IT is the night before Easter Sunday in Mamelodi, at the home of the Rev. Nico Smith and his wife, Ellen, the only whites legally living in a black township in South Africa. As the sun sets, blacks throughout the township raise their voices in hymns of worship as they keep steadfast vigil through the night. The rich, haunting, majestic swell of these voices is awesome, almost transcendental. As the Easter dawn approaches, the chorus of resonant, joyful voices rises in unison to a crescendo, then abruptly ceases in a final note of triumph, simultaneously with the sun's breaking on the horizon. Minutes later the streets are filled with blacks returning to their homes after the night's vigil.
``For black Christians, the resurrection is a very special event, one with which they closely identify,'' says Mr. Smith, a white Dutch Reformed Church minister and pastor to an all-black congregation. ``It signifies Christ's triumph over suffering, death, and the world. And for blacks this is a remarkable occurrence. They are very fervent and faithful in their commemoration of this moment. They see the symbolism in a night of faithful dedication and hope, followed by the dawn of resurrection and triumph.''
It is truly a celebration of triumph for the Smiths, who, with government permission, moved in 1986 from a whites-only area into their home here on the outskirts of Pretoria. The move was closely watched by the government and the media; the Smiths were apprehensive, but trusting.
``I will never forget that first night we moved into our house in Mamelodi,'' says Smith. ``It was after the trouble had started. There was lots of turmoil and violence, and the `comrades' [militant, radical, black township youths] had begun ``necklacing'' people [igniting a gasoline-soaked tire placed around a victim's neck]. I feared that maybe they would scorn us as merely white surface liberals, and seek to do us violence.
``I lay in bed without sleeping that first night. I still remember the sounds in the darkness - dogs barking, the voices of youths roaming the streets, the roosters in the early hours just before dawn. My wife was not concerned. She had a simple, rocklike faith that we were doing what was right, and therefore we would not be harmed. And we weren't. ``As a matter of fact we never have had any trouble - from the blacks. I had calls from anonymous whites, cursing me, calling me a kafir-boetie, a `nigger lover.' When our Christian encounter program, `Koinonia' [a Greek word meaning community or fellowship] became publicized, I got threats from the right-wingers, but nothing sinister transpired.''
Mamelodi has a population of 350,000 or more. No one seems to have an accurate population count. This is due primarily to the constant movement of blacks from rural areas to the cities, searching for work. Almost every black township dwelling has surplus tenants living on the property. A four-room 400 square-foot house may have six or eight people living in its cramped confines, with several more relatives or friends living in the rear yard in small add-on shacks.
In this impoverished community, Smith's responsibility is to minister to the black congregation of the Mamelodi Dutch Reformed Church parish. His broader mission is ``to bring blacks and whites together at all levels,'' and to prepare his countrymen for a new South Africa, a multiracial society without discrimination which he feels is inevitable. ``It must come,'' he says softly with gentle but resolute conviction. ``The present situation cannot continue.''
It was through a deep searching that Smith came to this conclusion. Born into a stanch Afrikaner nationalist family, Smith had all the earmarks of a ``true believer'' in the government's policy of racial separation. Schooled at the University of Pretoria, he became a dominee, or minister, in the whites-only branch of the Dutch Reformed Church. This institution has been the main source of theological and social-political apartheid dogma. In addition, Smith was eventually asked to join the Broederbond, the secret Afrikaner organization founded in 1912 to promote Afrikaner interests and political control.
But by 1973, Dr. Smith had come to a crisis of conscience. He knew he could no longer preach a Christian doctrine of love and brotherhood while believing in and supporting the policy of apartheid. He resigned from the Broederbond and the National Party, continuing as a minister, but no longer preaching that apartheid was God's will mandated by biblical authority.
As the turmoil of the '80s erupted Smith made a bold decision. He announced that he and his wife were moving into a black township where he would serve as pastor to a wholly black congregation. The government approved their residing in Mamelodi.
``I felt I had to make a commitment as a servant of God,'' Smith explains. ``If I truly believed in Christ's doctrine and example, then I could not be content with a comfortable life in a segregated society preaching to an exclusively white congregation when 75 percent of my country's population was black, the majority of them living in poverty....
``When I finally made the break, I had a sense of foreboding. For once you leave the Afrikaner Nationalist community and break with their policy of apartheid, they treat you as a traitor and shut you out completely. But I felt I had no choice if I was to be a truly free man. And I believe that you cannot preach the word of God unless you are a free man.''
The Smiths' move was paid for by the members of the Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, a project shepherded by Tom Weisenberger, who met Smith while on a medical mission in southern Africa in 1982.
Smith follows a work schedule that would daunt any but the hardiest soul. ``For the past five years I have averaged a 17-hour work day. My wife and I rise at 4:30 a.m. during the week. Ellen, who is off by 6:30 a.m. to her post as child psychiatrist at the Medical University of Southern Africa in Pretoria, is the first professor of child psychiatry for black children in South Africa.''
Smith says ``there is a much greater willingness to explore peaceful solutions than is generally realized. I am concerned about the shift of some Afrikaners toward the right wing point of view, but I believe the majority of people want a workable moderate solution and are willing to compromise.
``We are not going to cease our efforts to bring blacks and whites together so that they may find what they have in common rather than magnifying what separates them. When you are striving to bring a more godly way of life into your community, you feel an unseen support, and you are not so disturbed by the foam and ferment of the negative forces that are stirred up.''
Indeed, Smith even seems to have arrived at a d'etente with the government. ``The only action the government has taken is to limit my passport to a year's period instead of the normal five. And they monitor my mail and telephone communications.''
Smith says he is not a liberation theologian in the Latin American tradition. ``But I believe in a `liberating' theology, a Christian approach that will liberate both oppressor and oppressed from their misconceptions about God's will for His creation.''