It was on Maundy Thursday that my husband and I began our pilgrimage in the south of France. Our walk on El Camino –the way. It was night, we were in an old stone church, hearing the readings about the children of Israel walking out of Egypt, and slavery, and starting their long walk to freedom. Continue reading
Identity was the word of the year in 2015. Which I like, because I’m obsessed with thinking about how identity works in shaping our world. There’s people who think stuff happens in the social world primarily because people are rational and weighing the pros and cons and acting in their own self-interest. Then there’s people who still believe in altruism. And then there’s people who think people act not because of some rational thought, but because their actions line up with who they are. “I buy a Mac because I’m an Apple person.” “I’m a Twins fan because I’m a Minnesotan.” “I recycle because I’m a green millennial.” Continue reading
I confess I was disappointed as we entered the spired stone church in down-town Capetown, when I saw the priest setting out communion was not Archbishop Tutu. This was the only time we had to chance a meeting with the Archbishop. I’d heard that at Friday morning communion, free chuckles, autographs and breakfast afterwards were the order of the day when the Archbishop was in town. But he never advertises when he will be there. He wants people to come and worship, not gawk.
Breakfast with the archbishop. It’s been on my dream list for years. But to be served communion, to be walked through the liturgy up and down the hills of words said for centuries by that nasally voice that had guided so many others through the years—the voice I knew from old news reports, pleading for non-violence, for freedom—to have those hands break the bread, the bread of life, that would have been special.
Sitting in the cavernous cathedral at 7:15am with the worn-our rag-tag group of siblings that I had dragged out of bed on our last real day of our road trip—our last day in Capetown, the beginning of the end—the air in the building felt sad.
It is the new year. But it doesn’t feel new, it feels old. We are leaving South Africa. In April. For David to keep studying. And it has been good here. But now I am butter-scraped-over-too-much-bread-tired, and I have the restless feeling in my stomach that I get before leaving—that pulling up of fragile roots that took two and a half long years to grow, that slow shutting of doors again and again and again.
And the vast cathedral hangs overhead, and the five of us shuffle along the hard pew, feeling like outsiders and thinking we should have stayed in bed, or at least taken showers. But then we stand and pray, and sit and read, and the words of poetry and eternal life flow over us, and then the priest says, ‘Let us stand for the passing of the peace.”
And everyone—there’s not more than twenty other people in the room—stand, move out of their seats and come towards us. This is not just a polite ritual, a “turn and shake hands with your neighbor” time. This is everyone seeking out every other person intentionally, and clasping hands, or kissing cheeks (this is Capetown after all, we like to be European) and saying:
“The peace of God be with you.”
“And with you.”
And I am taken suddenly back to a different place—a place where I was also a stranger—one of the few white faces in a crowd of chocolate brown, a lost college student, stomach empty after pulling up roots I’d buried in South Africa for 18 years, and the gospel music paused and the Pastor said,“No matter who you are, what you look like, or what you have done, you are going to be loved in this place.” And the everyone left their seats and began greeting each other, wrapping each other in giant hugs.
That’s something you miss when you are a stranger. When you don’t know anyone well enough to give them a “hello” or “I’ve missed you”, or “I’m sorry” hug.
And that moment, swimming in hugs in the house of God reminded me of another place, when I was young, at our Zulu church that met in a classroom that tasted like red dust, and a large, echoey voice would blast out the Zulu chorus, “Kwenze Kahle” and everyone would join in the song, get up and shake hands—everyone shaking the hand of everyone else until we ended up in one big singing circle.
The peace of God be with you.
It’s a blessing.
It’s God’s peace.
But we can pass it.
David explains to the priest who we all are on our way out. “All studying and going back to America now, hey?” he says, eyeing us line of Binion siblings. “Well, come back soon. Your country needs you.”
Your country. Not this country. It strikes me as something the archbishop would say.
And as we get in the car to start the 18 hour drive through the hot karoo desert to drop my brother at the Joburg airport, we pass hills and golden grass, and big, wide open spaces and I think of the passing of the peace. And I think even though the archbishop wasn’t there, it was still a good service.
Right now I will hang on to the peace that was passed to me with two hands, and I will hold it tightly through the bumpy road ahead, and I will pass it on, trusting that there will be more.
The peace of God be with you.
The short answer, for why I write on this blog is because it satisfies an itch. I get tired of ugly things. Not to say that my blog is the most beautiful piece of writing ever to grace the interwebs. It’s more that the things I care about: social justice, reconciliation, power dynamics, privilege, sociology, Jesus, holistic ministry… are usually written about in text books, or journal articles, or long, detailed articles. Which are good. We need those. Facts are good. I like facts. I don’t like all this Invisible Children “let’s just cry our eyes out over some sad thing that happened in Africa but we don’t really know what we’re talking about” stuff.
But I was an English major. And sometimes I get this longing for something beautiful. I hear sermons on theological abstract principles that don’t inspire me, so I go home and write what would have inspired me. I read things about the need for adult father-figures in low-income communities, but it’s the stories about the iThemba mentors that I write, and then read again, and think, “Wow. These guys are changing the world.”
But there’s also the opposite side. So, I was an English major in college, and that’s what we did- read stories, played with language, analyzed words. As I was writing, I would get hung up not on the words and images, but on what they meant. I was interested in the point, on the social dynamics the literature portrayed, on the injustices the piece was debating. I liked pieces that some critics would call propaganda. (George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Warren’s Profession anyone?) It was kind of to the point where I would get irritated. This isn’t just a story, people, this is real! So I wrote my English thesis using sociological frameworks of interpretation, and now I’m doing a Sociology thesis looking at narrative. Oh well.
I think the hard work of restoring all things involves all aspects of creation. We need both beauty and justice. Reflection, contemplation and action. But there’s still a tension. So, here’s a stories-social justice- stories sandwich to embrace that tension. Because, you know, I’ve written 100 posts now. I’ve got to start stealing from other people because I can’t think up anything new. 🙂
Sarah Groves: Why it Matters. Perhaps my favorite song, about how creating something beautiful can itself be “a protest of the darkness and chaos all around”.
“A materialistic world will not be won to Christ by a materialistic church.” ― David Platt
“People die of hunger because we prefer to spend money on … A very disturbing question: For what are we willing to let other people die?”– Miroslav Volf
“Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however is to change it.” — Karl Marx.
“Theology is not only about understanding the world; it is about mending the world.” — Miroslav Volf.
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. — Desmond Tutu
“Christianity does not exclude any of the normal human activities… There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such… The work of Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord’… We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.” — C.S. Lewis
“Stories are light.
Light is precious in a world so dark.
Begin at the beginning. Tell… a story.
Uh oh. The kids think our camp is babyish.
We spend months getting ready for iThemba Kids camp- planning fun activities, thinking up new games, getting crafts donated. This year I wrote the curriculum for the small group times and morning devotions. Kids saying camp is for little kids is an Epic Fail.
But then, the girl went on:
“I really like it! When I’m at home, I’m the one who is always responsible for everything, for cooking, for cleaning up, for putting my little brothers and sisters to bed. When I’m here, there are people who look after me, who clean up, and make sure I’m tucked in bed. This is really fun!”
When I was nine, I said I never wanted to get any older, because nine was the perfect age (and once you’re ten, you’re practically a boring teenager).
When I was nine, I had a Mom and Dad who loved me, who put me to bed at night, who were there for me when I was scared of the dark (and taught me Jesus was there in the dark with me, too).
When I was nine, I spent all my time reading books in trees and talking to my imaginary friends.
When I was nine I complained about being overworked because I had to wash dishes and clean my room (and sometimes even vacuum under the bed!)
When I was nine, I went on my first overnight camp, and found out that Jesus had a plan for me (even as a nine-year-old) and he wanted to use me to share his love with others.
I’m so glad this nine-year-old girl from Sweetwaters was able to experience the love and care of someone else looking after her for a change. I’m so glad that the iThemba mentors had three whole days to pour the love of Jesus into her life through words and actions (and silly games!) Join me in praying that she’ll stay connected to a Life Group after camp, that the mentors will be able to have good camp follow-up, and that she’ll find out Jesus has a plan for her (even as a nine-year-old) and he wants to use her to share his love with others.
The two minute video showing some highlights of this year’s kids camp. (If you wonder what I do all day… things like this!)
I voted twice in the states. Once by mail, when I was in college, and once in person when I was in Texas, for something more local. We hopped in the car, drove to a local school, and crossed some names (or filled in squares?! I don’t remember). It took 5 minutes and was over. They say that in South Africa, more than 75% of the population voted, and in the USA, that number dropped below 60% in the last election.
Maybe it’s because voting in the USA is old and boring. Here, it’s still a bit of a celebration.
It started the night before, an ecumenical prayer meeting with all the Hilton churches. Rather than praying “for our white standard of living to be protected” (as the leader said), “tonight we are going to pray for what’s on God’s heart. That our country will be just, will be a place of peace, of shalom, a place where the orphan and immigrant are cared for.” Hallelujah. (My cynical self didn’t see that one coming).
Being unable to vote myself, I volunteered to help pour free tea and coffee at our local voting station (which was our church). People had to stand in line for about 20 minutes until they were at the front and able to vote. There were old people, and young people (yes, “born frees” were voting, they’re not as cynical as the press makes them out to be!), the elderly were guided to the front of the line by IEC officials, so they didn’t have to wait. People chatted to each other. There were two policemen sitting in the parking lot, ready to help if there was any trouble. There wasn’t. Overall, the IEC reported that intimidation levels were down from the previous election. (Perhaps that’s another difference with the states. Here the IEC voting officials are trained in things like, ‘You’re here to help people vote, you’re not a peace keeper. If there’s any trouble, hit the deck or call the policemen’).
It was a public school holiday. There was a buzz of excitement in the air. Unlike the USA, there’s not 3 years of polling before the voting day, so you don’t really know the outcome until after you vote.
There’s not much that unites us all in this mish-mash country of race, culture and language. But voting day—that’s a day we all have in common.
The guy weighing my bananas at the grocery store usually says hello. Today when I greeted him, he continued our conversation, “Have you voted yet?” he asked. “No, not yet,” (I didn’t want to explain I couldn’t vote at all, actually). “Have you voted?” I asked. “Not yet, I am going after work. The voting station near my house will be open until 9pm,” he said excitedly.
It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young, if you’re the one buying the bananas or working a 10 hour shift at the grocery store. Everyone has to go line up and wait. Everyone gets a chance to make their cross on the long, colorful ballot paper (which includes the faces and logos of candidates, and not just their names, so that those who can’t read are still able to vote). Everyone gets the permanent black mark on their thumb. Everyone smiles in acknowledgement when shaking hands, or handing over groceries, or picking something up later in the day. The unspoken Ah. You have the mark, too. You voted.
I drove through Sweetwaters to drop off some boys from the iThemba running club after their race, and we drove past about 4 voting stations. Schools, churches, community halls. All with the blue and white “IEC VOTING STATION” signs tacked up outside, surrounded by a swath of campaign posters.
And while you can’t “campaign” at a voting station, you can wear whatever you want. There were loads of people in bright yellow ANC shirts, and orange NFP shirts. There was singing and dancing. I had to slow down to weave between the flood of people who were coming home from work and walking to the stations to vote. Sure, it wasn’t like the epic photos from 1994, where the lines of people stretched on for miles. But seeing people streaming towards the voting stations still makes your heart beat a little faster.
My friend Thulani phoned me about 8 that night, “Can you hear it?” he shouted over the noise of singing and vuvuzelas in the background. “I’ve just voted for the first time. Everyone here at the voting station is singing and dancing! I’ve made my mark!”
We’ve made our mark.
And tomorrow at 6pm, when the official announcement is made, whatever people say about the party that wins, whatever problems we still face in our country, whatever steps we still have to take until we have a more free and more equitable democracy— voting day is a reminder of how far we’ve come.
(I know it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Visit this website to learn about those who are advocating for more transparency in government.)
We recently had a great team from a high school in Denmark come out for a few weeks and help us work on the community center site and build relationships with the kids in that part of Sweetwaters. The team was able to level a soccer field (whohooo!) and the following week, teens from our Saturday teens club in Sweetwaters came to plant grass on it. In a little while kids from the community will be able to start using it. In an area full of beautiful rolling hills, a flat piece of ground to play soccer is a pretty great thing. The team was also able to help run a two-day holiday club for the children who live around the community center. Because of the “hype” of having a huge group of foreigners in the area, a lot of kids and parents came to play games and have fun together and learn about what iThemba is doing. So in other words… this team was awesome!
But here’s a story that really made my heart sing and I wanted to share it with you. I heard it second hand, but I’ll take poetic liberty and tell it like I was there. Each evening, the Danish high school students would sit around and share about their day together. Towards the end of the trip, the group leader asked the teens to share a moment that really stood out for them. I love this story, because it shows how when someone lives like Jesus, it changes everyone’s perceptions, it rattle’s everyone’s comfortable boundaries and it invites those on the outside to come in closer. Here is the story that one teen shared:
“We were going with Nathi to his afternoon Life Group. As we were walking through the streets, this man started following us. He was calling out to Nathi in Zulu, and we couldn’t understand what he was saying. He looked as if he might be a little drunk, and that made me uncomfortable. I just wanted the man to go away and leave us alone. I was hoping that Nathi would just send him away and we would be able to have our Life Group in peace. Instead, Nathi stopped and talked with the man. He told the man that Life Group was for children, but the man could come to the house, watch the games, and listen to the lesson if he didn’t disturb anyone. If he was disruptive, Nathi would have to send him away. The man came with us, and sat quietly through the whole Bible lesson, listening to every word. I realized that what Nathi did is what Jesus would have done. Jesus didn’t send people away, he invited them in. He welcomed the people that everyone else looked down on. Like Jesus, Nathi was throwing open the doors and saying, “Come in! You’re welcome here! There’s a place here for everyone! And who knows, maybe God used a children’s Bible lesson to change that man’s life.”
Sometimes encouragement comes from the most unlikely of places. I probably would have shooed him away. He was drunk. Not drunk enough to be aggresive, just drunk enough to be honest. He decided to join in on Sizwe’s Life Group last Friday. He had seen my car (and the car of the Restoration Hope team), and figured it was about time he visited. The teenage boys had gathered on the back porch of our host’s home, and we were all discussing the journey of faith, and the story of Peter walking on water with Jesus. The topic turned to the fact that these young men could make the journey of faith easier for their own children one day, through their example as good fathers and good husbands. The whole reason Sizwe and the other discipleship field workers spend so much time with kids and youth in the community is to be role models for them, to build relationships with them and give them the support they need to make wiser choices.
Then he (this unknown drunk man) showed up and sat down in the circle with us. He had plenty to say. “I am just so frustrated.” He repeated over and over (in English, since there were a lot of us umlungus there). “I have four children, all from different mothers. I don’t have a job. I am just so frustrated. I need counselling.” He was about thirty, maybe a bit younger. He was pretty well dressed, but he never smiled.
Sizwe very skillfully explained the teen boys had homework, so we would talk with him after we wrapped up the lesson. The lesson finished and we all left, but Sizwe stayed to talk with the newcomer.
We are told stories in the Bible of entertaining angels unawares, of welcoming the “least of these” and really welcoming Christ himself. I think maybe one reason is not that we will be rewarded with a good feeling for helping them, but that these people actually have the ability to bless and encourage us. Our iThemba team has been pretty discouraged lately with some very serious situations in Sweetwaters/Mpumuza with the kids/teens we work with relating to suicides, AIDS and poor choices. Everyone has been running low on energy, and on hope.
Our new (slightly drunk) friend sat Sizwe down and explained, “You know, you guys are making a difference. I have seen you come here to this road to meet with these boys every day for the past three years. And I told myself, one day I will visit. You know, even though we parents don’t really speak much with you, we do appreciate what you are doing. And it is impacting even us at home. My child always stops me now to pray before we start eating. That is from learning about God with you.” Then he said something which has been ringing in Sizwe’s ears all week. A message from the God on high who sees the work iThemba is doing, who understands the long, hard road it can sometimes be, an echo of what will be said one day at the end of time: “You know what?” the man said. “I am proud of you. I am so proud of you.”
Well done, good and faithful servant.
“One day a missions worker in Africa went down to the river to bathe. While she was there in the water, she heard a cry and discovered a baby, floating in the water, just barely alive. She quickly grabbed the baby, and brought it to the edge of the river bank and gave it CPR. The baby coughed and spluttered out some water, and lived. The next day at the river the mission’s worker discovered yet another baby drowning. Quickly, she jumped in and saved its life. She soon discovered this was a common problem, in fact, each day, there were about 3 babies drowning in the river, and the number was steadily increasing. She mobilized her overseas funders to come help set up a “Save the Baby” operation. Soon, there were trained workers who could rescue the drowning babies, (which were increasing every day). There were T-shirts, facebook pages, and photos of the desperate babies floating in the river plastered all over the internet. Her “Save the Baby” operation really started to take off.”
Here, Francis Njoroge, the international development consultant from Kenya who was leading this class on development work, paused. He looked around at the class of 45 American college students from Azusa Pacific University, and at the row of iThemba staff who were attending the lectures sitting in the back.
“This is what we do, right?” he continued. “We see a desperate need, and our hearts are moved, and we jump right in to save the people in the situation. It is easy to get people excited about relief work. People like to know they are giving out food to hungry people, they are saving lives of children, they are building orphanages–people like to give things. And the people you are helping love you. You get to be a celebrity, people leave the food donation center singing. But, do we stop to ask ourselves: Why? Why are all the babies in the river in the first place? We can pour our money into relief work, but unless we get at the root causes of things, we are not really helping, are we? And unless we are empowering other people to use their God-given resources and abilities, rather than depending on the West, we are making the problem worse. If the “Save the Baby” operation runs out of money, will anything be different in that community than before they were there?
But, if the missions worker had taken the time to walk to the top of the river, and discover the reason why all the babies were in the river, and spent her time and effort helping the people to change that situation, then real change would have occurred. Even though, while she walked to the top of the river, there may have been some babies that were not saved. And that is a difficult, difficult truth.”
Francis Njoroge has worked with World Vision, Tear Fund, and other Development organizations all throughout Africa–mostly in Central and East Africa. He comes every semester to South Africa to teach the Community Engagement course for the APU students who are studying abroad here. iThemba is now working with 6 of the APU students for the next three weeks. (Which is another way of saying I get to hang out with the APU students for the next 3 weeks! :D) It is great getting to work with a group of college students that come into iThemba’s work with such a great foundation.
I learned a lot from Francis’ lectures. He was full of inspiring stories– about groups in Sudan who are self-sustaining and don’t need the relief food sent to them because they are working together as a community. Of a group in Kenya that had a dream to own their own land, and met and prayed and worked for 5 years on Tuesdays until it happened. About Christians in Sudan following Jesus’ example and meeting with the Muslims in their area to work together on developing their community. Stories that are all about people discovering their God-given gifts and becoming motivated to use them, rather than expecting the West to step in. We all have a long way to go when it comes to putting these principles into practice. But praise God that even we can have our attitudes and mindsets changed.
- Praise God for a great 3 days of lectures with the new iThemba staff, and for our great group of APU students.
- Pray for these students as they engage with the community– working in a creche, helping at the community center site, and leading Life Group Bible studies. Pray that they will learn, grow, encourage others, and be open to listening to God’s voice.
- Pray for iThemba teens camp (Dec 12-14th). Pray that we will find a good speaker, and that the 50 teens who need sponsorship will be sponsored.
“Shoooosholoza!” Sizwe called out, and the band of children that were trailing behind us like the Pied Piper echoed “Shoooosholoza!” and blew their vuvuzelas. Balloons bobbed in the bright spring sunshine, hands clapped, feet stomped through the muddy dirt paths, and all along the way we called out, “Wozani! Come!” to the children who stopped their playing to stare at our parade.
We were quite an interesting bunch. David had his trombone (this was a lot more involved than marching band–hiking up hills and dodging cows and muddy rivers while playing requires much skill), Justina had the guitar, and the kids all had balloons or vuvuzelas. A huge banner announced, “Jabulani Kids Club! All children Welcome!”
It was our day to advertise, so we met at the school where we usually have the club at 9am, gathered all the kids together and started out. We began by singing praise songs, but the one that the kids liked the best was “Shosholoza” (the song South Africa sings at soccer and rugby matches, also made famous in the movie Invictus), so we stuck with that. One old gogo (granny) thought we were all marching to go vote. Nope. This was not a political parade–it was a Jesus parade. By 10am when we returned to start the kids club, our numbers had doubled. The kids still had tons of energy, but all us leaders were pretty exhausted. 🙂
Pray for the children who attend this Kids Club– that they will grow in Christ and their hearts will be changed. Pray for the teens who help to lead JKC– that they will be great leaders and role models.