As I write this, I’m sitting in the student centre at Stellenbosch University, where the yearly societies exhibition takes place. A new year, a new set of first years looking for an identity and a place to belong, many away from home for the first time, likely feeling somewhat insecure or emotionally vulnerable.
This is South Africa, it seems everyone is a Christian. For many Christians, a large part of settling down in a new location is finding a community of faith that they feel at home in. While there is good church-state separation in South Africa, the University, a serious secular academic institution, has many religious student societies. And this is good, because it is what the students need in order to function effectively.
I count eight stalls for Christian societies: Shofar (the biggest and/or most vocal pentecostal church in Stellenbosch), Every Nation (an international family of pentecostalal churches, the local branch was formerly called His People), Ansoc (Anglican Students Society), NACS (New-Apostolic Church Society), NewGen Society (a church based in Somerset West), Christians@Maties (a new society with the aim to open some inter-denominational communication), Crux-Aksies (Crux-actions, a collection of outreach groups, primarily associated with the Dutch-Reformed church) and Canticum Novum (a church choir which falls under Crux-Aksies but has it’s own stall). In a cute juxtaposition, the stall of Freethinking Maties, with heaps of fascinating books and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos playing, is right next to one of the literalistic young-earth societies, the NewGen society. And on the other side of NewGen, Lesbigay. I love diversity.
Social Action societies and Political societies
There are societies for two political parties: the ACDP (the African Christian Democratic party, the party Shofar encouraged its members to vote for in the previous election), and the DA (The Democratic Alliance, typically considered to be the strongest opposition party to the ANC).
On the social action front: Habitat for Humanity, UNA-SA (United Nations Association, South Africa), Die Landsdiensbeweging (ickily literally: the country-serving-movement).
Adam Tas (in support of, and in defence of, Afrikaans), Adlib TheatreSports, Bhakti Yoga, Black Management Forum, BTK (Berg- en Toerklub), DASUS (for the Deutsch), a Debating society, Die Matie (the student newspaper), Dis-Maties (in support of disabled students), Golden Key International Honour Society, Matie Productions (for students keen on movie making), Pulp (the film society), SUPS (a Poetry society), the Wine society (obvious, famous for being the only place you can drink wine on your student account 😉 ), and I might have missed some.
Some discussions with the Religious societies
I was hoping to have a discussion with each of the religious stalls to hear what their stance is on things such as science, state-church separation and secular ethics. (E.g. issues such as homosexual marriage.) I realised two things: my journalistic skills need some serious attention, and talking to the student representatives is likely not representative of the organisation they are representing. A couple of them made it clear that they are giving only their own opinions, others were able to share a more official viewpoint.
The mix includes a significant number of literalistic groups (e.g. Shofar, EveryNation, NewGen), as well as some groups that seem to want to avoid what they call the “Creation-Evolution debate”, and even a comment that “some are so busy being creationists, that they forget to be Christians…”
I especially love some of the things I see under the Crux-aksie umbrella. That’s the stuff that Christianity is supposed to be made of: a group aiming at helping children from the local informal settlement (what’s the best word for “plakkerskamp”?) with school, an outreach to street children, an effort to share love with the less fortunate in the neighbourhood. I’d love to see more of the Christian groups taking part in this kind of thing. Otherwise, maybe go lend a hand at Habitat for Humanity or UNASA?
I will now go collect some pamphlets, so that I can have an idea of what each group is up to, as well as how to get into contact with them at a later date. At the same time, what do you suggest I ask about? I’m thinking I should focus on only one issue on my next trip past the stalls, or just let it go for now. Maybe focus only on their perspectives on science education?
Of particular fascination for me was the Christians@Maties group. The rep insisted on not identifying what church he is a member of, the group aims to be an unbiased skeleton organisation apparently attempting to provide a unified voice for all Christians on campus. At the same time, the contents of their information booklet is taken directly from Shofar’s “New Life” information booklet, complete with emphasis on “soul winning”, though with no mention of Shofar. The rep at the stall said they borrowed Shofar’s material with permission, and are a new society, having only registered in November last year. (Their website, which appears “under-construction”, indicates they have existed for two years. This does not contradict the rep’s statement: I assume it means they existed but only recently registered as a society.)
Based on a couple of things I’ve seen and heard, it looks as though Shofar is going to some effort to address some of the animosity that has been directed at it from other churches on Stellenbosch. I celebrate this – more on it later. In the context of this, and the distrust sometimes encountered between churches on Stellenbosch, I’m afraid using Shofar’s material for their info booklet will have many people wonder if Christians@Maties isn’t a covert branch of Shofar’s excellent marketing campaign. I’d suggest they take a more neutral approach, if they really want to be neutral.
Either way, I look forward to seeing what Christians@Maties gets up to, I wish we could get our town/community to get over the civil-war phase and start looking at making a difference in the bigger picture.