Places and spaces become holy because they are locations where the human and the divine meet. In majestic cathedrals, store fronts, shacks, and everything in between, the walls are witness to our joys and sorrows, to our hopes and fears, to our will to know and to do God's good pleasure. We touch wood, stone, and glass with tear-stained fingers, and the DNA of countless human hands mingle in holy kinship.
On her Africa trip, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke encouraging words to a new generation of freedom fighters in such a sacred place. On June 22, 2011, Mrs. Obama gave the keynote address at the Young African Women Leaders Forum at the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto, South Africa. She recognized young women from across Africa who are doing extraordinary things to make life better for themselves, their families, and for the human community. She spoke of the work that faces young people committed to making the world a better place: to bring prosperity to forgotten places, to end hunger and HIV/AIDS, to establish honest and open government, and to fight violence against women. She spoke of the importance of a sense of interconnectedness, and she told her audience "that courage could be contagious."
She quoted Robert Kennedy when he said during a visit to South Africa: "you are joined with fellow young people in every land, they struggling with their problems and you with yours, but all joined in a common purpose ... determined to build a better future."
However, at the beginning of her remarks, she recognized the history of the Regina Mundi Church, a building that still carry the scars of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. She said: "It has been more than three decades, but those bullet holes in the ceiling, this broken alter still stand as vivid reminders of the history that unfolded here."
She told the story of how a group of students gathered to protest a law that required them to take courses in Afrikaans. They planned to march to Orlando Stadium, but security forces opened fire and some of the young people sought sanctuary in the Church. The police came in with teargas and with bullets. The church is known as the parliament of Soweto because when the congregation sang hymns, activists would make plans. The congregation would sing the locations and the times for meetings. Church services and funerals became occasions to rally against apartheid.
President Nelson Mandela has called Regina Mundi "the people's cathedral."
The church hosted hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission presided over by Archbishop Desmond Tutu between 1995 and 1998. People from across the globe honor its significance. The church is graced with stained glass windows donated by Poland in 1998. A Black Madonna is the artistic image of the churches name: Queen of the World. A peace pole donated by Japanese Christians stands outside the church.
Today the church continues to be a busy place, hosting tourists and working hard to meet the needs of the community. Today the enemy is HIV/AIDS. Sometimes the church lacks the necessary resources to meet all of the requests. There are still far too many funerals due to the disease. Yet, Father Vusi Mazibuko, pastor of the church, helps us to recognize the purpose of the church as the living breathing presence of Jesus Christ in the world. It is at once a spiritual and a physical work of liberation. He says: "The church is an eye. It must see that justice is done."
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.