In Desmond Tutu’s book, God Has A Dream, Tutu states,
“God’s dream wants us to be brothers and sisters, wants us to be family.”
As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I am experiencing a new sense of family while in South Africa. Family is no longer just my Mom, Dad and two sisters. Family is much more than that to me now. And as each day passes with new experiences and created relationships, my family grows. And with that extended family comes the happiness and joys but also the sorrow and pain. Recently, I met one of my newly extended family members, and I felt her pain.
As I was going about my busy day at Tshepo Day Care center, I actually had to teach a grade R class (kindergarten) for the day, as our grade R teacher couldn’t make it to work. It was quite a stressful day, as I wasn’t really prepared to teach 20 children, none of whom speak English. But the day was going on well, and it finally came to a point where it was nap time for the children. During that time, a woman named Sophie came to the Day Care center, asking for assistance for her and her family. As Sophie waited in our Hall for her food, I sat with her and engaged in a conversation that impacted me like none other.
As I took a seat opposite Sophie, I could already sense the pain in her heart. We began talking and I started asking how she was doing and what her situation was. Sophie then started telling me her story. Her grandmother had just recently passed away, and her grandmother was her guardian and only person looking over her, her 18 year old sister and 2 year old baby, and her 14 year old brother. Sophie’s parents had passed away, and at 26, she was now responsible for watching over her younger siblings and niece. But the passing of her grandmother was difficult for another reason; her grandmother was the only one receiving a grant from the government. The grant, a measly R1,000 a month, (approx. USD $145) was supporting a family of 5.
At this point in her story, Sophie’s eyes began to water. She looked out the window, seemingly trying to fixate on something to keep herself from getting too emotional. I felt so helpless. I realized that this was a very difficult point in her life, one that I’ve never had to experience myself. She continued with her story, describing how her brother is in High School and has school fees to pay. She explained how she has a strong desire to work, but can’t get a job because she has Tuberculosis. She told me how she is alone, with no food, no work, and no hope. At this point, Sophie had become quite emotional. I couldn’t help but become emotional myself, as I could see the pain and sadness in her eyes. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. No matter how hard I could try, I could never relate to the pain and hardships she was feeling. I did what I could to provide comfort and assurance that things would work out. All I could do was think to myself, “What can I do right now to help her and her family? I have to do anything in my power, anything.” But as I searched for comforting words, it was hard to find some that could bring comfort to someone in such pain, with such a hopeless feeling . When I asked Sophie what was the most important thing that she needed right away, she answered, “Food and a bed.” In her one room tin shack in the informal settlement, her and her family have no beds to sleep on. They must sleep on the uneven dirt floor every night. As I sat there with tears slowly falling from my watery eyes, I couldn’t help but think how much I’ve taken for granted in life. How lucky and blessed I’ve been. How this woman, very close to my age, is living a life so contrasted to mine that you wouldn’t think we could be in the same room together. This was the first time I’ve truly felt someone’s pain from such poverty. The empathy I’ve had after reading books or seeing statistics on impoverished situations didn’t even compare to the compassion I was now experiencing. As our conversation came to a close, we stood up and we embraced each other with a hug. As I held her in my arms, and all I could say was, “Everything’s going to be alright.” But I knew that I was lying to myself and her.
Whenever I’ve faced hardships in my life, I could always go with the “everything’s going to be alright” mentality because, more likely than not, it was. But that’s because I’ve never had to face challenges like Sophie’s. I’ve never had to go to sleep with an empty stomach. I’ve never had to sleep on a dirt floor in a one room house. I’ve never had to go to someone else to ask for food in order to survive. I’ve never had to take care of my younger siblings on my own. I haven’t even met anyone in a situation like this until I met Sophie.
As I continue to move on with my daily life and the comforts that come with it, I can’t stop thinking about Sophie. And what makes everything even more upsetting is that her story is only one of millions around the world. And for the most part, many people like me have never sat down and heard a story from someone like Sophie. But as I’ve learned during my year here, everyone is part of my family, including Sophie.
I will continue to cry for Sophie, and for the millions just like her until there is economic justice in our world. I’ll never forget the conversation that will forever be a part of me. And as I continue to work in solidarity with people like Sophie, my big extended family will continue to increase. Despite the color of my skin or my country of origin, I am making new brothers and sisters every day in South Africa.
And as Desmond Tutu provides the following questions for reflection, I too provide them to you:
“What would it mean for you to see everyone around you as a brother or sister? How would you treat them differently? What keeps you from welcoming them into your family? As you see people in the street, and opinions, judgments, and prejudices leap to mind, can you see them as not this or that, but as a child of God, as your brother or sister?”
These questions had a very different meaning to me when I first read them. But today, as I continue to reflect on these questions and others, I do so while remembering Sophie, the newest member of my family.
This blog entry was written for the ELCA MUD3 blog, which can be viewed at: http://elcamud.blogspot.com/