Justice concerns send nurse to monitor S. African elections

CELEBRATING EASTER WITH SOCIAL ACTION, FAMILY

April 03, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

For Colleen Bowers, a self-styled "product of the '60s" for whom the Christian Gospel means social action, a journey to Africa beginning tonight is a new twist on the old Easter message of eternal life, fresh hope and love triumphant.

Ms. Bowers, 41, a Presbyterian from Perry Hall, is one of 20 Christians selected by the National Council of Churches to help monitor a tense South Africa's first all-race elections April 26-28.

The pediatric nurse sees significance in the date of her departure -- Easter Sunday -- which marks the triumph of Christ's resurrection and the victory of eternal life over mortality for millions of Christians worldwide.

"The Easter story is one of new life, one of promises being fulfilled," she said. "I see that in South Africa now. We'll be witnessing new life for that country, the promises of decades finally being fulfilled for oppressed people. It's a hopeful time for them."

She and another Marylander, Mark B. Brown, a Lutheran from Silver Spring, will be part of an international delegation of 320 Christian observers flying to Johannesburg under the auspices of several South African ecumenical organizations and the World Council of Churches. The goal: to encourage an orderly transition to democracy without apartheid.

Ms. Bowers' preparations for the trip, which will end May 7, will include today's Easter worship in the rural Harford County community where she grew up. Highland Presbyterian Church is in the north-county village of Street, its conical steeple and hilltop graveyard visible across rolling farmland as they were in Ms. Bowers' childhood. The white frame church will be one of her last stops in Maryland.

"The glory of Easter has as much to do with human freedom as anything else, yet it is a freedom that comes from a legacy of suffering and despair," said the Rev. Harry A. Cole III, interim pastor at Highland. As its congregation "blesses and prays for Colleen" today, he said, the truth of "the resurrection giving way to liberation" will be reinforced.

But Highland, her mother's church now, is not the only place where prayers will be offered for Ms. Bowers' safety and for the cause of justice and peace in South Africa.

She has been a member of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church on Park Avenue, in Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood, since 1979.

The Rev. David Malone was the pastor then, and he and his successors have encouraged her "to see theology in a different light," she said.

"Being part of Brown has brought about a concern for peace issues and a commitment to social justice," Ms. Bowers said.

The church's current pastor, the Rev. Roger Gench, said the congregation will be reminded in this morning's Communion prayers of Ms. Bowers' journey and the relevance of the Easter message to her mission.

"We'll be praying for Colleen, for the electoral process in South Africa, for new life for the marginalized people there, for a new sense of unity there and their full participation in shaping their future," he said. "South Africa is in my prayers every Sunday."

Willis H. Logan of the Africa Office of the National Council of Churches in New York also noted the appropriateness of an Easter Sunday start to the election-monitoring project.

"The whole hope of creating a new democratic order is very much an Easter story," he said. "These people are going to South Africa out of their faith commitment to justice, a justice rising above despair."

Church traditions represented by the group of monitors, in addition to the Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran, are Progressive Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Church of the Brethren, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Mennonite and Roman Catholic.

Another group of election observers sponsored by the U.S. Catholic Conference will bring the total under church and nonchurch auspices to more than 5,000. Ms. Bowers does not know details of her assignment, except that she will be expected "bring an international presence to the grass-roots level in South Africa and to monitor the violence, the negotiations process, the run-up to elections and the elections themselves." The monitors will be stationed throughout the country.

Southern Africa is not entirely strange to Ms. Bowers, a graduate of Harford Community College's nursing program and the Johns Hopkins University. For a month in 1989, she was part of a "fact-finding trip" to South Africa sponsored by the Presbyterian Church's Synod of the Northeast.

She said the goals of her new journey outweigh any fear of violence stemming from the elections and that she has been trying to reassure her mother, Lillian Bowers, and husband, Dean Foreman.

"I fear greatly for her safety," said Mr. Foreman, who acknowledged that his own job is not without daily danger. He is a construction diver working out of the Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point shipyard and has inspected the underwater foundations of many Maryland bridges.

Colleen Bowers tells him and her mother that driving to work during rush hour is probably more dangerous than her trip to South Africa. "I tell my mother to think of the Beltway at 7 a.m.," she said. "Now that's risky."

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