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A Eucharistic Presence

How South African churches are acting like Jesus.

Over the weekend I was at a small tent city, just outside Johannesburg, in Midrand. There were some 300 gleaming white United Nations nylon camping tents that housed up to about 1,000 refugees from the recent xenophobic riots. The riots claimed the lives of over 60 and displaced anywhere from 19,000 to over 200,000 foreigners mainly from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia.

Some of those foreigners have returned to their homelands. Some have been housed in South African community centers and police stations, and many of those are now being moved to tent cities. In the Midrand tent city, the tents are neatly lined up in rows, with a large tent in the middle for cooking and distributing food.

Food — this has loomed increasingly large during my travels. I've begun to see that it is the way the church has become a eucharistic presence, offering bread that gives life and spurs thanksgiving.

Food shortages were a problem before the recent riots. Employment is as high as 60 percent in some impoverished settlements. Some official reports put the figure at 24 percent, but on-the-ground ministries insist the official numbers don't represent reality; the official statistics only reflect people who are actively looking for jobs, and don't count those who have abandoned that search, and often along with it, hope.

These stats wouldn't count, for example, Fhatawani Lvehengo, a man who lives in Cosmo City and is trying to start a church. His family could certainly use the income, but he has felt a call from God to start a church, and his wife insisted he follow that call. So he has no intention of finding employment. In the meantime, his wife works as a maid, living at her employer's home Monday through Friday. Her parents take care of their 3-year-old son. And he pastors his fledging congregation of 12 without pay. They just barely make do.

So how do the unemployed and underemployed put bread on the table? The government does not offer food stamps or food closets or any such thing. It is South African churches that play an increasingly large role in feeding the hungry.

Every church and ministry I visited has a food gathering and distribution program. They have closets and rooms and fellowship halls filled with food. Wherever I went, food was arriving in dribs and drabs, being loaded into cars driven by volunteers to one settlement or another, or both at once. Just four examples:

When I was reporting on one ministry, Lerato's Hope (outside of Capetown), we loaded our car with food before we drove around to look at their various projects. No trip was going to be wasted.

Another time, when I was at the Midrand Tent city, talking to the women in charge, another woman came up and interrupted: "I'm from Rhema Church. And we have some food for the refugees. Where should we put it?"

The woman in charge of the tent city hesitated, but then showed the Rhema people a tent where they could put the food. The tent was already packed.

"The problem is not getting food," said the women. "The problem is managing all the food we've been getting from the churches. We're overrun."

Table View Assembly of God, north of Capetown, has tried to reach out in various ways to the poor over the years. Finally, they decided that they would be wiser to support other ministries that were offering preschool care or HIV counseling or something else. Table View decided to focus on something their congregation seemed to do best and naturally: collect and distribute food.

Table View is the church I mentioned in a previous dispatch, whose fellowship hall was twice packed with and twice emptied of blankets, clothes, and food after the riots broke out in Cape Town. They are becoming known as the church that feeds the hungry, which is why all manner of people showed up to donate during the riots.

Then, at the Hands of Compassion community in northern Johannesburg, over 100 blacks, whites, and colored (South Africans of mixed race) live together in intentional community. They bake bread every day to feed the community. And they bake more loaves that every day are piled into trucks and distributed in local townships.

"I have compassion on the crowd because they … have nothing to eat," said Jesus. And "he took seven loaves and the fish … and the disciples gave them to the crowds" (Matt. 15:32, 36). At all these churches, it's like a daily feeding of the 4,000, and the miracle is that it happens every day.

This eucharistic act is literally saving lives, and making for peace. Without the churches, thousands of South Africans would die — or start rioting to secure their future.

Which brings up another thing: In some communities, the church has taken the lead in promoting — no, insisting on — peace. This video clip summarizes the story of how churches in Diepsloot, a settlement north of Johannesburg, put a halt to riots that had erupted in their community. I interviewed Admore Mkwesa, who pastors a tent church that has grown from five to 80 people under his ministry (he is also an unpaid pastor, working as a carpenter to feed his family).

Pastor Mkwesa is from Malawi, and much of his congregation is from Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Mozambique. Naturally, he was anxious when he heard about xenophobic riots that had broken out. But while some foreigners fled the settlement, and for good reason, Pastor Mkwesa and the other pastors did not.

Local officials — "councilors" — pled with pastors of the 20-some churches in the settlement to do something. The pastors called a community meeting, and everyone prayed. Then the Christians marched. They made their presence known throughout Diepsloot, to say enough was enough.

Given the fear that shot through other communities like this, it was a moment of extraordinary courage — and a large reason the rioting in Diepsloot evaporated so quickly.

And why the foreigners in Diepsloot have remained in the community. From Cape Town to Johannesburg, foreigners are telling reporters they are afraid to go back to their communities — thus the need for the tent cities. But not in Diepsloot.

Though South Africa roils with problems that would destabilize other nations — unemployment, crime, corruption, racism, tribalism, despair — it has not collapsed on itself. That's no doubt due partly to the local church acting with compassion and courage.

During the apartheid era, just 15 years ago, South African churches were a pariah, scorned either as racist or escapist. Yes, Christian leaders continue to call for the reformation and renewal of South African churches. But as it stands, it's hard not to admire what churches are currently doing.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is on assignment in South Africa.

Related Elsewhere:

Mark Galli's previous two dispatches from South Africa were "A Refugee's Quiet Dignity" and "Siege from Within: Day and Night in Johannesburg."

A video clip he made about "Ministry After South Africa's Xenophobic Riots" is available on Youtube.

NPR is doing a series on South Africa. Articles include "South Africa's Version of FBI Falls Victim to Politics," "Thabo Mbeki's Successes, Failures in South Africa," and "South Africa's 'Rainbow Nation' Still Only a Dream."

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