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?