Here is a great story from a book I recently read titled, The Revolutionary Communicator. Notice the emphasis on personal prayer.
Nico Smith, like most Afrikaners of his era in South Africa, grew up drinking a doctrine of white superiority with his mother’s milk. When the 1948 elections brought the Afrikaner Nationalists to power, nineteen-year-old Nico took to the streets to celebrate the arrival of government sponsored apartheid.
In his thirties, as an influential figure within the Dutch Reformed Church, Nico was recruited to join the elite fraternity known as the Broederbond. This group connected many of the most powerful members of society in a secretive brotherhood, working behind the scenes to advance the Afrikaner political and ideological agenda. These connections soon propelled Nico into a respected professorial position at Stellenbosch University.
But on a visit to Switzerland in 1963, Nico met the great theologian Karl Barth. Near the end of his visit, Dr. Barth approached Nico and inquired politely, “May I ask you a personal question?” Nico nodded. He viewed conversing with the famed Christian thinker as a high privilege.
“Are you free to preach the Gospel in South Africa?” asked Barth.
“Yes, of course I am.” Nico replied pleasantly. “Freedom of religion.”
Barth shook his head. “That’s not the kind of freedom I am asking about. Are you free in yourself?” If you come across things in the Bible that are contrary to what your family and friends believe, will you preach it?”
Nico shrugged. “I’ve never come across something like that.”
The elderly theologian would not be dissuaded. “Are you so free that even if you come across things in the Bible which are contrary to what your government is doing—that you will preach it?”
A crimson blotch rose on Nico’s cheek, and he looked away. It was an awkward question, and he did not feel he had an adequate answer.
Nico was soon safely back in South Africa, but Barth’s questions had somehow managed to travel with him. They lodged in his thoughts and stuck, like seed-carrying burrs caught in one’s sock—not growing, but certainly not comfortable either.
It was a full ten years later at a meeting of the Broederbond that the revolution Barth had gently seeded finally took root. As Nico pondered the attitudes and actions of his associates, the answer to Barth’s question sprang into his mind: I’m not free! He stood and walked out of the meeting.
Nico knew that quitting the Broederbond was social suicide.
As best, he could hope to step away without drawing much notice. He would live quietly, keeping a healthy separation between his newfound Christian convictions and political issues. For several years he did. But the questions would not be so easily satisfied.
When the government bulldozed a group of black squatter homes on the outskirts of town, some of Nico’s students asked him what the Christian response should be. More questions. As he pondered the answer, he realized he could remain silent no longer. Nico drafted an official criticism of the government action and offered it for publication. There was now no going back.
A political firestorm began to envelope Nico. With little else to do, Nico sought guidance in prayer. As if in answer, the next Monday morning a telegram arrived from the black township of Mamelodi. The residents were asking that Nico become their pastor.
“God, no, I didn’t ask for this,” lamented Nico. Emotion surged over him, and he began t cry right in front of the postman. As he waited for his wife Ellen’s return, Nico began to hope that she would reject the idea, giving him an easy out with God.
Ellen, however, provided him no excuses. “Nico, you realize that we’ll have to go,” she said after reading the telegram. The decision was made.
In the face of staggering social and even physical risks, Nico and Ellen left the university at Stellenbosch and filled the pastorship of the Mamelodi parish. Initially, they lived in a white suburb within driving distance of the township and commuted to the church. In time, however, they realized they could not truly minister to the people of Mamelodi without drawing nearer. A short while later, Nico and Ellen became the first whites under apartheid to receive official permission to live in a black area—the only white residents in a township of 300,000 people.
Nico and Ellen Smith’s labors continue to bring healing to a torn nation. The seeds of their transformation were little more than a few simple questions.