Pastor of South African church bringing together varied denominations

 — June 18, 200618 juin 2006

by Emily Enders Odom, PCUSA News

Promoting the unity of the whole church is a call that the Rev. Jerry Pillay lives out daily.

Pillay, the pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Benoni, South Africa, and an ecumenical representative to the 217th General Assembly, is moderator of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa (UPCSA).

The UPCSA is a seven-year-old denomination born of the union of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa * essentially a black church * and the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa * a multiracial church. It claims about 140,000 members across South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“The word ‘uniting’ is a very important word in the title of our church,” Pillay said, recalling the historic union in 1999. “We deliberately called it ‘uniting’ and not ‘united’ because we’re leaving the doors and options open to talk union with others in the Reformed family.”

In light of the sweeping changes across South Africa * which began in 1990 with the release of Nelson Mandela, the demise of apartheid and the subsequent establishment of the new democratic government in 1994 * Pillay said it seemed inevitable that the two churches needed to talk about coming together

“It was amazing that in a quick period of time * in less than three years * they decided in terms of a full-blown union,” Pillay remembered. “In a spirit of goodwill, they actually said, ‘This is something that we have to do as a witness to South Africa.’ Another belief was that we would be more effective in our mission to the world if we were united.”

The union was especially significant to Pillay, who noted that the spirit of ecumenism had vanished almost immediately following the dismantling of apartheid.

“Those churches that participated in the ecumenical movement knew clearly what they were fighting against when they had apartheid to fight,” he said. “And there was a great sense of working together in targeting a common enemy.”

“After apartheid, churches retreated into denominationalism, and ecumenism became very low on the agenda.”

It has since experienced a resurgence, however, as the churches have again begun to come together in response to their theological mandate to transform society and to participate in its reconstruction.

“Church unity is becoming a big thing in South Africa,” said Pillay, who has a seat on his country’s Church Unity Commission, comprising the Presbyterians, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Methodists and Evangelical Presbyterians.

Pillay’s intrepid spirit of ecumenism also extended to the South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, where he brought greetings at Sunday worship. Following the Assembly, he will travel to New York City to teach an adult class at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The challenges faced by South Africa are enormous * HIV/AIDS, poverty and the need for moral regeneration following a season of government corruption * but so is the progress. Pillay’s church is mounting a capital campaign to build an orphanage for HIV-positive children in the neighboring township of Daveyton. Following the scriptural injunction in James 1:27, the UPCSA has made the care for orphans and widows its entry point and focus in addressing the crisis of HIV/AIDS.

As he prepares himself for his church’s own General Assembly, to be held for the first time in Zambia this September, Pillay says he has gained great insights from his Assembly experience here.

“We are actually one body in Jesus Christ,” he said.

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