Wednesday, January 23, 2008, 02:14 PM
Posted by Sadie Stafford
The Regina Mundi Church
This afternoon we visited the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto, South Africa. As we pulled into the church, we were greeted by the faces of many school children running around on the lawn of the church, all dressed in matching school uniforms. As we entered the brick church, I was immediately surprised by the sheer size of the building. From the outside, the church didn’t look too large, but upon entering, the high ceilings and vast amount of space was breathtaking. The architecture was actually much different than the other two churches that we visited on this trip. The first two churches, although in much smaller townships, were much smaller and simpler in design. There was minimal artwork, which was mostly done by members of the church, and stained glass windows were nowhere to be seen. The Regina Mundi Church on the other hand, had things such as a marble alter, hand-painted artwork, and stained glass windows.
The Regina Mundi Church was built in 1961 and was opened in 1962. It is one of eighteen Catholic churches in Soweto as well as is the largest Catholic Church in the township. It comfortably seats 2,000 people and is almost completely filled every Sunday for Mass. But this church is much more than just a Catholic church in; it actually played a central role in the apartheid struggle. This church acted as a gathering place for students and liberals during the struggle. It was a place for meetings and was almost like the engine room for the Soweto riots of 1976.
This involvement in the struggle naturally made the church a “hot spot” for police during the apartheid regime, and the walls, windows, and ceilings still have bullet holes to prove this. Our tour guide said that most of the bullets holes had been repaired, but the church decided to leave some of the holes unplugged so they could remember the struggles the church went through. He also showed us two window pieces that had been salvaged to show that police shots were fired from both outside the church as well as from inside of it. The window pieces also proved that the bullets used by the police weren’t rubber bullets but that they were live ammunition. He said that if they were rubber, they would have bounced off the windows, but it was quite clear that they penetrated the windows.
Another piece of visible damage done to the church during the 1976 uprisings was to the marble altar. The altar was made of solid black and white marble but it had a huge chunk taken out of the corner. Our guide told us that the damage was from the base of a police officers’ rifle and he had smashed his gun on the altar, ordering everyone to disassemble and leave. The force he used behind this action was so great, that it caused the solid marble altar to break off.
The other thing that stood out in the church was a piece of artwork painted by Laurence Scully which depicted the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus in her arms. But the picture was much more abstract then simply a picture of the Virgin Mary. It was titled “Madonna and Child of Soweto” and she was depicted as a black woman. In the top right-hand corner of the picture were two hands shaking, which were meant to symbolize solidarity. Then there is the baby Jesus who is holding a cross in one hand, and is showing a peace sign with the other. This is meant to symbolize the coming together of the people. At the bottom of the picture, there is a large abstract painting of a human eye. This eye is meant to be the eye of the Virgin Mary looking over Soweto. At the bottom of the eye is the skyline of Soweto and then in the eye you can see many other images. There are images of soccer fields, which are arranged geographically in relation to the township. The church is situated in the center of the eye because the church is centrally located. Then there are little zigzag lines in the eye which are meant to be the rooftops of the tin houses situated all throughout Soweto.
To conclude our tour, we were asked to sign the guest book. While looking through the guest book though, we saw many famous names throughout it such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jacob Zuma, Nelson Mandela, and Chris Rock. The presence of these names just goes to show how influential this church has been over the last 40 years. Many times, a church can be a central edifice in a community. But this church really acted as a key player in a huge power struggle during the terrible years of the apartheid regime. Religion plays such a huge role in the South African society and it was really interesting to see how it can not only play a spiritual role in a community, but it can play a tangible and political role as well. They used the church as not only a place of worship, but as a place to hold meetings to achieve some political advancement during the apartheid years.
Looking at American society, I see the church solely as a place where families go to worship. But in South Africa, the church is so much more than that. Religion is so much a part of their everyday lives that their spiritual lives overlap their political lives much more than I think it does in our society. I can’t imagine a church in the States ever being put in a situation where police officers would be forced to open fire within. But here, issues are so intertwined that it is not so much a rarity. But overall, I thought it was really interesting to see the place where so many powerful decisions were made. Part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was held there, meetings about how to overthrow the apartheid regime occurred there, and amazing people who fought against the government during horrible times attend church there weekly. It really was a perfect end to an incredible trip to South Africa.