Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2014
Text: Luke 2: 1-19
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, Virginia
In November, I was in South Africa with a group from the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, and, in the Western Cape town of Worcester, we heard this story. If you find yourself wanting to read more, National Geographic has a profound write-up of Stefaans’ and Olga’s experiences (to which I am greatly indebted).
I want to tell you a story tonight that begins on Christmas Eve. It’s a very particular night on the calendar; many of us will be home with family; many of us will be nestled into church pews. But of course there are still a few shops open and there are still a few hardy souls out there fighting the good fight, gathering the presents, gathering the supplies, gathering the groceries, putting it all together for what should be the joy of tomorrow morning. Which is where our story starts, Christmas Eve, 1996, in a strip mall in the town of Worcester, in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
The strip mall sits just beyond the old boundary of the local township, so on this Christmas Eve the crowd that overruns these stores is entirely black and colored, which, in South Africa, simply refers to people of mixed ancestry. And the king of this strip mall is the Shop-Rite, one of those grocery stores that also sells everything, so you can imagine the bedlam on Christmas Eve. Walk into the store with me and you see the long holiday lines at the checkout registers, baskets overflowing, everyone frantically grabbing last-minute provisions, and then just overhead you can’t miss the large decorative Christmas Tree, all lit up, all adorned, towering over the central atrium of the store, and under that tree, dozens of decorative presents, gift-wrapped and ribbon-tied, the joy of the season in all its colorful splendor.
At about 1:00 in the afternoon, you can’t miss the explosion. The concussive sound of it. The first blast. Instantly, dust and light are everywhere. Instantly, panic: crowds rush from the market into the street, as they can, but many more trapped inside, trapped under toppled shelves, trapped under collapsed roofing. And then second one goes off, and if we had truly been there we would have been knocked unconscious, at best. When the smoke settles, the police will find two unexploded bombs on the scene, devices that had not done their master’s willing. But the two that did the deed will be found out — one, left in a trash can; the other, encased in concrete, covered in gift wrap, and left, right underneath the tree. And so for Christmas 1996 year six families in Worcester lose their loved ones, including two children. Sixty-seven people go home with severe injuries. all of them black and colored. And an entire community is cut down to its very core.
It was supposed to have been different. By 1996, this kind of racial violence in South Africa is supposed to have been a thing of the past. Yes, in the 70’s, and in the 80’s, Worcester had been home to some of the most chilling examples of Apartheid brutality: white cops cutting down young black men, boys, in the street, and then using their funerals as an opportunity to round up the sympathizers. But by Christmas Eve of 1996 that was all supposed to have been over and done with. Six years earlier, the government freed Nelson Mandela and began to dismantle the old legal structures of Apartheid. In 1994, they held — can you possibly believe it? — they held democratic elections across the country, even in the townships, and the people waited in line for hours, days, to vote, almost always for their own African National Congress — ten years prior you would have been thrown in prison even for speaking their name — and Nelson Mandela himself became President of South Africa – can you possibly believe it? Righteousness and justice exploding across the country. You couldn’t miss it. But here we are, at the Shop-Rite on Christmas Eve, 1996, six dead, sixty-seven injured, all black and coloreds. The police will arrest five men, white supremacists all of them, whose only remorse will be that the other bombs didn’t also go off. Which is to say that perhaps righteousness and justice do not appear with explosive force after all. Perhaps we have not come so far as we thought.
Jump ahead. The youngest man arrested for the bombing is an eighteen-year-old kid by the name of Stefaans Coetzee. Stefaans had been born to fairly careless parents, went through the state orphanage system for a number of years, and then, at fifteen, ended up under the care of the leader of an extremist group called Israel Vision. The group had been strict in every regard: no drugs, no alcohol, and, in their own rewritten version of Scripture, a rigid insistence on white supremacy. And in the aftermath of his arrest, Coetzee stays on a very narrow path. In Pretoria Central prison, he communicates with KKK groups in the US, and with Neo-Nazi groups in Germany, and rises through the ranks of his own local paramilitary regime. For the first stage of his imprisonment, Stefaans is nursed along by the very same hatred and bile that landed him behind bars in the first place.
But a strange thing happens. In early 2002, Stefaans is assigned to a work detail with an older prisoner named Eugene de Kock, notorious leader of the Apartheid secret security unit serving two life sentences and 212 years for his crimes. But de Kock is himself already a changed man, and during the thousands of hours the two men spent together mopping floors, de Kock takes the young man’s anger and turns it around. Stefaans will later remember, “[he] was always telling me, ‘Look Stefaans, you have to stop believing you are superior just because of the color of your skin.’ … He said, ‘Take it from me, I’ve learned the hard way.’ … He never shut up about it. He told me that until I stopped being a racist I’d be in two prisons—one around my body, and another one around my heart.” And finally, a decade later, after the floors were cleaned surely to a mirror shine, Stefaans decides that what he really wants is to meet the people and the families destroyed on that Christmas Eve. What he really wants to do is apologize for this role in tearing their lives apart. So perhaps righteousness and justice will not explode onto the scene. Perhaps they will come with a single spark. Perhaps they will come with a whisper.
And then. Jump ahead.
Now it is November 9, 2009. Tomorrow, November 10, the Constitutional Court of South Africa will hear arguments on whether or not the president should have the authority to grant pardons for political crimes committed during the transition to democracy, crimes like the Shop-Rite bombing. But a thousand miles away, Worcester is still hurting. A woman named Olga Macingwane was at the Shop-Rite that night, thirteen years, ago, and still carries a severe limp as souvenir. A few years after the bombing her husband died and in her physical condition the scars from the bombing have been both emotional and economic. But after reading about the Constitutional Court hearing in the paper, Olga decides that her healing will not be complete without the possibility of confronting Stefaans himself, without the possibility of hearing his story. And so it is November 9, 2009, and Olga and three of her neighbors have made the sixteen-hour drive to Pretoria to meet Stefaans face-to-face. “I am not there to forgive him,” Olga says. “I am there to face the man in my head. I want to hear what he has to say.”
And so they meet, face-to-face, Stefaans and Olga and this intrepid group from Worcester. And you have to understand: until this moment Stefaans has no idea what any of his victims even look like. And until this moment Olga had no idea that the monster in her head was such a mere boy. And so Stefaans answers questions from the group while Olga stays silent. How did he learn to hate? How did he unlearn it? How does he spend his time? Is he sorry? If he were to be free, what could he give to help the community? Stefaans apologizes without reservation. “But I have nothing,” he says, “nothing to give except my life. But there are children now in South Africa,” he says, “children without parents. They might be tempted to get into violent gangs, to follow anger instead of love.” He says, “I can show them that the first life you have to change is your own.” After hours of conversation, Olga finally gets to her feet. She approaches him. “”Stefaans, when I see you, I see my sister’s son in you, and I cannot hate you.” Stefaans walks into her embrace. “I forgive you,” she says, just in a whisper. “I have heard what you said, and I forgive you.”
And then. Jump ahead.
It is January 29, 2013. Stefaans is still in prison in Pretoria. The court did not grant the president the necessary pardon authority, and so Stefaans remains behind bars. If anything, his remorse is even more palpable. He is now in regular communication with Olga and others from Worcester. He begins to petition for parole. He talks about returning to Worcester to work for change and reconciliation. He is not the man he was. But neither is Olga. She, too, has not returned home unchanged. “When I forgave [him],” she says, “I have at least found some peace. I am not Olga the victim. Now, I am [simply] Olga.” And Olga now sits on the steering committee of an organization called the Worcester Hope and Reconciliation Process, a diverse group dedicated to helping the community tell its violent story and in so doing move through and past and beyond the trauma that flows through its veins.
And in that spirit, on this day, January 29, 2013, Olga and her friends at Worcester Hope have organized a remarkable pilgrimage. A chartered train, from Worcester across the wide country to Pretoria, carrying 45 victims of the Christmas Eve bombing, all of them bound to go and meet Stefaans face-to-face. In less than a week they raised the sixty thousand South African Rand necessary to fund the trip. The local white Dutch Reformed Church has packed them meals for the journey. When they arrive, they again find a man overcome with repentance. For some, it is enough simply to see his face and hear his words. For others, they stand in line to embrace him, and the cameras are there, and you can see the footage, this man in all his sins, this community lining up to look their brother in the eye and love him anyway. Because Stefaans is not free to come home to Worcester, so Worcester has gone to him, one spark lighting another and another and another.
Righteousness. Justice. Reconciliation. They show up merely as whispers, merely as glimmers, no grand entrance, no concussive force. Like a mere child, a newborn, laid in a backwater manger in a backwater town in a forgotten corner of the empire. Nothing explosive. Just a spark: one single flame, steadfast against the night. Because of course the story of Christmas Eve does not end on Christmas Eve. It is just the first whisper into violent, broken world. It is just the first spark, one flame against the night. But in that flame is the power of forgiveness. In that flame is the power of transformation. In that flame is the hope of the world itself. Do not underestimate its potential.
Instead, jump ahead. December 11, 2014. Two weeks ago. After years of writing on his own behalf, and then years of the Worcester community also writing on his behalf, Stefaans Coetzee has been granted his parole. He is, at long last, a free man, freed from the prison in his mind, freed from the prison around his body. Freed from the sins of his past by the grace of God and the power of forgiveness. Freed from the past for the work yet to come, Stefaans will spend this Christmas Eve, for the first time in eighteen years, at home, and this Christmas Eve is where his story really begins. As, of course, does ours. It begins here. Loved. Forgiven. Set free. Each of us, one flame against the night.