The worldwide ecumenical family came together to celebrate the life of African bridge-builder, transformer, and social justice champion, Rev. Prof. Dr Mary-Anne Plaatjies-van Huffel at an online service led by the World Council of Churches (WCC).
The 4 June service was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic afflicting humanity. It was, however, watched all around the world as those present thanked God for the gift of the life of Plaatjies-van Huffel, who died on 19 May at the age of 61.
The history-making South African pastor and academic had served as the WCC president from Africa since 2013 and along with the celebration of her life and contribution the worldwide Christian unity was music and singing and moving contributions from her family.
Evy Olivier, Plaatjies-van Huffel’s sister, prayed, “God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our sister Mary-Anne, who, having lived this life in faith, now lives eternally with you. We thank you for the baptism she received, which is now complete in death. We praise you for the gift of her life, for all in her that was good and kind and faithful.
“We thank you for giving her to us as a sister, a servant to your church, an activist in the ecumenical movement, and a witness to Christ’s resurrection, to know and to love her as a companion on this earthly pilgrimage.”
‘Impressive and illuminating’
Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca, WCC interim general secretary, said, “It is at that nexus of church and society, religious faith and human dignity, scholarship and praxis for justice, especially for women, that Mary-Anne’s work is most impressive and illuminating.”
“Her service to the WCC, as its president for the Africa region, recognized the relevance of her work and her commitments for the life of the churches in contemporary Africa,” he said.
Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the WCC’s Central Committee, welcomed Plaatjies-van Huffel’s family. “It is such a difficult moment because the times have not allowed us to celebrate the life of our sister in the way she deserved. Nevertheless, we thank God we can do it this way and hope and trust that one day we will be able to do so in the way she deserves,” said Abuom.
“An academic and the church minister, she was known for being a transformative leader, with a commitment to justice, evident in her relationships with young people whom she gave a voice and the place to stand,” said Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, WCC deputy general secretary who led the service.
Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, South African Council of Churches general secretary noted, “She was the first woman to be ordained in the Dutch Reformed tradition in South Africa in 1992. Passionate, compassionate and caring pastor, sharp intellect with the theological mind always in the moment.”
‘Led from the front’
Rev. Dr Kuzipa Nalwamba, professor of Ecumenical Social Ethics at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey said, “It was her active role and participation in societal transformational processes that is well documented that defines her life.” Nalwamba cited her work in helping set up the likes of community care centres and homeless shelters for centres “to empower previously disadvantaged groups. She led from the front.”
Prof. Dr Musa Dube, general coordinator of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians of which Plaatjies-van Huffel was a member, paid tribute to the WCC Africa president.
“We have been blessed to have been given her. We have been blessed to have had her in our lives….born in South Africa and marked as a non-person because of her colour. She belonged to a church that was the mother church of apartheid.
“She moved with the Jesus of resurrection and moved with this Jesus in her heart in apartheid South Africa. She went to the churches of apartheid with this Jesus. She moved in the resurrection power that does not tolerate oppression.”
She said the story of hope of Christ rising from oppression was the hope that led Mary-Anne Plaatjties. “She walked in the power and the resurrection” in the apartheid church. She became one of the first two women to become ordained in this church becoming the first black woman to become a professor in the University of Stellenbosch, another centre that was at the heart of propounding apartheid.” She was “one who moved in the resurrection power.”
Dube honored Mary-Anne’s husband Rev. Dawid van Huffel for his love and dedication for his wife and for creating the space to enable her to carry out her ecumenical work.
“She was ever grateful and humbled by God’s grace to work with you and to be able to contribute to God’s church at large. She thoroughly enjoyed the WCC,” said Dawid van Huffel, noting she was the first South African to serve as president of the WCC since an Anglican priest in 1968. “We are humbled by your support in this very difficult time of mourning.”
Dawid van Huffel read a moving tribute to “my loving wife” whose death has left a “deep void, an abyss of uncertainty” and ended by praying the Lord’s Prayer in Afrikaans.
The VGK Eerste Rivier Suid Youth Choir sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, a unique adaptation of a hymn that now is part of the South African national anthem.