COURAGE IN LIFE AND DEATH
In memory of David Russel
2 Corinthians 6:9-10
We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet as well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Bishop David Russel died of cancer last Sunday at his home in Cape Town at the age of 75. He was the brother of Hamilton Russel whose famous wine farm is one of our neighbours. But David's life took a different path. His story was one of deep Christian faith which found expression in the courage he displayed in the struggle for justice. He put his life on the line in the service of the poor and became one of the humble heroes in the struggle against apartheid. I was not one of his close friends, but I got to know him over the years years. I first met him when, in the late nineteen seventies, he was banned, and came to discuss with me the possibility of doing a doctoral thesis, which he eventually completed. The last time was here at Volmoed more recently when he came with friends on retreat, and we shared together in the Eucharist.
David was the son of a Progressive Party member of Parliament; he went to school at Bishops, then studied at UCT before going to Oxford and raining for the priesthood in Yorkshire. He began his ministry in the Transkei in 1969 as an assistant priest to an African rector. His responsibility was ministering to those Africans who had been forcefully removed from urban areas and dumped in remote and dismal place like Dimbaza, where David himself lived and worked. There were 10,000 people there. Few had work, and social grants were very meagre. David tried to live on the R 5 monthly grants given to women, but gave up after six months. It was impossible. In his first two months, he buried thirty-eight children. Living simply and being fluent in Xhosa, David won the respect of the people. He also became a thorn in the flesh of some church leaders, though others admired him. For him the church was intended to change the world not just accept things as they are. But government officials especially turned a deaf ear to his pleas for help for the people of Dimbaza. Like St. Paul he was treated as an "opstoker," but he spoke the truth; he lived far from the limelight but was well known to those who suffered; he faced death, but was very much alive; he was banned, yet liberated in himself; sorrowful at what was happening, but always rejoicing; poor, yet enriching others; having nothing yet possessing everything.
Eventually out of frustration, in 1972, David organised a pilgrimage from Grahamstown to Cape Town to highlight the evils of migratory labour and the situation in the Transkei. I was asked to take part in this long walk. Several of my friends did, but I had a reasonable (and convenient) excuse. We were going to Lourenço Marques on a family holiday. The pilgrimage started on 16th December when eight white members of the Christian Institute set off from Grahamstown to walk the 600 miles in order to raise awarness of the plight of rural black people and the devastating effects on family life of the migratory labour system. After weeks on the road, times of worship and discussions with people, press conferences and meetings along the way, the group was joined by others as it neared Cape Town and came to an end at the Rondebosch Common. There 4,000 people gathered to adopt the ‘Charter for Family Life.’ But the authorities still turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the pilgrims and those church leaders who supported them. David then moved to Cape Town and continued his ministry amongst the poor, especially at Crossroads where he was continually engaged in protests of one kind or another. He was banned in 1977 with other leaders of the Christian Institute, but defiantly continued working in Crossroads. He was eventually elected suffragan bishop in the Diocese of St. John's in 1986, and a year later bishop of Grahamstown. He retired in 2004.
I have told his story, because we need to remember it, along with the stories of others who, as Christians, have struggled so courageously for justice. We also need to remember that the conditions in rural South Africa, despite the changes, continue to afflict the lives of thousands of people who suffer as a result of the after effects of apartheid and continued mismanagement -- poverty, unemployment, lack of education and little health care. No wonder people protest and migrate to the Western Cape in search of a better life. And if life in Zwelitsha is better than life in rural Transkei you must no how bad it is there.
But there is an additional reason for telling David's story. David died of cancer like so many other people we know and pray about. Yet we are told that he faced death with the same courage that he faced the evils of apartheid, and was at peace with dying. David was an example of Christian courage both in living and dying. Many of us find it difficult to talk about death and dying, especially our own. It is a subject we tend to avoid even when, as we grow older, it comes closer each day for us as well as friends and family. Every week, it seems, people we know die. Death is never pretty, so let's not romanticise it. And maybe we do not have the same faith and courage in facing death as David. But we can take encouragement from the way in which he exemplified the Christian way of dying.
Another priest, theology professor and friend, Dan Hardy, also struggled with cancer before he died in 2007. He wrote these words shortly before he died:
I’ve been content ever since the onset of this cancer to be drawn into death, but I don’t take this negatively at all: it is also being drawn into life and the two are closely tied in together… I don’t know how? being drawn into death is also being drawn into life… Perhaps I am being a sort of sign of attraction, going ahead of you into the mystery, an attraction not into anything clear and unambiguous but into the light that is the mystery of death and life, and therein God.
We need models of Christian courage both in the face of and struggle against evil, and in the face of death and dying. How good it is that there are those whom we have known who are models of such courage. So today we give thanks for David Russel as we think about on our own lives and stand by others whom we know who are struggling with poverty or cancer and, either way, face death. In doing so, may we draw strength from our faith and trust in Christ in our weakness.
John W. de Gruchy
Volmoed 21 August 2014