I wish all my readers and friends a blessed, holy, merry and happy Christmas (in that order!). May the “Reason for the season” be alive in our hearts this day.
He came alive in my heart on a particularly bad Christmas Eve back in South Africa, the best part of forty years ago. I wrote about it in my first year of blogging. Perhaps it’s time to republish it, for the benefit of those who haven’t yet read it. I called it “The Night Christmas Became Real”.
It had been a bad day. A very bad day.
Members of the so-called ‘Mass Democratic Movement‘ (MDM – a front organization for terrorists) had been trying to ‘politicize’ a township in South Africa for some time. Most of them were members of one particular tribe – and in Africa, one’s tribe counts for quite a lot. Their efforts had been resisted by many residents, who were members of another tribe, and didn’t see why these upstarts from an ‘inferior’ tribe should be allowed to push them around.
Needless to say, the apartheid police, always eager to ‘divide and rule’, had encouraged the rivalry through not-so-discreet egging-on of the resisters. If Black people could be induced to spend their time fighting each other, instead of uniting to fight apartheid, it was a net gain for the State. Who cared about those who got caught in the crossfire? They were only Black, after all, and the State was White. That’s the way it was, in that year, in that part of the country.
Matters came to a head the week before Christmas. The MDM moved a group of ‘comrades’ into the township, trying to enforce a consumer boycott of White businesses, threatening violence to those who resisted. Some women were forced to drink the liquid soap and cooking-oil they’d bought, and ended up in hospital. Others were threatened. Minibus taxis taking shoppers to a nearby town were met at the outskirts of the township, and forced to turn back. In response, the police shut down deliveries to the few shops in the township itself. Very quickly, people began to run out of food and essential supplies.
I got a phone call in the afternoon of December 24th from a pastor in the township. I’ll call him ‘Fanyana’ for his safety (he’s still working there).
“Hey, Fanyana, what’s up, brother?”
“It’s bad, Peter.” (Sound of scattered gunshots in the background. He was breathing quickly, shallowly, the fear evident in his voice.) “The ‘comrades’ have been trying to shut the place down all week, and the miners have finally had enough. They’ve ganged together and they’re out on the streets, looking for the outsiders. It’s bad, man.”
I sobered, very fast. If Fanyana was this scared, and didn’t mind showing it, it was bad indeed. The previous year he’d dragged me clear of a riot, both of us bleeding, me almost unconscious. He had guts to spare.
“What about the cops?”
“Oh, hell, man, the usual, you know! They’re sitting on the outskirts, watching the fighting, and doing ****-all. They don’t care.”
“What do you need?”
“Can you get the brothers and sisters together, Peter? I’m opening the church to refugees, but we have nothing. Nothing. The ‘comrades’ have stopped all shopping in (the White town nearby), and all the shops here are empty. We need food, medical supplies, and anything else you can find for us.”
“We’re on our way. Usual meeting-place?” (A crossroads on the outskirts of town, on the bush side, where the police usually didn’t go.)
“Yes. I’ll try to have someone there in three hours to meet you. Be careful, my brother. You’ve got the wrong color of skin to be in here after dark, remember.”
He wasn’t joking about that. To have the wrong color of skin, or be a member of the wrong tribe, or have the wrong political sympathies, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, had been a death sentence for all too many South Africans of all races in the past few years.
I set the telephone chain in motion. We were a small group of people who cared. We didn’t give a damn about the politics of those in need – although all of us were opposed to apartheid, and wanted to see South Africa a genuinely democratic nation. We were all believers in our particular faiths, and saw it as our duty to help the helpless, rather than shout political slogans. We went into townships where violence had erupted, tried to get the injured to safety, took in supplies for distribution through local churches, and generally tried to bring a little light into the darkness of the turmoil that was spreading throughout the country like a cancer.
We were of all races, and all religions: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, animist, Hindu… you name it, and the odds were we had at least one member of that faith in our loose network. It didn’t matter to us. If you believed strongly enough in your faith that you were willing to put your life on the line to help those in need, that was all that counted. We were brothers and sisters from that moment. We would worry about the theology later.
Of course, the fact that we were trying to help the victims of violence made us targets. The terrorists wanted to make the Black townships, segregated under apartheid, ungovernable, havens of sanctuary for their resistance. If they had to do so by a rule of terror, they had no scruples about it – and they didn’t want anyone giving hope to those living in fear. The authorities, on the other hand, didn’t want the true conditions in the townships to be exposed. They used the Group Areas Act and other legislation to keep outsiders away. If you didn’t have a permit to be in an area reserved for another racial group, you could be – and often were – arrested on the spot. People like us, who ignored the law and went in to help others, were a threat to them. The fact that we were a multi-racial group, not segregated, made it worse in their eyes.
As a result, we faced violence from both sides. Twenty-seven of us would die in the course of the unrest, and many more of us bear the scars of those years to this day.
It took almost two hours for various people to get away from work, pick up what supplies they had available, and get them to our meeting-place in Hillbrow, a high-rise, run-down, seedy suburb of Johannesburg. Those who could brought money, and hastily shopped for essentials at a local supermarket, competing with long lines of people doing last-minute Christmas shopping. Their carts and baskets were filled with cheap, tawdry gifts. Ours held cornmeal, beans, cooking oil, kerosene for cooking stoves, bandages, disinfectant.
We loaded the boxes and bags into a rattletrap old minibus that one of the group had made available to us. It was a Toyota Hi-Ace, similar to those shown below (and the same color as the first), dating from the mid-1970’s.
It smoked, wheezed and backfired with every mile, and shook like a dervish on even the best-paved roads. Rust streaked the body, and a couple of the windows were cracked, held together with tape… but it ran, and it was inconspicuous in a township environment. That could keep a man alive, in those days. To stand out was sometimes to die.
It was a hot, dry night. (South Africa’s in the southern hemisphere, so Christmas falls in high summer, to the confusion of many in the Northern hemisphere who associate the season with snow and cold. To us, it was a time for salads and sodas, not heavy meals and eggnog.) We set out as the sun sank low on the Western horizon, myself driving, three others – one Indian, one Colored (mixed-race in South African parlance), and one Black – in the seats alongside and behind me, the back of the van piled high with supplies. We threaded our way through the late rush-hour traffic and headed South.
After an hour, we turned off the freeway and headed into a farming area. We were coming up on our destination from behind, through the farmlands and bush, rather than approach it from the nearby White town, where police were sure to be manning roadblocks. They wouldn’t be in a good mood. They wanted to be at home with their families on Christmas eve, wrapping presents for the kids. Instead they had to stand guard while the kaffirs fought each other. (The term was originally an Arabic word meaning ‘unbeliever’, but in South African parlance had become a derogatory term for a Black person, similar to – but worse in meaning than – the US term ‘nigger’). Those of us trying to help them were contemptuously referred to as kaffirboeties – ‘kaffir brothers’, meaning much the same as ‘nigger-lovers’ in the US.
We could see smoke rising ahead of us in the fading light. Buildings were already burning in the township, that was clear. We slowed down, and crawled closer to the crossroads. All of us tensed as we saw the flashing lights of a police roadblock ahead. Too late to turn back – they’d only be suspicious, and pursue us to find out who we were and why we’d tried to run.
I moved up to the roadblock, and stopped. A uniformed Sergeant came to the door. I relaxed slightly. I’d met him before. While he was no friend, and as racist as any other policeman at the time, he was amenable to ‘persuasion’.
“What do you – oh, it’s you again!” He spat contemptuously into the dirt. “Come to help those dumb ****ers again, have you? Just look at the stupid ****ers!” He gestured at the smoke billowing up behind him. “It’s ****ing Christmas, and they haven’t the sense to stop their **** and shut up for a bit so we can have a break!”
“Er . . . yes. We’ve brought supplies. We want to take them to the **** Church, where the pastor’s setting up a refugee center.”
“No way, man. The township’s ****ing closed to outsiders. You know the drill. Come on, let’s see your ID.”
I did, indeed, know the drill. I extended my arm through the window, handing him my ‘Book of Life’, the fat passport-like identity document issued to all South Africans. Inside the front cover I’d tucked five twenty-Rand notes – not a small sum, at that time.
He flipped through the pages, glancing casually over his shoulder at his men, who were lounging in and around their vehicles, watching us disinterestedly. He handed the document back to me. The banknotes had miraculously disappeared.
“You get into trouble, you’re on your own, hey? No way we’re coming in there to get you.”
“On your way.” He waved at the two constables standing in the road, assault rifles held ready, and they stepped aside. I accelerated past them, weaving my way down the dirt track.
We arrived at the crossroads as the last of the light began to fade. A stripling in ragged shirt and trousers was waiting, jumping up and down and waving at us as we approached. He ran to my window.
“Oh, Baas Peter! Baas Peter! The Pastor says to come quick! Is bad!”
I hated to be called Baas (‘Boss’, a common subservient term of address from Black South Africans to White, a relic of the days of slavery), but this was no time to stand on ceremony. “Get in, quick, and show us a safe way to get there.”
David got out of the passenger seat next to me, getting in the back, and the boy took his place. We bumped into the back roads of the township, the familiar smells growing stronger by the yard. The stench of excrement overlaid every other odor – this township didn’t have a sewage system, and relied on buckets to catch the ‘night soil’ deposited by its inhabitants. Acrid smoke mingled with the fecal smell, and if you had an active imagination, you could smell the fear too. You could certainly smell it in our vehicle – all of us knew what we were facing.
The dirt roads were dusty, except where runnels of sewage ran down the middle of some of them, adding a noisome mud to the scenery. Feral dogs cringed out of our path as we drove past. No-one was visible on the streets at all. They were either locked in their homes, hoping and praying that the violence didn’t move in their direction, or they’d fled to a place where they imagined they’d be safer.
We came to the church hall, a run-down mud-brick structure with a corrugated asbestos roof. No lights were on in the hall, but two or three strong men stood guard outside, armed with sticks and spears. As we pulled up, two of them moved towards us.
“Who are you? What’s your business – oh, it’s you!” Smiles broke out across their faces, their white teeth gleaming against their dusty charcoal-black skin.
“Yes, we’ve brought you what we could. Can you help us unload?”
“Yes. Pull your van over there, out of sight. It’s not safe for you to be seen right now.”
Our cargo was swiftly offloaded by eager hands. Within five minutes the roar of kerosene stoves was added to the distant tumult, as women set them up outside and balanced huge pots on top of them, heating water to make putu (a thick cornmeal porridge, almost dense enough to be cut with a knife). Others opened tins of beans and a few precious luxuries, cans of corned beef, cutting the meat into cubes and adding it to the beans as they bubbled in their pots. Fanyana came out and hugged us, tears of gratitude in his eyes. He had over two hundred refugees crammed into his church hall, all of them having fled from homes near the center of the violence, and they had only the clothes on their back. At least they’d eat tonight.
We passed out the paper plates and cups and plastic eating utensils we’d brought, and everyone was given a small helping of the putu, covered with a ladleful of beans and a few shreds of corned beef. For many, this was the only meal they’d had all day. There was no tea or coffee: those who were thirsty drank water from the tap at the corner of the hall. (This township had no indoor plumbing – if you needed water, you got it in cans from communal taps, set every hundred yards or so. There was no electricity either, candles and kerosene lanterns providing the only light.)
I put down my plate, to have it swiftly taken by a young child, who carefully washed the plastic utensils and put them in a bag. In a place where poverty was so rampant, there was no such thing as ‘disposable’ cutlery. Even the dirty paper plates, which couldn’t be washed, would be kept after being scraped clean. When dried and torn into strips, they would serve as kindling to light fires. Nothing was wasted here.
It was full dark now. Fanyana and I stood silently together outside the hall, watching the skyline to the East. It glowed and flickered as burning buildings sent up the light of their flames. We could see them reflected from the smoke clouds . . . black, sooty smoke, from car tires. If those nearby were fortunate, the tires would be burning only as barricades across the street. If they weren’t, some of those tires would be burning around the necks of anyone suspected of being an informer, or lacking sympathy for the ‘revolution’. They’d scream their last as the gasoline-soaked ‘necklaces‘ roasted their faces and heads into charred caricatures of a human being.
I almost lost my faith that night. I’d been on the brink for some time, furiously angry at Church leaders who preached politics instead of the Gospel, who supported political factions instead of standing for all believers, who talked a good fight instead of going into the streets and actively ministering to those who most needed their help. To me, the Gospel was deed rather than word – and all I was hearing from these leaders was words. It made me sick, and I was on the point of abandoning my membership of any organized Church. Looking at those flames in the distance, knowing that people were suffering and dying there, I cried out internally to God, asking Him, “Where are your bishops and priests and pastors and ministers now? Why aren’t they here, with Fanyana and others who need them? Where is the love they proclaim so loudly, but never live out?”
I got no answer… not right away.
A man ran along the street, staggering, at the last extremity of exhaustion. He came up to us, wobbling on unsteady feet, and Fanyana and myself caught him as he almost collapsed.
“Pastor! The tsotsis (thugs) are moving towards you! They’ve heard that people have gathered here. You must get out!”
Fanyana looked at me. “We can head for the old factory. It was burned out long ago, but the walls are still standing, and part of the roof. I think we’ll be safe there.” He hesitated. “We’ve got some old people who can’t walk fast. Some can’t walk at all. Some are in here, some are still at home. Can you help us get them out?”
The next hour or two was organized chaos. Groups of men, women and children hurried from the hall, carrying kerosene stoves, the supplies we’d brought, and the pitifully meager possessions they’d been able to salvage. Some of the men formed a fighting group, armed with sticks, axes and spears, and moved down the street, to hold off the forerunners of the gang heading in our direction, buying time for us to get clear. David, Alex, Sammy and I made a dozen shuttle runs in our old minibus, loading it with old people, one of us driving them to the ruined factory building while the rest of us went from door to door, checking whether anyone needed a ride, organizing them into groups of six to eight people, ready for the next run.
The last run was the worst. The ‘comrades’ had been setting fire to buildings and tires as they moved in our direction, and the wind had shifted, covering us in the rank smoke. We coughed and spluttered as we urged the last group together. One old man tried desperately to persuade us to bring his bed as well – the only possession of any value in his home. We had to be brutal in forcing him out, leaving the bed behind, great wracking sobs coming from him as he abandoned all he had in the world to the violence he could not understand.
We loaded the last group, and Sammy headed for the factory while the rest of us ran up the street with Fanyana, yelling to the fighting group to disengage and fall back to the hall. They did so, several of them bleeding from cuts and bruises, two wounded by bullets. Some of the ‘comrades’ had brought AK-47’s with them, it seemed. We heard several full-auto bursts of fire, the distinctive sound of the Communist weapon a familiar and dreaded backdrop to the discordant symphony of violence being played on the stages of townships across the country.
Fanyana’s wife, Miriam, stood at the hall, waiting for us. His face contorted with fear as he saw her. “What are you doing here? I sent you to the factory! Where are the children?”
“They are there, safe. Did you think I’d leave you to die, not knowing what had happened?”
I had to smile. No shrinking violet, this. She’d stand by her man in the face of mob violence and death if she had to.
Fanyana wasn’t impressed. “I’m not dead, and you’re a fool! Come on!”
As we ran up the street into the darkness, abandoning the church hall, the rest of us had to try desperately to hold back our laughter as his wife told Fanyana in no uncertain terms that she was no fool, and if he thought she would leave him to die alone, he’d better think again, and… One of the men muttered, “Hau! And to think my parents want me to get married to a good Christian girl! What do I want with a woman who’ll talk to me like that?” Those around him chuckled grimly. In a male-dominated tribal culture like theirs, the pastor’s wife was an exception to the rule.
We moved out of the township into open scrub land. About two hundred yards ahead of us, the silent, black ruins of the old factory loomed up beneath the starlight. We ran across the grass, stumbling on hummocks and stepping in holes, wrenching at our ankles, our breath catching in our throats. We slowed as we came to the walls, and stopped, and looked around. Behind us the glow of flames and the billowing smoke was higher than ever, moving in our direction. We knew the church hall would most likely not survive the night. One of the men said as much to Fanyana, and he shrugged. “Buildings… are just buildings. At least we are alive.”
We walked into the ruined main building. Its walls were standing, but most of the roof was gone, leaving only a third of it covered. Already those who’d first arrived had swept the concrete floor clear of the debris and detritus of years, and several hundred people were sitting down in family groups. Candles and kerosene lanterns flickered here and there, shedding an eerie dim light over the scene.
Another group of women had lit the kerosene stoves from the church, and were boiling water. As we came in, they beckoned to us, and cleaned and bandaged the wounds of those who’d been injured covering our escape. They organized men to go with buckets to fetch more water from the nearest tap in the township, and David took the minibus to help them get it as quickly as possible. He made several trips, and they filled every available container to the brim. We didn’t know when we’d be able to get more, after all.
I knew the four of us were stuck here until at least daybreak. We wouldn’t be able to see whether we were driving into danger, so we couldn’t risk trying to return to Johannesburg. While the others found their families, or fetched water, or helped in other ways, I walked outside, looking up at the stars. I was in a foul mood. Anger at the pettiness and political shenanigans of organized religion, frustration at not being able to protect these people’s homes from destruction, bitterness at yet more destruction in the seemingly never-ending cycle of violence that had engulfed my country, the disgrace of police sworn to ‘protect and serve’ who instead sat back and let rival groups destroy each other, enjoying the spectacle… I was in a bleak state indeed. I couldn’t even pray. If I’d tried, at that moment, I’d probably have cursed God.
I don’t know how long I stood there, my mood as black as the night. It was a long time.
I was brought out of my miserable reverie by a tugging at my hand. I looked down. A small girl was standing there. She’d got hold of my finger, and was pulling at it.
“Baas Peter, come. Come! We are going to sing.”
Sing??? What on earth could there be to sing about, on such a night? Still internally numb, angry, withdrawn, I allowed her to lead me back into the ruins.
Fanyana and Miriam had cleared a space in the center of the factory floor. The children had gathered together there. There must have been five or six hundred people inside, of whom maybe a quarter were kids under the age of ten. They were from two or three different tribes, and several different churches… but tonight, that didn’t matter.
As I stood there, my tiny escort smiled up at me, then scampered to join the others. She reached them just as Miriam raised her hand.
The kids broke into a soft, gentle song. The words were in Zulu, but they’d originally been written in German… and I knew them well enough in English.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
‘Round yon virgin mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace;
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia;
Christ the Saviour is born;
Christ the Saviour is born.Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth;
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.
And I went outside, and I wept from the depths of my heart and my soul. I wept for Sue, my fiancée, who’d answered a call such as this on a night several years ago, and never came home, and was buried far away. I wept for my friends who’d died serving this seemingly hopeless cause. I wept for myself, for my own heart, which had hardened to near stone under the blows of the world, and which I’d allowed to harden… because I hadn’t listened to the words of the One who came to us on that blessed Night, almost two thousand years before.
My concerns about church leaders preaching politics instead of the Gospel?
Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
Children are not born with these things. They become thus after learning from adults. I’d forgotten to learn from God, rather than the chaos and anarchy around me. Those leaders had made the same mistake. Many of them are still making it to this day.
My inability to see God even in the midst of suffering?
Though the fig tree may not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines;
Though the labor of the olive may fail,
And the fields yield no food;
Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
And there be no herd in the stalls—
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.
The press, and the politicians, and the so-called ‘religious’ leaders, preaching doom and gloom and disaster, hatred and violence, envy and rebellion?
The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation
And increased its joy;
They rejoice before You
According to the joy of harvest,
As men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
For You have broken the yoke of his burden
And the staff of his shoulder,
The rod of his oppressor,
As in the day of Midian.
For every warrior’s sandal from the noisy battle,
And garments rolled in blood,
Will be used for burning and fuel of fire.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
The lack of care shown by most so-called Christians, so few of whom were willing to share burdens such as ours, on this night?
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “ Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.
Jesus didn’t come to a cathedral, or synagogue. He didn’t appear in majesty before the prelates of the Sanhedrin, or the hypocrites of the Pharisees. He came as the lowliest and most helpless of humans, a new-born child: one for whom there was no room at the inn, and who was placed in a manger of straw. I think he – and Mary, and Joseph, and the shepherds – would have felt right at home in that ruined factory, that night.
And so a new journey of faith began for me that night, one that was to lead me to become a pastor. Even so, I’ve grown more and more disillusioned with organized religion in all its forms: but the message of Christmas has never been in doubt for me since that night.
For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
May His birth be a reality for you, this night.
God bless you all.
In this tumultuous 2020, it’s worth reminding myself of the lesson I learned that night. May we all remember it in future, no matter what our future may hold.