Traveling Struggles and Saints

DSC02681Traveling to visit other volunteers around South Africa blesses us with incredible opportunities – a chance to explore a new part of this wonderful country, a chance to meet new friends, a chance to relax in the company of a close friend, a chance to challenge all the things we think we know about how South Africa works. Add to that a sense of confidence and achievement in successfully navigating South Africa’s public transport on one’s own, and the combination is addicting. However, the high of personal success is short lived when faced with the reality that in no way can I be attributed with navigating the whole way on my own. There was Gogo Nkosi, who adopted me on our taxi ride to Joberg and directed me where to go in the intimidating city. There was the guardian angel at the station turnstile who let me cut the line to get to my bus, as it was five minutes from leaving and I was still 10 minutes away. There was Sandile, who told me about his interest in psychology and theology before I had the chance to tell him my background and interest in both, who sat with me while we waited for stores to open. There was the sister whose name I never learned who guided me through the complexities of village taxi life and recommended some interesting books. There was the Afrikaner grandmother, knitting on the bus, who spoke up for me when tea and coffee was passed around the cabin. In South Africa, you rarely travel on your own. Taxi rides may be silent, but at gas station breaks, a shared taxi is often enough to warrant a few watchful friends. On buses, drivers or attendants can almost always be relied upon to smile patiently while explaining, again, that the stop you need is still coming. In South Africa, traveling isn’t so much about moving from one place to another as it is an opportunity to be in close quarters with a new knitting partner, a new best friend, a new community. Like everywhere else, traveling here is riddled with challenges and struggles, but when traveling in the company of saints, it’s always an entertaining trip.


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.

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”