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A "Lancashire Lad" who stuck around to confront apartheid
The apprehensive missionary
In April 1963 a young Lancashire man, a few years ordained into the ministry of the Congregational Church, arrived in Cape Town with his wife and two young sons, apprehensive about his role as “missionary” and concerned about the role of the Church in an apartheid society.
Bernard Spong had read Naught for Your Comfort, the agonising book by Father Trevor Huddlestone CR about his ministry to the poor and marginalised folk of Sophiatown, Johannesburg, a vibrant suburb which had, a few years before, been made a victim of the apartheid regime's infamous Group Areas Act. Fr Huddleston (later Archbishop Huddlestone) told in his book of the horror of apartheid tearing out the roots and soul of a vibrant, creative society, leaving its people rootless and dispirited.
Huddlestone was also highly critical, in the book and in other writings, of what he saw as the “Church sleeping on.” He wrote, in an article in the British newspaper The Observer, “The church sleeps on – though it occasionally talks in its sleep and expects (or does it?) the government to listen.”
In his autobiography, Sticking Around (Cluster Publications, 2006), Bernard would write of his invitation to do missionary work in South Africa: “I had heard Fr. Trevor Huddlestone speak about the awfulness of the racial policy in that land. I had read his book Naught for Your Comfort. I had taken his words very seriously and had a real problem with the connection of the church, albeit the Dutch Reformed Church and not the church would serve in, with apartheid. South Africa would have been my last choice on the list of all the places mentioned [in the invitation Bernard received to do overseas mission work as a young minister in the Congregational Church in the United Kingdom].”
From Reverend to Moruti
So the young man who arrived in Cape Town that day in 1963 was full of missionary zeal, but a little unsure of the place where he would be spending, as it turned out, the rest of his life.
Bernard was born, to Catholic parents, in Manchester, England (just like the song from Hair! - “Manchester, England, England, Across the Atlantic Sea) on 30 June 1930. He went to school there and, in his mid-teens was taken by a school friend to a Boys Club at a nearby Congregational Church. In spite of an initial reluctance, he was allowed to join the club by the man who ran it, Mr Joseph Schofield. It was perhaps Bernard's first crossing of an artificial line: “I sometimes wonder what circles of life would have been mine if Joe Schofield had stood firm that evening and I had not been able to join that club.” As Bernard comments further, “Life is made up of small events that lead to major decisions and activities in later years.”
What that “small event” led to first was going to Lancashire Independent College in Manchester to study for the Congregational ministry. In 1956 Bernard was ordained to the ministry and got married to first wife Margot. His first posting was to the cotton town of Nelson where he experienced the “... forthrightness that marked the way people related to one another. There were very few secrets about the way you felt in Nelson.”
And it was in Nelson that Bernard learnt that “Ministry is about people rather than theological details and human relationships rather than erudite sermons.”
This learning was to be confirmed many times over by his experiences in South Africa, where he began his missionary work in the Vryberg district of what is now the North West Province (then still part of the Northern Cape) of South Africa.
Two other early learnings in Bernard's new surroundings were about greetings and time. In meetings and elsewhere the people of South Africa take greetings very seriously. As Bernard wrote in Sticking Around, “I could not go into a committee meeting, for instance, and just say 'Hello' with a general wave of to everyone. I needed to shake each hand...” At first he experienced this as an “astonishing waste of time” and it was a while before he recognised the “...traditional importance in recognition of the other person and the dignity belonging to that person.”
With regard to time he learned, as one of his colleagues put it, that in Africa “we do not keep time so much as create it!”
One of the key experiences Bernard had in his years as a missionary in Vryberg was his meeting with a young man called Simon. Simon was a student at the Batswana High School in a “black” area of the town of Mafikeng in North West Province. Simon was very good with mechanical things and yearned to be a motor mechanic, a career closed to him as a black person, as that job was reserved for whites only. Bernard and Simon had many talks together until after the mid year break in 1966 Simon did not return to the school. He had committed suicide while on vacation. “He was the first young person known to me,” wrote Bernard, “who touched my life personally, and who died as a result of the cruelty and destructive nature of apartheid.”
“Even now I remember him,” Bernard continues the story, “and see his wretched tormented face in my inner vision. Even now, so many years later, after seeing so many young men and women die and thousands more suffer untold pain because of apartheid, even now I can feel that same sense of aggravated anger that makes my body tremble.”
Bernard was coming to realise the “sickness of heart” caused by apartheid, the “...policy that determined where you lived, whether your family could be with you and what kind of work you were allowed to do.”
As he became “moruti” (minister, or “reverend”) to the people he learned many more lessons. He recounts one learning about the power of the oral tradition. He visited a church in his charge at the village of Dinokeng. Other places that had been affected by the Group Areas Act had new church buildings, but Dinokeng, being unaffected by the Act, was to make do with its old building. The people were not happy. “You can only have a new building if you do not already have any building at all,” he told the community. On his next visit there was no building! “It must have blown down they told me with faces as straight as the world's best poker players.” From this experience Bernard learned that he had to follow carefully what was said. “The spoken word was important,” in the midst of an oral tradition.
The ecumenist and the God of the poor and oppressed
In 1967 Bernard was asked to become the General Secretary of the Central Region of the about to be formed United Congregational Church of South Africa. This appointment meant he and his family had to move to Johannesburg.
This led Bernard into a more direct involvement with the structures of the Congregational Church as a church administrator, and also, under the influence of the man he called both “friend and mentor”, the Rev Joe Wing, into the ecumenical movement. Not that Bernard was unaware of ecumenism before, just that being in Johannesburg made the inter-church activities more real and accessible.
It was Bernard's involvement in the ecumenical movement that really brought him to confront the role of the Church in apartheid society. Bernard saw that the Church was compromised in its witness by the accommodations it made to apartheid laws. He started to question even his previous missionary efforts: “Is this what we had done? Changed lively, happy people into sad caricatures of piety?”
“In the end the church is people and faith is a journey of relationships with one another together with God,” Bernard writes.
“Accompanying others often turned into a humbling and growing experience. It helped me recognise the depths of hardship that people can endure together and the incredible heights of spirit and perseverance that people can reach,” he continues in his autobiography.
Walking with others, especially the poor and the oppressed, was confirmation of the need for Christian witness: "I was, and am, convinced that God is a God of the poor and of the oppressed. This means that to stand with God is to stand with the poor and oppressed. I just found it hard to know how."
Bernard also became involved in religious broadcasting, and was the first to introduce modern Christian music ton the South African airwaves. He did short slots and morning and evening devotions over the radio for some years, as well as a 15 minute weekly slot called “Jesus Today”.
“I believe very much in radio broadcasting,” wrote Bernard. “There is an immediacy and feeling of contact in radio that television can never supply.” He summed this up, writing, “Television is personality and performance, while radio is contact and imagination.”
In the course of his radio experience he also met famous English musicians Donald Swann (of Flanders and Swann fame) and Sydney Carter (of “Lord of the Dance” fame).
“My gratitude to these two men I had the privilege to call friends, is for their serious interrogation of faith and the expression of faith.” Bernard wrote. “The doctrinaire Christian barrier falls away before a vision of an inclusiveness that embraces all mankind.”
Bernard had crossed another line: “My constricting 'us and them' was finally blown away, never to return.”
The Council of Churches, IMP and the banner
Bernard was elected Chairperson of the UCCSA in September 1976 and was installed in this position, for a one year term, in September 1977. It was not quite the highlight of his career that he thought it might have been: “I think my major problem was that I could not take the whole thing as seriously as was expected in some parts. I wanted at times to throw the gown and stole away and dance rather than process in solemnity; to tell a joke rather than gravely speak about church procedures; to laugh out loud at some of the pomposity that surrounded the position.”
In his report to the 1978 Assembly Bernard said: “I want to speak again and again of the personal experience of the Christian faith as an adventure in living with and for each other.” He ended his report by saying of his time as Chairperson: “It has been a time when I have felt drawn closer to the members of of the UCCSA and less attracted to the organisation of the UCCSA. So be it.”
One of the great things for Bernard that emerged out of his year as Chairperson of the UCCSA was the start of the Interchurch Media Project (IMP) which got underway in 1978 and Bernard joined it full-time in 1979: “At first my time had to be divided between IMP and my task as Chairman of the church. ...the following year I cut my ties with the missionary agency.”
Bernard saw this not as the end of his missionary activities but rather as “stretching my missionary task further into new ground, new activity.”
So Bernard the missionary became Bernard the activist.
The stretching took quite another twist in August 1988. IMP had offices in the SACC building Khotso (Peace) House in downtown Johannesburg. A new studio had been fitted out for the project on the top floor of the building, which was to be opened with a ceremony on the afternoon of September 1st. In the early hours of 31 August Bernard got a call from a friend telling him that Khotso House had been bombed.
Bernard described this in a 1997 radio interview: “I went over and the whole place was burning and there were gas leaks and things like this around. It just looked like - well, when I was a kid I was bombed in Manchester, in England - it was that kind of thing. Fortunately nobody was hurt, but there were all sorts of things that happened. First of all, we weren't allowed into the building, and it was put under police protection, and it was surprising what had been moved and what hadn't been moved when we went back in. The bomb, the fire, had been very discriminating in the kind of things that were missing, and being in media, we had videotapes, and it was interesting that some videotapes had just disappeared.”
In Sticking Around Bernard writes of this: “There had been bombs in various places before. There had been threats against the SACC and its affiliates. There was a way, therefore, in which the explosion did not come as a surprise. It was still a shock.”
Nine years later Adriaan Vlok, who had been the Minister of Law and Order in the P.W. Botha Cabinet at the time of the bombing, confessed that it had been the security police who had, on the orders of Botha, placed the bomb.
Bernard told the radio interviewer: “Though we had our suspicious, we didn't know what we know now, that they were in fact having a party to celebrate it. And they said that it was a young woman, a white young woman activist of the ANC who had put bombs there, and was keeping her armaments there and because she wasn't very good at it, these went off.”
The police took much out of the building, posters, banners, books, equipment and files were taken. “One banner they did not steal,” Bernard writes in his book, “was in the Khotso House entrance hall. This huge banner depicted a black Christ, the Prince of Peace, with arms outstretched over various symbols of South African life and had the word “peace” across the top in six of the different languages of our nation. The bomb destroyed the entrance hall. I was able one day to clamber over the corrugated iron fence that had been placed around that entrance and take a photograph of that remaining banner and spread the photo far and wide to share this symbol of the indestructible Lord we served.”
My friend Bernard
Bernard's life has been rich and full of activity and witness. There is much more I could write about him but that would maybe make up a book rather than an article.
I have been privileged to know Bernard for around 40 years, or half his lifetime. We have shared laughs and tears, we have had fun together and have supported each other through some pretty tough times.
I had lunch with Bernard two days after his 80th birthday and told him of this article I was writing about him. “What would you like for me to say about you?” I asked him
“That I came as the showman, wanting to be in the foreground,” he said. “But now I am a backroom person, one who came to preach and learned to listen.”
One of the highlights of the years I have known Bernard was great party he threw in his Johannesburg home to celebrate his being granted South African citizenship after the coming of democracy. Bernard loves a good party, and this was truly one of the most joyous celebrations ever.
I danced that evening as I have perhaps never danced in my life. It was a celebration of homecoming, of acceptance, of deep and enduring love. The long journey Bernard started those many years ago in Lancashire had brought him home to the lovely land, South Africa. And it was indeed a time to celebrate!