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Schuller Blocks Talk at Cathedral by South African Foe of Apartheid

June 06, 1986|MARK I. PINSKY and JOHN DART | Times Staff Writers

The Rev. Robert Schuller, concerned that the largest opposition group in South Africa has been infiltrated by "violent elements," has blocked a speech by the group's secretary general at the television evangelist's Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

Alfred Nzo, a leader of the African National Congress, the oldest multiracial organization opposing white rule in South Africa, had been scheduled to deliver the keynote address June 18 at the annual meeting of the Reformed Church in America.

All sessions of the denomination's meeting, including the keynote address, were to be held in the arboretum of the 10,000-member Crystal Cathedral. Two weeks ago, according to E. Wayne Antworth, who is director of communications for the Reformed Church in America, the church leadership was informed that Nzo would not be permitted to speak at the Crystal Cathedral because the appearance "could be detrimental to their (Schuller's) ministry."

The ANC, outlawed in 1960, has become increasingly militant. Its guerrillas have doubled their attacks in the last 18 months so there are now two or three a week, according to both ANC and police sources. In response, South African troops and warplanes attacked alleged ANC guerrilla facilities in three neighboring countries on May 21, saying that it was acting against terrorism.

In the face of Schuller's decision, the General Synod's executive committee approved what it called a "compromise," scheduling Nzo's speech for the nearby Doubletree Hotel.

"But the committee reaffirmed unanimously their commitment to hear a representative of the ANC," Antworth said. "This is a change in location but not a change in agenda."

About 275 representatives of the 350,000-member denomination will be meeting on the West Coast for the first time, from June 14-20. The delegates represent nearly 1,000 congregations in the United States and Canada.

In a prepared statement explaining his concerns, Schuller, whose "Hour of Power" television show is broadcast across the country, said: "It is unfortunate that the African National Congress has in recent years been infiltrated by violent elements. The anti-apartheid position of the South African churches would be more appropriately represented by a distinguished nonviolent church leader such as (Anglican) Archbishop-elect Desmond Tutu. For my part, I deplore the violence of apartheid and the violence of revolution."

In the statement, in which he did not explain what he meant by violent elements, Schuller noted that last year he had presented an award to Tutu from a California foundation.

Both Tutu and the Rev. Allen Boesak, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, have addressed gatherings of the Reformed Church in America, and, according to Antworth, it was "at the suggestion of and with encouragement from" Tutu that a representative of the ANC be invited to address this year's meeting.

The keynote address to the General Synod, generally reserved for heads of state, was to be given by Oliver Tambo, president of the ANC, which the church considered South Africa's "government in exile."

Boesak, himself a leader in nonviolent anti-apartheid activities in South Africa, wrote to the head of the American affiliate, saying: "I have heard of your invitation to Oliver Tambo to speak at your General Synod, and I'm writing to commend you for your courageous action.

"It is also important that the churches should put directly to the African National Congress all those questions they experience as deeply disturbing and painful, but this is the kind of dialogue I believe is most meaningful.,"

After accepting the invitation, however, Tambo had to withdraw in order to attend a Paris meeting of the United Nations International Labor Organization. Nzo, a former health worker now responsible for the ANC's day-to-day affairs, was invited in his place.

The relationship between the Reformed Church in America and its counterpart in South Africa is a particularly sensitive issue.

"It's a delicate matter," said Dr. Harold Englund, executive director of church relations for Robert Schuller Ministries.

Both Reform churches trace their lineage to the Netherlands in the early 1600s. In South Africa, the white branch of the church has continued to provide the theological underpinning for racial segregation. In 1982, the American church broke relations with the all-white Nederduitsch Gereformeerde Kerk, while retaining ties to black and "colored" South African branches.

According to Englund, Schuller has been invited to visit South Africa by church leaders for the last 15 years, "but never wanted to go because he didn't want to appear supportive of apartheid."

In the prepared statement, Schuller announced that he plans to go to South Africa later this summer "to conduct seminars for pastors and key laymen of all races in Johannesburg and Cape Town" at the invitation of a multiracial church service organization.

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