It was on this day twenty years ago (25 July, 1993) that armed gunmen broke into the evening church service at St James, Kenilworth, in Cape Town, and opened fire on the congregation of 1300 people. Eleven were killed, and 58 were injured. Hundreds more who survived still carry invisible wounds today. The death toll would have been significantly higher, as the attackers had intended to torch the building with petrol bombs to kill all who were inside. They were only repelled when one of the congregation members, Charl Van Wyk, who was carrying a revolver, fired back and scared off the attackers.
There are many stories of tremendous strength and compassion from that day. There was the selfless gesture of two young men who shielded the young women beside them from the grenades the attackers had thrown. One of these men did not survive the attack. After the deadly melee, Rev. Ross Anderson walked onto the church stage and urged people to stay put and remain calm, as many in the congregation believed more attackers were waiting outside. There was the man who looked down the barrel of the television cameras moments after his beloved wife succumbed to her wounds and told the attackers that, while they should turn themselves in, he forgave them as Christ forgave. And there was Rev. Dr. David Seccombe, who had just arrived in South Africa from Australia to take up the post of principal of George Whitefield College. He was due to take the pulpit that evening, but ended up sitting with the body of a Russian sailor who had perished.
The St James Massacre was an event of great significance in South Africa as it was coming out of the darkness of Apartheid. But the stories of forgiveness and reconciliation that came from this tragic event were not merely of political consequence. They were born of a deep Christian commitment to forgive in the face of horrendous sin and suffering.
We remember the fallen, salute the brave, and give thanks for those who survived.
St James, Kenilworth, is a thriving church today that continues to expound the gospel of Jesus Christ, calling men, women, and children of every background to put their trust in the one who laid down his own life to bring forgiveness.