Honouring the Prophets: John Osmers – a Voice in Africa

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 31, Advent 2004

It is not every person who reflects on a near martydom experience and remarks that he felt privileged to be witnessing to Christ enough to warrant such an attack. Such was the reaction of John Osmers after surviving a near-death experience at the hands of an apartheid security force’s bomb in 1979.

John Osmers was born in Sydenham, Christchurch, 70 years ago. Raised in a vicarage, he wandered the world and did some university studies before deciding to become an Anglican priest while based in England. None other than Fr (later Archbishop) Trevor Huddleston recognised his great faith and potential and encouraged him to join the Lesotho diocese in Southern Africa upon ordination. Here he became involved for 14 years with the Student Christian Movement. His tales of riding horses through icy mountainous passes and swollen streams make most parish work in New Zealand look positively insipid. Through it he was able to meet many young men and women who later played leading roles in the liberation of their countries from colonisation and in the case of South Africa, apartheid. Even though he was working in Lesotho, he became committed to the struggle to free South Africa, a land-locked small country not much bigger than Lake Taupo and trapped by its hills within the wider terrain of South Africa.

By 1979, John had become such a source of irritation to the South African authorities that they attempted to kill him and activist lawyer Phyllis Naidoo with a parcel bomb. This left him without his left hand, blown off in the blast. Fortunately, he retained everything else and within months was back in New Zealand addressing the issue of the pending Springbok rugby tour. He toured the country, gave media interviews and spoke at numerous rallies opposing the tour. Over six feet tall, it was always an imposing sight to see him on a platform or in a pulpit waving his shorn off arm as he exposed the brutality of apartheid and its policies of racism. Needless to say, his was not a welcome message to the Muldoon Government, nor to the vociferous 35 percent of New Zealanders who thought that sport was sacrosanct and should not be interfered with in any way. The fact that he was followed shortly afterwards for a whistle stop tour by another New Zealander, Fr Michael Lapsley, a great friend of John, who was himself to suffer horrific wounds in an apartheid letter bomb in 1992. This meant that New Zealand benefited at that time from two of Southern Africa’s most important voices during those turbulent days of protest.

Upon his return from treatment, John was expelled from Lesotho and sought refuge in Lusaka, Zambia, where he was appointed assistant to a parish. A strong supporter of the African National Congress, he always argued that if the national military of a country could have official chaplains, why couldn’t the liberation movements? He adopted a role as a chaplain to the ANC in Lusaka, where many of the exiled leadership were living and indeed became a confidant of many future leaders. In such a role, of course, he always remained a civilian, unlike military chaplains who assume officer rankings. This was not to last and within two years he had transferred to Molepolole, one of the largest villages in Botswana with a population of 57 000. It was a typical rural area with most peasant farmers herding cattle and growing traditional African crops, while others had to work as migrant labourers in other parts of Southern Africa.

Ever the ecumenist at heart, John worked with all who shared his vision of the Kingdom of God present in our time and politically but partially revealed through non-racial structures and freedom in its full understanding. He had close relationships with Lutherans, Roman Catholics and many Protestant Churches, all of which he respected and encouraged through his work. He established ties with many international church boards and agencies and was able to channel funding to hundreds of worthwhile projects over many years.

After working in Botswana for many years, about 10 years ago he was elected bishop of a new diocese in Botswana, huge in size but small in numbers. He took on the job reluctantly and worked diligently at the task for six years before resigning and allowing a native African to assume the post. Typically he got out of his successor’s way and re-established himself in Lusaka, where he is an elder to numerous senior church officials from all denominations.

John’s consuming passion and ministry for several decades has been the plight of refugees. There are literally millions of refugees in Africa alone and a large number of huge refugee camps in southern Africa. While in Botswana he was very involved with repatriating Basothos and Angolans, who had fled from regional wars. This interest in refugees he has maintained right through to the present day. He currently lives in a small house in a poor area of Lusaka with three young men, all refugees – one each from Rwanda, the Sudan and Burundi. Recently he addressed the Zambian Catholic Bishops Conference on the issue of the state of relations between that country and refugees retuning to Rwanda. There is still a great reluctance by many to return there because of perceived on-going discrimination against Hutus by the ruling Tutsis. John is a fantastic advocate for these refugees, stuck as all refugees are, in a place they have no real desire to be but where they must be because of the discrimination, violence or even death awaiting them back home.

Now officially retired but continuing to act as interim Dean at the Lusaka Cathedral, John Osmers continues each day to do what he has done every day since he left for Africa 40 years ago. He witnesses to the compassion, mercy and love of Christ to the most needy around him. His small house is inevitably filled with callers as he ministers in the only way he knows – by welcoming all, by offering clear advice and firm direction and by reaching out to the most needy.

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