Thursday, January 21, 2016

Stepping into Love

Walking into the JL Zwane Presbyterian Church in Gugulethu Township near Cape Town, South Africa was like diving into a deep basin of love. Singing, welcoming, praising, and preaching were on tap. This is a vibrant congregation of about 1200 members. They have a significant ministry for people with HIV/AIDS, an after school program for children, computer training for all, and vibrant women's ministry, along with many others. 
The infection rate is very high in the townships. As high as 40% of the residents are HIV positive. And that rate is quickly rising in the 14-29 age group. “We are all affected even if we're not infected.” This is what we heard from one of the pastoral assistants who works with this ministry. It is a significant health issue for the people of South Africa.
We met with Pastor Spiwo Xapile, Senior Pastor of the church, before and after the service of worship. He is a brilliant man and a dynamic speaker who moved in and out of Xhosa and English so seamlessly that it was astonishing. We got the start of some of his stories and the end of others. But his message was clear -- Jesus did not come to keep the status quo. He came to transform the world.
The question the pastor asked of us was about inclusion of LGBTQ folks in our own denominations back in the USA. He wanted to know if the church made decisions with that community or about that community?
This church in Gugulethu is trying to do ministry with and in conversation with -- not for or to -- others. “Nothing about us without us,” said Pastor Spiwo Xapile quoting his favorite theological maxim about social justice ministry. 
When he visits US churches he asks them to take him where they would never want to take him in their communities. “Let me see your worst,” he says. “Show me the places that you are embarrassed to show others.”
A pastor Spiwo visited in the US was led by one of the church members to see the worst of their city. Afterward the local paper said to his guide, “I never knew that was going on in Pensacola before.” His African-American guide said, “You never wanted to know.” Wow.
What is the worst we could show about our cities, our churches, or ourselves?
Are we willing to show our worst in order to acknowledge it? Own it? And work to transform it?
That's why Jesus came --- to change the way things are. Let's welcome, sing, praise, and preach from and about our worst places so that we might invite Jesus into the process of transformation and new possibilities. 
That is why he came after all.

Context and Relationships

 “Justice is an active attempt to create the necessary space for everyone and to repair harmony.” From Roads2Bridges by Leon Oosthuizen and Xola Skosana.

Working for justice means addressing the glaring income inequality issues around the globe. Justice is not justice while so many people have nothing. Poverty is not just a lack of material goods like food and clothing. It is about a lack of dignity and opportunity. These were some of the important things we heard in South Africa.

On Monday, January 11, we met with 15 pastors from the Township of Khayalethu, outside of Cape Town. We spent time talking about ministry concerns and about the church today - both in South Africa and in the US.

The population in Khayalethu is officially 1 million, but the reality is more like 2.5 million people in the township. Many live 8-10 in one bedroom homes. It was eye opening to say the least.

We shared who we are, our jobs, and what we love most about God as a way to begin to get to know one another. The answers were similar - just as you might expect.

A sampling of the answers about what we love most about God included: God’s love for all, grace, forgiveness, we are never alone, God meets us in our broken and messy places, bigger than we can possibly know, changed my life, is enough, is a graphic artist, loves me even when I don't love God, takes a side for those who are oppressed, God walks with us always, and is full of surprises.

The love for God and chance to share the faith led to breaking out in praise and prayer several times. It was powerful and profound. Beautiful music. Amazing spirit in that room.

We formed small groups and talked about the differences and similarities between our churches. Our South African brothers and sisters expressed concerns about the high level of frustration of pastors, having no buildings, receiving no stipends or salary, receiving no support from the government or authorities, and multiple communication issues.

We talked about the variety of gifts that pastors have and the ways the church is filling the gaps of the people - food, services, mental health, addiction, and children's ministry are important parts of their ministry. Many are bi-vocational. They wanted to talk about administration problems - it is more holistic than filling out ministry reports and more complicated without resources. This was an interesting conversation to me.

We shared about the struggles many people experience without basic human needs being met. “How do you minister to people who are hungry without feeding them?: asked Pastor Denny. “We feed them physical food and spiritual food.” It is often not enough but we come back each day and start again. They rely on each other’s ministry as well. They refer their members to ministry programs at other churches when possible.

We talked about our passion for ministry. Structure continues to be an issue - most have no buildings. Learning new things and having time for it all is tough. We shared that sometimes being stuck with an aging and decaying building can be crippling for a ministry as well.

Context and relationships. That is so important. And that is what our conversation kept coming back to. Context and relationships.

I was clear that we can't just talk about how tough things are in the midst of ministry in poverty plagued areas. We have to provide resources and training to offer a way out. Hope is great but if there is not something concrete that helps someone move out of poverty and acquire skills to get new jobs then it is pretty empty and false.

Conversations between the 14 of us and the 15 pastors was fascinating in that there were clear similarities. But the level of frustration for our South African ministry partners is not about upkeep of old buildings, but it is about having no resources but the hands and feet of the pastors on the ground.

The ways we face similar issues was astonishing. But I have never been in a church surrounded by razor wire to protect the facility from crime in the area.

The ways we love the Lord and serve by being present with the people is the most important thing I learned in this time together.

African Animals and Audacity

 While in South Africa, I was privileged to go on two game reserve drives -- on two photo safaris. One at Tamboti Lodge and a second at Mongeno Lodge. They are both on the Denoking Game Reserve. It was a unique chance to see the Big 5 -- the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and hippo -- We saw three of the five. And it was glorious.

Derrick runs Tamboti Lodge and took us out on our first night in the bush veld. He told the same story about impalas five times. They have a “follow marking” on their tail that looks like the letter M. He told us that McDonald’s sponsors then on the reserve. He meant you see them around every corner -- like the Golden Arches. It wasn't even funny the first time. But he also shared with us his immense knowledge of the game reserve in vivid and passionate ways. He clearly loves sharing this experience with others.

Niko and Darnikko were our driver and game tracker, respectively, on the Mongeno game drive the next day. Darnikko rode up front in an unprotected tracker seat and used hand signals to relay animal track information to the driver. It was a unique system that led to us seeing more game than we expected. They were a profound team.

What we saw on our two game drives was tremendous and magnificent. We got to see a cervil, two cheetahs, two white rhinos, multiple giraffes, several elephants, many antelope (impalas, waterboks, springboks, elands, etc.), lots of warthogs, six hippos, flying/jumping monkeys, tons of unique birds (including fish Eagles and kingfishers), too many zebras to count, and numerous cape buffalo. We saw 3 of the big five. And we also saw two very rare cat sightings in the wild - the cervil and cheetahs.

It was an experience that is hard to describe.

I was determined to see African elephants for my mother-in-love, Jane. And on the first drive we did not see any elephants. It had disappointed me a little bit. Can you imagine being a bit disappointed seeing zebras and giraffes in the wild. Don't get me wrong, I was super excited. But I was a little sad not seeing an elephant yet.

The next day at Mongeno, we tracked lots of animals as we drove around the reserve. Then we heard trees crashing near us and an eagle-eyed member of our group saw a glimpse of an elephant. Nikko drove around a bit and we saw them through the trees. So we stopped and waited. And they did not disappoint. Two brothers were eating their way through the bush.

When they came into full view I was dumbstruck. They were massive and beautiful. They were powerful and inquisitive. They were spectacular.

They began getting closer and closer to the truck. I had my Nikon 3300D loaded with the telephoto lens. It was set on the multiple shot sport setting so I was shooting pictures as fast as I could. Then they were too close. So I pulled out my cell phone and just kept on taking photos.

If the guide had let me, I could have reached out and easily touched the elephant closest to our bush vehicle. It was just two feet from me. I got the picture of a lifetime.

And it happened during the trip of a lifetime. I went to South Africa to learn and listen. I went to be part of a social justice group exploring race and culture in South Africa. And I experienced more than I can express in this or any post. It was an audacious trip. We did more in 12 days than I usually pack into a month. But audacity is what it takes when tackling the tough issues of our day.

Nikko, Darnikko, and Derrick are facing the realities of life in a still evolving South Africa. They are facing poachers and preservation issues daily. They also represent the best of South Africa. Darnikko has been trained as a tracker since he was a child. But he was also the black South African sitting in the most exposed spot on the truck.

The audacity of a black man giving directions  to a white South African is still new. But it happened despite the oddity in the arrangement.

The audacity of our vehicle stopping right on the road where two mature elephants were busting down trees with their trunks and waiting for them to come closer was mind blowing.

I will remember coming face to face with an elephant for the rest of my life. But I also came face to face with South Africa and have gained so much from the experience. I am humbled by the audacity of going there. I am amazed by the audacity of people living into the realities of a new South Africa. I am blessed by the chance to interact with cultural icons, pastors, advocates, historians, entrepreneurs, guides, drivers, service directors, and so many others v on this trip. The audacity of it all blows my mind.

And the audacity of this experience means that I will never see the world the same again.