South African theologian, author and activist Steve de Gruchy drowned Feb. 21 while river tubing with his son in the Natal Midlands near the Drakensburg Mountains. He was 48. Police divers and dogs on Feb. 24 reportedly recovered de Gruchy's body 700 meters downstream from where he had last been seen alive.
"Steve contributed so much. From the church's role in the struggle against apartheid to helping define a theology for social activism and transformation," said Janette O'Neill, senior director of Africa programs for Episcopal Relief & Development. "Above all, he was a talented and generous teacher."
Born in Durban on Nov. 16, 1961, de Gruchy went on to become an ordained minister in the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa and professor of theology and development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. He also served as head of the School of Religion and Theology at the university and editor of the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa since 2003.
De Gruchy was a keynote speaker at the Towards Effective Anglican Mission conference in March 2007 in Boksburg, South Africa, and the Episcopal Church's Everyone, Everywhere world mission conference in June 2008 in Baltimore, Maryland.
O'Neill, who helped to organize the TEAM conference, said de Gruchy had the ability "to strike to the core of an issue and render action both obvious and imperative. I am just one of countless thousands whom he reached as a teacher -- he has been an inspiration to me. His words and writings are a precious legacy to carry into the future."
The author of more than 20 books and research papers, de Gruchy's three main areas of writing were social history of Christianity in South Africa; theology and development; and religion and public health.
Mary Brennan, the Episcopal Church's mission communication officer and an organizer of the Everyone, Everywhere conference, described de Gruchy as "a remarkable man and a joy to be around. His insight on the connectedness of people and their actions in carrying out God's mission in the world never failed to energize anyone who had the opportunity to hear him speak. The global mission community has lost a thoughtful, dynamic leader."
From 1987-94, de Gruchy served as a chaplain at Groote Schuur Hospital and was minister of Gleemoor Congregational Church in Athlone, Cape Town, before becoming director of the Moffat Mission Trust in Kuruman, a position he held until 2000. He was appointed the first full-time director of the theology and development program at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in July 2000.
According to biographical information on the University of KwaZulu-Natal website, de Gruchy "always had a lively academic and practical interest in the interface between the Christian faith and social ethics." The website noted that during his student years at the University of Cape Town he served on the Student Representative Council, was active in the student anti-apartheid movement, a signatory to the Kairos Document, and a conscientious objector to military service.
"His work in the under-resourced rural area of Kuruman continued this focus where he helped establish NGOs working in the field of land rights, small business development, early childhood development, and leadership training," the website says. Most recently, de Gruchy had been engaged in research work on the interface between religion and health in Africa in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
In addition to his participation at the TEAM and Everyone, Everywhere conferences, de Gruchy had spoken at many church-related events on issues concerning theology, mission, development and poverty.
Ecumenically, de Gruchy had been involved with the World Council of Churches' Justice, Peace and Creation team, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Council for World Mission, the International Congregational Fellowship and the Church Unity Commission in South Africa.
He is survived by wife, Marian, and three teenage children, Thea, David and Kate.