The South African Leadership Assembly

An incredulous black youth said, “It was like a dream, sitting next to whites, talking to them and singing with them.”

And in a sense, the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA) was like a dream—but a fulfilled one for its organizers. Many said the meeting could never happen, considering the bitter racial and church divisions in South Africa. Special interest groups on the right and left politically had lobbied against it.

But over 5,000 participants, almost equally divided between blacks and whites and representing almost every denominational, racial, and ethnic category in the South African ecclesiastical mosaic, came together last month in Pretoria for the week of meetings. Officials said that SACLA represented a wider range of cultural backgrounds than any previous meeting in the country, which has more than 3,000 denominations and church groups. Indeed, the participants’ only mutual link was their Christian faith.

Because of their differences, the participants felt tension and uncertainty when the sessions began. David Bosch, University of South Africa theologian and chairman of SACLA, doubted whether there had ever been a large meeting of Christians “as fragile as this one.” He said in his opening address, “The whole assembly can blow up today.”

But what emerged from the meetings was a new spirit of unity, rather than an explosion. In some cases, dialogue between persons from different backgrounds took place for the first time. Louise Wigens from Durban, white and 16 years old, said, “I came from Kenya eight years ago, but SACLA was the first time I’ve had a chance to speak to people of other races.”

Methodist theologian Elliot Mogojo summarized: “There is yet hope for South ...

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