Lost On The Streets Of Soweto

Susan Page
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Wednesday - August 02, 2006
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All eyes were on Stephen Lungu, one of the most famous Christian evangelists in Sub Saharan Africa. He was speaking in a dirt floor courtyard - actually a maximum security prison in Johannesburg, South Africa. Some of his audience, 30 or so inmates, sat in the shade on cold metal benches, others chose to lean against the 12-foot high brick wall awash in mid-morning, mid-winter sunshine.

Shivering slightly, I sat on a bench next to a 23-year-old murderer named Sphelele. But it wasn’t the surroundings that caused my shiver, or the chilly air. It was the thought of last night’s escapade.

Driving lost for an hour in a rented red VW mini van in Soweto was exactly the kind of thing I had expressed “grave concerns” about to my Canadian friend Janine Maxwell when she was arranging our visit. Her e-mail had included an itinerary, which had us driving into Soweto for a out-reach mission with African Enterprise, now-President Stephen Lungu’s long-established Christian evangelical organization.

Soweto is the township near Johannesburg where 4 million black Africans eked out a bleak existence in abject squalor because of the repressive and cruel practice of apartheid that existed for decades under a white South African government. Nelson Mandela was from Soweto, where he fought for fairness for his people and where he was arrested and sent to a Capetown prison for 27 years. Soweto is a living symbol of injustice.

Today, free of apartheid, Soweto has changed. Pride of ownership, economic prosperity and equality have made it much safer, though by America’s standards it’s still a slum. Back in 2000 I took a tour of Soweto, then inarguably the most dangerous city in the world.

Our only chance to see the famous Stephen Lungu in action was to go. By 6 p.m. it was dark, but Janine, with me badly navigating using sketchy directions, miraculously got us to AE headquarters deep in the heart of Soweto. Lungu was more than shocked to see us. How did you get here? We drove. You? Yes, of course, said Janine. We said we were coming, didn’t we? Praise God, he shouted, a gigantic smile spreading across his 60-plus-year-old face. No one beams like this man.

He had had a very disappointing turnout last night at the YMCA where local pastors had promised a big crowd, as Stephen is used to. It’s common for crowds of 3,000 and 4,000 to throng to his crusades.

As it turned out, we provided a needed vehicle for Stephen to go back to the “Y” to preach at 7 p.m., counting on the promises of pastors to fill the room this time. Janine masterfully followed the lead van speeding through Soweto, zigging and zagging on the left side - their way - and fast. But 7:30 came and went, then 8 and 8:30. No people came. Stephen was philosophic, mentioning something about a competition among pastors and them not wanting to share potential members. We headed back to the headquarters where we said our goodbyes until tomorrow when we would attempt to join Stephen at the prison, which he assured us would be difficult to get in.

Then, before he prayed for our safe drive back to the hotel, he took our hands in his, tears in his usually joyous eyes, and said, “Sisters, you don’t know how much it has meant for you to come. You have filled my spirit. I needed encouragement so much.”

As we drove our red mini van out into the dark streets of Soweto, we didn’t have a clue how to get out of Soweto and back to our hotel.

To be continued next week ...

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