Rescued From Hell in Hillbrow

David Mansfield

Johannesburg, some argue, is the most dangerous city in the world.

Hillbrow, everybody agrees, is the most dangerous suburb in Johannesburg.

Louis Theuroux made a doco. entitled Law and Disorder in Johannesburg. It features a township called Diepsloot on the edge of the urban sprawl and the inner city suburb of Hillbrow. The South African movie Jerusalema (not for the faint hearted) also provides a chilling portrait of this heaving mass of humanity.

But Hillbrow wasn’t always so. It was once the vibrant multicultural middle class cosmopolitan hub of the city - a bit like Norton St. in Sydney or Lygon St. in Melbourne. How things can change.

Today Hillbrow is thought by many demographers to be the most densely populated square mile on the face of the earth. It is a high-rise slum to a large number of the almost 5 million illegal immigrants who have swarmed into Johannesburg from many other African countries.

It is the end of the poverty trail for tens of thousands of rural South Africans who have made their way into Johannesburg under the false assumption, made for more than a hundred years, that there is a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

Instead, there is Hillbrow!

It is home to drug lords, slum lords, squat lords, perps, pimps and prostitutes, and vigilantes and victims of every crime imaginable.

In the heart of Hillbow, a Church of England in South Africa (CESA) church called Christ Church Hillbrow, has been bearing witness to the truth and grace of Jesus through each and every incarnation of Hillbow’s history.

Today, Christ Church Hillbrow is a community of several hundred struggling and spiritually starving people. Her congregations are the most economically and socially disadvantaged I have ever encountered. Her pan African mix reflects the social and economic profile of the desperate community it seeks to serve.

Each week the saints seek to spiritually nourish the beautiful but broken sinners who venture through its doors. Each week they provide a free lunch for the uncertain and wounded souls that pour through her gates.

Today, Christ Church Hillbrow awaits the arrival of her new pastor.

Rescued From Hell in Hillbrow

The current CESA Bishop of Johannesburg is a forty year old Zulu named Edward Ngubane. Edwin is no stranger to Hillbrow. He slept rough on its streets for a season.

In fact, Edwin recalls being homeless on two occasions. He put himself through teachers college while sleeping rough by a river under a bridge in Durban.

Years later he later gave up teaching and went to seek his fortune in the mines but left soon after and walked into Johannesburg, like so many before him, triumphantly expecting to make millions in the big smoke. But within days he was broke and broken, standing around street fires on the sub zero winter nights and sleeping by day wherever he could catch the warm rays of winter sun.

Edwin stumbled into a shelter run by Christ Church Hillbrow. Here this Zulu warrior from an ancestor worshipping family, who had dabbled for a time with Islam, was introduced to the rescuing love of Jesus. His pastor quickly saw his leadership potential and packed him off to the George Whitefield College in Cape Town.

Today, he is the pastor of the Melville Union Church, a multi racial and student church that sits strategically on the edge of two university campuses in Johannesburg and has a vital ministry to the homeless youth who roam the local streets. He was appointed the CESA bishop for Johannesburg about two years ago. In April he will resign from Melville and take up the vacant pastorate at Christ Church Hillbrow.

Returning To Hillbrow To Rescue Others

Edwin is under no romantic illusions about the path ahead. He asked the hard questions that courageous leadership asks. In his own words:

Genevieve and I and our two children Stephanie (6) and Langa (3) will be moving to Christ Church Hillbrow in April this year. We are very excited and nervous at the same time.

Why the move from the comfortable suburb of Auckland Park to this murder and drugs capital?

• For starters! Genevieve and I met at Hillbrow when I was a curate there, so it is going back home for us. Before then, Hillbrow gave me shelter when I was living on the streets. I did my ministry training (like MTS) there before going to George Whitefield College.

• The congregation is very strategic in terms of doing student work. There are university and college residences in close proximity.

• In terms of reaching into Africa with the gospel, every Sunday, there are more foreign nationals attending the services than locals. Most of these will be from an Anglican background – so we need a reformed, evangelical Anglican witness in the city.

• For City Business Ministry. The banking and mining sectors still operate from the Johannesburg CBD. In the future we could reach people working there, just like St Helens in London.

• Every Sunday there are over 100 kids coming to Sunday School. Most come alone so we have an opportunity to reach the parents through their kids.

• Hillbrow looks like a good harvest field for future gospel workers. They will need to be apprenticed and sent to George Whitefield College.

• Hillbrow is just one small part. There are neighbouring suburbs like Yoeville, Berea, Joubert Park, Doornfontein, which are there for the taking in terms of planting new gospel work.

"I think my move to Hillbrow as a bishop will help people think differently about inner city work. I  hope to influence the students at bible colleges not  to run away from the city but run to the city. I think it will show our  intentions of  reaching South Africa with the gospel. I think with a capable staff  (which I am praying for) Hillbrow will provide CESA with a well run, growing 'black' city church.

Beneath the rubble and decay and destitution  in Hillbrow, there is gold, if one looks  carefully.

Edwin knows you can’t parachute in and out of Hillbrow to preach like a FIFO miner. I have done that on more than one occasion. I have felt that shame and lived with that superficiality, preaching to the hundred-strong homeless congregation, knowing that I would soon be spirited away, phantom like, in a late model car to a first world restaurant while these hungry people would be left to chew on a stale bread roll and slurp a few mouthfuls of watery soup.

Sydney Anglicans have had a close connection with Hillbrow through CMS missionary, Ans Van der Zwaag. Ans served on the Hillbrow staff as the women’s worker for a number of years until her retirement recently. CMS is still seeking someone who will carry on that work.

Anglican Aid is exploring, with Ans’ and Edwin’s help, a partnership where Sydney Anglicans can help the Hillbrow church community reach and rescue many of the women and girls being recruited into prostitution.

Why did Ans serve there? Why is Edwin going there? In the words of English Test cricketer cum missionary to China, India, The Sudan and The Congo, C. T. Studd:

Some want to live
within the sound
of church or chapel bell
I want to run
a rescue shop
within a yard of hell

Feature photo: peragro