Thoughts on Being Unnecessary

Kaleb reflects on his role:

A few weeks ago, I started my daily journal entry with these words: I am totally unnecessary here. There is no process, no function, no  organization that totally relies on my presence. Before you start worrying that I went halfway around the world for nothing, let me explain why I think these words are an important starting point as I begin to tell the story of my year in South Africa. It goes like this:

The same morning I wrote this journal entry, I decided to go for a run. As I was jogging on one of the many dirt roads that crisscross this area, I passed a woman carrying a five gallon bucket full of water and a cooking pot, all balanced on her head. While this isn’t an uncommon sight in this area, I was particularly struck at just how hard this woman was working to get her daily water home that morning. By the grace of God, I scraped up enough courage to ask if she needed any help. Looking just slightly surprised, she pulled the   load off of her head and handed me the cooking pot…which turned out to be empty. While she hoisted the massively heavy bucket back  on her head, I stood there awkwardly with an empty pot that weighed next to nothing. And off we went, up the steep muddy road. So there I was. The only white person within miles, barely able to communicate in isiZulu, and carrying an empty pot up a rural dirt road with a woman I had just met. I couldn’t say anything meaningful, I didn’t know where we were going, and my attempt to help had hardly lightened my companion’s load. By all standards of productivity, I was pretty useless. But at that moment in time, the standards” didn’t matter. It was the simple gift of companionship which both of us chose to share that gave meaning to our encounter. I may not have made her physical struggle easier, but perhaps our brief moments of being together, or my miserable attempt at conversation, or just an awkward smile, spoke something meaningful to her. I know her willingness to simply walk with me was a gesture of solidarity that blessed me that morning. Just like carrying an empty pot, the work that I do on a daily basis here at Umphumulo is certainly not a matter of life or death. I type letters or make copies at the Lutheran church diocese office. I grade tests or play with kids at the local schools. I help weed the garden or hang clothes on the line at the neighbors’ house. I am not saving lives, feeding starving children, or solving the issue of poverty. The work I do is, ultimately, unnecessary. But the relationships I have been given here at Umphumulo are some of the most necessary blessings I could receive. It is not the work I do, but instead my brothers and sisters and moms and dads at the diocese office, at the schools, at the hospital, and across the street that give purpose to this year in South Africa. By welcoming me into their everyday lives, including the typing and grading and weeding and washing and walking, my family here at Umphumulo is opening my eyes to a God who defines value not in productivity or usefulness, but instead in a boundless measure of grace that binds us all together in relationship. So why am I here? I am here to simply live the joys and struggles of daily life alongside our South African brothers and sisters. I am here to celebrate the ways that God is already at work in this vibrant community. I am here to witness the grace of God through the hands and feet of the people of Umphumulo and to understand that I can never repay the deep hospitality and care that I have already received. And I am here to live in the trust that God can transform even our most simple and unnecessary offerings, like empty pots and awkward smiles, into something of purpose.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Being Unnecessary

  1. Hey Kaleb! I’m a 2008-09 YAGM from the Jerusalem/West Bank program and your post popped up on some of the YAGM-y things on Facebook. This is a fantastic reflection of what life as a YAGM is like, so thank you for that. I also thank you for these words, since I’m in seminary and doing my internship on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and feeling a lot like this right now. Those feelings of uselessness or being unnecessary, as you say, are very real for me in this place. So, thank you for putting words to my feelings right now. Peace, brother. Keep trucking in your YAGM experience. I pray that you are able to place some small things in that pot in the coming days and months, learning to carry a piece of your community wherever you go, long after you finish your YAGM “year.”

  2. I love this. I mean it. I LOVE this.

    In part, because it fills my heart and mind with so many memories of my time in Umphumulo — so many times I was unnecessary, or awkward, or totally caught off-guard by the ridiculousness of things like carrying an empty pot. (Or all of the above at the same time : ) And, all of the gifts that I carry with me from my time there.

    And, in part, because it fills my heart and feeds my spirit knowing that there are young leaders of the church like Kaleb who are being given the gift of learning about “a God who defines value not in productivity or usefulness, but instead in a boundless measure of grace that binds us all together in relationship.”

    AMEN. Sala kahle, Kaleb!

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