Black History Month



It’s black history month in America, and too often that just means token quotes from Martin Luther King Jr (selectively chosen for their inoffensiveness) pop up on Facebook. So this month I’ve been educating myself about awesome black women in American history , and there’s a lot of them. There’s Katherine Johnson of Hidden Figures fame– if you haven’t seen it, go watch it—to Ella Baker, the middle-aged woman-power behind the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to Ida B. Wells’ single-handed campaign to end lynching, to the many rural Southern Women who not only changed the diapers and washed the laundry of the white people’s kids, but also housed student volunteers during the Civil Rights movement and led the Montgomery Bus boycott—it’s good that America take some time to say “thank you” to reflect on and celebrate the many black people in our history who have made America what it is today. Continue reading

The Table


Depression Era Bread lines (Wikimedia commons)

We had communion at church last week. At my church we all line up, and walk down to the front to receive the bread and wine. On Camino, we did this as weary, dirty, pilgrims with the dust of the day’s hike still on our faces. On Sunday, I did it as a weary, worn-out pilgrim, with the dust of a broken America on my face. It always makes me think of depression era bread lines. All of us, poor, needy people, lining up for the bread we need to keep going through the day.

Christena Cleveland was the first reconciliation writer who highlighted to me the importance of the communion table when it comes to reconciliation. Communion- it means fellowship. We can’t claim to walk in the light and in fellowship with God if we’re not in fellowship with our neighbour. That doesn’t mean ignoring whatever is wrong. It means stepping out of line, going to find them, and making it right. It means hard, perhaps confrontational conversations. It means asking for repentance. I don’t want to minimize that. I’ve been reading Paul’s letter to the messed up church in Corinth, and his second letter, full of reconciliation, comes after his first letter, where he straight up called out all the issues he saw  going on. We can’t gloss over stuff and pretend it’s okay. Continue reading

To my friends who are relieved today

I love you guys. I know you were afraid. You were afraid that the America you knew was falling apart. Maybe you were really worried about our national debt. Maybe you were worried about the lives of unborn babies. Maybe you were worried that your church would lose its tax-exempt status because it understands marriage as being between one man and one woman. You care about your kids, and you were worried about what liberal Supreme Court justices would do. Maybe you were worried about terrorism. You were scared for your families and your children and the potential influx of Muslim refugees. You were worried about getting and keeping a job, and providing for your family because of immigration. Or maybe you were just worried about having Hillary for president because of those emails. Continue reading

The Gospel as an antidote to white fragility

When it comes to talking about race, white people often feel defensive, angry, and afraid. White people can completely shut down because conversations about race or privilege are so uncomfortable. A researcher named Robin DeAngelo calls this “white fragility“. In a conversation with Sam Adler-Bell, she describes why white people completely shut down:

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.

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An Uprooting

lent.jpgIt’s Lent. It’s a time we in the church make time and space for God to uproot things in our lives, so he can plant something good.

We start out by admitting our frailness, and our propensity to be bent along the lines of a broken and sinful world around us, instead of walking in the straight and life-giving path of life in the Spirit.

We receive ashes, slashed grey on our foreheads, and we’re told “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” You are fleeting. You are frail. You will fail.

One of the most difficult and most obvious truths I learned the first time I went to counseling back in college was: “It takes work to be healthy.”  Continue reading

Nation Building: Our country, not “this country”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY.jpgI’ve been out of the loop on the #Zumamustfall campaigns that spread across South Africa at the end of last year calling for the removal of our corrupt president (protestors are pointing to things like Nkandla, the mansion Zuma built with tax payer money- protest chant is simply “Pay back the money!”) I’ve been out of the loop because I’m in America, and I’ve been out of the loop because the articles that my black South African friends are sharing on social media aren’t super supportive of the movement. Yes, many South Africans across racial lines want Zuma to be held accountable, agree that the ANC is becoming complacent with their power–using it for themselves (the few) rather than to benefit the many. But the biggest critique I’m hearing is that these protests are springing up because Zuma sacked the finance minister and that put the Rand in a downward spiral and the best way to get white South Africa to turn out to protest is mess with the economy. When poor people are out there protesting about the rising cost of food, but the Rand has stabilized, will white South Africa still be there? Continue reading

Why did I not know who Peter Kerchhoff was?

The mosaic of Peter Kerchoff at the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermaritzburg (thanks to their Facebook page).

The mosaic of Peter Kerchhoff at the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermaritzburg (thanks to their Facebook page).

I don’t remember how old I was when all the old street names came tumbling down, and the new, shiny street names were hammered up in their places. Or, more correctly, hung over the old ones, so that people could get used to it for a while, and still find their way.

I just remember people were grumbling. Everyone grumbled. The new names were long, and sometimes unpronounceable, and why would they change something nice and easy like “Chapel” for the long “Peter Kerchhoff”. Or “Chota Motala” and “Langalibalele” for things like “Old Greytown” or “Longmarket”. People were worried with the name changes happening all over South Africa that the old and familiar history they knew and loved–where they knew who the heroes were and who the villains were–was all being wiped out, and all that was left was a confusing jumble of unpronounceable syllables.

Even recently, when I was still home, I heard someone moan about the way the government had come in and inconsiderately changed all the names.

And then one day I learned who Peter Kerchhoff actually was, and it was like I had found a piece of my story and my place in South Africa. 

Peter Kerchhoff was a white guy. He quit his job as chief chemist for an aluminum company to turn his little back room (with his wife) into the headquarters of PACSA, (Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness). He had four kids. He had a nice life. But his Christian convictions compelled him to do something about the injustice around him. PACSA mostly campaigned and spread information about the injustice under apartheid (such as the forced removals), and today they continue to be actively involved in researching and spreading reports related to social justice issues. Kerchhoff was detained in the 1980’s, but was released. After 1994, Kerchhoff was famous for saying, ““It’s not the new South Africa, it’s the real South Africa.” And keeping the organization focused on serving those who are most marginalized in our society.

There’s a mosaic of Kerchhoff as the good Samaritan in the Anglican Cathedral in downtown Pietermartizburg.

Chapel street is home to many churches- An old Baptist, a massive Pentecostal, a Methodist. And when renaming it, our mostly black, secular government decided to name it after a white Christian guy.

When I discovered that, I started googling these people. Who the heck is Chota Motala? Oh, you know, a doctor who was pretty cool, stowed away on a ship to India to learn medicine, then came back and practiced in Pietermaritzburg as one of the first black doctors, and also advocated to end apartheid.Alan Paton, the prize-winning author and former professor at UKZN is the name of the street going past the university.

For some reason, the story of the re-naming of streets had always been presented to me as some kind of tragic debacle. Like just another thing the government had done after 1994, and confused everyone, and it was just so arbitrary. Maybe it’s just me who got that impression (maybe it was my teachers at school, who knows).

But I wish I had gone on this adventure when I was in fifth grade. Maybe they do that in school now. I hope they do. Maybe they have a unit called, “Street names and local heroes of our rainbow nation”, where they get on a school bus, and drive down all these streets and hear the stories of these heroes of every color who sacrificed and campaigned to make our country better. Because when we gave up our old heroes, our Rhodes, and our Queen Victorias and our P. W. Bothas, we weren’t sacrificing everything there ever was about our identity. We got to trade them in for better heroes. 

So, in case there’s anyone else out there like me who was super confused about that whole renaming thing: Our streets are named after AWESOME people.

White South Africa: Is our ‘normal’ unjust?


As a Bible study group, we are doing Generous Justice by Tim Keller. The first chapter makes the argument that justice is actively generous. It’s not just “not hurting my neighbor” –it’s actively providing for my neighbors needs. Therefore, we can be held accountable not just for the bad things we do, but for the good things we don’t do. It isn’t just a nice thing to help someone. It’s unjust not to help someone.

The conversation turned to a discussion of Keller’s American audience. In some ways, in an SA it seems that Keller overstates his case. It’s one thing to say, “Go out and find Jesus among the poor” when you’re in a middle class American bubble. It’s another thing to say in South Africa, where they poor are all around.

Or is it?

This reminded me of my research. My research falls into the category of whiteness studies, and one of the assumptions in American whiteness studies, is that whiteness is invisible, and gets a lot of its power from being invisible. It’s the unidentified norm that everything else is measured against. It’s like the feminist critique of language, that says terms like “man” should be replaced with more inclusive language like “people” and “humankind” (and gets met with backlash from those who say, “But that’s what everyone means when they say “man”…. yes, that’s the whole point we’re making here, people. There’s something wrong if our society/history has accepted that “man” means “everybody.”) In the same way, whiteness studies tries to turn the spotlight on whiteness, highlighting it as a particular position and in doing so, taking away some of it’s power.

The big critique of this in a South African context is: Whiteness here isn’t invisible. White people are the numerical minority. They’re the only country to thoroughly legislate racism. Apartheid made white the standard, but we knew we were doing it. And now that democracy has come, and we’re in the minority politically, we are still clinging to economic and cultural privilege–but we can’t claim we don’t see it, because we’re faced with our privilege all the time.

Or are we?

What fascinates me is how far we go to keep whiteness invisible. How far we go to cling to the power and privilege of whiteness, and insulate ourselves from the fact that we’re not normal. We don’t have apartheid, but we’re still crafting a world where white privilege is the norm.

For the most part, as white people, we eat, we live, we work in places where we are not in the minority. You could live in the suburb I live in, and 90% of the people driving past in cars would be white. 90% of the people shopping in the grocery store are white. When you see people of other races, usually they are serving you (filling up your car with petrol, weighing your fruit and veggies, checking you out at the till, walking along the road to fix a pot-hole or trim some grass). At church, 90% of the people are white just like me. Everyone speaks English. (Granted, in the city it is more diverse than the suburbs. But still…)

And if someone actually does happen to be a black person who is not in a position of service, then they’re forced to go through a process where we accept them as an honorary white. We say things like, “But you speak properly.” “You’re basically just white on the inside.” “You’re not like a Zulu black, you’re just as much into (name white cultural thing) as me.”

Anyone who is actually different, who actually might threaten our bubble of what’s normal is kept at bay. Never mind that 80% of our province speaks Zulu. None of us white people have to know it, because English is what’s “normal”.

We don’t think we’re privileged. We have friends who couldn’t find a place at university because of affirmative action. (Never mind they just immigrated somewhere else). We have friends who are victims of crime, and we feel targeted (never mind that this is in fact not the case—but of course, we only know people who are just like us, so of course we feel like we’re targets). I don’t want to undermine that we white people have real losses and fears, but comparatively speaking they are small compared to the rest of the country. According to the South African Reconciliation Barometer Survey report, of 2013, no white South Africans occupy the lowest four living standards measure (LSM) groups, and 73.3% of white South Africans are in the two highest LSM categories (Institute for Justice and Reconciliation [IJR], 2013, p15). However, when white people were asked to describe their financial situation, they said they were “just getting by” or “average” (as opposed to “well off” or “very poor”*). This shows just how far we’ve kept ourselves in our bubble, and kept our image of whiteness as the “norm” in tact. I’m not saying we consciously do this. I’m not saying we’re actively like, “Ha ha ha, we’re so superior, we want to exclude others!” We just do. I’m not saying that we consciously think that people of other races/languages/income levels are inferior. But I am saying that the way we live excludes those people from our lives.

So what?

I guess what I’m saying is that there are many places still in South Africa where white privilege is the unexamined norm. And so we might be doing more harm in our “normal” conversations, in our “normal” churchs, our “normal” jokes and our “normal” decisions than we realize. Because it’s so normal, we can’t see that it there’s injustice tied up in it.

And maybe we can take Keller’s words to the American church, and apply it directly in our own contexts. Because maybe in this regard we’re more similar to the American church than we like to think. I include myself in this critique. Maybe if we’re not actively loving our neighbours who are different: with different languages, races, incomes… then maybe we are being unjust.



PS: Yes, some of this is based on my experience in my specific town and so others may have completely different experiences, which I’d love to hear. In cities hopefully things are more diverse, but I’d still argue “whiteness” is the norm in those “diverse” settings. Also, some of these critiques can be made in certain contexts of any race/language group  in South Africa where they are the majority, for example, the assumption in KZN that you should speak isiZulu if you’re black comes from a position of Zulu privilege. So we all need to be aware of times/locations where we are privileged and how we can actively show justice to others. 

*As a side note, black people more readily said they were “well off” (even if they were in lower LSM categories than whites). Maybe because white people are more insulated, and so they are only comparing themselves to other whites and the super-rich, rather than the whole country.