Small things

I had a dinner conversation the other day with some insightful, delightful people who asked about the trip to South Africa, what its highlights and challenges were, and what it's meant to me. It's always an interesting question, when someone asks how the trip was — to say “good” seems insufficient, and in some ways I'm still figuring out what it means and how that is evolving, even as I'm becoming more aware that it is changing somehow. That became especially clear when one of the hosts said to me, “I read the blog of your trip. Are you still angry?

This was one of those God-moments that casts your gaze inward, when in the considering you learn about yourself and what the Lord has been up to. I won't be able to recreate exactly what I answered, but it was (I think!) something like, “It's certainly changing, and in process. I'm not feeling the same way, because those posts were pretty raw. It seems to be turning into something more like a compulsion to ask important questions.”

As faithful followers of Jesus, there are times when anger is the only appropriate response to the presence and effect of evil. Jesus showed it himself in the Temple, tossing tables and brandishing a crude whip. His anger, though, is systemic — he despised what the sacrificial system had become, and most especially what it did to the poor and powerless in the Temple's hierarchy.

We ought to have that kind of anger as his followers, anger at how people can be unheralded and unnoticed by our culture and our society. That kind of systemic anger, anger at the broken system that surrounds us and how it resists change, I think is appropriate and faithful. I think of our elderly treasures, sometimes sitting ignored by family, and how we've lost the reverence for the wisdom of family stories. I think of our preteens and teenagers, already bombarded with sexualized expectations for beauty and build (have you seen those magazine covers for teenagers lately??). I think of our children, who are being targeted by advertisers as young as 4 and 5 years old. The system in which we live is failing them, and you and me, too.

What I experienced in Khayelitsha and Gugulethu was a stark reminder that our world is not the kingdom of heaven. The brokenness of our world isn't abstract, it has the face of beautiful children, lonely teens, desperate women. And that same brokenness traps me, too, just not in the same ways. You reading this blog are trapped, because broken systems trap us all, even those who seemingly benefit from them.

But the real question for us as followers of Jesus is, once we've noticed brokenness, once our heart's been moved with the Lord's compassion, now what? You who have been reading this blog with me have asked that, and I've asked myself, too — what do we, what can we, what ought we, do?

I think we might begin together at two different levels. First, our hearts should go around the world, because that's what God loves. And there are places in this world where need and suffering is more acute than you and I can hardly imagine. Find an outlet for your compassion that makes a difference. For Amy and myself, besides our tithe we've been supporting an organization called “2,000 Wishes” for a number of years, together with my parents and aunt and uncle and several others in my family. 2,000 Wishes sets up and supplies feeding stations for orphan children in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Amy and I periodically turn to each other and say, “Let's feed some more orphans.” We've also just committed ourselves to supporting a child through Compassion International, because that's where our heart and our passions led us. Find a way that sharing your blessings can make a difference — tithe to your church, give away more. Sharing blessings makes a difference.

And second, let's do something together right here at home. While the slums of Rio or Khayelitsha present poverty at its most potent, we also have the poor right here in South Bend, in Valparaiso, in Chicago and Indianapolis and yes, even Baroda, MI. There are hungry children in our own neighborhoods, elderly men and women despairing in loneliness right next door, desperate teenagers right around the corner. We know that, but we probably don't know them. Perhaps that's a place to start? What if each of us, you and me, made an effort this holiday season to get to know someone outside our comfort zone? To meet them with an expectation of learning from them, and praying to see them through God's eyes? What would that be like as a first step?

At the close of our final session, one of my colleagues on the trip to South Africa talked about “doing the next right thing, with courage.” Small things, blessed by the Spirit, make a difference — that's what our shared history with God shows us over and over.

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A story from Gugulethu

I’ve told this story in a couple sermons now, so it’s time to share it with a wider audience:

As we visited with Pastor Swipo Xapile of J.L. Zwane Memorial Church in Gugulethu, one of the townships outside Cape Town, he told us the story of an intern who had come to work with the church. And the intern came to him one day troubled, and they sat down to chat.

It seems he’d taken Communion to one of the widows of the congregation, an elderly woman, and met in her livingroom with her and her little grandson hovering nearby, watching everything with big eyes. And during Communion, when it was time to break the bread and give her a piece, she took it, but didn’t eat it. And didn’t eat it. And he didn’t quite know what to do, so eventually he carefully turned his gaze away, all the while watching out of the corner of his eye. He watched as she took that bit of bread and gave it to her grandson hovering there by her chair.

Afterward they talked about it, and she said, “We haven’t eaten in two days. I couldn’t stand to eat that bread in front of him when we haven’t eaten in two days.”

Pastor Xapile said to us, “I’ve come to understand Communion as the equal distribution of bread — you take a little, I take a little, we all have the same.”  And again: “When my people pray the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ that’s just what they’re praying for:  Daily.  Bread.”

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Reentry

As it turns out, reentry is hard.

Not because of sleep deprivation, although changing Daylight Saving Time so soon after traveling 6 timezones wasn't particularly helpful. Not because I wasn't welcomed home, or that people don't genuinely want to hear about the trip, or because my life is uncomfortable in some way – indeed, life as a middle-income, white American is very, maybe even too, comfortable.

Actually, reentry is hard because of that – because it's so very easy to slip back into well-established patterns that fit so comfortably into middle-American lifestyle. It's very easy to slide back into the boxes I've constructed for myself in how I spend my time. It's simple to keep serving and pastoring exactly how I know how to do and be and, not only that, be welcomed and encouraged and applauded in doing so.

And yet I still feel this hand in Khayelitsha Township.

I see these orphan eyes from Guguletu.

I'm still moved by the incredible witness and humility of this man, Bishop Kevin Dowling of the Diocese of Rustenburg, where something like 40% of his people have AIDS, and tonight there will be young women engaged in “survival sex,” and young people are so despondent, so hope-less, they don't care if they get infected or not. He has begun an AIDS clinic among the shacks, and a hospice to give dignity to those dying from a disease that most often leaves them ostracized and abandoned.
 

What's hard about reentry is that I have been changed, and I need to ask different questions. Here in South Bend there are children sleeping on the street tonight. Here in South Bend and across Indiana there are orphans, far too many of them older and thus less adoptable. Here in South Bend there are men and women (and children, too) with HIV and AIDS, and they live with that stigma and shunning that is as much attached to it here as it is in Africa.

And those are the obvious ones — we also ought to be asking, with Archbishop Makgobo, what it means theologically to seek profit above all else and the accumulation of wealth as our greatest good. We also ought to be asking, with Archbishop Brislin, whether the Church's proper role is guide dog or watch dog for politics. We ought to be asking, with Rev. Peter Storey, what it means to be faithful in a world where people, right here in South Bend, are shunned and feared for the color of their skin and I serve in a church that is entirely white and homogenous. And we ought to be asking, with all the people of faith, why we allow fear to so control us, as the recent election showed on every side of every single elected office.

Yet, it is my observation that these are not our questions. And most likely, were we to ask them, in my congregation at least many, if not most, would shake their heads and say “What an interesting question” and continue worrying about how long we can limp along with a congregational budget deficit. Or would once again get angry that I am encouraging action out of faith instead of preaching “me and Jesus” as our only business as a church.

Instead of asking these questions, we're worried as Christians about losing the “culture war,” as though this world of God's is nothing more than a battleground, instead of the arena for the revelation and working out of his grace and mercy. Instead we debate, still in our ELCA, the “authority of scripture” without including “authority of interpretation,” when what's often really happening is a cover for whether we have to have gay and lesbian sisters and brothers in our communities. Instead of realizing we are the richest society that has ever lived in history and yet are one of the most divided economically, we worry about whether making $250,000 makes us middle class or not. Or who should have taxes raised in a society so quickly going bankrupt. Or whether a black man belongs in the Whitehouse.

But I held the hand of a little boy whose family, odds are, is living on less than $1 per day. He grabbed my hand and walked with me and I loved his smile. And I saw the shacks in which he lives stretching out to the horizon. And I know that right here in South Bend, right here in my own city, there are too many whose life and circumstance are far more like his than like mine. And that means there are questions that I have to ask.

No, reentry is hard. It's hard because whatever God is doing to me doesn't seem to be done yet. And with my colleague Brent, I recognize that asking these questions is really asking for a change of heart among God's people, to bring them more in line with God's own heart. Changes of heart are kinda the business God has called me into. And that's not an easy business, and it's not very often welcome, and it's not very popular. But it is faithful. It is Godly. And that's all I can hope for.

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Coming Home

I began this trip with the expectation that by getting to know another culture, and some of its history, it would give me a new lens, a new viewpoint, into our own. I expected to come back with new insights into the challenges that face us as a Church, as faithful people, as a city, a state, a nation. I was wrong.

What this trip has done for me and, more to the point to me, is something altogether more profound and more challenging and a whole lot more painful. That's not to say I didn't gain a new vantage, or a new viewpoint — but I suspect that will develop over time. I suspect I need to be back into our own culture again for that to develop or to be realized, although there are tantalizing hints.

For example, the most striking thing about South Africa's past is apartheid's absolute obsession with race — to quantify it, categorize it, and ultimately use it to control and dominate and subjugate an entire people. Those obsessions, I found, still linger, as South Africans time and time again described themselves according to the categories of the Race Classification Board: Black, Indian, Coloured, White. And since class lines fall almost exactly along race lines, those classifications still have painful meaning.

As we encountered these, in our group's conversations, we recognized that in truth the United States lives with just about the same — and equally defining — categorization. We have never defined them officially, or with the same rigor, but they're still there. We still know there are neighborhoods that are Black — don't we? And when we see someone on the street we immediately place them in a category — don't we? Thanks be to God that class lines are not necessarily — but far too often are — falling along those same racial lines, but we have a long, long way to go before we stop the evil practice of trying to put each other into boxes.

Or, for example, take the suffering and evil of economic inequality. Now I know we're in an election cycle, and it wasn't too long ago that this became a politicized catch-word. The fact is, South Africa has the highest economic inequality of any nation on the planet (or comes in second, depending on whose list is used). The measure of that is called the “Gini Index,” used by the World Bank and the CIA and others as a way of understanding, at a glance, a general measure of comparison for a society. We bore witness to the evils of this inequality time and time again in South Africa — every time I held the hand of a child in Khayelitsha Township, or shook a hand in Gugulethu, or was approached by someone asking for money — and they were nearly always black — I saw it in action. In South Africa, there are far too many who suffer — suffer in ways you and I can't even imagine — because the top 10% have unimaginable wealth, but the bottom who have nothing — less than a dollar a day — are far too many. Is that how you imagine God dreams of life on earth being?

On that same index — which again simply shows comparisons — the United States comes in 42nd. Which sounds better, until we look closer and realize that's out of 136 nations ranked — meaning the 31st percentile. And that the only 1st-world nation that comes in worse than us (remember that a lower number means worse inequality) is China, and I'm not sure China actually is considered a 1st-world country (I'm on a plane and can't look it up). All the others that we're doing “better than” are developing or 3rd-world countries or with dictators or a military regime or Communist. Every single one. No matter your political inclination, that is a fact. Whether to do something about that, or what to do, is where we differ. But the fact is: we are a divided, unfair, inequal society, and there is suffering from that fact all around us that most of us don't see and don't know and, frankly, don't want to know.

I expect that these and so many other things will continue to percolate inside me — observations and recognizations around race, economics, AIDS, young people, despair, suffering. Those will take time, and I suspect that will be a long process for and within me.

What I'm coming home with is something much more challenging and difficult: I come home with a whole new expectation and vision for what it means to be a person of faith in our world today. We met with such extraordinary leaders, men and women who brought a groundedness in the Word, a deep sense of grace, a peace and blessing that could not be ignored. And each of them shared with us how they had wrestled, deeply with tears and groaning, with loss and sacrifice, with what it means to be faithful in one of the most inhumane, most brutally evil and oppressive situations I've ever, ever heard of, and never imagined.

What they brought to us was themselves, and the reflections that led them to take faithful action. Each of them had to wrestle, individually, with what that action was and meant, and each of them came to a different conclusion, a different path. That is as it should be — when God calls us, it is always to be our own selves, fully and faithfully his, with all our talents and gifts he gave us brought to bear with what he is up to. And each of us, with the grace and gifts he has given, is invited to pitch in with him and be his heart in the world and, he hopes, his hands.

Peter Storey put it maybe best in his succinct way: “The Church is only the Church beyond the Church.” Our place, brothers and sisters, is not in any building, not in any community, not anywhere that is familiar or comfortable. Oh, we certainly need all those things — because the ebb and flow of faith, the breathing in and breathing out of the Body of Christ, means we need to inhale, we need to gather and worship and learn and grow deeper roots. We need each other, and we cannot, cannot be faithful without each other.

But faithful living doesn't stop there. It is our calling, our privilege, to be God's heart in the world — to find and hold suffering, and to let God's love meet it in us. That is what it means to be faithful — to love the people God loves, to go and find them (because God is out there with them already), to see them as God sees them. And our God is the God who provides, who serves, who gives, who nurtures, who sustains, who binds, who blesses, who gives himself for the whole world. Not for the Church — God didn't send his Son for the Church. For the World, out there, those broken people that God loves so much.

For the extraordinary men and women I met on this trip, that faithfulness has meant standing with linked hands in front of men with guns. It has meant defying an evil regime. It has meant holding the hands of children dying with AIDS. It has meant bathing filthy, matted old men in the townships. It has meant seeking and loving and standing and holding and singing and praying and weeping and having their hearts break, over and over again. It has meant giving their hearts to God so his love can work through them. And the result, over time and by God's grace and help, has meant the overthrow of an evil system. And a lot more love still to be perpetrated on unsuspecting, undeserving, beautifully beloved people that God is so crazy about.

What about you? What in your heart burns as you read the newspaper? What is it that makes you weep? What is it that makes your heart convulse every time you see it? What is it in our world that doesn't look like heaven, where is the suffering that God is asking you to enter and hold alongside of and let his love work through you? Are you tired of a passive faith? Are you tired of “Me and Jesus” when you know, whether through these simple writings or the newspaper or your grandchildren that the world is so broken, so hurtful, so horribly filled with evil and despair that even if it hasn't hit you and yours yet, it will?

God has a bigger dream, brothers and sisters. I don't know what it is. I don't know what it looks like. But it's time for people of faith to be faithful — time to be God's people, God's heart, out in the world where the suffering is. I don't know how, and I don't know where, but there's something I — and you — can do. There's some small thing we can do, one hand to hold that doesn't look like ours. I need to find it. I hope you'll join me.

After Khayelitsha, as I wept in my room, I wrote this prayer in my journal. These are the words that burned in my heart, and maybe they will echo in yours:

I find tonight that I'm angry about the Township. I'm not angry we went — I'm profoundly grateful we did. I'm not angry at the tour, or the people. I'm not even angry at the government, or the city for not doing enough. I'm angry at all of us, for being complicit in allowing places like this. I'm angry that we allow them to remain. I'm angry that I'd heard about slums and never cared. I'm angry that we don't know what to do, and don't know that we would if we did. I'm angry at us, because I'm heartbroken — heartbroken over parents raising children in Khayelitsha, heartbroken at teenagers finding their way without hope, heartbroken over those children who don't have much of a future of opportunities, heartbroken at men coming back to a shack, women without recourse, heartbroken at the poverty and suffering I can't even imnagine, that I never imagined and now it's piercing my heart and I just need to weep and weep, tears for each of them I saw and for me who will go back home in just a few days. Oh God, why? Why do places like that exist? Why do we let them? Why didn't my heart break before now? Why do you let us create places like this and allow them to remain? Why don't you strike us down and wipe clean and start over?

And above all, O God — now that you've broken my heart for those children, now that you've opened me up a little more to what's real in this world, now, O God — what shall we do about it together?

 

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Endings and a Safari

Our trip has now finished, and it’s time to begin our long way home. Our final experience capping off the trip was a safari at Entabeni Safari Conservancy. We stayed in a bush lodge, quite rustic, and were fairly astonished when we checked in and were warned not to wander out of our rooms at night — the park elephants had wandered through just a night or so before, and can be quite aggressive. Not to mention the pythons and cobras that could greet us, or the mischievous meerkats, or the gnu that actually did wander through in the night…

Entabeni is a “Big Five” park, meaning all of the Big Five African animals can be seen: Elephants, Rhinocerous, Lions, Leopards, and Water Buffalo. So after a late lunch we piled into the Land Cruisers and headed out, and… well, pictures will be included at the end of this post, so you can see for yourself. :)

Our final presenter before leaving Johannesburg for Entabeni was Bishop Kevin Downling, of the Rustenburg Diocese, a Roman Catholic bishop that I was immediately convinced was my look-alike. Throughout our trip we’ve had extraordinary presenter after extraordinary presenter, and after each one our group said to itself, “Well, it can’t get any better than that.” And then another presenter came along and was better in a new way than the previous. Bishop Downling was exactly that: after a week of incredible conversation, he brought us something entirely new, and entirely stunning, inspiring, and moving.

Bishop Downling grew up under apartheid as a white, lower-middle-class boy. He told us that by law, by law mind you, he was forbidden to have any constructive relationships with anyone of any color, whether Indian or Black or in-between. If he had any black friends they were not permitted to come to his house, and if he’d gone to theirs he’d have to be back by sunset — by law.

As a new parish priest he was assigned to a parish on the Cape Flats outside Cape Town, which is where the townships are today. So as a white parish priest, assigned to this parish, for the first time he was permitted, even forced, to have significant relationships with black Africans. He said he found them to be wonderful — open, giving, generous, gentle. He heard their stories and got to know their lives, and he shared one in particular with us.

A young single father asked for some time to talk with him as his priest, and when they sat down, he poured out his story. Under apartheid, as we’ve said, your race classification by the Race Classification Board meant everything: what quality school you could go to, where you could live, where you could shop, what kind of job you could get, who your friends could be. This man’s family was technically “Coloured,” meaning native African but so fair-skinned, they passed as Whites by the Classification Board. So the children growing up went to white (meaning “good”) schools, lived in a white (meaning “nice” or even “decent”) neighborhood, and the father had a good job.

Then this young man was born, and he was born with dark skin. He could not pass as white, quite clearly. So what this family did, was give him the bedroom at the back of the house — because whites were allowed to have a live-in maid or houseboy. They sent him across the rail line to the Coloured school. When people came over for dinner, he was to go to his room and not be seen — to pretend he did not exist. And when he was 16, his family told him to go across the rail line to the Coloured township and make his way in the world.

And this young man, the single father of 6 kids, sat in his priest’s office, his tears streaming down his face, and asked how he was supposed to see himself, what to think of his life. And his priest, Father Dowling, sat with his own tears and didn’t know what to say.

This set Bishop Dowling on a path of prophetic justice ministry. He was involved in resisting apartheid in his parish and when he was made Bishop of the Rostenburg Diocese. He told a harrowing story of going on behalf of his parishioners to negotiate with the police chief, and as he and his fellow pastors walked away, hearing the command from behind him, “Shoot the pastors.” He talked of dodging tear-gas canisters with lethal metal tips, of hearing the pop of live ammunition and watching his people get shot, of police and soldiers indiscriminately firing into houses in the village with shotguns. His church was even bombed, and forensics said it was a clearly sophisticated bomb that must have come from the security police of the Homeland his diocese resided in.

Bishop Dowling gave us many astonishing horrifying facts and figures. South Africa has at least 22 million people living below the poverty line, living on less than $1 per day. South Africa is the most economically unequal nation in the world, so along with that mass living below the poverty line, you also have a small number of almost unimaginable wealth. There were many more, which we’ve asked him to make available to us. But no matter how many statistics I might gather, as Bishop Dowling quoted someone, “How can I understand a statistic unless I’ve held the hand of the person it represents?”

In his area are some of the world’s largest platinum mines, including Lonmin, which has been in the news lately for the miner’s strike and violence against them. He described the mine areas — at the mine head there are a number of buildings, plus a hostel for foreign workers. The mine bosses recruit men from distant areas, who come to stay for months at a time without their families. As they stay longer, the families come and follow, and set up illegal squatters’ camps around the mine head — tin shacks, no electricity, no water, no sewage or toilets, no services like trash collection. It is a place of almost unimaginable squalor, terrible diseases because of the conditions, and crushing poverty.

It’s also a place where HIV and AIDS are running amok, because as Bishop Dowling said, in these camps there is nothing to do or occupy your time except beer, drinks, and sex. And it’s the young people who are most vulnerable — Bishop Downling said that unemployment is running at 60% in his diocese, and young women are being forced into “survival sex”: when these young girls come to the camps from rural areas, hoping for work, there is none to be found, but an older man might give her a room, or a few Rand (South African currency), something like $2.50, and she provides him with sex.

But many of these men are infected with HIV and AIDS. And it is spreading like wildfire. South Africa’s former president, Thabo Mbeki, for a long time publicly said he didn’t believe AIDS and HIV were real. Traditional cultural influences give men the idea they have the right to demand sex when and where they want, and women the idea they must submit — not mention in situations of survival, or rape, which is horrifyingly frequent: in South Africa, a woman is raped every 26 seconds, and police say up to two-thirds of rape cases are not reported because of fear of reprisal or the woman’s economic dependence on the rapist!

Bishop Dowling presented us with many more statistics, but one I caught was that South Africa has an estimated 5.6 million cases of HIV and AIDS infection. 1,500 people are newly infected every day. Before anti-retro-viral medicines (ARV’s) were available, 300,000 were dying each year. One out of three women aged 25-29 is infected. Maybe most troubling of all, in all age groups over 15, there is a decline in accurate knowledge about HIV and AIDS. South Africa has approximately 2 million AIDS orphans, and 3 out of ever 100 homes is “child-headed”, meaning a child is head of the household providing care and shelter for other siblings.

In the face of these kind of statistics, and having walked in the camps and held the hands of dying children and young men and women, Bishop Dowling has begun a program called Tagologo, which in the local language means “peace and rest.” He began with a single nurse and a shipping container as a place to provide care for people infected with HIV and AIDS. The program has grown to multiple buildings, providing holistic care, ARV’s, medication, social work, counseling, and nursing, and a clinician’s attention. He has recently added hospice care for those who are beyond the reach of medication, so they can die a peaceful, dignified death.

He described one little boy who died of AIDS. The sisters found this little boy, 7 years old, curled up in his shack. He was blind from AIDS and related illnesses, and had been discharged from a government hospital because he was beyond treatment. The sisters brought him into hospice and put him in a bed, but he remained nonresponsive for a couple days. The Bishop visited him after several days, and found him sitting up, his legs dangling off the edge of the bed. The little boy said, “It’s so nice here. The sisters bathe me every morning, there’s clean sheets and good food to eat. And they love me.” He died after several weeks, peacefully among people who love him.

We wondered what can be done, what role U.S. Churches might play. The Bishop cautioned us, “Apartheid cannot be righted by charity” — the effects of government brutality, violence, and a systematic policy of limiting an entire population of people doesn’t disappear simply because of charity. And, as Stephen Lewis, UN AIDS Envoy said in 2005, “It will take the combined forces of principle and anger to defeat this pandemic.”

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Soweto Township

This gallery contains 21 photos.

Today was our third and final visit to a township. Soweto is the oldest of the three, and the most established. It has a long and rich history — many of the leaders of the resistance to apartheid grew up … Continue reading

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Guguletu Township

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Saturday, October 20, 2012 I think perhaps today I began to fall in love with Africa. As last Sunday our bus company wouldn't take us to our scheduled worship service with JL Zwane Memorial Church in Guguletu Township, we rescheduled … Continue reading

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