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S. Africa’s Bishop Storey visits Michigan

Similar to candle used by Peter Story at Central Methodist Church

Bishop Peter Storey, one of the world’s significant Christian leaders, encouraged efforts to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world during a recent visit in Michigan.

GLENN M. WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications

Peter Storey is a man of faithful congruence. Faithful congruence occurs when what we say and what we do align with the people God has created and called us to be. Faithfully congruent persons inspire others to pray, “God, help me grow like that, too.”

Peter Storey, retired Methodist Bishop of South Africa, was one of the key leaders who, along with Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, helped bring an end to the racist apartheid regime that ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994.

Storey’s prophetic witness against the evils of racism and his proven leadership in organizations like the South Africa Council of Churches, the Methodist Church of South Africa, the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Gun Free South Africa, and Lifeline South Africa, also played a crucial role in helping his homeland navigate from apartheid to democracy through dangerous waters of vengeance and fear. Storey headed up the creation of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, which opened in September 2010. He chaired its governing council and served as interim seminary president.

Peter Storey at Lake Harbor UMC
The Rev. Mary Ivanov introduces Bishop Peter Storey at the outset of a conversation with his friend, the Rev. Susan Hagans, held at Lake Harbor UMC in Muskegon on May 3, 2022. ~ photo courtesy Glenn Wagner

On May 3, 2022, Storey visited Lake Harbor United Methodist Church in Norton Shores, MI for a public conversation with his friend, the Rev. Susan Hagans. The focus was his experiences, his news on current American and World events, and discussion of his new book, Protest at Midnight.

Storey first met Hagans 32 years ago during the Academy of Preaching at Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, TN where he was a guest instructor. Hagans still remembers being moved by Storey’s witness. She recalls class members following Storey after his inside presentations out onto the lawn, where he continued to share his wisdom.

During his public conversation with Hagans at Lake Harbor UMC, Storey recalled wisdom from his black African friend Bishop Desmond Tutu who confessed to him the most spiritually harmful effect of racism was repeatedly being treated as a non-person by the South African government. This treatment made him wonder if he was also a non-person in the eyes of God.

Storey addressed the critical separation between church and state. He shared his conviction that though we hold dual citizenship in the kingdom of heaven and an earthly nation, Christian faith requires ultimate loyalty to Jesus. He noted that Jesus’ crucifixion was triggered by his Palm Sunday parade into Jerusalem which became a protest march against Roman oppression and spiritual corruption in the temple of Jerusalem. Storey affirmed the essential role for both the church and the press to be a public conscience for government. He also observed that great leaders such as Nelson Mandela welcomed public criticism as a way to listen to people’s concerns and to make better decisions as public servants. In contrast, small-minded, corrupt, and self-absorbed leaders only want to hear praise and treat critics as the enemy.

 

“Jesus never agreed with the self-righteous who wanted to be more right than loving. The church needs to be an agency of outraged love on behalf of the marginalized in our world.”

 

Storey affirmed that a witness for Christ should emphasize love for others, particularly for the least.

When asked by someone in attendance at Lake Harbor, “Where do you find the courage to speak out against evil?” Storey admitted he too has been afraid but then continued that witnessing for Jesus in the face of evil is not about courage. It is about loving so passionately that we are willing to suffer by standing alongside others. He observed, “Jesus never agreed with the self-righteous who wanted to be more right than loving. The church needs to be an agency of outraged love on behalf of the marginalized in our world.” Storey added, “Biblical prophets never checked to see if their words were popular before speaking out against injustice.”

Storey noted that in both South Africa and America, there is a growing income gap between the haves and the have-nots. Many of the most affluent have surrounded their homes with walls for security in his country. He shared the insight of his pastor son, Alan, “that if all the bricks in all of our walls had been used instead to build homes to lift our poor, we wouldn’t need these walls for protection.”

Storey shared that anger can be a force for good if we pattern it after Jesus. For example, Jesus expressed holy anger in the gospels for two reasons: he was angry when God’s house was corrupted for personal enrichment and when vulnerable people were abused.

As a former naval officer, Storey respects the importance of the military, but he also believes that war of any kind is a failure of humanity. He thinks the church should witness alongside Jesus for peace.

Protest at Midnight remembers Storey’s ministry through South Africa’s journey from apartheid to democracy. Storey grew up in a South African Methodist clergy family that modeled living witness for Christ. He remembers his first personal experience of the ugliness of racism. His father, the Rev. Clifford Storey, had served as the Governor of Kilnerton Training Institution, where Peter Storey had fond memories of making friends with many of the students.  Kilnerton, a premier school for talented black students, was closed in 1962 by the apartheid regime in South Africa simply because it served blacks in an area ruled “white.”

 

“People need a forum where they can drill down into the bedrock of Christian faith and practice and be helped to think and act like Jesus.”

 

Initially a naval officer, Peter Storey answered a higher calling and is the seventh generation in his family to serve as a Methodist pastor. Storey’s first ministry posting in Capetown, South Africa, began in 1962, where in addition to serving the local Methodist congregation, he also was assigned as the Methodist chaplain for the prisoners held in the maximum security prison on nearby Robben Island. One of the prisoners he ministered to was South Africa’s future president, Nelson Mandela. Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years of incarceration on Robben Island (from 1964-to 1982).[2]

Storey’s ministry in Capetown also included serving as the Methodist pastor for District 6, a  neighborhood where all non-white residents were forcibly evicted from their homes and relocated by the government to less desirable land further away. Peter led opposition to this racist removal and installed a plaque of shame in public protest on the outside wall of his church. He and his congregation offered voice for the uncompromising love of Jesus for all and a ministry standing solidly with the Black community.

From 1972-to 1979 Storey served as editor of Dimension, the Methodist Church of South Africa’s national weekly paper. Storey continued to make news for uncompromising opposition to apartheid in his editorials.

From 1972-to 1975 Storey also served as pastor of Clifton Methodist Church in the heart of the most densely populated square mile of South Africa’s largest city of Johannesburg, where he helped his youthful congregation to discover and claim its mission. A brief experiment with a tape recorder and interviewing passing pedestrians on the streets around the church revealed that most neighbors were oblivious to the church’s presence. Storey led a training session for his congregation where he emphasized four priorities for ministry:

1) Tell the story of God’s love affair with the world.

2) Teach its implications for every aspect of our lives – personal and public.

3) Demonstrate the meaning of true community in our life together.

4) Serve Jesus in the suffering, pain, oppression, and need of “the least of his sisters and brothers” in the city. [3] 

An invitation by the leaders of Johannesburg’s influential Central United Methodist Church to become their new lead pastor prompted a prayerful response. Storey shared that he would only accept the invitation if the congregation first agreed to his priorities. Storey’s conditions included an outward focus for ministry beyond the church walls, ministry that makes a difference in the present and not simply a promise for heavenly reward later, full racial integration of the all-white congregation, and a gospel message that paired the good news of Jesus with prophetic witness.

Even though the leaders of Central Methodist Church accepted Storey’s conditions when he became their new pastor in 1976, his leadership was met with stiff resistance. During his first integrated communion, an angry white parishioner threw the communion bread on the ground and left. The angry parishioner was followed by 200 others who also quit their church membership in protest. 

 

To act differently, people need first to think differently. Churches without a strong formational tool soon have a balance of payments deficit, becoming importers of how society thinks instead of exporting transformative thought and action outward.” 

 

In 1986 on the 100th anniversary of both Central Methodist Church and the city of Johannesburg, the church changed its name to Central Methodist Mission to emphasize its outward focus on ministry. The Mission adopted as a visual symbol a candle surrounded with barbed wire, inspired by a poem from Indian Liberation Theologian Samuel Rayan. “A candle-light is a protest at midnight. It is a non-conformist. It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ.’”[4]   

This candle was part of every service at Central Methodist Mission. As the candle was lit, victims of apartheid were named, and worshippers were reminded that the light of hope shines in the darkness. 

With help from a foundation grant, Central Methodist Mission transformed its lower level into the People Centre. This coffee shop was the first integrated eating establishment in all of South Africa. Retired white women volunteered to wait tables.  The Church evaded the national law forbidding integrated restaurants by claiming they were simply serving their congregation as John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, understood it when he declared, “The World is My Parish.”

Under Storey’s leadership, Central Methodist Mission also began an academy for Christian living. Storey explained the rationale for the discipleship program, “To act differently, people need first to think differently. Churches without a strong formational tool soon have a balance of payments deficit, becoming importers of how society thinks instead of exporting transformative thought and action outward. People need a forum where they can drill down into the bedrock of Christian faith and practice and be helped to think and act like Jesus.”[5] 

Peter Storey stood against apartheid with holy boldness. He was not afraid to suffer the consequences, admitting that loving Jesus is often costly. Storey was arrested five times for his peaceful protest and witness on behalf of victims of police brutality. People of other faiths chose to gather in the Central Methodist Mission sanctuary for services of prayer and protest because they recognized the integrity of the ministry. Storey did not allow political banners or weapons in the sanctuary. When the South African Council of Churches offices was bombed, Central Methodist Mission provided space for their offices.

In Protest at Midnight, Storey shares the challenges of leadership. He details his efforts to be in faithful ministry to young South African military conscripts serving on the front lines of conflict while also standing with conscientious objectors to military service on religious grounds who faced mandatory six-year prison sentences for their stance. A Central Methodist Mission program brought conscripts and objectors together and grew a sense of community despite the divide in beliefs about military service. 

 

“God’s word is intended not for the benefit of the church but for the transformation of the world. The church needs to think not of its own interests but focus on helping to transform the world in the direction of God’s intention.”

 

When Storey was publicly accused of being in league with the Communists, he referred critics to the Obedience Charter, a foundational document for the Methodist Church of South Africa’s position on apartheid. Storey was firmly on the side of peaceful resolution to conflict. The Obedience Charter reads:

 “In listening to the cries of those in our body who endure our land’s apartheid laws and other discriminatory practices and attitudes, we know that we have touched only the edge of their pain. What we have heard convicts us that every Methodist must witness against this disease, which infects all our people and leaves none unscathed in our Church and country. We call upon every Methodist to reject apartheid.”

In Portrait at Midnight, Storey shares the dramatic story of how apartheid came to an end in greater detail. He relates how leaders working for the peaceful transition of power risked travel to armed opposition camps in the face of violence to sit down with adversaries to negotiate the National Peace Accord. Thousands of peacekeepers were trained across South Africa to help with peaceful conflict resolution.

Storey was a key leader in forming South Africa’s important post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission[17], chaired by Desmond Tutu.  This Commission offered forgiveness and absolution to apartheid human rights abusers in exchange for confession and repentance. The motto of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was “Without truth, no peace; without forgiveness, no future.” [6]

Storey is honest about how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped to bring healing but also fell down on offering reparations to victims of apartheid. He admits that some who shared their truth were non-repentant. Not all requests for amnesty were granted. But he believes that this biblically based approach to dealing with grievance helped South Africa transition to a new era.

Storey remembers the fraught days between the decision to end the apartheid regime and South Africa’s first free elections. There was some violence, but there could have been more. A speech by Nelson Mandela offered at just the right time swayed large crowds away from bloodshed. Storey also praised the 26,000 trained peace monitors who helped defuse conflict and the hundreds of church volunteers who were pressed into service as trusted election monitors.

Portrait at Midnight also mentions Storey’s years of service in America as a seminary professor. He is a professor emeritus of Duke Divinity School. Storey notices the similarities and the differences between South Africa and the United States with our shared history of subjugation and white dominance.

Storey points out places where the church’s prophetic witness is needed in America. He wonders if God would approve that 55% of current US government spending is for the military. He notes that racist structures in American society still need to be confronted and observes that many US church leaders are reluctant to speak out against corrupt practices by entrenched special interests. Storey is honest that good government is always at risk. He notes sadly that after the fall of apartheid in South Africa and the positive national leadership offered by presidents Nelson Mandela and his successor Thabo Mbeki, the rule of South Africa’s fourth president, Jacob Zuma, was riddled with the corrupting influence of big money donors and crooked political appointees who stole millions in public funds for personal use. He shared with the Lake Harbor audience that we should never take good government for granted and must take care in selecting our leaders.

Storey believes bold voices are still needed to continue to move the church in both South Africa and America forward on issues of greater inclusion after the example of Jesus.

Peter Storey is a faithfully congruent witness for Jesus in person and writing. Protest at Midnight is recommended reading for all who seek to grow as followers of Christ. The book concludes with a transformational message by Peter Storey (underlined) and followed by words from poet Bonaro Wilkinson Overstreet (in italics): “God’s word is intended not for the benefit of the church but for the transformation of the world.  The church needs to think not of its own interests but focus on helping to transform the world in the direction of God’s intention.” [7]

Playing our part offers no guarantees, nor will we have the last word, but you say the little efforts that I make will do no good: they never will prevail to tip the hovering scale where justice hangs in the balance. I don’t think I ever thought they would.  But I am prejudiced beyond debate in favor of my right to choose which side shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight. [8]

Notes:

[1] Rev. Susan Hagans served as pastor of Lake Harbor UMC from 1995-to 2000.  Rev. Mary Ivanov, the current pastor at Lake Harbor UMC, has served since 2014.

[2] Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990 and was elected the first anti-apartheid president of South Africa in a democratic election in 1994.  In 1993 Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and in 2002, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.

[3] Storey, Peter, Protest at Midnight, Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon 2022, page 55

[4] Storey, Peter, Protest at Midnight, Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon 2022, page 83

[5] Storey, Peter, Protest at Midnight, Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon 2022, page 76

[6] Storey, Peter, Protest at Midnight, Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon 2022, page 231

[7] Storey, Peter, Protest at Midnight, Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon 2022, page 231

[8] Overstreet, Bonaro Wilkinson, “Stubborn Ounces (To One Who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything if You Can’t Do Everything),” in Hands Laid Upon the Wind: Poems (New York: Norton, 1955), 15.

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