Care Not Cure

Rachel writes about the HIV/AIDS ministry of which she is a part and how it is shaping her understanding of service and caring:

Each Tuesday, “from 8:00” (meaning anytime after 8:00) I receive a phone call.  “Rachel!  Come!  I’m on the taxi!”  I rush up the road to the small local market where the shared taxis pass through my neighborhood.  My brisk pace, skin color, and Tswana greeting elicit giggles and stares from those that I pass. I wave to my left at the crèche children who scream, “MAMA RACHEL!” and to my right at the primary school kids who scream, “AUS RACHEL!” Once I make it to the main road, I wait at the corner, shielding the hot sun with my umbrella and wiping beads of sweat off of my forehead.  Taxis fly by with their horns hooting and hand signals flashing.  No stress about doing the correct hand signals to flag down the correct taxi.  On Tuesdays… I just wait.  Eventually – a taxi screeches to a halt in front of me and a warm voice from inside yells, “Rachel, my baby!  Get in!”  I crawl into the rickety 9 passenger vehicle, bringing about more surprised giggles as I hug Mme Moruti and show off my Tswana greeting to the others who have already boarded.

This is how I get ‘picked up’ each week for my time spent with the HIV/AIDS ministry ladies.  We arrive in the rural community of Wintervelt, meeting our third counterpart and continuing our journey by foot (passing the occasional goat along the way.) My love for Tuesdays grows each week as I continue to explore the power of presence in times of trial and chronic illness.  In the last few weeks, I have seen both extremes of the quality of life that those who are HIV+ experience.

The first was in the face of a middle-aged man.  He appeared weary, weak and discouraged, shivering despite the warmth of the sun.  He had had quite the week, battling an uncontrollable “running stomach,” fatigue, and confusion.  His visit to the clinic the previous day was the first time that his wife had heard of his HIV+ status.  The virus had been hiding until this point, unrecognizable to the naked eye…and he kept it that way.  But now, his shame and fear were out in the open, revealed by the full blown AIDS related illnesses that had recently hit.

I witnessed the other extreme in the face of a middle-aged woman.  She was jolly, full of belly laughs, and proudly showed off her plastic bag full of medications.  Two years ago, she was so “terribly ill” that her 17 year old son had quit school in order care for her.  When we arrived this week, she was busy bathing her grandchild and sprung up from the floor to greet us all with a hug and ear to ear grin.  She wasn’t shy to share her clinic card with me, displaying her medication regiment and check-ups.  When I told her how great she looked, she motioned to her pills and replied with, “It’s the ARV’s!”

The majority of both of these stories weren’t translated and explained to me until after our visits, as we walked along the dirt roads to see the next patient.  For most of each of the visits, I hadn’t a clue what was being said and in turn, had nothing TO SAY.  My eagerness to learn and help and use my gifts as a Registered Nurse made this all too frustrating for me.

This week, I have been busy reading Henri Nouwen’s, “Out of Solitude.”  In this short collection of meditations, he reflects on what it means to care.  He says,

“Still, when we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.  The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerated not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

Well…I sort of had no choice but to be silent.  Two weeks ago in the front yard of that man’s home, I looked right at the face of despair and touched the hands of confusion.  And in that moment, had to embrace my very own powerlessness.  I arrived at his home (via a foreign form of transportation) with little knowledge, no cure, and no healing power.  But we sat in solidarity, both of us uncomfortably restless on rusty lawn chairs, not quite sure what was coming next.

Although the ladies that I accompany do come with advice, guidance, and wisdom, I know with all my heart that it is their ability to be silent and share in others’ pain that make their ministry so powerful.  I rarely understand what is being said, but recognize the most beautiful active listening imaginable.  I wish I could bottle up the sincere, “ooooh” and “mmmm,” that emanate from their souls as they intently listen to the joys and sorrows of their patients.

This is a lesson that I am, and will continue to be grateful for.

I think and wonder and panic about my RN qualifications often.  What will I do when I return to the US?  Don’t ask me yet.  But I know that this new perspective on human despair, wellness, and joy will come with me in whatever I do.

“To care means to first of all empty our own cup and allow the other to come close to us.  It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other.  When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts.”

-Henri Nouwen, “Out of Solitude”


Feisty Freedom Fighters

DSC_0231 (2)Glimpses of Apartheid-history inspire Jen:

Wind ruffles the peach flower petals in Jenny’s Sunday Best bonnet while elderly Mrs. Matthews sniffles at the breeze. Buttered hot dog rolls and immaculately sliced watermelon are passed across the picnic table with polite offers of soft drinks. The three older women swap recipes for egg salad as the shade tree’s leaves rustle softly overhead. It’s a perfect 28°C on a lazy Thursday afternoon and somehow I’ve found myself in the midst of retired, feisty freedom fighters. It’d been months since the initial invitation and plans had finally fallen together to spend an afternoon together. Vivian rolled up in her white sedan that had seen better days and cheerfully told me that some of her friends would be joining us as well. By the time Jenny and Mrs. Matthews had squeezed into the car in all their flowery-bonnet-hatted glory, I had quite resigned myself to the idea of a quiet afternoon out with the Golden Girls. But somewhere between the hard-boiled eggs and puff pastries stories slowly slipped into conversation… “We hid several of them at the Youth Center, right in plain sight! Disguised as visiting volunteers, they were.” “I only went to prison for a little while because they kept confusing me with another lady, sent her to prison instead. Poor girl. They didn’t need proof, just wanted to scare people into being quiet.” “The police knew me by then but thankfully we got away without any raids, they’d have for sure done us in.” Jenny slyly drops me a wink across and for a moment the strong willed and zealous younger woman shines through. She’s no longer past sixty, but young and passionate and willing to do whatever it takes to fight for what is right. Yet the ordinariness of the three women around me feels like a piece of hope. If they could change their world, why not us? Apartheid was ended when everyday people got involved and started standing up against injustice. They had families, careers, homes to lose yet still they did what they knew was right for themselves and their nation. They were inspired by injustice, stood their ground, fought, won, and still managed to make it to glorious retirements full of picnics and friendships and flowery bonnets. It makes me wonder, how much could our world be changed if each of us found something worth standing up for—and actually did something about it? Speeding down side streets on the way home, Vivian looks sidelong at me and laughs deeply. Getting caught is no worry. “They can’t scare me with prison, I’ve already been there!”

Mentoring Communities

Country Coordinator Rev. Tessa Moon Leiseth recently wrote on the Leiseth family blog about retreats and the value of mentoring communities:

I have an incredibly interesting call. Maybe you’re thinking it is because I am living overseas and am continually doing new things. True. But I actually say it is interesting because I get to do two very different yet related things at the same time. I am in South Africa as a representative of the ELCA. I engage with the partner church here, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa (ELCSA). And, at the same time, I am working closely with and providing global and faith formation opportunity and mentorship for young adults from the United States. It seems pretty unique to be able to do both of those things at once.

I have just returned from a week that was solely about the young adults. Two times during the program year we meet up somewhere in the country for the sake of a “retreat.” We did this just two weeks ago in Coffee Bay, a backpackers village in the midst of seaside Xhosa villages in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. We stayed at a backpackers accommodation (a bit like a hostel) and spent the week together. Jon, Isaac, and Sophia joined us for the second half of the week when the kids had a 4-day weekend on school break.

If you look at our family pictures, it will look like we just went to the beach. And do look at the pictures because the landscape was stunning. And, while the sand and the ocean were a fabulous treat, our stay at Coffee Bay was not the same as a vacation.

In her book, Big Questions Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith, Sharon Daloz Parks writes something that puts language to much of why retreats are an essential component of the YAGM (Young Adults in Global Mission) program:

“To travel [or, to live a YAGM-year] is to find oneself part of a larger commons, and it can serve the formation of a more spacious faith. Mentoring communities on the road and back at home can create contexts in which young adults can tell their stories, surface their questions, debrief, and thus repattern their sense of meaning and faith on behalf of adequate knowing of self and world. If this happens well, young adults become more adequately prepared for leadership in an increasingly diverse and complex world”

When we get together for retreats, we have soooooo much to talk about and so I wonder how we are doing on the above. But I think that Daloz Parks is right on about the important roles of community, reflection, and mentoring. And, if we don’t get together for those times of reflection, we ended up skipping right past this really important processing time. Sometimes it happens formally. Sometimes it happens informally. Regardless, it is incredibly important that space is created for a mentoring community to come alongside young adults in the midst of their journeys.

So what do we do when we are together for retreats? Here are some of the things we do: worship, reflection, conversation, physical activity (hiking, etc.), rest time, one-on-one conversations with me, cultural learning (highlight this time was drumming lessons), eating, theological conversation, etc. At this retreat, I led some reflection and learning around power and privilege, an important aspect of our experience in South Africa. At each retreat, Jon has led a half-day session on vocation and identity. This, too, is an important component for these young adults.

After you’re done reading this, take a look at the Flickr photos linked from the sidebar on this page.  Take a look at the young adults. Do they look like they’re having fun? You bet. But if you look closely, you will also see some others things happening: life-long friendships, global-formation, justice-awareness and advocacy, accompaniment, and faith-formation. And that, my friends, is what it’s all about.