Gustav Claassen represented the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in Norway when it was readmitted as a member of the WCC in 2016, after the DRC itself revoked its membership in 1962 and at the time made a choice against the reconciliation movement of the WCC in South Africa. The Cottesloe Consultation of churches in December 1960 in Johannesburg, which was initiated by the WCC, was intended to consolidate Christians against the fallacies of apartheid. However, the path of the DRC after they left the WCC was a path of secession, division and abuse of power.
“The DRC’s return to the WCC, with the blessing of the other member churches from South Africa and the African continent, was a joyful occasion. I never realised that the world church was waiting so anxiously for our conversion and official return to the gospel of peace and reconciliation.”
Walking to the podium of the Moravian Church in District 6 on 23 September 2022, Nelis felt the gravitas of the gospel resting heavily on his shoulders. “The Pilgrimage was a moment of truth for the DRC. Earlier, I informed the members of the NG Church in the Western Cape Moderamen about the Pilgrimage and my intention to repent again that we have sinned through our support of apartheid, but also to emphasise our commitment to restoration. I had the full support of the Moderamen and knew that on the Pilgrimage I really represented the Western Cape Dutch Reformed Church.”
The Moravian Church’s journey
District 6 is a symbol of everything that was reprehensible about apartheid, Nelis says. There, in the heart of the Mother City, the most expensive piece of land in our country still lies bare. There is really nothing left of the former suburb which was home to so many coloured people. Apartheid swept it away. But Moravian Hill is still there. “I was not aware of the little church at the top of the empty District 6 until I became part of planning the weekend of the Pilgrimage. Moravian Hill is a relic, almost like the stump of Isaiah, a relic of our divisive and dehumanising past. Our Pilgrimage had to begin there.”
The Moravian Church is a proud church, rising above the humiliation of apartheid and absorbing the rejection of white people while keeping an evangelical course. “Maybe their contact with Hernnhut in Germany was like an umbilical cord to a source of human dignity. In Genadendal, where the Moravian Church in South Africa had its origins, Rev George Schmidt sowed the seed. Sister Vehettge, or Magdalena, as she was named by the missionary at her baptism, and others continued to sow the seed of the Gospel after he left, and the harvest was great. The kingdom has broken into the hearts and lives of thousands and thousands of people.”
The church developed its own culture, with its roots deep in the Bohemian reformation of the 15th century, and found its own ‘blue note’. But somewhere, deep in the Moravian church’s soul, there was still pain from rejection and continued humiliation. “At first it was open rejection. Later it became the silence, which was almost more painful. The white people, the DRC, after their 1986 reversal of their views of apartheid, did nothing, and said nothing to the Moravians. The silence kept the rejection alive. After all, there are few things as painful as being ignored. It is so humiliating, so dismissive.”
Repentance should be a knee-jerk reaction
“The confession I made at Genadendal (Valley of Grace) on behalf of the DRC was not that special. Is it not what Christians are supposed to do? We confess our guilt, before God and men. It is supposed to be like a jerk reaction. Ask forgiveness for your sins and where it influenced people, ask them for forgiveness too. We confess that we take the commission of Christ to minister reconciliation seriously.”
Reconciliation starts by being reconciled to God, and then imitating or repeating it to those against whom you have sinned and who have sinned against you. “I don’t know why our repentance to the Moravian Church only happened at this late point in time. But what was remarkable about Genadendal was the forgiveness, the gracious and merciful walking away from the past by the Moravians, reaching out to people who don’t deserve it. It felt like we were players in an evangelical drama, almost like the Passion Play. On the moment of confession, Rev Martin Abrahams (the president of the Moravian Church) stood up while I was praying and put his hand on my shoulder. I knew then that everything was right. The love of Christ really moves people to reconciliation and unity. Where there is love, there Christ is Lord.”
Many prayers were answered in the run-up to, and during the Pilgrimage, from those involved.
Rev Edwin Arrison of the South African Christian Leadership Initiative (SACLI) is a man of God who made reconciliation part of his humanity. Anneke Rabe and Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg were called by the Lord to a ministry of reconciliation. “From Anneke, I learned in the Groote Kerk that a plea for forgiveness must be specific. Hanneli’s intercession is powerful and speaks deeply into my self-understanding as a dependent on God.”
“Prayer has a powerful effect. The Lord heard these Kingdom prayers, the cry, the yearning for peace and reconciliation resonated deeply in His heart. The Pilgrimage was a movement, a movement of the Spirit. The celebration of the grace of God in which we all participated was exuberant and almost overwhelming. The presence of a television news team unexpectedly gave us an opportunity to witness nationwide to the love of Christ that moved us to reconciliation and unity.”
The journey continues
The Pilgrimage was just one of many actions over the past few years to bring South Africans together, and it is encouraging to see that it hasn’t stopped there.
Archbishop Nkosi Ngese of the Ethiopian Episcopal Church called Nelis a few days after the Pilgrimage after seeing the news reports on television. After meeting with him, Nelis eventually also made a confession at their national synod outside Gqerberha on 11 December 2022.
“A very kind but sensitive woman approached me after my confession. She conveyed her appreciation for my speech but admitted that she was at pains to bid farewell to her 37-year-long struggle with the effects of apartheid. Her family was profoundly hurt under apartheid. She was emotional. I wrapped my arms around her and she began to weep until her body jerked inside.”
“I responded to her that no more words or formulations would make a difference – the battle was no longer outside, but within her heart. The journey was now a journey between her and God. And she said, ‘I’m finally free to start anew today. I leave my anger and rejection here today, in Jesus’ name’. My tears were flowing, because the love of Christ moves people, makes everything new, gives new opportunities, liberates. I saw it before me, I felt it in my arms. I will never forget the way she relaxed, her peace.”
Later, when Nelis said goodbye to the woman, she was covered with peace. She hugged him, tightly, without words, and left. The next morning, the many members of synod who voiced their appreciation grew to a crescendo of goodwill and gratitude, saying “We are the church that raised black consciousness. We want to journey with you, the church of apartheid. We belong together.” At this moment Nelis was deeply touched and experienced a freedom which is beyond comprehension.
We need a movement of the Spirit
“South Africa does not need more ecumenical bodies. We need a movement, the movement of the Spirit that unites believers in their resistance to separation and discontent, against exploitation, division, distortion, shame and the abuse of power. Now is a new kairos time. May the Lord lead and show us how to multiply what happened in Genadendal and Gqerberha so that the world will know that He is Lord.”
BACKGROUND TO THE PILGRIMAGE OF GRACE
From 23 to 25 September 2022 a group of diverse individuals from South Africa and abroad participated in the Genadendal Pilgrimage of Grace – a three-day journey towards repentance for past injustices in the Genadendal community, against the Moravian Church and in South Africa as a whole, along with reconciliation, restoration and prayer. The Pilgrimage formed part of prayer initiatives and actions from various groups across South Africa over the past few decades that centred on Jesus’ prayer in John 17: 20b – 22 (NIV): “I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us.”
The Genadendal Pilgrimage of Grace was organised by the South African Christian Leadership Initiative (SACLI Reconcile) and supported by Global Voice of Prayer, in Harmonie, the Moravian Church of South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa and various other ministries, denominations and individuals. The three-day Pilgrimage included:
23 September: A service at the Dutch Reformed Church Groote Kerk in Cape Town
24 September: A public event at the Moravian Church in Genadendal with a focus on repentance
25 September: A prayer gathering at the Southernmost Tip of Africa (l’Agulhas) for healing of the African continent. This also kicked off a 54 days of Prayer for Africa movement.