The churches and the anti-Apartheid movement
In the period before the ending of Apartheid, the Ecumenical Movement, expressed in the World Council of Churches and bodies like the National Council of Churches in Australia, took a firm stand against Apartheid by supporting various movements and groups that were working to end it. This caused some friction with conservative churches that saw the opponents of apartheid as terrorists.
In the mid-1980’s and, after the visit of Archbishop Tutu, the Pitt Street Church began to focus on supporting the Anti-Apartheid Movement. There was a group of South Africans in Sydney supporting the African National Congress, led by Eddie Funde. Every time they lost an anti-Apartheid leader or activist in South Africa, they would come as a group to the Pitt Street Church service and we would all sing “Nkosi Silekel’Afrika” and pray for those who were lost.
At that time, a Nazi Group called “National Action” was attacking the Pitt Street Church and me, its Minister. They were attacking us on four fronts. Firstly because of the support for the African National Congress, secondly because some of the congregation were wiping out “Kill an Asian a day” graffiti in the inner-city, because Pitt Street was an inclusive church which supported people of differing sexualities and genders, and because of our support of indigenous issues at home.
Once the neo Nazis marched into the church service wearing swastikas and jackboots and placed an offensive pamphlet on the lectern, and they also came when the church was open during the week and painted swastikas and other offensive signs inside and threw all sorts of damaging substances across the front of the church in the night.
I lived alone and they followed me home several times a week, their leader sitting opposite my front door, threatening me. They painted horrible signs on my front fence, threw vomit and faeces across the front of the house, knocked on my door in the middle of the night, or rang me up and played the Nazi National Anthem.
During this time, we were supposed to be protected by the Police Special Branch, but this clearly wasn’t happening. Other groups who being attacked, including the Jewish Board of Deputies whose synagogues were being damaged, joined us to form a deputation that petitioned the NSW Minister for Police. He responded by telling us that all sorts of things happened in society and the Government couldn’t be expected to deal with them!
This went on for two years and, at one stage, Pitt Street Church wrote an open letter to the Sydney Morning Herald addressing National Action and saying publicly that we would never give in to people who were racists, homophobes or who supported South African Apartheid. We also held a special event to celebrate the Unity of Humankind with speakers from differing faiths and cultures. Many hundreds of people came to join us and, as part of the service offered the gifts of their original cultures, 60 in all into the life of the Australian community.
When the neo-Nazis burnt an effigy of a woman on my doorstep. The new head of Special Branch had them arrested, and the leader, Jim Saleam, was arrested for the attempted murder of Eddie Funde of the African National Congress in 1989.
In 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa, he visited Sydney and I was asked to create a welcome service for him to be held in St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral. The Cathedral was filled with people of various faith communities, alongside other people who simply wanted to honour him. We had read about what he did and said at the point of his release from prison, and we all celebrated his loving and humble spirit. When he walked down the central aisle of the Cathedral, many people reached out their hands to be near to him.
After the service of welcome and celebration, a few of us were invited to go down into the crypt of the Cathedral to meet him. He named us as his comrades and talked with us about the future of his country as one of equality and freedom for all people.
He was invited to preach at a service at Pitt Street Uniting Church and more than 1500 people gathered there to hear him. He undoubtedly inspired us to take our stand against Apartheid and for justice in general. He told us that Mahatma Gandhi had lived in South Africa. Gandhi, after much reflection, had advised that he didn’t think that non-violence would work in South Africa, although obviously it was important to be as non-violent as possible. He thought that the forces against the people were too strong.
The visit of Nelson Mandela influenced many people in the faith community and beyond, and people began to take an interest in the South African struggle to end apartheid. In 1993, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited Sydney. He was excluded from the Anglican Cathedral because Sydney diocese supported the breakaway pro-apartheid Church of England in South Africa, so instead he preached at the Parish church St James in King Street. He preached against racism toward indigenous Australians, against the Sydney Anglicans bigotry toward homosexuals, and for keeping the sanctions and boycott of South Africa right up until the first democratic elections.
The High Commissioner of South Africa asked me to prepare and preside over a Memorial Service held at Pitt Street Uniting Church when he died. He was undoubtedly one of the finest leaders in the world for justice and peace and his humility was exemplary.