Here Is Our God

In the last week at his site, Kaleb reflects upon the last 10 months:

Kaleb in UmphumuloA voice says, “Cry out.” 

And I said, “What shall I cry?”
You who bring good tidings to Zion,
Go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem,
Lift up your voice with a shout,
Lift it up, do not be afraid;
Say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
– Isaiah 40

I have lived in Umphumulo for 10 months. For 10 months, this place and the people in it have been my daily life. For 10 months, I have been falling in love with this community. For 10 months, my soul has been stretched by the relationships that have embraced me here. For 10 months, I have been blessed beyond measure.

And now, in one week, I will leave.

I am overwhelmed, to say the least. I am terrified and excited and exhausted and inspired and confused and content and nervous and hopeful and so incredibly thankful. There’s so much to say, so much I need to express to the people all over the world who have been a part of this life-giving year. It’s like there’s a voice urging me to “Cry out!” And my over-full mind just doesn’t know how to say it all. What words could possibly convey the vibrancy, the graciousness, the utter fullness of a year like this? What language could hold my gratitude? “What shall I cry?”

Amidst all the confusion, there is one truth that has rooted me: The people of Umphumulo have become my family. It is normal in the Zulu language to call everyone by familiar names: baba (father), mama (mother), sisi (sister), mfowethu (brother). I have always loved this beautiful practice, but now I understand the deeper reality behind the words. Nowhere else have I experienced a conception of family as vast and inclusive as I have in Umphumulo. I truly do have mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers here. I have love and grace abounding here. And it is not because of anything I have done to deserve it. It is because my family and neighbors in Umphumulo have allowed me to bear witness to their lives in all their beautiful and perplexing and mundane and glorious fullness. People like Sbo have been honest and vulnerable. People like Mvoto have the courage to cry and laugh and welcome me to be a part of it. People like Baba Mabaso have the grace to call me, with all my imperfections, by the names of brother and son. And by choosing to live alongside me every day, these people have given me the most precious gift they could offer: the gift of their stories.

For a brief time, our stories have intersected. Just as Ma Mabaso and Sno and Zamadelwa and Nzuzo are now a part of my story, our time together has become part of their unique stories as well. Despite all the barriers that threaten to separate us, we have walked together. And it is in the walking that our stories weave in and out of one another, transforming our difference into commonality.

The brief thread that has woven me into the fabric of Umphumulo is turning out to be stronger than I ever expected. I am heartbroken to think about leaving. I am terrified to discover what my story will look like without the interweaving of Sma and Akabongwe and Baba Nzama and so many others. What will I do with a year of beautiful and sorrowful and transformative stories? Since I can’t walk the same road as this community forever, since our roads diverge in one short week, I have a choice. I can keep this precious cargo to myself and mourn the briefness of a year. Or I can be open with the transformation I’ve received, open myself up enough to let these stories trickle out into every day.

I pray that I will choose the latter, that I will be genuine enough to live out the stories that have already become a part of who Kaleb is. My love for these people makes that the only honest choice.

And perhaps it is here that I find the most genuine answer to the overflowing gratitude in my heart. “What shall I cry?” I shall cry out the stories of this community, the stories that have woven us together and that give me the hope I desperately need. They are stories of strength in the face of challenge, acceptance in spite of differences, and grace that unites all of us as sisters and brothers who yearn together for reconciliation in our world. It is these stories that give language to this year. And it is by holding these stories with care and passing them on with hope that I can best express my deep gratitude.

Amidst the overwhelming flood of goodbyes, perhaps what I am called to do is just what the messenger in Isaiah needed to do. To lift up my voice, to refuse to remain silent, to pass on the story, to live out the gratitude, to be transformed by the welcome. To face my deep fear with a shout of the assurance, “Here is your God!” Because, after all, it is in the stories of Umphumulo that I have most clearly encountered God this year. Here, in their joys and sorrows and fears and hopes. Here, in the hands that have accepted me. Here, in the grace that has overlooked difference. Here, in the people who are no longer strangers but family. Here, in my family in the U.S. and all around the world who have upheld me. Here, in your own sacred stories as well…and the stories of your neighbors. Here, in the journey we share as sisters and brothers. Here is your God.

I have come to the end of my journey here, and I’m realizing that all along I have been constantly seeking and forever arriving at the most amazing yet most simple destination: home. It is a destination that is both miraculous and beautifully normal. I find myself amazed and yet not surprised at all. After all, what is more natural than feeling at home with your family? But what is more amazing than finding a family halfway around the world?

Here is my home. Here is my family. Here is our God.

Gratitude

DSC01172Kaleb shares his gratitude for the opportunity to live, learn, and serve in South Africa:

A recent conversation at Umphumulo Hospital:

Doctor: What are you doing here?
Me: I’m a volunteer with the Lutheran Church. I stay at the church centre up the hill. I’ll be here for about a year total.
Doctor: Oh. And where are you from?
Me: The United States.
Doctor: What a sacrifice!

I left the hospital that day with a pit in my stomach. And I’m not talking about the stomach bug that was the reason for my visit. Sacrifice?! A good intention on the doctor’s part, but that word caught me off guard big time.

Yes, there are naturally sacrifices associated with spending a year living in another country. Like being away from my family and friends in the United States for a really long time.

Or living without Snickers bars for 11 months. Rough life. Ha.

But seriously. As my gut reaction to the doctor’s comment reminded me, I would never choose the world “sacrifice” to define  my life in South Africa. So if anyone out there was considering feeling sorry for me or commending me for making such a big sacrifice…I appreciate the kindness, but please channel your emotions into a sentiment that better fits the situation.

Like gratitude. Because at the end of the day—no mater how confusing or frustrating or exhausting it may be—the opportunity to live as a member of this community is an overwhelming privilege. To have the support of so many wonderful people in the United States is an overwhelming privilege. To be molded by an increasingly expansive vision of church and family and faith is an overwhelming privilege. To be invited into spaces of deep heartbreak and deep joy within the lives of my   neighbors here is an overwhelming privilege. To become a neighbor, a brother, and a son in Umphumulo is an overwhelming privilege. To wake up each day to a God and a community who relentlessly love me even when I feel unlovable is an overwhelming privilege. And to realize that I did absolutely nothing to earn any of these privileges…that’s grace, my friends.

And so no matter how overwhelmed or confused or frustrated I may be at times, I pray that the emotion that rises to the top of the jumble is one of overwhelming gratitude. For this place. For this time. For this family. For this global church. And for the grace that binds our gratitude together.

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.