WHAT WOULD TUTU DO? TREVOR’S STORY

What courageous decision did REV TREVOR PEARCE make in the face of life-threatening bully tactics? Trevor sat down with KATY MACDONALD and divulged some highlights and lowlights of his eventful life, detailed what radically changed it, and pinpointed the stand-out element he believes every good leader needs

‘I thought maybe they won’t harm a churchman. And then the knock came.’ In the apartheid era, Rev Trevor Pearce was threatened with his life by ill-wishers, just one of a number of challenges this brave man has faced in his lifetime. Today, he feels ‘very angry and sad’ about the plight of many South Africans, but his message remains one of hope and proactivity | Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Trevor was born in Rondebosch, son to a father who managed a fleet of taxis and a mother who worked in a clothing factory. He attended Kensington High School in Maitland, then worked as a district office manager at Old Mutual before becoming ordained as an Anglican minister. He’s married to Cheryl, an educator. They have three adult sons and live in Bergvliet

‘I have happy memories of my early years but my father died when I was eight years old and the following year, our family was evicted from Rondebosch under the Group Areas Act. We were plonked down in Heideveld, which was still being built. It was devastating. There were no facilities there: no transport, no shops, no schools. Basically, it was a building site. The house had one bedroom, so we three kids and my mom all had to sleep in the same bed.

The loss of my father was a major thing and with his death and the eviction, as the oldest child, I was suddenly in charge. Mom left for work at 6am and returned home around 7pm. Because there were no schools in Heideveld, I had to walk my siblings across the N2 Highway at peak hour to school in Bonteheuwel. I was very intimidated by it. Mom took us down to the N2 and we rehearsed how to hold hands and run across through a gap in the traffic.

Later, Mom remarried, so now there were six of us children. I started struggling to cope and, by 16, was very depressed. I think it was an accumulation of things: losing my father, the responsibilities that had fallen on me as a young boy, and the fact of Mom having a new man in her life. He was a good man, but it was still hard.

Trevor and his wife Cheryl, pictured here relaxing in their Bergvliet home, have navigated many tumultuous times together. ‘I’ve seen Cheryl’s strength in no uncertain terms,’  he says | Photo: Leentjie du Preez

I thought it would be good to get help at church. I didn’t want to expose myself at our family church, so I went to another close by. After the service, I asked the minister if I could speak to him, and he looked at his watch and said, ‘Go home, it’s not time for talking now’.

With that response, I considered committing suicide. We had a railway line behind our house and it would have been painless and quick. But as I walked, a voice said to me, ‘You’re brighter than that, why don’t you go to a doctor?’ I went to Groote Schuur Hospital, where I didn’t know what to do, but a lovely nurse found me wandering around. When I told her I thought I needed help, she took me aside, put an arm around me and said, ‘Come with me’. She took me to a doctor who gave me medicine, and I began to believe there were people who cared about me. To this day, I believe she was an angel!

meaning of life

Slowly I recovered and, by 19, I was fully on a search for the meaning of life. I started taking library books out and read avidly about eastern mysticism, but I didn’t find fulfilment in it. Then, one Sunday, the chaplain to the Archbishop of Cape Town preached a stirring message at our church – that we can have a second chance, our sins could be forgiven, our slates wiped clean, and we could start a brand-new life.

I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want!’ I asked the chaplain how to get this new life. He invited me to a bible study at the Archbishop’s house and I went with some friends. After the study, the Archbishop and the chaplain prayed for us. I had a feeling of lightness and newness, peace and joy. I knew something very significant had happened.

Trevor: ‘I considered committing suicide, but the Archbishop and chaplain prayed for me and I had a feeling of lightness and joy. I knew that something very significant had happened’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez

My friends all had a similar experience. We left Bishopscourt, drank coffee together at someone’s home and said, ‘What just happened to us?’ We learnt that it was the Holy Spirit, the spirit and essence of God, which had come upon us. The Holy Spirit comes with power and releases God’s nature and character into us, empowering and changing us.

The change in me was profound on many fronts. I felt an inner force compelling me to make peace with my stepfather and became more respectful, loving and kind. We got a lot closer. One day I heard him and my mom arguing about money. I felt compelled to tell them, ‘You can’t argue about these things, you need the change that I’ve experienced. Why don’t you give your lives to Jesus so that He can help you as He’s helped me?’ Then I burst into tears.

They were absolutely stunned. They said they’d seen the change in my life and wanted God to do for them whatever He’d done for me. We went to church together and they gave their lives to Jesus. They were married for 40 years before my stepfather died, and while they still had tiffs from time to time, it was nothing like it had been in the past. They were always together, helping people with compassion, taking a food parcel here, doing something there, serving God.

I became more involved in our church. I found it so exciting. The Archbishop and his chaplain discipled us on a weekly basis. I met Cheryl for the first time when she visited our youth gathering: as I shook her hand, something happened! We started seeing each other and when I started studying at theological college in Grahamstown to become a priest, I realised I wouldn’t survive three years without her. We got married and Cheryl has been the perfect partner. Priests face many challenges and I’m not sure I could have done this journey without her.

Trevor was instantly smitten when he met Cheryl: ‘As I shook her hand, something happened!’

After I was ordained, we were placed at St Aidan’s Church in Lansdowne in December 1982, and two years later in Mitchell’s Plain. The latter stint began with a month of intensive training in Leadership and Evangelism at the Haggai Institute, Singapore. There, Third World church leaders learnt that, rather than being daunted by life’s inevitable challenges, the job of a leader is to find ways around them, and to see them as opportunities. This training stood me in very good stead for what was to come: South Africa’s tumultuous political upheaval of 1985 and 1986, and beyond.

At that time, I saw Cheryl’s strength in no uncertain terms. For example, there was a handful of white teachers at the school she taught at. It was especially difficult for them, travelling in and out of Mitchells Plain at the time. Cheryl would sometimes escort them to try and ensure their safety during those troubled times. This was a risk to her own safety as peaceful situations could, and did, flare up quite unexpectedly at that time.

Man of courage: Trevor stunned into silence a public meeting of South Africa’s apartheid-supporting National Party by questioning its ethics and claim to be a Christian party  

In September 1986, during this period of political unrest and violence, Desmond Tutu became Archbishop. Later that year, he called me in and said, ‘Trevor, I want to appoint you Rector of the Parish of Caledon. It’s been vacant for three years, can you pray about this and come back to me?’ I was astonished. This was the largest parish in the whole diocese, with 10 congregations, and my first rectorship. I was only 30 years old, felt very unworthy and quaked in my boots. But I also felt this was a wonderful challenge. Cheryl and I prayed, and felt that God planted in both our hearts and our heads the sense that we should go.

The church in Caledon was called Holy Trinity. Cheryl and I went out before we moved there to see the lie of the land. The rectory was under repair after being vacant for three years, but we loved it. It was a beautiful Cape Dutch-style house with lots of lawn, a high stoep and a staircase going down to the lawns.

Our eldest was three years old and the twins were three months. This was going to be a new adventure! I was a bit daunted by the extent of the parish, which was 120 by 56km, but ignorance is bliss. Friends helped us move in and get the place sorted. The parish put a pack of food together that included half a sheep and some yummy things. We felt the kindness and generosity of the people and were delighted.

pain

Soon, we started understanding the pain of this community. Many had been badly affected by the Group Areas Act, which declared that prime residential and business areas were for ‘white’ ownership only. Many dozens of ‘coloured’ families were evicted from their homes and had been relocated to the fringes of the town. One mother was so traumatised by the family losing their home that she took her own life. Once again, I was confronted by the evil of apartheid and how many lives were destroyed and families torn apart by it.

Some of our people working on farms were virtually slaves, under the dop system, with accommodation and wine their main pay. I also remember the pain of a dear elderly member of our church who had nowhere to put her belongings after being evicted. She showed me her beautiful period furniture, in a worn-out shed, that had gone to ruin from the damp. She said, ‘Trevor, this furniture is useless, but I keep it here to remind me of my beautiful past’.

I quietly wondered whether something would happen to us, a ‘coloured’ family living in an area designated by the government as a ‘whites-only’ area. But I thought, maybe they won’t harm a churchman.

And then the knock came. About two months after we moved in, a policeman knocked on our door. He identified himself as the commander of the local police station. I heard an inner voice telling me to be kind to him, and I greeted him warmly with a smile. ‘Hello! What can I do for you?’ I asked him. ‘I’m Trevor, what’s your name? Come inside, make yourself comfortable. Coffee or tea?’

He said, ‘All I want to do is talk to you and go home. I drove three times round the block before I had the courage to come in. I’ve been asked to deliver an eviction notice to you. You’ve got to be out of this house and if you don’t leave, you’ll be arrested, and your family will be evicted.’

The Pearces’ twins were three months old when they moved to Caledon. ‘Soon, we started understanding the pain of this community,’ says Trevor

I said, ‘Oh, why would you want to do that? Because I’m not here for political reasons, I’ve come here to serve the community of Caledon. He replied, ‘I work for the government and they give us orders.’

Then these words just dropped into my mind. I said, ‘If your boss asked you to go and kill someone, would you do it?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Of course I wouldn’t’. Then I said, ‘If your boss asked you to rob a bank, would you do it?’ He said no. Then I asked, ‘Then why are you doing this? It’s equally immoral’.

The poor guy couldn’t answer, he just sat there. Then I asked, ‘Are you a Christian, a committed Christian?’ He said ‘Yes, when the bell rings, I’m at worship’. I commented, ‘That’s wonderful news. I too am a committed Christian. That means we’re both children of God with a common father! So you’re my brother and you can’t kick me out because brothers don’t do that to each another. I think you’d better help me here because I’m finding this difficult!’

squirmed

The station commander squirmed and kept saying, ‘I’m just following orders.’ I said, ‘If you’re following orders, you must do what you must do. And, I must do what I must do. God sent me here to serve His people, and do you know what, I’m not leaving till God tells me to. So, you do what you must do, I’m going to stay.’

There was silence and he said, ‘Ok, fine!’ He stood up, said ‘Thank you very much’, shook my hand and off he went. He looked bewildered. I was initially a little disturbed and apprehensive: I had to break this news to my wife. Then joy began to well up in me. I thought, ‘Where did those words come from?’ And I realised that those words could only have come from God! I just couldn’t have thought them up in a split second like that.

Threatened by a police commander with eviction from his ‘whites-only’ rectory, Trevor felt apprehensive but ultimately joyful about his response. ‘I realised the words I spoke to him could only have come from God!’

A couple of weeks later, some people came in the dark and threw stones on our roof which made a huge amount of noise and scared us. But what really scared me happened one night as I drove back from a bible study in Greyton. A bakkie [pick-up truck] came out of nowhere and tried to push me off the road at about 10pm. It was dark. I couldn’t see much and I was really afraid. I thought I was going to end up in a deep ditch, where no-one would find me, and I’d just disappear.

I managed to get onto the N2 and left the bakkie behind a truck. I got into Caledon and drove into a side road, switched off my lights but kept the engine running. Suddenly, the bakkie came out of a side road, pulled up in front of me and its doors opened. I thought, ‘These guys are going to beat me up’.

I sped off but they chased me. Were they hate-filled civilians, or the known dark tactics of security policemen? I didn’t want to go to the police, but with my life under threat, I knew I had to. At the police station, two policemen told me to get into their vehicle so that we could go looking. We found the bakkie guys at the pub having a drink. The police shouted, ‘Come here, why were you chasing him?’ but the guys said, ‘What? We thought it was a friend, we were just trying to stop and say hello’. The police just said to them, ‘Get the hell out of here and go home!’

I was livid

I realised that when the police saw it was two white persons, they let them off the hook. I was livid, but I was more rattled and scared. Very, very scared. When I got home, Cheryl was very upset and gave me some sugar water. We prayed together, and she said, ‘You have to report this to the Archbishop.’

I told Archbishop Tutu about it the next day and he said, ‘Trevor, we’ll make a plan to relocate you, it’s too dangerous for you and your family.’ Cheryl and I then prayed and said, ‘Lord what is it that you want?’ And we both separately felt that God was saying, ‘Stay, I’ll protect you’. We had a sense that going against the grain of apartheid was a protest for the people, we had to do it for their sake: to make the protest that they couldn’t make themselves.

Later, Archbishop Tutu rang me and said he was making urgent arrangements to relocate us to another part of Caledon. I said, ‘Archbishop, we’ve prayed about it and we feel we must remain in the church house.’ He said, ‘Trevor you’re not staying, it’s becoming too dangerous.’ I said, ‘Archbishop, respectfully, we prayed and heard the Lord telling us to stay and serve our people with this witness.’ He said, ‘Trevor, I am your bishop!’ And I said, ‘Archbishop, very, very respectfully, what would Tutu have done if he was in this position?’

Archbishop Tutu said it was too dangerous for Trevor and his family to stay in Caledon but Trevor said, ‘Archbishop, very, very respectfully, what would Tutu have done if he was in this position?’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Silence followed on the other side! Then he said in a more subdued voice, ‘Trevor, I want you to promise me that if anything happens, you will call me.’ I promised to call, and he said, ‘Ok, we’re behind you, do what you must do.’

And so, we stayed. The news got out and then we had reporters and the Sunday Times come by. It was on the front page. In a sense, it was a game-changer. The people and the leaders in the parish became incredibly responsive because they knew they had a pastoral family putting their lives on the line for them. We had the most glorious Easter Day services. Something had shifted!

I started a ‘ministers’ fraternal’ to pray regularly together and to build relationships. God met with us. Christmas came, and for the first time, Caledon celebrated a combined carol service with about 2 000 people from across the different denominations and races. Later on, the ministers’ fraternal met with the mayor and the town clerk. They were very nervous about the meeting, but I promised it wouldn’t be about politics but about community-building, loving our neighbours and correcting past wrongs. I asked, ‘Do you want the fires of nearby towns to burn in Caledon? Let’s be proactive. Let’s bring our people together, to figure out what we can do together.’

‘I feel very angry about the way things have gone in South Africa,’ says Trevor | Photo: Leentjie du Preez

 People were nervous, but at the end of the meeting, the mayor said he’d be grateful if we met again: in his chambers. They soon made some changes. I had told them I’d been thrown out of the library, and they opened the library to everyone. Then they co-opted one or two people of colour to start attending council meetings as advisors. The swimming pool was opened to everyone too, until it sprang a leak! Small but significant changes began to happen. As a high-school teacher, Cheryl was able to encourage the young people to gain their matric and to study further as a means of empowerment for them and their family members, especially those living in poverty on farms where the dop system was still very prevalent. Significant shifts continued.

In 1989, Archbishop Tutu visited our parish to encourage us and strengthen our resolve to be agents of transformation and reconciliation: to turn enemies into friends. He encouraged us to forgive those who abused us, pointing out that harbouring unforgiveness in our hearts is like ingesting poison and hoping others will get hurt! After four years in Caledon, our bishop asked us to take on a new challenge and plant a church in a brand new township, and we relocated.

what did we learn

So, what did we learn from our time in Caledon? Here’s one thing: we were handed over to the hated security police, but never evicted. In fact, Officer Van Der Merwe often enjoyed a cup of coffee at our home! The Bible teaches us that the best way to deal with your enemies is to turn them into friends. Anyone can do that!

But we deal with this by recognising that we’re people of good news, and so we must ask the question: how can we serve in meaningful ways so as to make a difference? It’s easy to simply moan and complain about the people in power. But a more important question from our Caledon experience is this: what are we doing today to make a difference in our context at various levels? One of the very basic things Cheryl and I do, for example, to keep us grounded, is to work with a group that feeds poor people on a weekly basis in Diep River and Heathfield, feeding about 100 families and a few individuals. Blue Ribbon recently started donating bread, which is fantastic: we both recently retired, so organising so much food was moving out of our affordability range! Let’s serve, and be good news to the least as well as the lost!

‘It’s easy to moan and complain about the people in power but more important is the question, what are we doing to make a difference?’ says Trevor. One of the responses that he and Cheryl have to this question is to feed poor people on a weekly basis | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

Our land still needs so much by way of healing, reconstruction and reconciliation. Cheryl and I are deeply saddened by the way things have gone in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, we drove 120km to the Grand Parade to hear his first speech. We took a bottle of bubbly with us and celebrated. And look at where we are now! It’s so sad! We know the price we had to pay for change, the lives lost, and heartache and pain that it cost, and it’s like we got apartheid back in another suit. People are still poor, many eke out a living and the wheels of justice grind slowly. We’re both very sad and angry about our current state.

Trevor: ‘I believe in Jesus because he radically changed my life. He exercised an upside-down leadership. If you want to stand tall, go to the lowest place.’  | Photo: Ronelle de Villiers

I believe that everything stands or falls by leadership. Good leadership brings about positive change for people in one’s ambit of influence. I believe leadership is a gift from God that’s given to us to serve others, and it’s how we use the gift it that makes all the difference. If you realise this, you use it well. If you don’t, you use it badly, like Putin or [former South African president] Zuma.

The leadership Jesus exercised was an upside-down leadership. If you want to stand tall, go to the lowest place. To me, the stand-out elements of leadership are the ability to serve, to be humble, and the supreme attribute is self-sacrifice, the kind Jesus demonstrated. Good leadership is costly. So we give love not by saying, ‘I love you’, but by demonstrating it through serving.

I believe in Jesus even in this day and age because he radically changed my life. He brought me not only direction but filled me with joy and hope for the future, in spite of what happens around us. So, I want to share this with other people. I’ve experienced healing from the depression that nearly took my life, and the healer was Jesus! I think the biggest area of healing needed today is in relationships. In Caledon, we experienced huge relational healing after brutal relocations. In a recent visit, our friends told us of the harmony and peace that followed our ministry there. But they also shared about new challenges that exist. So I say to God be all the glory, and let’s serve till Jesus returns!

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