Valley of Grace

Genadendal – November 17, 2017

Today we made an excursion to the historic Moravian village of Genadendal. On the way we passed by some of the poorest areas of Cape Town and the surrounding townships where corrugated tin shacks were built side by side for what seemed like miles. It was a sobering contrast to the beautiful tourist areas at the Victoria Waterfront and the bounty of our meals in the hotel. The end of apartheid has not changed the poverty that so many people face in South Africa.

This trip was one of the main reasons I came on this trip. Genadendal is the place where the first Moravian missionary to Africa, Georg Schmidt, came in 1737. At that time it was called Baboon Valley. The Khoi people lived there and maintained large herds of cattle. Schmidt had made friends with some Khoi and they invited him to come and preach the gospel in the valley. He had learned that the Dutch settlers treated them like wild animals and frequently shot them. Moved by compassion and compelled by his own religious experiences, Schmidt went to the valley. He was unable to learn the Khoi language with its complicated clicking of the tongue, but some of the Khoi knew Dutch and he held classes to teach them to read. One of his early converts was a woman named Vehettge Tikhuie who learned to read the Dutch Bible and conduct pray meetings. He planted an orchard that included a pear tree. After six years, he left South Africa because the colonial authorities wanted him to assist in their policy of subjugating the Khoi and taking their land. And he had problems with the Dutch Reformed Church. Fifty years later, Moravian missionaries were finally allowed back to the Cape and they went to the valley. They found that Vehettge had kept a small church going, and she still had Schmidt’s Bible as a cherished possession. And the pear tree was blossoming.

The Moravians proceeded to build a beautiful village that included a forge, grist mill, school, pottery, and other industries. One of the governors of the Cape Colony visited the valley and renamed it Genadendal, which means Valley of Grace. Throughout the 19th century Genadendal was famous as a thriving community of “colored” Moravians living with white Moravians. The people were well educated and more prosperous than the average non-European S. Africans. When Schmidt’s pear tree was destroyed in a storm in the 1840s new shoots emerged. One of them was selected to become the second pear growing out of the original roots. Now the third generation pear tree is growing strong.

After the Anglo-Boer wars, the English lost possession of the Cape Colony and an independent republic was established by the white colonists. They instituted the regime of apartheid that rigorously separated “white”, “blacks”, and “colored” people. Genadendal was a special place in S. Africa when apartheid laws were ameliorated by the church. Once apartheid was ended and all South Africans were allowed to vote, Nelson Mandela was elected president. He visited Genadendal and honored the unique witness of the Moravian mission in the Cape. He even changed the name of his Cape Town presidential mansion to Genadendal.

Our guide through the museum and the town was Rev. Chris Wessels whom I have admired for years. Wessels was born and raised in Genadendal and became a pastor and scholar. He also took an active, non-violent role in the anti-apartheid movement. In fact, he was arrested a couple of times. Now he is retired, but he lives in the village he loved as a boy and still has a couple of heads of cattle. I brought him greetings from folks at MTS where he studied several years ago. He showed us the impressive museum and restored buildings around the town. We saw too many things to record them all here, but I think we all have a better appreciation for what true Christian love and hard work can do in a world that is filled with violence and hatred.

It was so wonderful to see the pear tree and walk among the graves of the missionaries who died in the valley. We saw the spot where Schmidt built his house and where Vehettge (renamed Magdalena at her baptism) lived. And we sat in the beautiful church where first the Tanzanian brothers and sisters and then the English-speaking brothers and sisters sang songs of hope and faith. And then we had lunch. I was at the pan-European table with a Swede, German, Albanians, and a Latvian. We talked about Christianity and the American president while enjoying local beef, vegies, and beets. Not surprisingly I slept part of the way back. Donna Hurt and I did discuss the history of apartheid and the work of Mandela and Desmond Tutu on the road.

Many of the younger people (under the age of 57) went down to the waterfront for shopping and dinner. My group did not really shop but we did wander around until we found a pub where we had some South African wine and seafood. It was a good time of sharing food on each other’s plate. I’m afraid I was the only one who liked the jalapeno poppers, but the calamari was excellent. We talked about home and family, which we are all beginning to miss.

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