Nico Smith plans to live in a black township where he pastors a Dutch Reformed congregation.

In 1981 Nico Smith, a white South African seminary professor, took a group of missionary science students on a field trip to Nyanga, a squatters’ community of thousands of homeless blacks. There, the families of migrant workers refused to move to government-assigned “homelands” that offered neither jobs nor food. The nation’s 22 million blacks, according to law, were to be confined to 13 percent of the nation’s land, while 5.5 million whites controlled the rest.

In the desperate faces of mothers separated from their children during forced deportations, Smith saw the harsh reality of his government’s policy of apartheid. The seminary professor began to view the policy of racial separation as a political failure, a theological abomination, and a social blight on the nation his European ancestors had claimed as their own for seven generations.

Smith prepared a statement about the squatters, criticizing government policy and charging his own white Dutch Reformed Church with responsibility to act on behalf of the homeless. “Migrant labour is inhuman and the church must emphasize that it is a cancer in our society,” his statement read. “Wives see their husbands only a few weeks a year. For the rest of the time, there exists only an emptiness.”

Word came to Smith that his outspokenness was an embarrassment to Stellenbosch Theological Seminary, where he had taught for 16 years. The white Dutch Reformed Church (known by its Afrikaner initials, NGK) supported the government policy of apartheid (meaning apartness). He resigned his prestigious post and accepted a call to minister to an all-black congregation in Mamelodi, the black township outside ...

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