Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Seeing Christmas Differently

Bosigong kwa Bethlehem,
Ke bomang mo ‘sakeng?
Bo-Maria le Josef bat eng
Le ngwanyana yo ba mmonyeng,
Yo o tswang ‘godimong.

This is not a random set of Sotho words or phrases.  This is not a poem or some kind of Sotho saying.  This is the first stanza of the song “Silent Night” in Sotho, Hymn number 15 in our ELCSA hymnal.  It may look daunting, but give singing it a try, (don’t worry about your pronunciations, I struggled in the beginning just the same.) 

Singing songs like this in church, in a completely foreign language to me, reinforces South Africa’s motto, ‘Unity in Diversity.’  This powerful term not only refers to the people, cultures and societal norms of the country, but also to the Lutheran church.  As the ELCA and ELCSA share many of the same hymns, creeds and prayers, there are also many ways in which the churches differ from each other.  For instance, at my home congregation, offering is given by somberly passing a plate down your pew.  Here, offering is a celebration and people dance up the aisle, singing praises of thanks to God for being able to offer some of their money to the church.  And while there are many similar and contrasting aspects of church at home and in South Africa, I began to think of the differences during Christmas.   

For the majority of us, Christmas in America means Santa Claus, decorations and lights, Christmas cookies, popular Christmas songs, and a myriad of family traditions.  Christmas in America really seems to last over a month, as many store decorations and TV commercials would suggest.  Our capitalist society has commercialized the most significant Biblical occurrence of our time.   And as time goes on and years pass by, have we lost the foundations for what Christmas is really about?  Do we stretch our traditions and celebrations too far into the secular world and away from our core Christian beliefs?

Let’s pause for a moment.  Recently I have been thinking a lot about Christmas and the holiday season, trying to make sense of it all.  And it was truly hard to connect the dots. 

Let’s start with good ‘ol Saint Nick.  What a strange, mysterious, inconspicuous man he is.  An old, yet never-aging, man who routinely conducts in burglary and breaking and entering each holiday season.  Besides the North Pole, Santa visits shopping malls more than anywhere else, perhaps so he can pick up those gifts that his elves can’t produce in his shop.  And Santa has been climate-aware for some time, as his Reindeer surely don’t produce the amount of emissions many of our gas guzzling SUV’s do.  But what is the point of Santa Claus?  Where did this odd custom and tradition come from?  Without a quick Wikipedia search, I’m sure the majority of us would have no idea on the origins of Santa Claus. 

Despite Santa being a stranger, I always loved him.  And it’s a good thing growing up I always had a chimney because I always felt bad for the kids who weren’t getting presents due to their lack of chimney accessibility.  And I have to be honest, I probably found myself praying more to Santa Claus asking him for the newest gaming system than I did praying to God.

In addition to my love for Santa, I have a love of cookies.  I love cookies so much I could probably live off them, but then I’d most likely accumulate the gut, hypertension and rosy-red cheeks of Santa himself.  And I always loved our Christmas tree.  I loved the smell of a newly cut Douglas fir or other conifer tree, standing in the corner of our living room, shining bright and sparkling from the assortment of ornaments on it.  I never did love carrying the tree up the stairs into the house, watering the tree or cleaning up all the fallen needles.  I was never really fond of our dogs and cats knocking it over, either.  Nonetheless, I loved seeing that tree with gifts under it each Christmas morning.  But I suppose I never stopped and thought to myself, “Why are we putting a tree in our house?  Did I miss something in Matthew that said “Thy must place tree in house to show one’s love for Christ?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love the American Christmas traditions as much as the next person.  But what my Christmas in South Africa has taught me is in order to remember the real reasons we celebrate Christmas, I had to live Christmas differently.  My Christmas here was one of simplistic beauty, of pure jubilation for the birth of our Savior and of giving thanks to God for sending only Son to us.  Being in the Southern Hemisphere changed what I came to associate Christmas with.  Instead of bundling up and wishing for a white Christmas, I threw on my shades and enjoyed eating our meal outside in the summer Sun.  There was no Christmas tree, no outside lights, no cookies, and no Santa.  There was happiness, love of family and love of Jesus.  Everything I had come to know and associate with Christmas was different.

My coordinator, Brian Konkol, shared a quote with us on Christmas day from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality…He confronts you in every person you meet.  He walks on the Earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, and makes his demands.  That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message.  Christ stands at the door.  He lives in the form of the person in our midst.”

This is what so many of us seem to forget at Christmas.  This is the reality of the holiday, and what it’s truly about. As I continue to meet new people each and every day, I must carry this message of Christmas along with me.  And as I am a lover of tradition and whole-heartedly enjoy the Christmas festivities, I don’t believe there should be an end to them.  However, I challenge you as I continue to challenge myself, to stop and think at times, and ponder how relevant our actions may be to Christ.  In the midst of preparing Christmas dinner or driving from mall to mall, or stressing over material things we want, we should stop and thank God for the truly best Christmas gift of all, Christ Jesus.  

This blog entry was written for the ELCA MUD3 blog, which can be viewed at: http://elcamud.blogspot.com/

A New Chapter in My Journey

The past month has been one of exciting opportunities and new beginnings for me.  I had the opportunity to spend an amazing Thanksgiving holiday with my MUD3 family and a beautiful Christmas holiday with my Monama host family.  I was able to visit another YAGM’s site in Limpopo and experience the culture in the northern parts of South Africa.  I am truly blessed for the experiences I have endured recently.

That being said, I am also undergoing a transition full of new beginnings and opportunities.  In the last month, I have moved in with my ELCSA host, Rev. Monama.  In order to receive a more well-rounded experience and learn from the Bloemfontein community in new ways, we decided to transition to new opportunities in the coming year.  I am looking forward to meeting many new people and finding new challenging and rewarding work.  I thank God for my time at Lebone Village and will always cherish my experiences, memories and relationships I made there. 

Due to my new accommodation, my mailing address has changed as well.  My new mailing address is as follows:

Andrew Steele
29 Springbok Street
Fauna, Bloemfontein
9301, South Africa

I thank you for accompanying me on my journey during this transition period.  I look forward to the exciting new opportunities ahead, and can’t wait to share them with you in the future.

Have a wonderful New Year and God bless!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Limpopo-A Trip to Remember

On December 14, I had the opportunity to travel to the Limpopo province with my pastor’s family, the Monama’s.  The Monama’s are originally from Limpopo, which is the northern most province in South Africa.  So they were going back home to visit family and attend some events.  I was lucky enough to tag along.

On our way up, we made several stops to see family and friends of the Monamas.  We picked up Mrs. Monama’s mother at the Johannesburg airport and headed up to her home in Ga-Marishane, a small rural village south of Polokwane in Limpopo.  We arrived late at night, but couldn’t go right to sleep because we were too excited to be in Limpopo and finally at our stop.  The house was beautiful and had a very cozy feel to it.  This is also when I had my first experiences living without running water.  In Ga-Marishane the running water is controlled and only turned on periodically throughout the week in order to conserve.  This means that if you need water for anything, you need a backup plan.  At the house was a large rain water collection tank with a tap, which is where we got our water for cooking, cleaning, drinking and bathing.  Just a short time in Ga-Marishane made me realize the realities of the water crisis in this world, and sure did make me realize how much I have taken for granted.

The next day I was dropped off at fellow YAGM Heather Nelson’s placement site in the rural village of Masealama, east of Polokwane.  She lives at a drop-in center for orphans and vulnerable children operated by the Lutheran church.  And again, Masealama is a village without the services of running water.  In order to obtain water, we had to fill large buckets with water at tanks used by the village and transport them back to the house via wheelbarrow.  This can be a trying task, as the dirt paths and gravel roads pose a difficult time of pushing the water back to where you need it.  During my 3 days at Heather’s site, we visited the local University, went hiking up a nearby mountain, and did some physical work around her site.  Heather also had baked a few dozen Christmas cookies, which were so good that I probably ate over half of them.  She was also constantly playing Christmas music, trying to get in the mood as much as possible despite the summer temperatures and lack of American commercialized holiday festivities. Oh, and did I mention I ate chicken intestines for the first time?  Not too bad!

Intestines via chicken

As the weekend approached, Heather joined me as we met up with the Monama’s again for a weekend full of activities.  On Saturday we attended an 80th birthday celebration for a woman who attends Rev. Monama’s former parish.  We had the chance to not only meet a lot of great people, but also see the area that Rev. Monama used to serve in his former parish.  That evening we made several stops, seeing old friends and family of the Monama’s.  On Sunday we attended a large church service, with confirmations and baptisms.  Rev. Monama also had the chance to preach and give a sermon in a church that he helped establish.  And in the mix of the service, the Monama family greeted the congregation and called Heather and I up to the front and introduced us as part of the Monama family.  It was a great worship experience.  That afternoon we traveled to a very rural, remote village for a wedding celebration.  I was amazed to see how many people were there despite not seeing many people or a paved road for tens of kilometers.  Heather and I enjoyed sitting back and watching the traditional celebration occur, but we also had our fair share of interested people coming up to talk to us.  It is extremely rare for outsiders, let alone Americans, to be at such an event in such a rural village.  A lot of people wanted to greet us, ask us questions, and show us a good time.  The people were so nice and really made the event a lot of fun.

From left to right: The best man, Rev. Monama, "T-Pain Monama", Groom, Me

That evening we drove back to Maselama to drop Heather off and spend the night before our departure in the morning.  It was also nice because the Monamas could see Dean NJ Sikhwari of the Mphome Circuit of ELCSA.  The Dean and the Monamas have long been friends, and it was a great opportunity for them to catch up.  Dean Sikhwari is an amazing woman, the first woman Dean in ELCSA.  She is full of powerful messages, prayer and has surely been a blessing to ELCSA.

My trip to Limpopo was full activity and I met so many wonderful people.  It was great to see so many places that were important to the Monamas and seeing where someone is from is always nice.  The day we left was somewhat of a sad day, since we had such a great time.  I felt honored to be considered part of the family on this trip, and I will always remember my experiences in Limpopo.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Strength Through Weakness

Recently at Lebone, I was walking around the fields going from one place or another.  But this walk was unlike all others.  There was a countless amount of white butterflies floating aimlessly around the field.  I stopped to take in the moment, because their presence was truly remarkable.  It could have been an image in a movie.  I was walking through the tall grass, hands stretched out, with butterflies flying all around me as the blades of grass ran through my fingers.  At that moment, I felt at peace with nature, myself, and God.  There was something about these newly transformed creatures floating around, moving with the wind as each gust would take them on a new journey, that made me stop and take it all in.  It was one of those moments that a picture could never fully capture.

After standing in the tall grass for some time, I rushed to find Willem, my supervisor, and ask the what, where and why questions about this ‘butterfly effect.’  Willem informed me that the white butterflies all around the property were actually once cut worms, small little worms that quite literally cut vegetation when they are feeding.  This caught me by surprise, because these creatures that created such a beautiful, wonderful scene, were the same animals that cut many of our seedlings in half and which I have grown to despise.  But this got me thinking.

The cut worm butterfly could act as a metaphor for South Africa.  Like the cut worm that used to destroy plants, cut stems in half and prevent progress, the government system of Apartheid acted quite similarly.  And then, in 1994, the first democratic elections were held in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela becoming the nation’s first democratically elected president.  And as the metamorphic process between the cut worm and white butterfly would become, the oppressive system of Apartheid transformed into a beautifully orchestrated new democratic state.  And now, in an important stage in the nation’s young life, it can be easy for people and policies to seem to float aimlessly just like the white butterflies in the African wind.  And this is understandable, it takes time for foundations to be built, relationships to be made and mended, and reconciliation to take place.  It has been fascinating to see this all take place during my year in South Africa.  I have been all around this beautiful country, to the mountains of KwaZulu-Natal, the plains of Kimberley, the rocky shores of Cape Town, and I have seen this new country taking form. 

And as an observer, I have realized that I have found it easy to fall into the trap of someone looking at a situation and being judgmental at times.  How could someone feel that way?  How could anyone say something like that?  How could something ever get like this?  These are just some of the questions I may ask myself.  But who am I to come to this country and make assumptions and judgments about its past, present and future?  The United States faces many uphill challenges with race, class and socioeconomic situations.  How can I judge someone who doesn’t ride the public kombi taxis here, if I rarely rode the public buses and taxis at home?  How can I judge people for only hanging out with people of their race if I didn’t exactly live a life of racial plurality at home?  And as I look at my life in South Africa and my life in America, there is something I have realized. 

I am weak, much weaker than I thought. 

My feet are weak compared to those who must walk greater lengths each day than I have ever imagined before.  There are so many who walk to and from work, to the grocery store, or to fetch life’s most important item, water. 

My hands are weak compared to all the people whose livelihoods depend on strong, working hands.  The weathering and history in the hands of those who work long hours in the fields, in shops, or at ports give me a newfound respect for their tireless work.

My heart is weak compared to the millions who have lost loved ones to HIV/AIDS, a disease that can be easily controlled if properly medicated and treated.  There continues to be an unacceptable amount of people dying each day from this disease and this is something I never had to deal with at home in the States.

My skin is weak compared to those that have no choice but to sleep outside, or in tin shelters located in informal settlements.  I never experience the extreme hot or cold that many of them do.

My view of the world is weak compared to those living in South Africa.  At home, we always refer to the ‘real world’ as life in the capitalist rat race after college.  But the ‘real world’ is here.  There are challenges and circumstances that many people at home never face.

And the funny thing is that as weak as I am at this point, I am immensely stronger than I was 3 months ago when I arrived.  My love of life, of Christ and of others has reached a new pinnacle.  I am infinitely grateful for the relationships I’ve made and the ones that have grown into fruitful experiences.  As I continue to learn more about this wonderful place, and witness moments in nature and life that make me think of the wonders of South Africa, I slowly become stronger.  And as it states in Deuteronomy 31:6, “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”  There is still so much room for personal growth, and I will continue to relish in the surreal moments of serenity and peaceful realization.