Council for World Mission (CWM) has launched The Onesimus Project (TOP) at Van der Kemp Memorial Church in Bethelsdorp, South Africa, on 23 August 2022, the United Nations International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.
Over 500 people, including the local communities, members of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (UPCSA), United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA), international guests, the Onesimus Project’s Core Group, and the members of the CWM Board of Directors, joined to hear the CWM’s act of confession and witness the launch of the Onesimus Project. In addition, hundreds of people joined the event online through a live stream (https://youtu.be/OUFS5PNqUfo). The gathering witnessed CWM’s act of confession, a commitment to reparative action, and a call to other churches and ecumenical and mission organisations with similar legacies for just action.
During his greetings, the CWM General Secretary, Rev. Dr Jooseop Keum, thanked and welcomed all those present for participating in the historic event, especially the Bethelsdorp community for welcoming and allowing the CWM to launch the TOP in Bethelsdorp.
He highlighted that the CWM’s journey of transformation from its forebear London Missionary Society (LMS) is incomplete without addressing its historically racist mission understanding and practice through its complicity with colonisation, enslavement and racism. He mentioned, “The Onesimus Project will assist CWM in becoming self-reflexive in critically addressing both historical and modern-day slavery, providing new perspectives and insights on discerning our mission of justice today.”
He further emphasised that the Project’s four major areas of focus, Legacies of Slavery, modern-day slavery, education for liberation, and transformative ecumenism, are to take the member churches through a journey of addressing not only the past legacies of slavery but also its modern forms that are strongly mutated and embedded into various structures of society. He highlighted that the systems set up by the institutions of the post-colonial global North capitalise on vulnerable members of marginalised communities, and the racism and White supremacism which powered the colonial era remain as forceful today as ever.
Therefore, CWM aims to build ecumenical solidarity for TOP by bringing together ecumenical and missional organisations and grassroots movements in a common mission to reject oppressive structures and speak truth to power.
Representing the Bethelsdorp community, Chief Edmund Gaob Stuurman welcomed the event attendees, thanked the CWM and the Board for their courage in embarking on this journey of self-reflection, and challenged them to stand on their commitment to just action.
Through this gathering, he also demanded that the land and life should be restored to the natives and indigenous communities not only in Africa but all over the world. He urged the CWM not to let the opportunity to restore the lives of African communities pass them by.
After the greetings from a representative of the Mayer, CWM Moderator Rev. Lydia Neshangwe, joined by CWM Board of Directors Mrs Rose Wedderburn (Jamaica) and Elder Lim Kar Hor (Malaysia) led the act of confession and apology in a liturgical form.
The Act of Confession reads,
“The history of CWM highlights the power of the gospel to confront power. We can point to those who have resisted the systems of racism, enslavement and colonisation. We can point to those who sought to comfort those who have been so deeply harmed by such systems. But we also know that the LMS and its partners participated in the building of systems of racism, enslavement and colonisation, which do such harm till today.
Thus, we gather to repent of the racism that poisoned our past and continues even in the life of CWM to pollute our present, our purpose, our witness, our finances, our relationships, our spirits, our bodies, our vision of humanity, our image of God…”
A brief silence was observed to honour the lives of those who suffered under colonial oppression. Speaking to the gathering, the Chairperson of TOP core group, Rev. Dr Roderick Hewitt, echoed this opportunity for CWM to reflect on the effects of slavery on humanity and to mitigate against its continuing impact. Reiterating CWM’s stand against the evil system of slavery and racism and acknowledging it, he said: “Our gathering is to remember what happened, that slave trade and its abolition should not be interpreted as an act of thanksgiving for those who have done some altruistic service. Rather, today is a day of remembrance for those whose bones are scattered across the African continent and across the world.”
Dr Hewitt went on to preach that freedom in Christ is a rediscovery of one’s humanity. This freedom allows us to see the divinity in humanity and calls us to live sacrificial lives struggling against all forms of oppression, which denies the fullness of life for people.
Rev. Neshangwe formally launched The Onesimus Project on behalf of the CWM Board and offered the Bethelsdorp Statement, and Rev Dr Fidon Mwombeki, General Secretary of All Africa Conference of Churches, sent the participants out with a blessing, a fresh commitment to Christ’s gospel of liberation and on transformation.
The solemn event was interspersed with lively worship songs by choirs from CWM Africa member churches, UPCSA and UCCSA. Throughout the event, the slogan, “Release! Restore! Redeem!” became an emotion that was intoned by the members.
The General Secretary, Dr Keum, called for a debriefing meeting with the participants, during which the importance of the member churches embracing the vision of the TOP and a brief plan on taking the project forward was discussed. All the members agreed that the member churches should take an active part in identifying the modern forms of slavery and committing themselves to struggle against the unjust structures of the society for a just and life-flourishing community. The Onesimus Project’s core group will intensify their work in bringing solid proposals, including the proposals for the budget.