His face paled. Oh my God! escaped his lips, bouncing off the mike at the pulpit. It echoed throughout the auditorium.
I was shocked. What would cause a pastor to blaspheme?
The man standing by his side – the man who had, moments ago, whispered an urgent message into his ear – stared at the congregation, his brow furrowed, his mouth turned in sorrow.
The pastor spoke again:
There is bad news. We have just heard that St James Church was bombed this evening. We don’t know anything else. But, before we go, please let’s pray.
A wave of dreadful knowing hit me. My dad was there. And my brother.
Earlier that evening, I had just finished a confirmation class at St James Church, my family church. I was waiting at the curb for my mother – we were planning to visit another church service that night. My sister, her friend, and my boyfriend of 8 months were coming too. I looked up briefly at the words on the church wall, Thy Word above All Things. Perhaps I should stay here tonight, rather? I wondered briefly. But, then, the little blue Volkswagen Golf arrived and I piled in.
Let’s pray. My head bowed, and then the tears slid down my cheeks. Hot and hurting. The air around me thick with horror; warm with fear. My dad was there! My brother! My imaginings ricocheted from flaming buildings to a charred shell of a church. Please God, I bargained, let them be alive. I’ll be a better Christian, I promise.
The pastor’s Amen lingered in the silence of the room.
Smiling politely, my mother greeted those around her; her own shock clouding her reality with the normal and mundane. But not for long. My sister’s anxious voice broke through, “We’ve got to go there!”
Like a Hollywood drama, the dark rain echoed the tears of our hearts – an aching pummelling of the roadside, the car and our senses. The wipers, back and forth, scraped in high pitch at our wounds. The road ahead, barely visible. Yet, the accelerator beneath my mother’s foot mirrored her new reality. Again my sister spoke, the fear, the anger, the not-knowing tense in her voice, “Slow down! You’re going to kill us too!”
Again, the unthinkable slammed my chest. Tucked under the arm of my boyfriend, I sobbed.
We could see the lights before we turned into Derby Road. I craned my neck to see. Where were the flames? Was there nothing left? Surprised, we saw the building intact. But the flashing ambulance lights, the police tape, the anxious crowds in the beating rain extinguished any flicker of hope.
We weren’t allowed inside. Police pushed the crowds back. My law-abiding nature left me when I slipped beneath the tape and burst into the foyer. My brother. My dad.
Slowly, slowly, we got to hear. Dad’s ok. So is your brother. But, Richard was killed. A hero. He had thrown his body in the way of the two girls with him. Marilynn’s husband, gone. And Marita. Her daughter, Liezl, looked me in the eye. Dazed, yet matter of fact, “My mother’s dead. Did you know?” I knew. I knew. But I knew not why.
The TV channels crowded day and night with the news. APLA, the terrorist arm of the PAC were responsible. Apartheid South Africa their enemy. St James plastered the newspapers. Soon everyone’s lips spoke of The St James Massacre. The count was up to 11 killed, 58 injured. The Russian visitors among the dead – one survived, but lost his limbs. Others maimed. Many more emotionally reeling in the trauma.
But, like a phoenix rising from the fire, the gospel came to the fore. Why St James? the media asked. One of the most racially-mixed churches of South Africa. A cornerstone for gospel outreach. Never an advocate for apartheid. Why not St James, we answered. The headlines asked new questions. What makes a people so forgiving in the face of such tragedy? Who is this Jesus they speak of? Why?
It wasn’t long before we gathered again. The auditorium stood testimony of the tragedy and the triumph. The days my mother and others spent scrubbing and cleaning could not fully remove the blood stains from the carpets. But the remaining marks and empty places where pews had once been met with a body of believers, undeterred, unbowed and utterly dependent on the saving grace of Christ. The tears still flowed. The wounds were still raw. But, the power of the gospel, the power of knowing Christ and his infinite love and protection, pulsed through that congregation – it was electrifying.
I knew then that my bargaining had been a childish, desperate and impossible plea. I could no more be a better Christian than a child could promise her father to be a better daughter. I could try. But, it wouldn’t matter. Because, my Father would still love me. Because there was nothing I could offer in exchange for the gift He had already given to me. Oh, yes, the gift of the lives of my brother and father are blessed and held dear. But their beauty and worth is shadowed compared to the incredible gift of forgiveness that Jesus had already given to me.
In that church building – standing testimony to the fragility of this world; this life – were the families of the lost ones. Looking at the empty spaces where splintered pews had lain, I knew with great certainty that this world is not home. Home is where He is.
John 14: 1-4 – “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Genesis 50:20 – “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
Thursday, 25 July 2013 – St James Church Massacre memorial service
7pm @ St James Church, 3rd Avenue, Kenilworth.
There are only Two Ways To Live