In 1962, Peter Storey was a young Methodist minister in South Africa when he volunteered for an assignment that would change the path of his life.
The government had just opened a new maximum-security prison on Robben Island, more than five miles off the coast of Cape Town. The prison needed a chaplain to pray with the inmates, most of whom were Black men incarcerated for political offenses.
Storey, who is white, volunteered because he loved the water and thought he’d enjoy boating back and forth. What transformed him was not the water, but the inspiration he drew from the prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, who would be freed three decades later and become the country’s first democratically elected president.
“What an amazing privilege for a young, fairly callow minister — a white South African — to be put in touch with some of the most gigantic spirits the world has seen,” he told me recently. “Very soon, I was asking the question, ‘What kind of government is so afraid of people like this that they have to lock them up?’”
Storey became a leading opponent of apartheid, South Africa’s brutal structure of white domination that persisted in the Black-majority nation until the early 1990s. Residential areas were designated by race, and most social contact among people of different races was forbidden. Anyone who was not white was required to carry identification papers and was denied many types of jobs. Public facilities were segregated.
Storey was a collaborator with Desmond Tutu, another giant in the country’s fight for freedom, and together they confronted violence and danger from those determined to preserve the country’s racial order.
Victorious but scarred, Storey and his wife moved to Durham in 1999, where he taught at Duke for seven years. He returned to South Africa, but still visits the United States, as he did last fall to talk about his new book, Protest at Midnight: Ministry to a Nation Torn Apart. It’s a shorter, updated and Americanized version of his memoir published in South Africa in 2018.
I interviewed Storey last November in front of an audience of nearly 200 at Raleigh’s Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, where I am a member.
Storey, 84, is plain spoken in his criticism of Christian churches that focus more on their attendance and fundraising than pursuing the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christians, he said, should be challenging the status quo.
“If your kind of Jesus doesn’t get you into trouble with the authorities in this world,” Storey said, “then maybe you’ve got the wrong kind of Jesus.”
A Cruel Waste
Mandela was the most famous of the Robben Island inmates, but others also left a mark on Storey. Robert Sobukwe, the formidable Black leader and Methodist lay preacher who became public enemy No. 1 to the South African government, was one.
Sobukwe led the Pan Africanist Congress, which advocated for indigenous inhabitants to run the country. He was sentenced to three years in prison, but after that, Parliament passed a special act every year (the “Sobukwe Clause”) to deny him freedom. He spent the rest of his life in prison or under house arrest.
Storey visited Sobukwe every week in the early 1960s, one of the few people permitted to see him.
“For the first time, I was engaging with somebody risking all for the liberation of his people,” Storey writes in his book. “The caliber of this man, the cruel waste of his gifts, and the silence of most South African Christians around his incarceration touched me to anger.”
As he was leaving once, Storey expressed regret to Sobukwe about his imprisonment. Sobukwe gestured toward Cape Town and Parliament, and said, “I’m not the prisoner, Peter – they are.”
Mandela was convicted of sabotage in 1964 and sentenced to life on Robben Island, where he became prisoner number 46664. Storey saw him weekly as he conducted a church service while walking through a narrow corridor with cells on either side.
Mandela, then 46, was “in the prime of his life, strong and robust, with a feisty look in his eye, and a ready twinkle, too,” writes Storey. “In those days he gave the impression of a coiled spring – much more the prize-fighter than the father figure who later became beloved around the world.”
Yet Mandela appeared to be at peace, Storey told the Raleigh audience. He befriended the guards, who were white. He urged the inmates to learn the guards’ language, Afrikaans, so they could absorb as much as they could about them, their interests, their families.
Instead of brooding and planning revenge, Mandela and the other inmates thought about the kind of South Africa they wanted, and planned for it. They were confident that they would ultimately prevail, and would be the leaders of a truly democratic South Africa. They wanted white people and Black people to be full partners in building a new nation.
For his inauguration as president in 1994, Mandela personally invited three of his prison guards. “Wat is verby, is verby,” he said that day in Afrikaans. What is past, is past.
Storey said many elected leaders fail to understand the power of reaching out. “When you win, your opponent is still there,” he said. “They’ve just lost for a while. And they’ll start thinking about how to turn the tables on you.”
Political shrewdness might have driven Mandela’s approach, but it also had an element of spirituality. Mandela and many of the other imprisoned political leaders had been educated at multiracial Methodist mission schools.
Afrikaner white nationalists opposed those schools, Storey said, “because they were producing people who had dignity and a sense of their rights made in the image of God. So they were a threat to the apartheid government.”
A Sin Against God
Storey became a leader in the fight against apartheid as he led various urban churches. He credits his father, also a Methodist minister, for publicly denouncing apartheid as a sin against God.
That was in the 1950s, and it drew the wrath of one of the principal architects of the separation policy, Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd. The elder Rev. Storey died at 57, when his son was only 20, but Peter carried on the family business of poking powerful people in the eye.
“Let me say to President Botha,” Storey once thundered, “apartheid is doomed! It has been condemned in the councils of God, rejected by every nation on the planet, and is no longer believed in by the people who gave it birth … Open the prison doors! Call the exiles home!”
Storey’s edgy sermons were broadcast on radio, and Mandela sent word that the inmates listened and were encouraged.
It wasn’t just politicians who found Storey annoying (or worse). His efforts to rock the boat often made his congregants uncomfortable, too. Storey credits those church-goers for generally having the moral gumption to follow Jesus’ teachings to serve the poor, the refugees, the shunned. He looks back with pride at the work his congregations did serving the people of Cape Town and Johannesburg.
In the late 1970s, Storey became president of the South African Council of Churches, where he joined forces with Bishop Desmond Tutu, who was the group’s general secretary. The council was the leading church group opposing apartheid, effectively standing in for the Black leaders in prison or exile.
Storey and Tutu were the council’s top two officers, worked closely together, and developed a friendship that lasted till Tutu’s death in 2021. Tutu won the Nobel Prize for Peace and was later named head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated apartheid’s human rights abuses. (President Mandela appointed Storey, who had also served as the Methodist bishop of South Africa, to help select members of the commission.)
Fighting the South African government had been difficult and dangerous. Black people were forcibly removed from certain parts of the country. Apartheid opponents were detained without trials, and sometimes tortured or killed by the secret police.
The title of Storey’s book comes from a poem by the Indian theologian Samuel Rayan:
A candle-light is a protest at midnight
It is a non-conformist
It says to the darkness
“I beg to differ.”
Storey found the words inspiring. In dark times, they became his mantra. He says the most important thing the church has to say to the world is: We beg to differ.
Teaching at Duke
In 1999, Storey came to Durham to teach, reflect, and recover emotionally. The seven years he and late wife, Elizabeth, spent in North Carolina were happy ones. He came back to the state in the fall to visit old friends. It’s an arduous journey from South Africa to the U.S.; he expects it will be his last.
Sally Bates, retired chaplain at Duke Divinity School, and Molly Brock White, an associate pastor at Hayes Barton United Methodist, invited Storey to speak to the church.
Bates and Storey overlapped at Duke Divinity School. He had an aura about him at Duke, Bates told me. Everyone knew of his courageous work with global figures like Tutu and Mandela.
He was willing to take on difficult issues, and to take an unpopular stand. “Peter is not one to quote a bunch of theologians,” Bates said. “But, boy, does he remind you of what Jesus said, what Jesus did.”
Storey has long advocated for churches to stick their noses in places a lot of ministers don’t want to go. Churches should be in the public arena, he says, but not in a politically partisan way.
In Raleigh, as he spoke in a pristine sanctuary nestled within a prosperous older neighborhood, he urged audience members to re-think their idea of church. It’s not about the programs or the building committee, nor is it a club for members.
“The church is only the church when it is engaging the world,” he said. “Jesus spent about 2 percent of his ministry in church; 98 percent was in the world, and it was in the streets. And I believe that is really the kind of percentage that we should be doing, too.”
Storey considers himself fortunate to have witnessed South Africa’s transformation, and to have crossed paths with many of his nation’s leading figures, including Mandela. His humility was genuine, Storey told the Raleigh audience.
“He had a touch,” Storey said. “He was a person who was just totally comfortable in his own skin.”
In his book, Storey tells a favorite story about Mandela, who died in 2013.
Three decades after they first met in prison, Storey was scheduled to present President Mandela with a small sculpture at an outdoor ceremony in 1995 marking the first anniversary of the new government.
Several hundred VIPs jostled for a good seat at the front of the platform where Mandela would sit and speak. Storey and his wife took a seat in the back row.
When Mandela arrived, he flipped the script. He wanted to speak from the rear of the platform so he would have a better view of the more than 100,000 people on the lawn below.
The guests on the platform had to turn their seats around. The VIPs were now in the back—and Storey and his wife were now seated next to Mandela in the front.
The last were now first, and the first were last.
Storey wished he could preach a sermon that effectively. But he knew you’d have to go to prison for 27 years to do so.
John Drescher, The Assembly’s contributing editor, is former executive editor of The News & Observer and a former editor at The Washington Post. Follow him @john_drescher. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.