By David Southwell
In 1976, a news photo of a distraught young African man carrying the prone body of a black schoolboy shocked the world.
The futile attempt to save 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who was shot dead by white South African police, became an iconic image of the Soweto Uprising.
The ferment spread by this moment also proved a watershed moment for an exchange student from New Zealand, who has gone on to be one the Uniting Church’s leading progressive voices on social issues.
St Michael’s Uniting Church minister Rev Dr Margaret Mayman found herself part of the maelstrom that engulfed South Africa after the Uprising when she spent her last high school year in Cape Town.
Margaret, who is only the second minister to be placed at St Michael’s in the past 45 years, describes it as a formative period in her life.
“It was the first time that I realised that people of Christian faith can either be supportive of the status quo, religiously justifying the situation of oppression, or they can be part of a movement of transformation. I met both sorts of Christians,” she says.
“That was an incredibly galvanising experience, being there for that year.”
The Soweto Uprising was a spontaneous rally in the township just outside of Johannesburg by black African school students against being taught Afrikaans, the language of the white minority government.
It ignited similar protests around the country, including in Cape Town.
“One day I was caught up in one of the student movements into the city where they were talking about trying to raise awareness about the impact of being taught in Afrikaans, the oppressor’s language,” Margaret says
“I witnessed the South African police respond with tear gas and rubber bullets towards a crowd of school children.
“I was on the sidewalk and, as a white person, I was safe but the stores were closing their doors. I just stood and looked around. A woman who was running a boutique opened the door and let me in.
“I was privileged by my race to be in a safe place, but I remember walking back as the protest ended and there was still a lot of tear gas in the air.
“I was coughing, but I wanted to get back to the train for the suburbs where I was living. An African man saw me, a 17-year-old, with tears streaming and coughing.
“He said, ‘It’s your government that has done this to you madam’.
“It was the first time I had encountered an African person apart from the servants who worked in the homes of my host families.
“Part of my brain said ‘it’s not my government’ but I also thought ‘I am hearing someone who is African speak back’.
“It was an incredibly profound moment in my life.”
Margaret has been on the frontlines of many struggles for social justice since.
She is perhaps best known in Australia for her advocacy of LGBTQI issues, including a prominent role in the campaign for marriage equality while she was minister at Sydney’s Pitt Street Uniting Church.
It was a battle she had already fought in her home country.
“In terms of civil marriage equality, I feel like I have done that three times,” she says.
“New Zealand first had civil union legislation, so we had Christians for Civil Unions and then Christians for Marriage Equality.
“In both cases, we made sure that politicians and the public realised that there wasn’t just one Christian view.
“Then I came here in 2013 and connected with Australian Marriage Equality. We all thought it would all be over in six months.
“But it went on for four more years and then there was the postal survey in 2017. That was a really unhelpful and damaging experience.”
Margaret can testify personally to the rancour of that time.
“Because Pitt Street Uniting was visible, and I was visible, we received anonymous harassing and threatening communications, some by mail and several times our sign being defaced and offensive things written,” she says
“One Sunday morning, during the open microphone prayers of the people, two opponents of marriage equality who had come to the service used that time to denounce us.
“The organist was really good. After a while he began to pray loudly and we sang Let us build a house where all may dwell with the chorus: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.”
The online arena was also intense.
“We had an Australian Christians for Marriage Equality Facebook page that got a huge volume of response both positive and negative,” Margaret says.
“To start with there were just two of us moderating it, but once we promoted posts we needed about 12 people. We had people rostered almost 24 hours a day. The WA people clocked off at midnight and I started at 5am.”
This advocacy was part of her ministry, but it was also personal for Margaret.
She married her partner, Clare, when both were Presbyterian ministers in 2013, the year that marriage equality became legal in New Zealand.
Margaret grew up in a regional area of New Zealand’s South Island and said she was part of caring Presbyterian church-attending family with a strong ethic of community service.
“There were no negative messages about sexuality in my formative experiences of family or church,” Margaret says.
“I never internalised any of the kind of homophobic Christian teaching. I’ve known gay and lesbian people all my adult life. I believe that God has created us in great diversity and that is wonderful.”
Margaret says she was “shocked” to encounter hostile Christian views about homosexuality when she studied for a theological degree.
“I remember one of the students in an ethics class saying, ‘but it’s an abomination’,” she says.
“I was 20. I thought ‘I am going to have to go home and look up what that means but it doesn’t sound good’.”
After ordination by the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand and some congregation ministry, Margaret went to America to gain a PhD in ethics from Union Seminary in New York.
She then ministered for six years in a suburban Christchurch congregation before moving to the inner-city St Andrew’s on the Terrace in Wellington.
When Margaret began at St Andrew’s in 2002 the congregation was dwindling, a trend that reversed in her 12 years there.
She believes this is in part due to the church’s engagement in what she calls “public prophetic ministry”.
“People see a church making a difference in the world,” she says.
“Some who might have had a Christian background and walked away because they have had difficulties about sexuality, or issues of doctrine, felt safe to come back to church.”
Margaret has been a strong advocate on many social justice matters, including New Zealand’s living wage campaign, climate justice and supporting refugees and people seeking asylum.
“At St Andrew’s we were only 200m from parliament, so I worked directly with progressive politicians on a number of legislative issues,” she says
“One of the most important and challenging ones was working to change the law that allowed the use of physical force to discipline a child.
“Working with a coalition of religious leaders and secular child welfare advocates, we were successful in bringing about a law change that made it illegal to physically punish children in New Zealand.”
In 2013, Margaret decided to take on the new challenges of moving to Australia and ministering at Sydney’s Pitt Street Uniting Church.
Through the UCA Admission to Ministry process, Margaret and Clare became Uniting Church ministers in 2015.
“We could be here three years without becoming Uniting Church ministers, but we immediately decided to do what was required,” Margaret says,
“We jokingly refer to the study program as our ‘UCA reprogramming’. We’re very glad we did that because we really are Uniting Church ministers, rather than Presbyterian ministers sojourning here.
“I have really enjoyed being part of the Uniting Church, I know there is theological breadth but there is more making space for difference than there was in my denomination in New Zealand.
“The Uniting Church has a commitment to being involved in justice issues, helping politicians and community leaders understand our faith calls us to be present in the world and to be working for the common good. I love that about the Uniting Church.”
Last year, Margaret was a leading advocate for law decriminalising abortion in NSW and presented evidence in support of the Bill before a parliamentary inquiry.
Margaret said the temptation not to once more put her head above the parapet in such emotive debates was a fleeting one.
“I think because I have got the training in Christian ethics, I have been able to articulate a Christian perspective in ways that politicians and the public can understand,” she says.
“I feel passionately about the things I have been involved in and some of them have touched my own life. I know that injustice impacts people’s lives so that is what motivates and sustains me.”
Margaret also finds other sources of strength to sustain her public role.
“This is where I draw on spiritual resources that come to me in relationships with friends and spending time with people who are supportive and caring,” she says.
“I could not have done all that I have in the church and the broader society if I didn’t have the loving, mutually supportive relationship I have with Clare.”
Margaret’s adult son Andrew was born while she was a graduate student at Union Seminary. He was diagnosed as autistic when he was two.
Margaret says that obtaining early intervention services and appropriate education for Andrew taught her resilience that has strengthened her ministry.
“I’ve never had the sense that when something difficult happens it is God’s plan or God is testing you or anything like that,” she says.
“When Andrew was diagnosed, I wondered how I was going to cope. And while he did get really good services, they did not come without a fight.
“I learnt to be an advocate in that context. I found the strength to do what I needed to do for him.”
Last year, Margaret became aware of another progressive inner-city church looking for a new minister, St Michael’s Uniting Church, in Melbourne’s CBD.
“All was going well at Pitt Street and there were interesting things emerging, but as happens in the Uniting Church, I was invited to a conversation and it seemed like a good thing to do,” Margaret says.
“In those meetings I became intrigued and enthused about what St Michael’s was, and what it could be in the city.”
Following the departure of their long-standing, and at times controversial, minister Rev Dr Francis Macnab in late 2016, St Michael’s spent three years searching for a permanent replacement.
“After a very long ministry, and a particular focus, there is a strong sense of St Michael’s identity,” Margaret says.
“It seems to me that people both value the past and recognise that this is a new phase in the life of St Michael’s.”
Margaret, who was inducted as St Michael’s minister in February this year, is still in the early stages of working out what this new phase will look like.
“A major challenge that churches like St Michael’s face is how to be a presence in the city during the week. There are so many people living in the CBD now, and yet few congregation members do,” she says.
“In large cities there are people experiencing the stress associated with life in the city. There’s isolation. Many people are working really hard and struggling to find the time for what really matters in their lives.
“So, I hope that what will unfold is a way of engaging with the community around us. COVID-19 will add economic uncertainty and anxiety to the mix.”
In a year when images of white police brutality against black people have again shocked the world, the conviction to stand up for the marginalised, disadvantaged and oppressed will continue to be a focal point of Margaret’s ministry.
“I have a passion for social justice issues. It remains to be seen what will emerge for St Michael’s, but I think the post-COVID world will lead to significant changes in mission and ministry,” she says.
“There is a Gospel imperative to be involved in the world and to join with God in the transformation of the world for the common good.”