Nestling on top of a small hill, and gazing out over the rooftops to the far distant mountains, is the Church of Christ the King, in Sophiatown. Designed by Frank Fleming, it was built in 1935. Very appropriately named, it stands as a tribute to the love and light of God, and to His people who worshipped, served and found strength there. From the exterior it is not the most imposing of buildings, but it stands tall in the history of the city and in the ongoing account of God’s involvement in His creation. Inside there is a peace and quietness founded in the safe sovereignty of the Saviour.
The township itself was founded in 1899, one of four freehold townships outside of the city, and one of the few areas where, prior to 1913, black South Africans could own land. It developed over the years into a crowded and vibrant community known for its music and dance, art, politics, home-brewed beer and religion. The churches there played a vital role in also running schools and clinics.
Into this burgeoning community came an Anglican priest by the name of Trevor Huddleston, who served there in the 1940s and 1950s. He became an extremely vocal and energetic opponent of apartheid, known world-wide, as he promoted and stood up for the rights of the people, even at the risk of his own health and life.
However, on the 9 February 1955, some 2000 policemen arrived in the early hours. This was the beginning of the forced removal of approximately 65 000 people from their homes to the new areas allocated to them under the Groups Areas Act. “Children were screaming and crying. They didn’t understand what was happening – and it was very cold and raining. It was very traumatic.” The entire community had been removed by the end of 1963. The bulldozers moved in and cleared the township – with the exception of the Anglican Church, and one or two others. The area was re-built as a whites-only suburb and re-named Triomf (Triumph).
The church was deconsecrated in 1964, and was later taken over by the Department of Community Development. In the 1970s it was bought by the Nederduits Hervormde Kerk and then later acquired by the Pinkster Protestante Kerk who altered it significantly. In 1997 the Anglicans bought the church back; the changes were reversed and the building was largely restored to its former self. The suburb was renamed Sophiatown, by the new government.
The church is both a centre of worship and an historic landmark, standing out as a beacon of light in a time of great darkness. Trevor Huddleston returned to South Africa briefly in 1991, and later died in England in 1998, at the age of 85. At his request his ashes were buried in the grounds of the church. A monument stands over them.
In his well-known book, Naught For Your Comfort, he wrote:
“Sophiatown! It is not your physical beauty which makes you so loveable; not that soft line of colour which sometimes seems to strike across the greyness of your streets: not the splendour of the evening sky which turns your drabness into gold – it is none of these things. It is your people.”
God would probably have agreed.
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