Common Humanity

As she comes near the end of a very transformative year, Katie pauses to express how this experience is shaping her:

Katie and the city she has come to love and call home

Katie and the city she has come to love and call home

The other day, I had an experience  that has showed me what it truly means to carry one another’s burdens and how we are bound together by our common humanity and our struggles. Unfortunately, I cannot go into detail with it because of respect of privacy. Sometimes when you just don’t have the words, a moment of silence, reflection, meditation and even a prayer from the heart usually helps. Sometimes, there are no right words to say to bring comfort to someone who is hurting or in need. Sometimes, love, grace and mercy can come in the form of a hug or a smile. A laugh or a cry. There really is no perfect way but knowing that it comes from the heart can bring a little hope. It is in this that I believe we are bound by our common humanity and it is with this that even though it is hard to carry one another’s burdens, we also have Jesus who said we could place our burdens on him as well. It is with this that end this with a prayer. A prayer that comes from my heart.

Father God,

As we begin a new day

may we realize that

we are all bound together

by our common humanity

May we realize that

we are not meant

to carry our burdens

alone

that we also realize

that others should not

also have to carry their burdens

alone

We are connected to each other

and we can help carry one another’s burdens

May we also realize that You God can also’

carry our burdens

Help us to remember to be merciful to one another

and to always pour out your grace and love among others

that you have so freely given us

Maybe one day

people can truly see your will be done here

on earth as it is in heaven

Amen.

a taxi ride to Emmaus

In this Easter season, Rachel reflects about the faces of Jesus she meets in her daily life: 

DSC_0388A fellow South Africa YAGM wrote in his own blog that taxi riding in SA can truly be a spiritual experience. I have to agree. Today I dropped off Alex (another YAGM who visited me this weekend) at the bus station, went to the mall, and then returned to Mabopane. It might sound simple, but I rode in SEVEN different taxis to achieve it! Not an easy task…and not a journey made without an elevated heart rate at times. On the last leg of the ride, two beautiful little girls and their dad crawled into the back seat of the taxi with me, filling the 9 passenger vehicle with 10 bodies (plus our shopping bags and groceries). I scooted as close as I could to the open window to make room on the mangled leather seat. It took no more than a minute for the young girl closest to me to cuddle under my arm, and fall asleep. As my new friend drifted into dream-land, her body heat warmed my side and the beauty of the moment warmed my heart. A spiritual experience, indeed!

In that moment, I was feeling so proud of myself for successfully navigating the taxi system across all corners of Pretoria and Mabopane. As I recollect the day now though, I realize that I did not accomplish it unaccompanied. I can recall the face of a gracious stranger at each point in my journey who I couldn’t have done it without. Seven taxis. Seven faces.

Yesterday, Alex and I attended the memorial service of a woman who I had visited a few times throughout her battle with kidney cancer. We stood lining the street with other members of Modisa Lutheran Church, waiting for Aus Lizzie’s body to return to her home from the mortuary. While we were waiting, Alex pointed to a full rainbow that had appeared through the stormy looking clouds behind us. “Ga ayo mathata,” we sang, “No problems,” for we have God on our side.

Moruti spoke at the service on a familiar and favorite passage of mine — the walk to Emmaus. In this post-Easter story, a couple of Jesus’ disciples are too caught up in their own sorrows to realize that Jesus was literally walking beside them. I mean, you can’t blame them. They saw him sentenced to death and crucified on the cross, how could they believe he had truly risen to new life!? It wasn’t until the disciples ate a meal with Jesus that their “eyes were opened and they recognized him.” (Luke 24:31) Jesus really does know the way into the human heart…food!! Moruti invited us last night to not become so carried away by our own distress that we lose sight of Jesus’ everlasting presence in our lives.

It’s wonderful to be reminded that through the ups and downs of feeling comfortable and confident, and lost and lonely…I’m not walking alone. I am trying to etch into my memory the image of the seven people who I met along my ‘ride to Emmaus’ today. As I do, I’m also trying to wrap my head around the fact that Jesus was somewhere in each of those beautiful faces, and the Holy Spirit was filling any extra space that was left in the jam packed vehicles in which I rode.

You Can’t Manage Conversion

Kaleb reflects about expectations and conversion:

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said…He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.”    Matthew 28:5-7

I’ve thought a lot about expectations during the past several months. This summer, before I left for South Africa, I persistently told myself to abandon my expectations for the year ahead. As much as I longed to know what was coming on the other side of that plane flight, I also knew that if I arrived with too many expectations, I would be setting myself up for a rough transition. Even during in-country orientation when solid details seemed to be finally falling into place, we were warned that things can change, that we shouldn’t be too attached to any one image of our host communities. In the midst of a monumental transition, we sought to embrace the uncertainty and to see the value of remaining open to surprise every single day. We were fighting hard against our expectations.

I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at this whole no-expectations business. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve hopped in someone’s car with pretty much no idea where we were going or why we were going there, just that it would be a valuable learning experience in the end. Every morning when I wake up, I rarely know exactly how I’ll be spending my time for the rest of the day. It all depends on who asks for my help, who I bump into on the road, who invites me to their home, and even whether or not it happens to rain that afternoon. While it sometimes leaves me feeling totally out of control, that’s probably exactly what my control-freak self needs right now. Abandoning expectations can be terrifying, but it can also be liberating.

But during the past month or so, I’ve begun to realize that giving up control is more complex than just abandoning the daily planner. I’ve really been struggling to put words to this discomfort, this yearning, this unanswered question that has been churning in my mind. But during our first YAGM SA retreat, Pastor Philip Knutson, a long-time representative of the ELCA in South Africa, offered a framework that has helped me begin to sort through this lesson-in-progress.

Working from a lifetime of missionary experience, Philip had an enormous wealth of wisdom and insight to share with the YAGM crew. But the phrase that has stuck with me the most is this: You can’t manage conversion.

I believe that, in many ways, the YAGM year is a time of conversion. Although the word “conversion” certainly carries some baggage, and although every young adult’s experience is ultimately unique, I think we all hope to be changed by our experiences this year. I’ve had lots of conversations with other YAGM about changing our perspectives on power and privilege, changing our lifestyles to be more simple and less focused on consumerism, changing the way we engage those of different culture and background, and changing the ways in which we see God at work in the world. We hope to be changed, to be molded, to be shaped by our brothers and sisters around the world and by our God. We are certainly not here to convert other people, but I for one sure hope that I undergo some conversion this year. In many ways, I am here to be changed, and one of my deepest fears is that I will come out of this year unchanged. Spending a year of life as a YAGM is too much of a privilege to miss that opportunity.

And so I’ve spent a great deal of energy and worry these past months trying to make sure I don’t miss out on the conversion this year has to offer. Some days, this yearning for change is a positive thing…it helps me push outside my comfort zone, and it encourages me to stay open to the lessons each day offers. But then other times it has become a big source of frustration. That day when I made 3000 copies in the diocese office didn’t seem very much like the conversion I had envisioned. I get angry at myself when I feel like my incredibly slow progress with the Zulu language is keeping me from really getting to know people in my community. I feel guilty when I take a bath with running, heated water, and I think to myself, “Am I really living in solidarity with my community when I know that many people in this area live without running water?” I get frustrated when I feel like I’m not learning “enough” about the history of South Africa. I daily ask myself, “Am I trying hard enough? Am I putting myself out there enough? Am I changing enough?” And every day, I struggle with trying to figure out where God is in all of this.

And so here I am. Trying to abandon my expectations, striving to live into the unknown opportunities of each day…and all the while grasping tight to a vision of conversion that I must somehow achieve if this year is to be “successful.” Sure, I can deal with not having my day scheduled down to the minute. But it is another thing entirely to realize that I cannot, no matter how hard I try, make myself change on my own terms. Who am I to say that making 3000 copies isn’t a learning experience? Who am I to say that my imperfect Zulu is a barrier rather than an opportunity? Can I really dictate exactly which lessons of simple living I’m going to learn this year? Is it really in my power to make my friends and neighbors tell me about their experiences with apartheid?  Can I really be the one to decide whether I’m living intentionally enough, whether I’ve changed enough, whether I’ve been converted enough? And, for goodness sake, who am I to determine where God is at work in all of this?

I can’t manage my conversion. Just like the women at the tomb, I showed up here and expected to find Jesus right where I thought he should be. “Here I am, show me Jesus,” I said. But, thank goodness, there was a voice—or in my case, many voices—that reminded me, “He is not here…He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.” Jesus does not fit into the box of my expectations. And the road to Galilee—the road of my conversion—does not follow my well-mapped plan. As usual, God is messing with my expectations. Even the way I think about change is changing.

And I’m certainly not in Galilee yet. Every single day, I find in myself the impulse to hold on tightly to control, to somehow force the change I think I need out of every day and every interaction. I too often assume that I know where I’m supposed to end up at the end of this year’s journey, that I know the person I am supposed to become.

It is in these moments that Jesus meets me, reminding me that the path of conversion is far from tidy, comfortable, and predictable. It is a daily journey to the tomb, a daily reminder that “he is not here; he has risen,” and a daily willingness to travel the road toward Galilee, to trust the promise that Jesus goes ahead of us to meet us along the way. To share the companionship of brothers and sisters who will often point us in surprising but meaningful directions. To trust the call to abandon control. And, against all expectations, to trust deeply that this journey is one of abundant conversion.

Sugar Cane Shepherds

Laura (on the right) hangs out with co-YAGM, Taisha, during a recent retreat

Laura (on the right) hangs out with co-YAGM, Taisha, during a recent retreat

Laura reflects upon sugar cane farmers, shepherds, and God’s love for everyone:

Each week day morning and afternoon, my host father goes to a farm to lead a devotion for the farm workers. There are about ten different farms that he ministers to around the area I am living in. Each different farm is run and owned by white farmers who provide housing and wages for the black African farm workers and their families. The work they do depends on which growth phase the sugar cane is in. Most of the work is difficult physical labor including: planting, weeding, hoeing, cutting, burning, hauling, and packing onto the trucks.

Some days I wake up and go with my host father, and as much as I am not a “morning person” and love to sleep in, I have begun to look forward to these particular mornings. We leave our house at about half past five, with a coffee mug in hand. We drive through the foggy, mist covered dirt roads that my father has driven thousands of times. I however, cannot usually tell where we are going, as the vast fields of sugar cane are all I can see through each side window of the car. When we arrive, we greet the workers and I lead one of the isiZulu songs that my host siblings have taught me. My father then shares scripture and a message, and I end the devotion with a prayer which my father translates into isiZulu for the workers.

This past week the scripture for the devotion came from Luke 2:8-12:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

The farm workers are like the shepherds. They do not get recognition or praise for the work they do, but it is some of the most important work in the community. Without the harvest these workers do, other people in the sugar cane factories would not have work either. Therefore, I would argue that these beginning stages are the most important, because they are the start to the long process the cane goes through, ensuring jobs for so many South Africans. The work the farmers do is seen as the lowest of jobs by other Africans. However, these workers are committed day after day in order to provide for their families and communities.

And God comes to these people, just like he came to the shepherds. He comes to bring them good news, and says that this good news is for ALL people. Economic or social status does not matter when God sends His angels to share the joy of Jesus Christ. The shepherds hurry off to Bethlehem to witness this good news they have heard, and in Luke 2:20, they return back glorifying and praising God for the joy of the birth of Jesus Christ.

There is hope for each one of the farm workers I worship with during my time here. And there is hope for all people in South Africa, and in the world, because of the day when the angel came to the shepherds in the fields. In this Advent season, through  our struggles, we can live and wait in hope for the Christ who comes to ALL of us, regardless of our background.

I know Christmas will be different over here, much simpler than the past ones I have celebrated in Minnesota which have good intentions but are often filled with an over-abundance of food, unnecessary consumerism, and plenty to distract me from the reason we celebrate Christmas. I am anxious to see how the traditions, church services, meals, and family time over  here will reflect what we are truly celebrating, Christ’s birth. The first Christmas in Bethlehem was so very simple, and I am hopeful that Christmas here will be filled with that simple mindset of the one who comes to bring us everlasting joy.

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.