Deep Pockets

DSC_0944Dave writes about his experience of heading to his site for the first time:

I just finished up a week of in-country orientation in Johannesburg with eight other YAGM companions, and our fearless leader, Tessa and her family. On Friday [the 29th of August], all of us departed our separate ways to our new home communities across the country; I traveled to Thohoyandou (8 hours north-east by bus from Jo-Burg). For the first time on this journey I felt alone, vulnerable, nervous, afraid, and anxious all at the same time, traveling alone in this vast country. I should also note there were a couple of unknowns before arriving to Thohoyandou, for instance, I did not know whom I would be staying with this year until I would arrive.

There were many stops before my final destination, and at the Pretoria station I still had an open seat next to me. An elder South African woman asked if she could sit next to me, I said, “Yeah, of course!” in a nervous/quiet voice. She smiled and sat down. From the first second she sat down, my feeling of aloneness, vulnerability, nervousness, afraid, and anxiousness were evaporated from my body. Even though we barely spoke to each other, I felt a connection of compassion and protection from her. She kept her hands in her pockets the entire ride, unless she needed something. She would take out a new thing every time; there was money, her bus ticket, Chap Stick, her phone, and even a salt packet for her Wimpy Fries. But most importantly in her pocket was a security blanket of comfort for a newcomer to this part of the world and brought it out when I was clearly struggling. She showed me a bright true side of South Africa, and how welcoming, hospitable, and friendly this place really is. I hope to pass on this characterization throughout my year here in South Africa, and have Deep Pockets of compassion and accompaniment.

 

Hospitality

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Taisha writes about her experiences of hospitality in South Africa:

Hospitality has to me come wrapped in so many ways during my seven months in South Africa, that I find making a concrete definition difficult. However, I don’t think there is a need to define it, because you know it when you receive it. The second week I was here, a young woman (Ruth), working at the school nearby, invited me to go to a Bible study and stay the night with her and her husband on their farm. She didn’t know me from anyone else, and I didn’t know her from anyone else. Little did I know, it was the start of a long, beautiful friendship. In the morning before heading back, she packed me a little sack of muffins to get me through the day. Ruth and Philip (her husband) have been such a blessing to me – gifting me with friendship, a place to stay, home cooked meals, English conversation, but more than that, teaching me hospitality (or kindness, generosity, friendliness, openness, welcome – from the thesaurus on Microsoft Word). Others have been hospitable through their work. The ladies at the crèche always make sure that I have something to eat for lunch and say thank you every day when I depart. Khanyi and Mr. Mayaba always share their drinks and lunch with me and insist that I sit squished in between them up front in the bakkie, so I don’t have to sit by myself in the back. Pamela, a high school student who hostels at the center where I live, came to my door to give me a chocolate bon bon, when I know she rarely has these sweets for herself. During the end of February through the middle of March, nine German student teachers were staying at the guesthouse connected to my flat to do a teaching internship at the local schools. Every night they invited me to eat with them, play cards, share in snacks and drinks, and just plain socialize…and yes, they spoke English as much as possible so I would understand. They invited me to go on a weekend excursion with them, which I would have never been able to without them. They had a huge farewell braii (bbq) and invited many people to share in the fun. Most importantly, they always included four boys who live at/around the center, and made them feel cared for and loved during their time here.

All of these moments eventually make me think of the foreign exchange students who end up in my home town from year to year. Sure, they have wonderful host families that take them in for their time, but I can’t help but feel guilty for the way they have experienced our town, our state, and our country. I was always too busy and caught up in my own life to take the time to invite over the foreign exchange student that lived down the road from me. I never had her over for dinner, to do homework, to talk, to spend the night. I never let her into my life fully. Of course, I talked to her in school, at events, and during tennis, but outside of that, what did I do to make her feel welcomed, like she belonged, like she was important, like she was a child of God?

We all know people in our lives that could use love and care, but why not give that to all people we meet? Why not let every person with whom we come into contact feel like they are of worth? Jesus characterizes the final judgment of the good in Matthew 25: 34-40 like this:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and your clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Why shouldn’t we want to do these things?

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.

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.