Annual Report – 2020

Very little theological work is being done in relation to African urbanization and Africa’s urban complexities. Yet, African cities will double in population by 2050, to stand at a staggering 1,5 billion people. Currently Africa is the continent with the fastest rate of urbanization, and cities like Lagos, Kinshasa and even the Gauteng City-Region will count among the largest cities in the world by 2030.

In 2020 the Centre for Contextual Ministry will transition into the Centre for Faith and Community, merging the work of the Centre for Contextual Ministry, the Centre for Public Theology, and the ecological agenda of the Nova Institute. We do theology, engagement in communities and transdisciplinary research against the backdrop of the African city, and the Gauteng City-Region.

It is within this context that our research theme – Faith in the city – has become a central part of our Centre’s agenda. What are the contours of faith in the African city today? Are faith communities contributing in ways that are liberating or oppressive? Do we have faith in the possibility of African cities – with 62% of urban dwellers currently living in informal settlements or urban slums – to be safe, nourishing, life-affirming and flourishing human spaces for all?

In our research project, “Urban Africa 2050”, 15 scholars from 15 theological institutions and 15 African cities, imagined together what theological education or formation should look like, if it was to mediate flourishing African cities. This resulted in recommendations for curriculum transformation, and the creation of an African network committed to urbanized theological education.

We connect nationally with those committed to urban land justice, as expressed in access to affordable and well-located housing. During a recent Old Testament conference on land, we organized a panel of land and housing activists and politicians, sharing local contestations, imaginaries and strategies, for advancing access to urban land justice.

At a local level, we are now in the second configuration of the “Pathways out of homelessness” research project. Phase 1 produced a policy and strategy on street homelessness in the City of Tshwane, whilst serving as a catalyst for launching a national network on street homelessness. Phase 2 of this project is paying closer attention to the growing number of older people being homeless; the reality of student homelessness; and the suburbanization of homelessness, whilst advising Statistics South Africa on “hard-to-count” populations for the 2020 Census.

Many of our second year Theology and Religion students engaged in urban communities in 2019, where they developed a sensitivity for the realities of urban vulnerability, in many forms, through deep listening, and practices of mutual sharing. We offer a one-year programme as part of postgraduate course work, titled Leadership in Urban Transformation, with cohorts in both Gauteng and Cape Town.

We grow in an awareness of the necessity for theology, activism and healing to dwell together – to inform and shape each other, into mutually deepening forms of prophetic praxis. Apart from our courses in urban and community transformation, and missional congregational development, the greatest demand is for courses dealing with trauma, healing and counselling. This is symptomatic of the wounded communities of African cities and towns, crying for both healing and justice. This also requires a more dedicated focus on ethical public leadership, a hope Vuyani Vellem held for our newly imagined Centre.

Transitioning from 2019 to 2020, and into the new Centre for Faith and Community, we will continue to improve our course content and pedagogical approaches, do engaged research that can contribute to tangible change, and create transdisciplinary spaces in which scholars, practitioners, community members and activists, can share challenges and find solutions together.

In doing all of the above, we do not dare forget that Africa is young, and our course offerings need to be reconsidered through the lense of children and the youth, in particular those facing precarious daily lives. Our capacity is thin and the landscapes of struggle and hope beg us to join in. We need to raise the bar in terms of resources, staffing and quality of output, if we are to honour our vocation.

Stephan de Beer
Centre Director

“We have come to a growing appreciation of theology as change-making and research as the organisation of transformation”

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QUARTERLY NEWSLETTER – APRIL – JULY 2020

I can’t breathe!” Doing theology amidst Covid-19 and many other pandemics!

Arundhati Roy writes about Covid-19, saying, the pandemic is

a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Covid-19 surfaces societal fault lines in ways that are clear, visible and disarming, to the eye that can see, and the ear that can hear – socio-economic inequality, environmental disaster, inappropriate health and educational infrastructure, and institutional ineptitudes.

It emphasizes that if we continue to do life and theology as usual, it might be to our own peril, and that of the earth and global humanity. This is indeed a portal time – an invitation – offering us an opportunity to engage our old baggage head-on and discard it where required, bravely so; and then, in hearing the words of Jesus, taking up a burden, a yoke, but one that is different, and light – in its heaviness – because it comes from a place of deep conviction, that another world is not just possible, but is demanded.

During this time, we organized, on behalf of our Faculty of Theology and Religion, a three-part conversation series, titled “’I can’t breathe’! Doing theology amidst and beyond Covid-19: fault lines, intersections, opportunities”. The aim of this series is to discern what theology might have to look like amidst and beyond Covid-19.

Through the pandemic – combined with the #BlackLives Matter protests, responding to resurgent forms of personal and institutionalized racism, as well as the pervasiveness of gender-based violence in various forms, and a growing awakening to the cries of the earth – we acknowledge the intersectionality of systemic violence and global woundedness.

Not only was “I can’t breathe” the last words of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which reverberated throughout the world; these might have been the last words also of Robyn Montsumi who died in custody in the Mowbray Police Station in Cape Town at the beginning of lockdown; or Petrus Miggels in Ravensmead after being beaten up by police; or the woman or child beaten to a pulp by an abusive husband or father; or those feeling trapped in oppressive institutional spaces; or the forests dying around the globe; or Christ, after his final loud cry, breathing his last.

What is the Spirit longing to breathe into our theological actions and reflections, at a time when the earth and humanity alike, gasp for breath? How should we do theology at this moment in time? Do we dare continue as usual, or are the cries of our times, prompting us to deep conversions?

Not only is this a time of crisis and threat; but, perhaps, if we discern well together, it might be(come) a time of new opportunity, and new resurrections, forged from resistances that breathe new life, erupting tenaciously, outwitting death. Covid-19 and the intersectional cries for life, are suggestive of a longing for futures – institutionally, relationally, economically, environmentally and politically – that will be radically different from what we now know.

The Centre for Faith and Community, in the past months, partnered closely with the Tshwane Homelessness Forum, various NGOs and the City of Tshwane in a Homelessness Task Team, responding to the vulnerability of homeless

persons during the Covid-19 lockdown. A crisis was turned into an opportunity, as 1,800 people were provided temporary shelter within a two-week period; two new housing facilities opened up providing permanent accommodation to older homeless persons; primary health care was made available to every person in every shelter; new organizational synergies were forged and institutional barriers overcome to provide optimal care. Housing as a priority to overcome homelessness, and homelessness as a public health issue, are both well-established insights among those advocating for ending homelessness globally, but the penny dropped in clearer ways than before in the City of Tshwane. The gains made during this period are now being formalized, and a 10-point plan was crafted to provide progressive solutions to street homelessness in South Africa’s capital city. Theologically speaking, this is an attempt to flesh out what a preferential option for the poor might look like in practice.

Street homelessness, substance use, environmental disaster, informal settlement upgrading, public parks, pervasive corruption, gender-based violence, access to quality health care, and economic inequality and exclusion, all need bold, innovative and entrepreneurial approaches to turn crises into opportunities; and death into life.

No real and lasting transformation would be possible without broad-based and brave collaboration between a range of partners. It raises questions as to the nature of our theological discourse and praxis. Can we step out into brave new spaces, to do theology on the streets and in the fractures of our city, with activists, public health workers, homeless persons, city officials, architects, accountants, lawyers, urban planners – joining hands in portals, where there is deep yearning for the breath of life; pushing to escape, and creating escape, from tentacles of death, for masses of vulnerable people, for ourselves, for our earth and our toxic, impotent and soul-wrenching institutions.

As the passionate plea of that old Keith Green song goes:

Rushing wind blow through this temple, blowing out the dust within.

The dust, the death, the decay, the devastation, the denial, the despair; capturing our hearts and minds and temples and institutions and cities.

And then, when the portal of expectation and yearning opens up, then breathe on us, Creator Spirit; breathe into us, Wind of Life; breathe through us, and lift us up, Risen Christ, not only to imagine, but to participate with you and many others in making a brave new world.

Stephan de Beer
CFC Director

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