Making One Thing Count

“I only accomplished one thing on Saturday, but it was a very wonderful experience. It was born out of the busyness of working and meeting people during the week. But it was brought to fruition by the stillness of reflection and recuperation.” – Kyle

My days either seem to go at a 100 km/h or 2. I’m kind of all over the place right now, so I’m working on finding balance (but loving my placement). Tuesday through Thursday are crazy…I go to football training, then run home, shower up and go out on Home Based Care rounds, come back and eat quickly before helping out in the kitchen for a couple hours for the OVC/After School Program, after that I go to boxing training for a couple hours…dinner and repeat. The only aberration is if we have a training session, as happened last Thursday when we learned about income budgeting and South African insurance. The next four days are usually much slower, but sometimes even more busy if I get invited to a wedding or cultural festival.

I guess finding balance can be equated with finding contentment. Coming here to serve, I always want to be helping or doing or caring. Sometimes though, the events I’m at just need me on the sidelines for a few hours supporting. Other times, I must recharge my battery individually. I’m not always good at allowing myself to do this. Most of the time, my recharging comes in the form of reading books, email discussions about faith and life with other friends/YAGMs, or cooking a good meal. I sometimes think to myself, ‘Why am I not doing more?…I could just be doing this in Austin’ but I’ve seen the fruits of personal time manifest themselves in many ways. Some days, I only accomplish one thing (which can be frustrating) but I’m learning to make that one thing count.

On Saturday, one of my patients had a birthday. She’s a wonderfully strong lady at 71, but she just had an 8 inch brain tumor removed at the beginning of the year. The care and devotion her daughter puts into looking after her is something that resonated with me when I met their family last Tuesday. I knew I had to bring them a cake on Saturday to celebrate that she survived the past year. The open door policy here is something I’m working to get comfortable with. In the States, most meetings are scheduled. Here, everyone encourages me to pop by whenever. Also, talking and texting are expensive on a missionary budget, so dropping by is something that just has to happend to build relationships.

Saturday morning was rainy and cold. It got nice for a window of a few hours in the afternoon. However, I was in the middle of my South African economics book and started making excuses for staying in. ‘It’s late, they’re probably having their own party…they don’t need me.’ This internal monologue was motivated from fear about using the open door policy, and worry that my meager cake offering wouldn’t be well received. Eventually I bargained with myself to just drop the cake off and jet (I already bought the thing the day before, so I might as well deliver it). God had other plans. Side note: South African weather is very finicky. One can experience all four seasons in a single day. It has already hailed twice here and it’s spring! This is exacerbated by Soweto residing on a hill at around 1750 meters above sea level.

Carrying on, I hit the weather window perfectly around 5pm. Gray clouds were rolling in as I made the 5 minute walk, and it was giving credence to my decision to deliver and dash. I got to their house, walked through gate, knocked at the door, then let myself in. The first thing I got were warm smiles and kind welcomes that thawed the chill the weather was putting on my heart. The daughter (a spry 49 with three kids to look after in addition to her mother) relayed that her mother was very happy to see me. She’d been asking about me ever since the last visit. Okay, now I had to stay and chat because these people were just too darn nice. Five minutes into our conversation, as granny was finishing up her cake slice, it started hailing. It was really coming down, made even more intimidating by the reverberation off the metal roof. I originally thought I was trapped, but really I had just been freed to take the time our relationship deserved. We wound up having a great talk that lasted well over an hour, and will make me a much better care giver to their family in the future.

I often worry about the inadequacy of my gifts, or fear rejection. Finally though, I forced myself to let go of that and just do the nice thing I’d been planning. One thing I know about myself, it’s safer for me to internalize things and pat myself on the back for wishing others well. If it wasn’t the weather, I would have made excuses for something else. I didn’t come to South Africa to be passive or to leave with regret. The thing I held onto in bringing my gift was the following truth I came to during reflection: “Nearly every regret I have in life is related to something mean I did to another person, or something nice I could have done but didn’t.” I only accomplished one thing on Saturday, but it was a very wonderful experience. It was born out of the busyness of working and meeting people during the week. But it was brought to fruition by the stillness of reflection and recuperation. Next step will be learning to release negativity such as regret and worry, but I’m happy with my progress so far. I look forward to carrying out more small acts with great love in the future (maybe Mother Teresa was on to something after all).


The Language of Love

Katie reflects on her life in Bloemfontein:

“You see although I am not able to always understand exactly what Neo is saying, I can understand it in a different language. That language is the language of love.”

I want to give you a glimpse of my life here in Bloemfontein. Before I begin, I do want to say that I have the permission to tell you this story from my wonderful host mom, Mama Shoni. Yesterday, as I sat outside on the porch at Mama Shoni’s house thinking and looking at the view of the township of Manguang where I am living at right now, a little girl approaches me and sits right next to me on the porch.

This little girl’s name is Neo. She is a beautiful child. She is Mama Shoni’s granddaughter. She is about 7 years old and she loves to talk. The thing is… she only speaks Sesotho. She does know some English, but just the basics like hello, goodbye and few phrases. She is also Autistic. I honestly wouldn’t have known this until Mama told me. She goes to a school for children with disabilities called Pholoho which means ‘Rescue’. From what Mama Shoni told me, the school’s goal is to rescue these beautiful children from isolation and feeling alone to making them feel welcomed, accepted and feel like they belong in the community. What I will say though is that as I have gotten to know Neo, Autism does not define her. She is a normal young girl who loves to play and laugh like all the other kids. I also want to mention that she has a beautiful singing voice. She and I have become really good friends. It did not take her long to get use to me nor me to her. At the beginning of our friendship, she would always call me doctor. This is because all of her doctors are white so it is easy to understand why she would think that I am a doctor. It did take a while but now she has started calling me by my name. When she says it, you can tell that there is something special behind it.

You see although I am not able to always understand exactly what Neo is saying, I can understand it in a different language. That language is the language of love. This language can be understood anywhere regardless of where you are. It always warms my heart when I see the great big smile on her face and she says “Hello Katie” and I reply right back in that same language with “Hello Neo”. She has already won my heart and I know that she will be someone that I will never forget. She has been helping me understand why God has placed me here in the first place. Meeting her has really made my heart learn how to receive love as I give it. All I can tell you is that when I see this little girl, I see the face of Jesus.

Kitchen Lessons from Lutheran Church Ladies

Kaleb shares of his kitchen lessons during the first couple of weeks after arrival:

I’ve only lived in Umphumulo for two weeks, and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve begun to join the ranks of the local Lutheran church ladies society. It’s amazing what the kitchen can do to bring folks together…

This past weekend, the Umphumulo Church Centre (where I live and work) hosted a three-day meeting for retired workers and widows in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). Along with getting to chat with some fantastically gracious older folks, I also had the distinct privilege of helping out in the kitchen for most of the weekend. And so Friday night, I waltzed into the big kitchen (which is actually attached to my little house) and joined 10 lively apron-clad women for what would be a weekend full of hard work and life lessons.

Let me tell you…it was quite the crew. Picture 10 lovely, talkative, bustling ladies buzzing around the kitchen, chopping vegetables, washing dishes, and nursing stews in the biggest kitchen pots you’ve ever seen. They would strike up conversations in animated isiZulu, yell back and forth across the room, and break into contagious belly laughs that I’m sure you could hear 6 miles away in Mapumulo. This was more than just cooking. This was a ritual. There was a rhythm to the whole operation. From the cooking to the cleaning to the conversation, it was like a carefully choreographed dance that unfolded slowly and gracefully over the course of hours. There was no doubt in my mind that these ladies had been preparing these meals for years. And while I’m not exactly sure about the history of food around here, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these recipes have been passed carefully through generations. And now, they were sharing that beautiful and carefully preserved gift with me.

To be sure, I felt a little out of place at first. But their expert hands and patient instructions guided me as I chopped boiled beetroot, chunked many pounds of beef, diced peppers, and mixed custard. While I understood very little of their conversations, they often made sure to fill me in on what was going on in English. And although I rarely caught the jokes, when the chorus of church ladies broke out into their laughter, I couldn’t help but join in, oblivious but caught up in their overwhelming joy.

I learned a lot during those 20ish hours in the kitchen. But I think the lesson that sticks with me the most is one about hospitality. I’m quickly learning that hospitality is a central value to many people in this part of South Africa. I’ve received many open invitations to just show up at someone’s home whenever I want. No plan, no schedule, no warning required. “Just stop by whenever. You’re always welcome in our home.” Plus, I’ve rarely paid a visit without being offered a warm welcome and warm food.

But for some reason, receiving such generous hospitality has been uncomfortable at times. At every meal this past weekend, one of the church ladies offered to serve me a plate of food before anyone else in the kitchen began to eat. Not wanting to refuse the gesture, I would thank her and begin to eat. And, inevitably, I would be the only one eating, while everyone else continued to work. And then well after I had finished, the others would finally sit down to eat. Every time, this unexpected situation left me feeling guilty. Why should I get to eat first while everyone else continues to work? Why should they dish up the food for me when I can certainly do it on my own? Why did I get to eat when the food was warmer and fresher? It was a privilege I didn’t want to receive.
Perhaps what made me most uncomfortable was the fact that I didn’t know why I was the recipient of this special act of hospitality. It is because I’m new to Umphumulo? Is it because I was trying much of the food for the first time? Is it because I was the youngest? Is it because I’m white? Is it because I’m male? I still don’t know.

This simple act of hospitality scared me because it separated me from the group, set me apart as something different than everyone else. At a time when one of my biggest hopes is to become integrated into this community, that early plate of food became a frightening reminder of the barriers that separate me from these people. While I still do not understand the gender dynamics, race relationships, or socioeconomic classes of this community well enough to talk about them in a blog, I still wonder what it means to be a white, middle class, male in rural South Africa. Maybe none of these factors played into the early plate of food. I don’t know. But I do know that I have a lot to learn about the complexities of power structures, social interactions, and cultural expectations here. What do people assume about me when they see me on the street? How do my race, my gender, my economic privilege, my citizenship impact the relationships I form here? How do I seek to meet people at a place of commonality and shared humanity while still respecting the layers of identity that culture and background inevitably create?

While I have no answer to these questions, I am grateful for people and situations that have made them real for me. And while that early plate of food stirred up a lot of confusing emotions in me, I remain deeply thankful to those 10 wonderful church ladies and the genuine hospitality that inspired their actions. They treated me out of compassion and care that goes far beyond gender roles, race struggles, and economic disparity. They didn’t serve me food in order to make me feel guilty or to separate me from the group. They served me because they are living deeply into the example of Christ, who dared to cross the deepest of cultural barriers to befriend people very different from himself. Once again, this community is teaching me to keep my eyes open for the hands and feet of Jesus every day.

I pray that I can be vulnerable enough to receive the hospitality of this community with humility and grace. I hope that we can continue to wrestle with the hard questions together. And I pray that we can all dare to step across boundaries in order to give and receive love.