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GOD in the city

ISSUE 1 | 10 JUNE 2020

What do we believe about our cities? How do we find and experience God in the city? Are we able to name some of the underlying assumptions and beliefs which determine how we engage with our context?
In this ANNO DOMINI Voices feature, we ask six different people scattered across South Africa how they are journeying towards a better understanding of the city, challenging us to identify how God wants us to demonstrate love and justice within our communities.

Stephan de Beer

Urban theologian, author and Professor at University of Pretoria

You can find God everywhere in the city. You must just look.

I wonder if God might be bored, or even feel oppressed by the institutional church. If you think of God in terms of Matthew 25 - as the stranger, the hungry, the homeless, the prisoner - those guys are not in the church, generally.

Where do I find God in the city? Well, I just passed by him, under the blankets on the pavement when I drove past to go to work. God slept there.
God can also be found on the Southern suburbs train, when there’s a moment of humanity between people that shouldn't actually speak to each other, treating each other with respect. I want to see signs of God in all these unexpected places, where that which we expect is disrupted.

Life affirmation shouldn’t just be looked for in the narrow definition of the institutional church. We must find it in all those expressions of Christian faith that are robustly engaging death - in naming it, dismantling it, in trying to push open life giving, life affirming spaces.

Selena Headley

Selena is a PhD candidate in Practical Theology at the University of Pretoria. Her current research project is 'A praxis-based approach to Theological Education: A Cape Town Case Study'

I believe the city should be a space where every person can thrive in spite of income level or historic injustices.
This requires opening space and providing access to basic common goods—such as clean air, water, food, shelter, education and transportation which supports the dignity, value and worth of every resident. There are more than enough resources in the city to cultivate life-sustaining systems for everyone.


I believe the church should not only bring spiritual illumination, but be a space of sanctuary, life and innovation for all people in our communities to thrive holistically. Our proclamation of Good News can be embodied in 1000 different ways as we actively engage and participate in the life of the city. Our love for God and humanity should be evident by the fragrant, attractive, and delicious fruit of our actions and words.


What layers do I see in the city? I see layers of historic injustice, fault lines of race and power, and trip wires everywhere for those with less privileges and resources to navigate the systems which are designed to work well for a few.


Too many people have to struggle to survive. Collective energy must be harnessed to break the systemic barriers created by apartheid spatial planning. Of course, there are currently alternative spaces where individuals, groups and communities are enhancing life by maintaining and creating healthy, inclusive alternate spaces of freedom which need to grow.

Think of what it means to have to struggle to find a  toilet every day, verses rarely having to give the fulfilment of a bodily function a second thought

Unquestionably the legacy of colonialism and apartheid spatial planning hang over the city like a wet blanket, determining who is given space or accorded the dignity of basic services and room to thrive.


Institutions and power positions disproportionately represent the interests of a privileged well-resourced minority, even prioritizing tourists over the needs of the majority of residents.


Think of what it means to have to struggle to go to the toilet every day, verses rarely having to give the fulfillment of this bodily function a second thought. By not ensuring the requirement for safe, accessible dignified sanitation for all, we assign many to struggle daily for this basic human necessity.


Rather than having time and energy to pursue aspirations and take advantage of all the city has to offer, too many must worry about where they can use the toilet. These kinds of entrenched inequalities confirm the city will always work well for some and not for others.


I hope I can play a small part in encouraging, equipping and connecting individuals involved in faith-based initiatives and churches to engage in transformative thinking and actions for the city to be a place where everyone can thrive and flourish.


I hope I am part of a collective movement of those who value solidarity, liberation, love, and imagination for a more liveable inclusive Cape Town.


Tanya Sampson

Tanya is an Events Manager working for a church organisation.

I always say if I ever am to leave this city, it will be to live in another country. I am an original Capetonian, and this city is my ultimate home.

I’ve always been a city girl. Even when I travel, I prefer traveling to cities. I love the lights, hustle and bustle of the city.

Because this has always been home, and I’ve come to know God as ‘home’ (a safe haven) there is a warmth that comes to mind when I consider both those things, together and separately.

Cape Town specifically, excites me. Although I have lived here all my life, and I still get excited about the possibilities of the future of the city. I know Cape Town gets a bad rep as being ‘cliquey’ and has negative race connotations. I have a sense of ownership as an ‘original’ Capetonian, so this makes me passionate about changing that narrative.


Because this city has always been home, my movement around the city is that of a child in her parents’ home – free, belonging, accepted.


Practically, I mostly move by car but love walking in the streets of this city and being among the people, with no earphones, as I want to be fully present in experiencing the spaces, sounds and people.


Cape Town has a rich yet complex history. It’s a history which is still very present today. The layers are found in race, social and economic disparities, among others.


It’s in the different cultures, fighting to remain unique in the midst of a globalised city. It’s in the difference languages and dialects, the stories of the ‘original’ Capetonians intertwined with the stories of the many ‘non-originals’ inhabiting the city.


I discovered a few years ago that the city’s infrastructure was planned in a manner that would undergird the Apartheid system. It then hit me like a ton of bricks that even though we have made progress from that system, the division is still very evident in the areas people live in.

In 2020, we still label areas as ‘Coloured’ or 'White ’ or ‘Black’. So if I, as a Coloured person, would move to an area like Durbanville, I would be moving into ‘a White area’. It blows my mind how we have normalized and even internalised these notions.

I’m very aware of the positive and negative narratives in this city, but I’m committed to changing those narratives in my spheres of influence. I believe that God is at work in this city and the world. The Holy Spirit activates what God has said, so believers can activate the will of God on the earth, in the city, and in the world.

Rabbi Kasongo

Rabbi Kasongo is a Senior Debt Expert and has a strong passion for empowering others on topics related to the financial health.

I’m originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’ve been in South Africa for about 15 years, and have lived in Cape Town for about 5 years. My experience with God in the city of Cape Town has been strange, so much so that at some point I stopped believing in God.


I found myself on the street at some stage, with nobody to help me out. I questioned God’s existence, despite the good things I knew about God.

In the city, nobody cares about people. Everybody’s busy with their own thing. But, strangely, I devoted myself again to God. It was a learning curve but I eventually came out of the problem I was in.


I believe the church is the pillar. Without the church we will not see upliftment in society. The church has played a huge role, in families, and helping the poor. So I believe the church can be the solution, specifically in the city of Cape Town, a place where there's been so much segregation and separation. The church is the place where people can come together again irrespective of race, culture or even nationality.


Cape Town is a city of many challenges. People only see through the limits of what’s in front of them, and most of what we see is determined by where we are- be it Manenberg or Constantia. People tend to see from those limited perspectives, based on where they stay. 


Where do I place myself in the city’s narrative? I want to see myself as somebody who uplifts and educates. People find it very hard to believe in the God of the Christians because we find it very hard to preach with our actions.


How Christians live will determine if there is a God in this city or not. If we can practice what we preach, people may begin to take this city as a place where God is seriously at work. 


Bronwyn Nell

Bronwyn Nell is a Sociology graduate, majoring in Community Development. She is currently going through the Praxis Cycle in the Leadership in Urban Transformation Theology course, and works for The Warehouse organisation.

I see and experience God in the places where people are bringing heaven to earth, where people are living the kingdom narrative.
I feel God where refugees are accepted into a church to live, I see God where micro-sites are created within church buildings for people who live on the street.
I see and experience God in meal and voucher distributions, in places where people who love Jesus are living that out for the ‘invisible’ people of our city.

Although it's said to be the most beautiful city in South Africa and an international hot spot- I see Cape Town as a place of hurt, a space of deep deep inequality. I think it should be named The Divided City. At the core of the city is capital and whiteness, and everything else is pushed to the periphery. I see that in the map of the city geographically and systematically, but I also see God in the people who are pushing back against these divides - individuals, organisations and churches pushing back against that makeup.

Unequal Scenes God in the City Anno domi

I think there’s such a stigma of white people not being welcomed in the peripheries. They are not wanted, and that’s something they’ve done to themselves.
I’ve reached out to the peripheries through relationship. I know people I’m friends with in the Cape Flats and various other townships, but embarrassingly, I often only go to those spaces mostly because of ministry.
Clearly, I move where I’m comfortable, and that's an unsettling reality I'm trying to change.

Leigh-Ann Richards

Leigh-Ann is an occupational therapist and Clinical Educator in the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, under the Division of Occupational Therapy at UCT

Like many parts of the world, Cape Town is steeped in inequalities on so many levels. It's like I work in different worlds, and not just in aesthetics, but in terms of the lived experience of the Capetonian.
You’ll get a suburb like Plumstead, which is right next to Lavender Hill, but people in Plumstead are completely oblivious about the lived experience of people in Lavender Hill, and the same goes for people in Lavender Hill.

Leigh Ann2.png

The kids I work with there can't even picture where Plumstead is, and it's just right down the road, but they’ve never been there.

We work and socialise in silos. Now and again there’s a bit of crossover, but few and far in between. In those silos there's quite a lot of togetherness. But this is a deepy separated city, and this is how it was designed. We know with apartheid policy, the intention was to build segregated communities, and obviously that still exists today.

There’s also a capitalist agenda to how the city is socially engineered. Our city is not always designed for wholesome, holistic living. There are defined occupations that citizens are expected to do - school, work, home. What's in between is often privy to a privileged handful of the population.


But one of the things our city, country and world is deeply needing is transformation. Despite the bleak realities, we as Christians have hope.
I see God working in the city in addressing these injustices. God is the author of justice and as Christians we have been commissioned to do zealous works in pursuit of that justice, because you can't have transformation without justice. The two go hand in hand. I feel confident saying that because the Bible says that, passages like Philemon and Colossians.

If that means land expropriation, then so be it. Give people their land. If you can't give them the land, then compensate them with a substantial amount of money that equates to the generational chronic poverty that they've had to experience because of what has happened to them. Can you even quantify that? I’m sure you can. But you can't expect people to move on when they are still at the place where you’ve put them.

you can't have transformation without justice. The two go hand in hand.

In my community and culture, this is not a very common narrative to ascribe to. Most Coloured people believe they’re not black enough or white enough, and I understand where that pain and frustration comes from.


But I believe anyone that is not white is black, and I know that's a controversial opinion to hold. There is a certain pain that has been experienced by everyone who is not white.


As a Christian, how do I focus and invest in initiatives and programmes which support justice?

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