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In Memoriam: Danie Steyn

29 June 2019

An old friend, Danie Steyn, died earlier this week, after a long and painful illness.

Danie Steyn in October 1998

We first got to know Danie when he started coming to our church, the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas of Japan, in the early 1990s. At that time we ran a bookstall at the church for a mission society, the Society of St Nicholas of Japan, which had actually started the parish as a mission parish. The bookstall was open on Sunday mornings after the Divine Liturgy, and Danie became one of its most regular customers.

Not only so, he also brought a lot of friends along, and urged them to buy Orthodox books from the bookstall. Many of those he brought were young Afrikaners from Potchefstroom University (now the University of the North-West). Danie became an evangelist for Orthodoxy, often with surprising results.

One of the people he brought to St Nicholas Church was Andrei Kashinski, a young Russian immigrant to South Africa. It was the time when the Soviet Union was disintegrating and Andrei, a member of Komsomol, the Communist Party youth organisation, was a factory manager. His wife left him, however, and like many other Russians at the time he got baptised, not knowing quite what he was doing. Because of his broken marriage he wanted to go far away, as far from Russia as possible. He looked at a map, and South Africa seemed to be far away. So he came to South Africa.

Andrei Kachinski

One day Andrei was sitting in a bar in Aliwal North, and mentioned that he had been baptised in the Orthodox Church. One of the people there said ” I know someone from your church,” and drove Danie to the other end of the Free State, to introduce him to Danie Steyn, who was then living in Parys. Danie brought Andrei to St Nicholas Church in Brixton, where Andrei discovered what he had let himself in for when he was baptised.

After 18 months Andrei returned to Russia, and helped with the restoration of the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. Now he is a priest in a village parish near Moscow, which he has been rebuilding after it was destroyed in the the Bolshevik era. Danie was able to visit him there, and was impressed with his simple lifestyle, and with his ministry in a small rural parish.

So Danie influenced the lives of many people. One day, quite soon after I had first met him, a former colleague of mine from the Missiology Department at Unisa, who had moved to the University of Pretoria, brought some theological students to St Nicholas Church in Brixton for the Divine Liturgy. At that time there were two faculties of Theology at the University of Pretoria, one for the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) , and the other for the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk (NHK). Danie had studied theology with the latter, which was more theologically liberal, but more politically conservative than the NGK. So Danie spoke to the visiting students after the Liturgy, saying that Reformed Theology, especially that of the NHK, tended to be cold and intellectual and academic, and the experience of God in Orthodoxy was like dropping from head knowledge to heart knowledge.

Benjamin Elisa (Gustav) Prinsloo’s funeral at St Nicholas, Brixton, Danie Steyn made the cross.

One of those who came to Orthodoxy through Danie’s witness was Gustav Prinsloo, who was baptised on Holy Saturday 1997, which we think was the first Orthodox baptism in South Africa done in Afrikaans. Nine months later Gustav was in a car accident which claimed his life, and his funeral was held at St Nicholas Church in Brixton, and after the service most of the congregation drove in procession to Petrus Steyn, about 200 km away, where the burial took place.

Danie had organised the funeral, and leading the funeral service was virtually the first pastoral task of the new priest, Fr Bertrand Olechnowicz, who had been in the parish for less than a week. The funeral made quite an impression on many of Gustav and Danie’s friends who attended, and the following Easter 11 people were baptised, most of whom had been present at the funeral.

Fr Iakovos Olechnowicz at the funeral of Gustav Prinsloo in Petrus Steyn, January 1998. Danie Steyn in red shirt.

Twenty-one years later we gathered at the same place to bury Danie next to his friend Gustav and his stepfather Stowell Kessler, and now there are three Orthodox graves in the cemetery at Petrus Steyn.

Burial of Danie Steyn, next to his friend Benjamin Elisa (Gustav) Prinsloo, 27 Jun 2019.

I didn’t know Danie when he first became Orthodox, but I got the impression from talking to him in the early 1990s that he had an idea of an Afrikaner national Orthodox Church. I was reminded of a similar idea that had been held by George Alexander McGuire in the USA. McGuire was an Antiquan who went to the USA and became an Episcopalian (Anglican) priest, but wanted a black independent church. Being aware that the Orthodox Church had Russian, Greek, Bulgarian and similar national churches, he approached the Russian bishop in New York, but the bishop explained to him that it was not quite what he thought. There was no principle in Orthodoxy for establishing ethnically exclusive churches (this notion had been condemned some years earlier as “phyletism”). The Russian, Greek, Bulgarian etc Orthodox Churches were all in communion with each other and were not, as a matter of theological principle, ethnically exclusive. The Russian Revolution made it difficult to continue that conversation, and McGuire formed the African Orthodox Church, of which he became Primate, but since then several branches of the African Orthodox Church have joined the Orthodox Church, especially in East Africa.

About ten years after I first met him, Danie attended a training course for church leaders held at the Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helen in Johannesburg, with people from many different ethnic backgrouds, English, Afrikaans, Greek, Ndebele, Romanian, Pedi, Zulu and more. As much as ever, Danie saw his ministry as evangelising Afrikaners who had become disillusioned and dropped out of the Calvinist Afrikaans-speaking churches, but saw it as bringing people into an inclusive Orthodox fellowship in which people of all ethnicities would be welcome, though each could worship in their own language.

In spite of what the Russian bishop had told George Alexander McGuire, though there was no theological basis for ethnic exclusivity, there is still sometimes in Orthodox Churches an attitude of ethnic exclusivity based on prejudice, which Danie himself had experienced when reading the Book of Acts in preparation for the Easter Vigil. He was reading in Afrikaans, and was treated very rudely by a member of that particular parish, as a result of which he, and most of the Afrikaans and Slavic members of that parish left and joined the new Russian parish which was being started in Midrand.

We will miss Danie. May his memory be eternal.

 

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. Robert permalink
    23 October 2019 9:38 pm

    Danie will be missed dearly. I think of him daily. He was very passionate about the Orthodox Church and theology.

    His art was missed by most, his oil paintings may have been the greatest pieces you would have ever seen. His Rembrandt van Rijn replicas, were jaw dropping. Better than Rembrandt himself. One of the most talented artists that South Africa ever had. He was truly a gifted person. Greatest cook of South African and traditional Russian meals. He had a restaurant in Petrus Steyn. He had a degree in Theology. Masters in Philosophy. True Evangelist, a passion for Architecture which he designed the biggest doors I had ever seen, for one of the Russian Orthodox Churches in Russia. He designed quite a few buildings and knew World History out of the top of his head. He really loved Gustav and he was one of the persons that had so much love to give for anyone that was willing to accept him, with his philosophies of everything.

    Danie ek mis jou!

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