Reformed Christians on Monday mourned the death of the Rev. Nico Smith, an ecumenical pioneer and a white minister who challenged apartheid in South Africa.
Smith died Saturday at the age of 81.
"Dr. Nico Smith was one of those African Afrikaners who renounced their apartheid privileges and decided to suffer reproach with the black majority in South Africa," said Prof. S.T. Kgatla, moderator of the United Reformed Church in South Africa, in a statement.
Kgatla was among hundreds in Grand Rapids, Mich., who signed off on a merger to become the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Delegates from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches – which, in 1982, declared apartheid a sin – and the Reformed Ecumenical Council paused amid celebrations to observe a moment of silence on Monday in remembrance of Smith.
Smith was part of the Dutch Reformed Church, a Reformed Christian denomination, when he left and began preaching in Mamelodi, the main black township in the 1980s. He and his wife, Ellen, were the first whites allowed to live in a black township, as reported by The Associated Press.
"His sense of justice was what drove him to feel that all people should have access to opportunities," Marita Laubscher, the eldest of his three daughters, told AP. "He felt, as a Christian, how could he be part of a church if not all people could be considered human."
In a statement mourning his passing, the African National Congress called Smith a "fearless fighter who sacrificed his well-being and forsook his privileged white status" to "lead the struggle for the emancipation of black people."
"He took a stance against apartheid when it was not fashionable for whites, in particular an Afrikaner to do so," ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu stated. "He labeled apartheid a sin and as a result he lost his job at the University of Stellenbosh (where he served as a theology professor).
"We pay homage to this gallant fighter and will forever treasure the contribution he made in the struggle for liberation and the building of our democracy."
Kgatla, meanwhile, remembered Smith as a minister, a prophet, a friend and mentor in the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, which was established in 1994 through the union of the former Dutch Reformed Mission Church and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa.
"We will miss his insightful advice on how white racism works and could be confronted," said Kgatla.
Smith's passing comes days after the Reformed Church in America adopted the Belhar Confession, which is rooted in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The document confronts the sin of racism and affirms unity and reconciliation among Christians. Reformed churches around the world were asked in recent years by the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa to consider adopting the Belhar Confession so as to make it a part of the global Reformed confessional basis.
A memorial service for Smith is scheduled to be held at the Melodi Ya Tshwane Church in Pretoria, South Africa, on Thursday.