A PIONEER MISSIONARY: The Work of Laura Haas in Khayelitsha (1986 – 2016)
Phumezo Masango, GWC Faculty, Church History, Practical Theology, New Testament
- Laura`s Early life and Conversion
At Laura`s funeral last year, Bishop Frank Retief made mention of her difficult and wild life as a non-believer in Cape Town. According to Bishop Retief, her dissolute life was her way of hiding the pain that she carried.
However, things changed drastically in Laura`s life when she heard and believed the gospel that was preached by bishop Retief at St.James’ Church, Kenilworth. She was converted and her priorities in life were altered for good. God placed in Laura’s heart a single-minded passion to share with the displaced, oppressed, and marginalized people of Khayelitsha the same gospel that had changed her life.
- Laura`s Ministry in Khayelitsha
Laura pioneered the gospel work of the Church of England in South Africa (as the denomination was known then) in Khayelitsha. Her first stop was a densely populated area in Khayelitsha: Site B. The work initially grew, but the property there was lost and eventually the ministry in Site B closed down.
Laura’s next stop was an area in Khayelitsha called Mandela Park. Christ Church, Khayelitsha, of which I am now the rector, is, under God, the fruit of her early efforts in Mandela Park.
Her last stop was E-Section, where she spent the majority of time in ministry in Khayelitsha – about 18 years. She helped establish an independent church called uYesu unathi (“Jesus is with us”), but it was during her work in E-Section that she went to be with the Lord.
- What did she do in these three areas?
Children and Youth Ministry: This, I believe, was Laura’s first love. She started children’s ministries wherever she went in Khayelitsha. It is reported that at one stage she had around nine-hundred children and youth attending her programs in Khayelitsha. She bribed them with sweets and biscuits – a skill I suspect she learnt from Bishop Retief. Nonetheless, through these programs, some of those children have grown to be solid Christian leaders in various churches in Cape Town.
Mercy Ministries: Laura understood very early in her ministry that you cannot neglect the weightier matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23) – if you are going to be effective in ministry in the townships. She started pre-schools; supported school-going children with fees, uniforms, stationary, and bus fare; ran a food scheme for about 25 families; and ran computer and sowing classes to equip unemployed youth and women with skills.
It is no wonder that the people of Khayelitsha gave her the Xhosa name “Nonceba,” which means, “she who is endowed with mercy.”
But she never neglected her primary calling: to see people grow in their knowledge of the Lord. Laura started a Bible study in Site B which eventually grew to a Sunday service of about 70 people. Her passion (and stubbornness) was on display in the fact that she continued her ladies’ Bible study group in E-Section even after her doctor had ordered her not to work because of her cancer.
- The Impact of Laura`s Work
It is obviously a very hard thing for mere human beings to try to measure the impact of a person’s gospel ministry; all of us know only in part. Nevertheless, allow me to highlight a few areas where her legacy lives on:
Education: Through her education programs, a number of young people have gone on to improve their lot in life, and that of their loved ones. Some have become professionals in various sectors of the economy while others are successful business people.
Church Planting: As a result of her work, three churches were planted in Khayelitsha. Although one church closed down, Christ Church, Khayelitsha (which was planted by Siegfried Ngubane), and uYesu unathi Church are still growing.
Leadership Development: Christian leaders have been developed through the efforts of Laura’s ministry. Some of them went through George Whitefield College in order to train for pastoral ministry. Rev. Peter Makapela says that he was among the nine hundred children who attended Laura’s programs in the late 80s and early 90s in Site B and was later converted in his early 20s at Christ Church, Khayelitsha. He is now the rector of a large and thriving congregation in Strand. Minah Koela (another who attended Laura’s early programs in Site B) worked in partnership with her husband doing univeristy student ministry and even led the church in Site B at one stage. Neliswa Nabe went through GWC and she is now serving at Christ Church Khayelitsha in women and youth ministry. Sipho Xazana, a recognized community leader who was groomed by Laura is playing a leading role in the uYesu unathi Church and in its community outreach programs. There are many others that might also be named.
- Laura`s Personality
Anyone who worked with Laura will tell you that she was very stubborn which, at times, made her very difficult to work with. Ask the older bishops of REACH South Africa, and they will tell you that it was either “her way or the highway,” a phrase she used frequently! She was not always diplomatic. I remember with laughter the time when she asked me to oversee the uYesu unathi Church. Someone was preaching a not so good sermon on a Sunday morning. Laura shouted from the back, “This is rubbish! Phumezo do you now understand why I asked you to come here?” Even though I asked her to let me take care of the situation, she kept protesting at the back until we agreed that she should wait in her car outside.
Like all of us she had weaknesses. She made mistakes, some of which were very costly for her ministry. Yet, although she was a jar of clay, God entrusted her with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through her the Lord achieved remarkable things in building His kingdom in Khayelitsha. I believe that when all is said and done, by God`s grace, there will be many faces in the new creation who will have come to know the Lord through the humble efforts of Laura Haas.