A Glimpse Into Life in Bellville

During the later part of her YAGM year, Jen moved to another community to help support the work of the ELCSA church community that was hosting her. Here, she shows a glimpse of the places and people of her life while she served in that location: 

Bellville Youth Center
Officially titled House Erich Leistner, the Bellville Youth Center is a student hostel attached to the Bellville Lutheran Church. With a spacious meeting hall, they also host community outreach event and church functions. My pastor asked me to move to help with the center’s development in assisting the new director with administration, outreach, and event planning. It’s fun work and I get to stay at the hostel with the students.

We recently hosted a huge Mother’s Day Buffet and it was rewarding to get to see all of our hard work turn into a packed hall full of happy families and fantastic food. It was the first outreach/multi-church event and a wonderful way to bring together people from over five churches in the area. After the smash success of our Mother’s Day event we already have plans for a Father’s Day braai (barbeque), a Youth Day gathering, and a wonderful Women’s Day event planned for the upcoming months.

It’s wonderful to be a part of the church reaching out into the community and bringing people together outside of Sunday service. Living with the students has given me many new friendships as well through playing guitar, going to rugby matches, and watching South African soap operas together.

Women of Worth
Women of Worth is a women and children’s empowerment center in Bellville South. They are a multifaceted organization run by incredibly passionate women dedicated to make a real difference in their community.

Several skills-based classes are taught out of the center including comprehensive sewing, beading, fabric painting, mosaic, and handicrafts. It’s wonderful to spend time at the center and have women stop in to talk about how they are able to support themselves financially because of the skills they have learned at the center.

They also are aware of the needs of women in the area and serve as a resource base for women looking for counseling, support, or social services. Several personal development sessions are also held on the premises along with business classes to support women on their way to financial and emotional independence no matter their situation.

My favorite part of working with the WOW center is spending time with their after school program. They reach out to girls in local schools to provide positive role models and a safe environment for discussing women’s issues. We talk about healthy relationships, encourage dreams, and spend a lot of time laughing together.

It’s been inspiring walking with women so passionate about working for real change in their community. I truly look up to them and hope to live out their passion in my own life!

Little Worker Be

Jen & Director, Joy, at the Women's Center

Jen & Director, Joy, at the Women’s Center

Jen reflects about her experience of “being”:

Sitting still has never been my forte. Playing, skipping, dancing, climbing mountains, meeting new people, walking in sunshine, and playing on the beach have always been much better alternatives. It’s a spirit of movement and moving forward and doing things that has come to define me and my outlook on life. As a kid my dad had a game he liked to call “Still” which consisted of him forcing me to sit down and be quiet when I got too rowdy. You can see where this is going. Struggling and yelling, the “game” lasted until I gave up and was actually quiet, giving some much-needed relief and peace for everyone else in the room. The sight must have been pretty amusing to the rest of the world but within my little six-year-old heart it felt like torture.

Coming to South Africa has in some ways felt like “Still” 2.0: lifestyle challenge. One of the main tenets of the Youth and Global Missions program I’m a part of is the saying “Be, not Do”. Hear it enough times at orientation and it begins to sound like an old do-be-do-be-do Motown jam that still doesn’t make any sense. Be? Not do? But doing has been a part of what defines me! I love to make things happen and pursue crazy dreams and am constantly on the move! Shifting my focus to being with my community rather than doing things for my community was a foreign concept.

On my third cup of tea already, hands covered in black paint from a fifth repainting of boxes, I gave up and took a good look around at the other six women in the room at the W.O.W. (Women of Wisdom) women’s center. All smiling, most laughing, relaxed, chatting, the smell over over-sugared coffee overpowering the room. And not a single one of them doing anything remotely “productive.” For a moment I was frustrated, but then a thought occurred to me. I’d kept myself busy for the past two hours but had I really done anything worthwhile?

A smiling glance from Caroline, a quiet, joyful intern caught me. Chatting to a woman in the sewing skills class, their conversation had been going on in rapid Afrikaans for the last half hour. The mission of the WOW center is to “inspire women and give them the support to achieve their best potential.” Painting boxes for the upcoming market day—helpful, but not exactly inspiring. Being friendly and building relationships with women in the community no matter the socioeconomic differences, encouraging each other and listening deeply—now that’s what I would call inspiring. And worth much more than any little thing I could do for the organization.

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!”

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.