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.