This is a guest post written by Augsburg College student, JD Mechelke, after one month on CGEE Southern Africa program.
The view was hard to take in. It was decaying. An endless view of tin, tarp, and cardboard roofs. It was not possible to distinguish between each jury-rigged shack. It wasn’t overtly overwhelming to me. I had encountered the sounds and smells of deep poverty before. The merciless sea that is Alexandria halted drastically as we stopped on a bridge passing over a freeway. When we got to the other side, I realized we weren’t in Alexandria anymore. My eyes bulged as I watched a Lamborghini drive into a mansion. We had entered Sandton, the richest municipality in South Africa. There was an endless contrast between the super rich of Sandton and the extreme poverty of Alexandria, separated by 8 lanes of freeway: now that was overwhelming.
Contrast seems to be a theme, for me at least, in South Africa. On Monday morning we visited the Regina Mundi Church. It’s a place that has been a sanctuary for people of the liberation struggle in Soweto. During the apartheid, non-whites could not legally assemble, especially if the assembly was political. The exception was for worship. So whenever community members wanted to organize, Regina Mundi was the place that people gathered, under the disguise of worship. Regina Mundi was the place children ran to when they were getting killed by police during a peaceful uprising.
On Sunday morning some locals took me to a mega church called Grace Bible Church. I already knew the reputation the church had with leaders of the liberation struggle, in particular Molafi: promoting a prosperity gospel. Though I tried to visit the morning service with an open mind, I wasn’t having it. It wasn’t the charismatic worship, the non-traditional building, or the lively preaching that turned me off; in fact I appreciate these things. It was that Molafi was right, a prosperity gospel was coming through, though subtle. There was an unspoken but undeniable theme: put your trust in God and you will become wealthy (just like the pastor). Filing out of church that morning, I noticed a line of buffed BMW’s, Audi’s, and Volvo’s. It was a place separated by barbed wire from the main parking lot, marked as pastor and elder parking. I longed for the authenticity of Regina Mundi. To me the resurrection became something else in that moment: He is not here, he has risen (from all this materialistic bullshit).
Once we got across the street, I looked back at the massive structure that is Grace Bible Church. There have always been “churches” that build their empires on the backs of the poor. Whether it was the 16th ct. cathedrals or the 21st ct. mega churches, it was oppressive then and it is oppressive now. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun… All of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:9, 14.