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'Will all blacks please leave the church'

A white South African family has just had first-hand experience of how bitterly hurtful and offensive hard-line apartheid (enforced social segregation) can be.

A large congregation had gathered for the funeral service for Christian Smith in a suburb of Germiston in Transvaal Province.

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But when the minister, the Rev. J. J. du Toit, saw that there were blakcs among the people in the normally exclusively white church, he announced he would not take the service unless the blacks left.

Some of these people -- they included Africans, Asians, and people of mixed descent -- had worked with the late Mr. Smith, who had been assistant manager in a plastics factory, for as long as 15 years.

The distressed widow, Mrs. Robina Smith, stood up as soon as she got over the shock of the announcement and led the whole congregation, white and black, out of the church. Later, the undertaker led an informal service at the graveside.

Mrs. Smith said she had never been so "humiliated" before, and a nephew of the deceased man said: "I am shaken to the bone. Never before have I been made to feel ashamed of being white. And just to think that we have the nerve to call ourselves Christians."

The incident caused wide comment in South African newspapers, which in turn only served to emphasize what a sensitive question racial mixing still is among all three main Afrikaans-speaking churches.

The funeral service was to have been held at a church belonging to the most conservative of the three, the Nederduitsch hervormde Kerk. After the incident, not one church official made any apology for what had happened.

Instead, offcials confirmed that it was firm church policy that blacks should not be allowed to attend any of its services.

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A spokesman said the church believed there should be separate churches for the different racial groups and ruled that it would be only in "exceptional circumstances" that people "of different colors" would be allowed at the same service.

The policies of the two other Afrikaans reformed churches, the Gereformeerde Kerk and the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk -- all three are regarded by themselves and outsiders as sister churches -- are less inflexible.

For example, a spokesman for the Gereformeerde Kerk, Prof. Jan Van der Walt, of Potchefstroom University, which has an important theological faculty, said his church had never come out in favor of or against "such a matter." But his personal opinion was that it was a "matter for the family to decide."

And Dr. F. E. O'Brien Geldenhuys, the chief executive officer of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk -- the largest of the three -- said it was church policy that "anyone is welcome at a funeral." But he added that the local church council would still have the "last word."

There are strong trends in the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk for an increasingly more liberal approach to racial affairs. This was particularly evident at the church synod late last year in Cape province.

Although the central church synod committed itself as recently as 1974 to supporting the ruling National Party government's policy of "separate development," the Cape synod rejected racial discrimination which is "in conflict with the ethical norm of 'Love thy neighbor' or conflicts with the principle that all people enjoy equal status before God."

And a church commission reported that "the created equality and basic unity of the human race implies the basic equality of all people, regardless of race and color."

But this sort of thinking is by no means universal.


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