The other day I put up an image of the black Madonna and Child in stained glass found in Regina Mundi Church in Soweto and thought I should write something about that church, so dear to my heart and like nowhere else I know. To stand in that vast dimly lit space is to encounter brokenness and power in a new way, and this is not mere rhetoric.
But it isn’t easy to express. When I talk about Christianity in Africa, I’m trying to write about something very different from the declining commodified churches of the West. Christianity in Africa is problematic in many ways but also alive, vibrant and challenging. The eloquent and well-informed social critic Juan Cole has a piece on the growth and challenges of Christianity in the Middle east and parts of Africa:
There are more Middle Eastern Christians than ever before, and they are poised between emergence as a new political force in a democratizing region and the dangers to them of fundamentalism and political repression. The arguments you see for Christian decline in the region are mostly wrong. If we count the Christians in the Arab world and along the northern Red Sea littoral (Egypt, the Levant, Iraq and the Horn of Africa to the borders of Ethiopia) they come to some 21 million, nearly the size of Australia and bigger than the Netherlands. (This figure does not count the large Christian expatriate populations in the Gulf emirates or Christians in Iran and Pakistan). They are important in their absolute numbers, which have grown dramatically in the past 60 years along with the populations of the countries in which they live. If the region moves to parliamentary forms of government, they may well be coveted swing voters, gaining a larger political role and louder voice than ever before.
Regina Mundi (meaning Queen of the World and dedicated to the Virgin Mary) Catholic Church in Gauteng is the largest church in southern Africa, seating more than 7 000 people and it is nearly always packed to capacity. It is located in one of the most sprawling and impoverished black townships, Soweto, and the church building was consecrated in 1962 by Cardinal Montini from Milan, who would shortly become Pope Paul VI. The stained-glass image of the black Madonna and Child was created by artist Larry Scully as part of an initiative to raise money for black education.
On 16 June, 1976, armed police and army forces opened fire on school pupils protesting apartheid in Orlando West township and chased the pupils (many not older than 15 years old and as young as nine years old) through the streets. Bleeding and seriously wounded youngsters fled to Regina Mundi Catholic Church and the doors were kept open for them by order of Archbishop Patrick Fitzgerald of Johannesburg. Police pursued them into the church, firing on them with live ammunition. The corner of the altar was smashed with a rifle butt and the crucifix was used for target practice. The statue of Christ still stands with no hands and there are bullet holes in the ceiling and walls. But this broken and damaged church was a refuge of sorts and through the years of the struggle against apartheid, people came to the church to mourn, to protest, to affirm their commitment to freedom. Thousands (thousands, not hundreds) of anti-apartheid activists and others killed by police or assassination squads were buried from that church. Archbishop Desmond Tutu preached there and Nelson Mandela spoke of Regina Mundi as a ‘beacon of hope, a worldwide symbol’. In 1996 South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission investigating the atrocities of the apartheid years held opening meetings at Regina Mundi. Right across Africa, Regina Mundi is known as the ‘people’s church’.
What keeps people believing in a faith that has long faded from much of the West? It’s simple enough perhaps, and at the core of who we are as human beings: to know that when you are running for your life, somebody will be holding the doors of a sanctuary open for you.