As I watch all the beautiful news footage in memory of Nelson Mandela, I have thought many times about sitting in the lounge at Alma College in 2004, talking to the then Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane. He possessed that same aura of dignity and grace and faith in the face of life’s challenges that millions have found so intriguing in his countryman Mandela, so I thought I would repost my interview with him from the now-closed website www.spirituality.com.
A life of service to God: The Archbishop of Cape Town
“All of life is lived in response to God’s call to us,” says Njongonkulu Ndungane, Angelican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, in a talk at Alma College, Michigan, in September 2004. He believes that God’s call is “one of unimaginable love and generosity, and in responding to His call, we realize that our destinies lie in His hands.” He continued, “In humility we realize we can do no better than to walk in His ways.”
Humility is certainly an appropriate term for Archbishop Ndugane, who jokes that the position of archbishop is not what he thought he would be doing with his life. In fact, after his 1996 appointment, when a phone call came in for “the Archbishop,” Ndungane would almost go off to find him–forgetting that was now his title. But to call someone “Your Grace” has never seemed more fitting. As he spoke about his life to the group at Alma College, and later as I talked to him alone in a quiet moment, it was clear Ndungane embodies a life focused on doing God’s work with dignity and peace.
Growing up in the heart of apartheid South Africa, Ndungane was one of six children in a family that struggled on the fringes of poverty. And although something was wrong, he didn’t have a clear grasp of the injustices of the legislation at the center of apartheid that restricted the freedom of black citizens. Then one day in 1960, he heard Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, leader of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania, speaking at a political rally. It changed his life forever.
Describing the event to the college group, Ndungane said, “My imagination was caught, my conscious aroused. I felt I had to stand up and be counted in the struggle for what I believed was right.” He became a political activist, but in 1963 was arrested for his involvement with the PAC and sentenced to three years in the infamous prison on Robben Island. It was there, in what he calls “hellish conditions,” that Ndungane discovered his personal relationship with God and experienced his call to serve in the priesthood.
“I was wrestling with God,” he told me. “And in the moments of wrestling with God in different circumstances, there comes a time when you suddenly have a peace of mind and you say that’s it. End of wrestling. I found inner peace, as if God had laid His hand on me.”
In the 1970s, after his release, Ndungane became an ordained priest and later traveled to England to study theology at King’s College London. While there, he experienced racial equality for the first time in his life. He was treated with dignity and respect and had the freedom to go where he wanted. When his studies were over, he was offered a parish in England. But he and his wife felt God was calling them to return to South Africa and support their country in the struggle out of apartheid.
“I must confess that we found the offer very tempting indeed as we were enjoying being treated like human beings,” he writes in his book, A World with a Human Face: A Voice from Africa. “We loathed the thought of going back to oppression, when we had attained freedom, appreciation and acceptance of our true humanity.”
In the end they were happy with their decision, realizing God would sustain them through the challenges ahead. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. “It was like taking a bear that has been free and putting him back into a cage,” he told the Alma College gathering.
Socially and politically, 1979 was a traumatic year for South Africa. After two students were shot in front of his church, Ndungane was responsible for the funeral service–attended by 10,000 angry young men. He was very frightened, but felt God was in control of the situation and led him to maintain peace. While the time of violence is past, South Africa still has a long way to go. Ndungane sees the role of the church as vital in helping to overcome the challenges. “Basically, it’s the recovery of our humanity,” he told me. “The whole question is of our understanding who we are and whose we are–that each one of us is created in God’s image with intrinsic worth and dignity and therefore meriting respect.”
When he prays for South Africa, the Archbishop told me that he begins with praise. “Praise to God–who in His mercies has been with us, is with us, and promises to be with us all the time. Every time I say my prayers, I thank God for what is to come in the assurance that He’ll show me the way. Whatever danger I’m in, He’ll be there as a shield. He is the God who takes me each step of the way, even if I may not know where I’m going.”
Ndungane describes God as a presence in us. “The books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, try to give us a picture of God–a God who cares, a God of compassion, a God whose love is of such a nature that it’s not asking what is in it for me. I describe God as God-the-Father in whom I anchor my life and God-the-Mother in whose arms I’m secure. That’s the kind of God I’ve experienced.”
In closing his speech at Alma College, Archbishop Ndungane shared this inspiring and comforting thought: “When life is tough–when it is hard to see the way ahead–remember that our God still calls us, and still speaks the same words that he did to Joshua–‘Be strong! Stand firm! Be fearless and undaunted, for, go where you may, Yahweh you God goes with you!'”
From www.spirituality.com, November, 2004
copyright by Meg Welch Dendler