Meet the ‘Gang Pastor’ Behind Cape Town’s Viral Coronavirus Cooperation

Image: Andie Steele-Smith / Andie Steele-Smith (left) and some of his gang members turned coronavirus supply network.

Somehow, an Australian-born investment banker in England went to South Africa and got mixed up with the “Americans.” The gang, that is, in one of Cape Town’s most dangerous shantytowns.

And with them, the Hard Livings and Clever Kidz.

Called by God into a life far from his Christian but comfortable existence, Andie Steele-Smith has recently won international acclaim as the “gang pastor” crossing rival lines. Serving the last five years in 2018’s second-highest homicide city, he has led murderers and drug lords to cooperate amid the coronavirus pandemic as a new distribution network for soap and emergency food delivery.

In addition to endemic crime, Cape Town counts 10 percent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in all of Africa, and 60 percent of South Africa’s cases.

With both mass media and the masses desperate for good news amid the pandemic, his story has been told by the Associated Press, the BBCCBS News, and even earned a quip (at the 12:30 mark) on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, himself a South African from Johannesburg.

CT spoke with Steele-Smith, who attends Hillsong’s Cape Town campus, about his calling, the spiritual impact of his ministry, and whether “15 minutes of fame” makes the situation better or worse:

Image: Andie Steele-Smith

You started out as a successful investment banker. How did you end up in South Africa?

I grew up in a strong Christian home and church, but until I was about 40 years old, my life was all about building my own empire.

Around 12 years ago, I visited San Diego to buy a coffee company. Invited to what I thought was a megachurch, little did I know it was a Christian rehab center. The Holy Spirit convicted me, and I spent the rest of the day crying like a baby. First, that these people are the same as me, but then, that they are actually better than me. I was the rich arrogant fool, and my life turned upside down.

I began volunteering with the homeless and drug addicts in the US and the UK. But in 2012, I visited South Africa for business, and felt God speaking to me and saying this is where you’re meant to be.

God gave me a very clear, but blurry, picture: a circle with four corners. The circle had the Great Commission at the center. The corners were justice, entrepreneurship, education, and safe church communities.

You are still a businessman?

I run a couple different businesses, and this supports what we do. But as the needs multiplied after COVID-19, buying soap and food for thousands of people, it was bigger than we could do alone. We’re members of Hillsong Church, and their Hillsong Africa Foundation came alongside to help as has a Christian NGO called Chanan54.

But at first, I assumed God would have me sit on the boards of a few Christian charities. I purposefully didn’t join any ministries for a year, so we could look, listen, and learn. The last thing South Africa needed was another “white savior,” saying he knows what the answer is.

A year later, we joined a small church plant in a shantytown near our house in Cape Town. These were created during apartheid, when the white people told everyone they didn’t want living near them, “Here’s your hellhole. Stay there.”

I was asked if I would run a Bible study, and I asked to meet the person who ran it before. They said, “No one ever has. Everyone has been too scared.”

But I had hung out with some of the gangs in Los Angeles, and thought, “This isn’t safe, but it’s not scary.” So I set up a barbecue and started cooking. I invited six young men, and eight turned up. By Week 6, we had 150 around the fire, and started building community.

What have you seen God do in these communities?

The No. 1 lesson is just turn up. You don’t need a project or a program, but if you turn up every day you are no longer just a white person. All of a sudden, you are one of us. It is a massive difference.

But you have to be prepared to be there at any time, especially when the ambulances often won’t enter these neighborhoods after dark. So the second lesson is to run into the flames, rather than do the natural thing and run … away from it.

Image: Andie Steele-Smith

Underpinning all of this is that we can lift them up and give them the privilege of leading their own communities. Three years ago, there was a massive storm with thousands of dwellings destroyed. We helped them rebuild for the next six weeks, but almost all the work was done by these young men.

Now they are walking in their community with their heads held high—called hero, or leader, or even pastor. When a 12-year-old boy is called a pastor, that is a pretty radical thing.

Were these gang members?

No, they were ordinary people. But as we served in that shantytown for a couple of years, we started seeing needs in other communities. After a fire in a different location, hundreds of people lost everything they owned. The young men actually called me, and said let’s go and help them. We stayed there for a month, rebuilding 700 homes. But by far the most valuable thing we brought was solidarity.

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Source: Christianity Today