Retired missionary recalls life in South Africa during apartheid


Ted Homdrom’s first book, “Mission Memories: World War II,” gave a compelling look at his experiences as a squadron navigator in the 8th Air Force, for which he received a Purple Heart, a presidential citation and two Distinguished Flying Cross medals. But he ended his story when the war was over, leaving his readers waiting to learn about the other mission in his life: his years on the mission field in South Africa. The wait is over.

Homdrom’s second book, “Mission Memories II: In Apartheid South Africa,” takes up where he left off, telling about his schooling, marriage to his wife, Betty, call to the ministry and decision to go to Africa as a missionary.

Homdrom, a St. Anthony Park resident, spent his first year at the Untunjambili Mission Station in South Africa, learning to speak Zulu. He and his family then moved to Hlabisa District, where he supervised three mission circuits, including Zulu pastors, evangelists and catechists.

It is evident from the beginning of this story that the Homdroms are “remarkably free of prejudice, (taking) each individual – black or white – at his or her own worth as a child of God,” as Ralston Deffenbaugh, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, puts it in his introduction to the book. The Homdroms refused to accede to the standards of behavior expected of white people, treating each person with respect and kindness.

“We had to not worry about the rules,” Homdrom said. “We just had to be ourselves.”

Homdrom quickly began to assume higher positions in the church as others realized his capabilities, often doing two or more jobs at once. He was instrumental in merging five mission societies from four different countries into one body, and helped the South African Lutherans move from dependence on missionaries to becoming an autonomous, independent church with indigenous leadership.

The crux of the book is the story of apartheid. Homdrom arrived in South Africa in 1950, just as the Afrikaner National Party came to power and began to institutionalize the system of segregated races. The Group Areas Act designated where each race could live and own property, and the pass laws defined who could move or stay or be employed in each area. These laws made it difficult for mission workers to live near or meet with the congregations they served.

“It is horrible to live under such a system – almost like living in Nazi Germany,” said Homdrom. Nonetheless, he was friends with and supported such anti-apartheid churchmen as Beyers Naude, Wolfram Kistner and Desmond Tutu. He was one of the first people to advocate that the American Lutheran Church divest its interests in South Africa as a way of protesting apartheid.

After he became administrative secretary and treasurer for the Lutheran Church, Homdrom’s office was raided and he was charged with illegally sending funds overseas. He was invited to security police headquarters “for tea,” where he heard the blood-curdling screams of prisoners being tortured. In a lower court, he was convicted, fined and sentenced to a year in prison, but upon appeal to the Supreme Court his conviction was reversed. That judgment said that there clearly had been no criminal intent and called him an honest man.

The book describes how the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa became increasingly vocal in its opposition to apartheid. The church offices were raided, and Prime Minister Pieter Botha’s mocking reproach to the church made front-page headlines in the Johannesburg newspaper. Even the unification of the church was an issue, as the government wanted many smaller groups instead of one larger, more powerful group.

The smaller, more personal stories Homdrom tells about his family and their experiences in South Africa make this story come alive. His three children grew up fearless and prejudice-free, and the many contributions that Betty made to missions work paint her as an equal partner in a strong marriage.

Homdrom retired from mission work in 1985, six years before Nelson Mandela was released and South Africa went through the hard work of reconciliation. He worked for Lutheran Social Services as a volunteer green card coordinator, processing over 10,000 refugees. In 1995 he was one of two Americans presented with the Salt of the Earth award by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Service. He and Betty have returned to South Africa five times.

“It was good to see the difference in freedom in South Africa now,” he said. “People can live and stay wherever they want to. You see black executives on their cell phones with nice cars; you would never have seen that before. Of course, there is still some enmity, and people are safer here than there. But on the whole, I am more hopeful and positive about South Africa than most people.”

“Mission Memories II” is for sale at Micawber’s and the Luther Seminary bookstore.