Peter Storey on ministering amid the teargas

Peter Storeys book I Beg to Differ: Ministry amid the teargas.

Peter Storey, former bishop of the Methodist Church of southern Africa and former chaplain to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, will be discussing his book, I Beg to Differ: Ministry amid the teargas, at the Simon’s Town Museum next week.

A Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Duke University in North Carolina, he founded LifeLine SA and Gun Free SA and led the South African Council of Churches when it was a fierce opponent of the apartheid state.

He will be discussing his book and detailing many of his experiences at the museum on Saturday May 4 at 2.30pm.He has written a book, I Beg to Differ: Ministry amid the teargas, detailing many of his experiences. He will be discussing his book at the Simon’s Town Museum on Saturday May 4 at 2.30pm.

His book recounts his sorrow and joys and shares the convictions that inspired him to minister amid the teargas, violence and intimidation of the apartheid regime.

In the following extract he describes how, as pressure mounted on the apartheid state, it showed increasingly scant respect for the Central Methodist Church (CMC) and others like it that had offered their pulpits as a platform for resistance.

“Our turn to be violated came later.OnDecember6,1988,a meeting at Wits University protesting the Delmas Treason Trial was banned at the last minute. Word went round to disperse and re-assemble at CMC and soon the church was packed. The protest was resumed, this time as a ‘prayer’ gathering.

“South African Council of Churches general secretary Frank Chikane and I were sitting behind the pulpit, with Dr Allan Boesak addressing the crowd, when I got word that a whole lot of riot police were outside.

“I went to investigate and sure enough, a platoon of men in full riot gear and carrying sub-machine guns was formed up in front of our doors.

“Seeking out the officer in charge, I asked him why they were here – we were holding a perfectly orderly meeting. He replied that the meeting was banned and his men were there to clear the people out. ‘You must be mistaken,’ I said. ‘The banned meeting was at Wits University. This is Central Methodist Church.’

“’Don’t be funny with me, Reverend,’ he said, ‘We know who’s in there and we’re coming in.’

“’Listen, Captain,’ I remonstrated, ‘this meeting isn’t in the hall. It’s in the church sanctuary. You guys have never invaded a church. If you do that, you cross a line. There will be hell to pay if you dare to invade a Christian church.’

“In doubt for a moment, he turned and spoke into his radio: ‘Ons het ’* probleem,’ he said. ‘Die priester sê hulle’s in die kerk self’

“Then came the reply, and on hearing the word ‘Beweeg!’ crackling through his radio, I turned and ran up the stairs and down the aisle into the pulpit, stopping Boesak in full cry.

“I told the congregation that we were about to be occupied by riot police and to stay absolutely still in their places. There were only two major staircases down to the ground floor and I was desperately concerned about what would happen if a crowd approaching 1 000 people stampeded.

“Before I got the sentence out the police were streaming into the church. The sight of some 60 men in full riot gear, positioned around our communion rail pointing their weapons at the congregation was frightening, but to their credit everyone stayed calm and seated.

“The officer, pistol on hip, joined us in the pulpit and barked an order at me: ‘Tell them they’ve got four minutes to disperse.’ Again I remonstrated: ‘That’s impossible! It takes much longer to empty this church I know this. Let me calm them and dismiss them.’

“While we were arguing in the pulpit, Ken Roberts, who I liked to call my ‘resident conservative’, now in his late 60s, did his own amazing thing. With dignified anger at the riot squad’s lack of decorum he got up and approached them. ‘Take off those helmets,’ he instructed. ‘Don’t you know you’re in a church? Show some respect!’

“It seems that some of the young Afrikaners in the squad were from God-fearing homes, because a
few of them sheepishly removed their visored riot helmets, trying to tuck them under their armpits. In spite of the anxiety of the mo-
ment I couldn’t suppress a small smile.

“The police captain realised I was right about the dismissal and grudgingly agreed to my request, whereupon I announced that the service had been declared illegal and that we would have to leave after a closing prayer. With that I lifted my hands and began to pray. It was a long prayer. I wanted to at least challenge the power equation: why should a bunch of policemen have all the authority?

“So, while the officer repeatedly growled, ‘Maak klaar, priester, maak klaar!’ I managed what I hope was a dignified ending and pronounced the Benediction. With that the people left quietly and there were no arrests.”

I Beg to Differ: Ministry amid the teargas is published by Tafelberg. Signed copies will be available at a discounted price of R300 at the talk; cash only.

An entry donation of R25 includes refreshments. Call 021 786 3046 for details.

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