Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope

July 18, 2010, is the 92 birthday of Nelson Mandela. We take a moment this day to honor his amazing life. A year ago on Mandela Day, I was walking through the apartheid museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. This is my reflection I wrote for my home church after the trip last summer.

"Where there is poverty and sickness, where human beings are being oppressed, there is more work to be done. Our work is for freedom for all. After 90 years of life, it is time for news hands to lift the burdens. It is in your hands now."

-Nelson Mandela, Hyde Park, London, June 2008

For me, South Africa was a place where I could really begin to visualize what being liberated to hope looks like. While I was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, working with some of the local churches, my pastor asked me to help lead a trip to South Africa. The idea came out of a desire to partner Allison United Methodist Church in Carlisle with Manning Road Methodist Church in Durban South Africa. The associate pastor at Manning Road had grown up at Allison UMC and gone to seminary at Duke, where she had the opportunity to intern at Manning Road one summer, and they eventually asked her to come back and serve as their associate pastor. She wanted to link her home church with the church she currently served. I have always wanted to lead a mission trip, and so agreed to help, particularly because everyone was willing to make an effort to do mission differently for this trip.

We used South African pastor Trevor Hudson's book Walk a Mile in My Shoes to design a pilgrimage of pain and hope. This is a pilgrimage designed mainly to get privileged people out of their closed communities to see the larger world around them, to listen, to learn, to connect. To be exposed to pain, but also see the hope existing in the community through the ministries already going on in the community.

We saw a lot of pain here. You can see the poverty in these pictures. There are a million people living in the slums, or townships, of Cape Town. Miles and miles of shacks, wounds left by apartheid. We didn't learn about apartheid in school, but I wasn't even 7 years old in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's first democratic president. So, in brief, apartheid was a segregationist policy in which people of color were denied dignity, evicted from homes in mixed communities and forced into ghettos. And still today, the poverty is overwhelming. And of course, with poverty comes crime, a huge problem throughout South Africa.

But the hope here was so strong. I'm going to use my experience of one day on the trip to illustrate this. One morning in Durban, we went to this huge, falling down building, walked up three flights of steps that smelled of urine and weren't lit at all. But when we got to the third floor, the place lit up with light and color and the laughter of children. We were visiting a preschool and day care run by a group called Union of Refugee Women. Jeanine, supervisor of the school and founding member of the Union of Refugee Women and a refugee from Burundi told us how they began with five women car guards and their children and have since expanded.

We took the older class of children to the zoo. And then the playground.
While pushing one of the little girls on the swing, I heard a her singing "If you're happy and you know it." And that really touched me, a child like that who hardly ever goes outside, still is evidence of hope because her singing proves what happens with just a little love.
That night, we headed to Anna's church for dinner. Refugee women who are part of the Manning Road congregation had been preparing another feast for us since eleven in the morning with a donation we had made to them (they don't normally get such meals). These women and their families had taken sanctuary at Anna's church during the three month xenophobic crisis last year and ended up staying to become part of the church family.

We walked into the hall which was warmed by good food and smiling faces. We were welcomed with song, and we offered a song as well. Then food was heaped on our plates and we sat down, conversing in between bites. We talked of homelands, families, politics, of the beauty of being multilingual. So much pain and suffering yet such joy in fellowship.

While there, I talked to a man named Fabien from the Democratic Republic of Congo in French--- a man who spoke at least three languages, how beautiful. One of the things I asked him was why he thought his country and the countries around him are still plagued by such violence and cruelty. I mean, I had my ideas about how Western nations continue to colonize third world countries economically and politically by encouraging debt and corruption. But Fabien said that the violence was a result of a lack of leadership.

That really hit home when I thought about South Africa and how the first democratic president had been a political prisoner for almost thirty years, had been degraded and abused and yet he and other leaders preached reconciliation. Unity. That's such a powerful message. Alleluia. Amen.

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