Saturday 22 April 2023

Thanksgiving Service for Dr Brigalia Bam OSC

 The Most Revd Thabo Makgoba

Metropolitan of ACSA

Thanksgiving Service for Dr Brigalia Bam OSC 

on her 90th Birthday (April 21 2023)

St Alban’s Cathedral - Pretoria

22nd April 2023 @ 09h00

Readings: Acts 6: 1-7; Psalm 33: 1-5, 17-21; John 6: 16-21

May I speak in the name of God, who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

It is good to be with you again at St Alban's. I am always grateful to be here, but no more so than at a celebration such as this, a celebration of the extraordinary life of one of the great South Africans of her generation, Ntombemhlophe Brigalia Bam, OSC. 

Mama Hlophe, Mama Brigalia, on behalf of the whole Province of Southern Africa and on my own and Lungi's behalf, our heartiest congratulations on this significant milestone in your life. I am honoured simply to be in your presence at this service today, and especially privileged to have been asked to preach. Thank you, Dean Moses (Thabethe) and your team, together with the Church-Wardens, for inviting me to be part of this service. Thank you, Bishop Allan, for your part in the service, and thank you to our fellow bishops present here. Let me also welcome the family and friends of Dr Bam to this service, as well of course of everyone in the congregation.

I hope that others taking part in these celebrations will pay more extensive tributes than I can in the short time available to me. For, as I said a moment ago, we are recognising the life of an extraordinary South African. It is the life of someone who began life on an Eastern Cape farm, supervising adults in the fields at the ages of 10 and 11, and who rose to become a leader in that key institution of our democracy, the Independent Electoral Commission, for the 14 critical years during which it laid the building blocks of our nation. It is the life of a person who joined the world-affiliated YWCA as a student, worked for them in KwaZulu-Natal, then rose to important positions in the World Council of Churches and the YWCA headquarters in Geneva, then after a spell at the International Food and Allied Workers Association returned home after 21 years to join the South African Council of Churches, in time becoming its General Secretary. It is the life of a person whom our church was honoured to admit as a  member of the Order of Simon of Cyrene. And it is the life of a woman who, in the words of Desmond Tutu, demonstrated that the time had come “when men should step aside for women to assume greater responsibilities in governance and leadership on earth.”1 Members of the congregation, please join me in a special round of applause for Dr Hlophe Brigalia Bam. [PAUSE to transition to exegesis]

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, the reading from John's Gospel which we have just heard presents us with the words of comfort said by Jesus to his disciples at a time of hopelessness: “It is I,” he told them, “Don’t be afraid” (Jn 6:20). In other gospels, those of Matthew and Mark, he is quoted as saying: “Take courage, It is I. Don’t be afraid” (Mk 6:50b; Matt 14:27). His assurance follows the account of the feeding of the multitudes, setting the stage for his testimony that he is the bread of life. In the picture portrayed in these gospels, Jesus comes to the disciples on the 4th watch, in the dark in the early hours of the morning, in the middle of devastating seas. Mark and Matthew talk of their boat being battered by the waves, and of the disciples being terrified by the storm. When Jesus appeared they thought they were seeing a ghost – until they heard those words: “It is I, don’t be afraid.” The message to the disciples is clear – fear is banished by the realization of the presence of Jesus. 

This is similar to the affirmation provided to us by the Easter message two weeks ago, when we heard that the women at Jesus' tomb, after initially being confused and afraid at finding it empty, began to grow in courage as they realised the import of what had happened: Christ had risen! And this courage empowered them to defy the religious and political establishments who had crucified our Lord.

Friends, the courage which the Resurrection of Jesus at Easter inspires in his followers, and also which the life and struggle of Dr Hlophe Bam epitomises, provides a beacon of light to us in South Africa today. For, as I don't have to remind you, we live in a nation in which we which we might have won political liberation, but we have not won economic liberation. We live in a nation in which we are still haunted by the yawning, immoral gap between the rich and the poor. And we live in a nation in which too many of those who would claim to be our leaders, have been tempted by the lure of quick wealth to become sell-outs to the old struggle, the struggle against oppression and injustice in the colonial and apartheid eras. We face manifold crises on many different fronts, almost too many to count.

But there is no reason to feel hopelessness and despair. The 20- or 21-year-old Hlophe Bam studying at Lovedale in the early 1950s, when which the intensified oppression of apartheid was tightening its grip, did not despair. She joined the political party of her choice and, as Desmond Tutu has told us, she led young women in planning for the 1952 Defiance Campaign. She did not allow two decades of exile to render her hopeless; motivated by her faith and her patriotism, she helped countless numbers of people to organise and improve their lives. 

It was Dr Martin Luther King Junior who warned us of the consequences of becoming silent about the things that matter. To quote his words the day after many people were beaten on a protest march in Alabama (adapted slightly to be gender-inclusive), “A person dies when they refuse to stand up for that which is right. A person dies when they refuse to stand up for justice. A person dies when they refuse to take a stand for that which is true.” Thirty years after we won our political freedom, the time has come in South Africa for us to stand up for that which is right, for justice and for that which is true.

And so I return to the appeal I have been making since the days of the Zuma administration, an appeal that we embark on a New Struggle, a struggle which replaces the old struggle against apartheid with a new struggle to regain our moral compass, a struggle to end economic inequity, a struggle to bring about equality of opportunity and realise the promises of our Constitution. 

And this Eastertide I am narrowing my focus, and addressing the young people of this country. You are quite correct when you tell us that the promises of democracy are not being realised. We can understand your disillusionment, we understand why you are opting out of politics and public life. But that is not the answer to our crisis. That will not secure you and your children's future. No, the answer to our crisis is for you to roll up your sleeves and make the New Struggle a new struggle for a new generation. Please, young people, for the sake of our country's and your futures, dig deep into the radical roots of the old struggle against apartheid, and dare to dream and work for a country in which there is justice, equity and equality of opportunity. Earlier generations of South Africans, such as those you see about you here today, have demonstrated that it is possible to wage a revolutionary struggle in a disciplined and dignified manner, one that is all the more powerful because in a constitutional democracy where all have the vote, it can be – it must be – waged peacefully. 

There is no need, or place, for violence in a constitutional democracy. Organise amongst yourselves, and those of you who are old enough, register with the Independent Electoral Commission, then campaign and vote in next year's elections. We need a peaceful revolution in which young people stand up, reject corruption and self-dealing, and help us to realise the promises of our Constitution.

Those of us who have the resources can help young people with this struggle. Clergy and parish leaders can make our houses of worship “voting sanctuaries”, where young people can receive guidance on how to register. We could host workshops on voter education and provide instruction on our electoral system. Religious bodies across the board could partner with business to raise funds for this historic effort. One business person, after reading about my call to the youth at Easter, quipped that we should launch an initiative called the “Archbishop's Ballot Challenge”, or ABC for short, and use the slogan “registering to vote is as simple as ABC.” 

Sisters and brothers, as we give thanks to God for the witness of Dr Bam through her ministry and witness to our Province and the world, let us recall the celebration of the Psalmist: 

Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous.

 Praise befits the upright.

Praise the Lord with the lyre;

 make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.

Sing to him a new song;

 play skilfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

As the Psalmist calls us to praise, the anthem of praise becomes the prayer of faith, a faith which empowers us to draw on the externals of our worship to lead us into an inward experience of trust and hope. And as we journey through Eastertide, may the finished work of Jesus on the Cross provide for us a constant spring of intense joy as we reconcile one with the another.

God loves Ntombemhlophe Brigalia Bam. God loves every one of you here today, and so do I. Amen.

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