Twenty years ago, on 25 July 1993, an Anzanian Peoples Liberation Army terrorist opened fire on the worshippers of St James Church, Cape Town.
The terrorist used an AK-47 automatic weapon. Another threw two hand grenades into the church. In the bloodbath that followed 11 people died and 50 were wounded. Some died because they protected others with their bodies. One member of the congregation was able to return fire and the terrorists fled.
Three days after the massacre, Bishop Frank Retief read Psalm 11 to the congregation to bring them comfort and strength. He urged them to return to God. The following Sunday more than 2000 people attended the church, where they were encouraged ‘not to be ruled by fear, but rather the fear of God’.
At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Bishop Retief spoke of the impact the massacre had on the life of the church. He said that people saw the uncertainty of life, which brought them closer to God.
The pain and suffering of families, friends and relatives was experienced first-hand and was wide reaching. At St James and other churches security teams were mobilised every Sunday.
Ten years later, a man who had moved away in fear after receiving a minor injury during the massacre came back to see the rector, Rev. Graham McGuiness. The rector urged him to come back to church, but the man was afraid and suffering from depression.
Eventually he came back and commented that he did not know why he had waited so long. Mr McGuiness said, ‘Emotionally some found it difficult, but many survived through the trauma counselling offered’.
Bishop Desmond Tutu chaired the TRC. The perpetrators were acquitted and given amnesty. Congregation members were able to face the terrorists and forgive them. The church leadership wanted to move on with their mission of preaching the gospel, and a fund was set up to help the victims.
Twenty years on, the church continues to preach the gospel and is a vibrant community. It has also learned that its message and actions must match up, so it runs social action projects such as building homes and teaching in poor areas.
On this anniversary of the massacre at St James, we are reminded that the voice of the church needs to be relevant to the needs of the people and culture in which it ministers.
Deryn van der Tang