Friday, March 25, 2011

A Village On A Dump

Whenever trash accumulates at the care center where I work, we have to take it to the city dump.  I have accompanied Peter on a few of these trips, in which we load up the back of the bakkie (truck) and go to unload the rubbish.  Each time I visit the dump I am struck by the intensity and enormity of the place.  I am also struck by the people who are amongst the trash, living, and doing what is necessary to survive.

As you enter the gates of the dump and approach the dumping area, the sights and smells begin entering your sensory system.  The typical ‘trash’ smell fills the air, and bulldozers moving garbage can be seen all across the complex.  The birds fly around the compound searching for their next meal, and the plethora of hills of garbage fill the horizon.  But what was unexpected for me was the presence of people, many people. 

As we get closer to the dumping area, people swarm our vehicle trying to be the first at the newly arrived “goods.”  This can be a bit intimidating at first, but this is an environment of competition where the concept of ‘first come, first served’ really runs true.  After they see if there is anything worth grabbing right away or not, you continue until you are ready to dump your trash.  As soon as we are done emptying the bakkie of trash, people come and inspect what we have just disposed of. 

These are images I cannot get out of my mind.  Everywhere I looked there were people rummaging through the garbage, searching for things that will add to their daily fight for survival.  My mind wonders to the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  But I wouldn’t say that we are delivering ‘treasure’ to these people.  This is simply their last effort to survive, and they are willing to do what it takes to make it until the next day.  I’m sure if you asked them if they thought this stuff was treasure, they’d just laugh at you.

And as I gaze around the compound, I see little stands with small umbrellas providing shade to women sitting under them.  I realize that these women are selling cool drinks, snacks, sweets and whatever else they may have.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  There are so many people living amongst the trash and spending their days searching for things that there are food stands for them.  The entrepreneurial motivation is both intriguing and upsetting.  It is great to see such innovation but also so incredibly sad that there is a market for this at the city dump.

Every time we drive away from the dump I cannot help but think about the lives of the people who live amongst the garbage.  How I can complain about not liking food when some have no choice?  How can I complain about there being ants in my house when some have no roof over their heads?  How can I complain about not having ‘enough’ when some people don’t have anything?  Seeing people jump for expired food and eat it as if it is their first meal in days is not an image I wish to see daily.  But it is one that continues to light my fire to fight for social justice.  If we are to believe the concept of Ubuntu, or the idea that ‘people are people through other people,’ than we cannot sit idly while our brothers and sisters are forced to live in such heinous conditions.  

The village of people living in the Mangaung dump are not people who will show up on a census.  They will occasionally be greeted with police raids to disperse them from the dump and may never experience the luxuries I’ve had my whole life.  And if nothing is ever done about it, the social and economic inequality will continue to get worse, and the village on the dump will continue to grow.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Beyond The Prison Wall

Tshepo Foundation, my current placement site, has certain companies and people who donate goods, supplies, money, etc.  One of their largest partners is the G4S Mangaung Maximum Security Prison in Bloemfontein.  The prison donates surpluses of onions, pumpkins, spinach, among other food parcels.  But what is special about this partnership is that the prison is also based on a principle of hope.

Today I had the opportunity to tour the G4S prison with Peter, my supervisor, and another local pastor.  Our tour was led by the prison chaplain, Rev. Dawid Kuyler.

The G4S prison is a private prison which is owned and operated by a British company.  The prison is the second largest private prison in the world, housing close to 3,000 inmates.  As it is a maximum security prison, every inmate has been sentenced to at least 10 years of internment.    However, G4S is unlike any prison I have ever heard of before.  They take a very different approach to the justice system, one that could prove to be a pioneer in the criminal justice system.

At the G4S prison there are no armed guards.  The only thing guards have on them is their ID card and a walkie-talkie.  That’s it.  You might think that’s a crazy concept, and you wouldn’t be alone.  But at the G4S prison, the inmates are treated in a way that makes them not want to commit crimes.  They are treated like human beings.

The first thing that happens to an inmate when he arrives at G4S Mangaung is he gets a cup of coffee or tea while discussing the prison.  From the very onset the inmates are treated with dignity and not as a menace to society.  As is often the case in government run prisons, especially in the United States, is that prisoners actually become more dangerous, violent and aggressive while in prison.  They then are released into society as a more dangerous person than when they entered prison.   At G4S, this is avoided.

On all of the employee’s badges, the term “Care and Justice” is written.  This is the concept in which G4S operates.  They provide care for the inmates.  Here are some of the amenities of the G4S Managaung prison:
-Basketball courts
-Soccer fields
-Pool tables
-Exercise equipment
-A religious and secular library

The largest and most fascinating and beneficial difference with the G4S prison is that they provide inmates with skills that will benefit them after their release.  For example, we toured the many workshops at G4S in which inmates were learning woodwork, candle making, arts and crafts, copy machine maintenance, leatherwork, tailoring, and computer literacy.  These are skills that will give the inmates a chance to make a personal income after being released.  It’s true rehabilitation.  For many of the inmates, they had no previous knowledge of their newly learned crafts.  But they now have a valuable skill.  And what is so great is that many of the goods they produce at the prison are either donated to local charities or sold to the community at a low cost.  It is true community involvement and empowerment. 

Not once while touring the prison did I feel uncomfortable or in danger.  I greeted many of the inmates who did the same with a smile on their faces.  In the 10 years of operation, there has only been 1 attempted escape.  It is very rare that inmates will perform dangerous activities, and there is a good rapport between the inmates and employees. 

This was an eye-opening experience for me.  Never before did I know such hope and potential survived behind prison walls.  As I was walking the grounds of the prison, there were inmates playing a game of softball, some cutting the grass, some working out.  I felt as if I was in a little village-a village of hope.  And as pastor Dawid said on our tour today, “The great thing is Tshepo provides hope to people on the ‘outside’ and we provide hope to people on the ‘inside.’”

My hope is that more correctional services emulate the G4S model, and people are given the chance at true rehabilitation which will only benefit our society as a whole.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My South African Sermon

About a month ago, I was handed the preaching schedule for my church parish.  This is the schedule showing who will be giving sermons on what Sundays and what the theme of the services will be.  (In our one parish, we have two congregations, and Moruti Monama cannot give the sermon every Sunday.  Also, it is the custom in my parish that involvement from members is important, so allowing others to preach is considered normal.) 

Well, as I peered at the schedule closely, I discovered the name “Brother A. Steele” listed as the preacher for February 27, 2011.  At first I thought there was a mistake, because no one had told me (or asked) if I could or would preach.  But then I just smiled and shared laughter with my host Dad, Moruti Monama, since I had a feeling this was one of his plans all along.  As I felt the initial tensions of nervousness, I thought to myself, “At least I have a month to prepare!”

The first thing I did was look up the readings for that Sunday.  The gospel was from Matthew 6: 24-34, one of Jesus’ well-known sermons in which he tells his followers “Do not worry.”  And what did I start doing as soon as I started anticipating giving the sermon?  Worry.  But the more I got into the scripture, and really started thinking about the text, I was settling in with the fact that I’d be giving a sermon for the first time…in South Africa.

Finally the Sunday came when I was to preach.  Sunday was a beautiful sunny day, as most days have been here in Bloemfontein.  However, I knew in the back of my mind that the sunny day would mean a hot day, which is never fun when you are wearing a jacket to church.  Nevertheless, I was excited, and I could feel the adrenaline running through me as we arrived at church. 

Before the service I got to “prepare” for the service with the elders, which is something done every week with whoever is preaching.  We sang, prayed and discussed the service.  The service started, and I sat right in the front.  The nerves started to get stronger and stronger as we got closer to the sermon.  Finally it was time, and I headed to the pulpit.  In order to ensure that everyone in the congregation could understand what I was saying, we had an interpreter during the sermon.  At first I thought this might throw off the flow, but it actually acted as a good pause for me to prepare the next line.

There were some “Amens” and many interested eyes as I gazed out across the congregation.  The heat was causing some perspiration but perhaps it added to the ambiance of the experience.  I really was relishing in the moment and getting into it.  Maybe it’s all the sermons I’ve heard from my mom and dad, perhaps it was the Holy Spirit, but I supposedly sounded like I knew what I was doing. 

I really loved the experience.  What an “awesome” opportunity it was, and to be accepted with such love from my congregation was great.  I’ll always remember my South African sermon and Sunday February 27th will be a service I will never forget.

Below is a transcript of my sermon:

Six months ago I had no idea what tomorrow would bring.  I was leaving everything I knew, and traveling across the world to spend a year of my life serving God.  As I was boarding my plane headed towards South Africa last August, I must admit I was worried.  I was worried about leaving home, meeting my new hosts and living in a foreign country.  But after much prayer and thought, I became accepting of my placement in God’s Kingdom.  And now, six months later, I have never been happier than I am today.  I put my full trust in the LORD’s hands, and he provided a welcoming church parish, a loving host family, and experiences that have changed my life for the better.  My faith in God has strengthened, and I have put my trust in him every step of the way while in South Africa. 
This experience has humbled me, and taught me that trust in GOD is the only way to achieve true strength and happiness.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus tells us not to serve wealth and material goods, and he also tells us not to worry about the many things in life we tend to stress about. 
How often do we find ourselves obsessing over material goods?  We are all guilty of wanting wealth.  Whether it be new clothes, new CDs, a new computer, or just more money.  Our society has become one that serves wealth.  But Jesus tells us, “You cannot serve GOD and wealth.”  So when will we stop wanting more wealth, and stop spending more time thinking about wealth than about God?  It will only happen when we have totally committed ourselves to the Kingdom of God and put our full trust in him.  If our trust is in God, than we will not need fancy clothes or large houses, for we have the gift of God's love in Christ that is greater than anything we can do for ourselves.

And as we strive to serve God above all else, Jesus encourages us not to worry.  He tests to see where our faith is in regard to the every day cares of life.  If we cannot trust God in these every day moments, how can we expect to trust God's greater actions?

Jesus tells us we should not worry about what we eat, what we drink, or what clothes we will wear. 

When Jesus says not to worry about what you will eat, he does not mean that food is unimportant; for we have been taught to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  But what is important, is that we must TRUST in GOD to provide it!  Without that trust in God, why should we even pray for it?

Worrying about things is of human nature.  But we as humans also confuse our priorities.  Jesus asks, “Is life not more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?”  If God provides for the animals and plants of the World, surely he will provide for us, for we are the children of God.  We were created in God’s image, we just need to trust in him.

It should not just be emotions we feel towards GOD, but rather part of our heart, soul, mind and strength.  God gave us all that we have, so we must give what we have back in return.  We have been blessed with this life by God’s Grace, and this is something always to be thankful for.  And to love God requires much service and sacrifice.  We shall not only serve our LORD, but also our neighbors.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a motto that says, “God’s Work, Our Hands.”  We cannot worry about what we are to do, but instead stay true to our faith in God and perform his works. 
There will be times in our lives that we must sacrifice for others.  But instead of worrying about our sacrifices, we can express the love we have for God while performing our works.

Being here today is a testimony to the grace of God, and expresses how blessed we truly are.  We have the awesome gift of life and are here today to express our love for God.  But the essence of true life comes only when life is received as a gift.  God does not wish us to be anxious about everyday parts of life.  He wishes us to be joyful with his love upon us.  And the body and Life are not the only gifts given to us by God.  God gave us faith in him, and his presence comforts us with love and compassion. 
We must be thankful for what we have, be joyful in our lives, and serve God’s Kingdom in return. 

God is a gracious creator, faithful to his creation.  Trust GOD with a whole and undivided heart.  I know that putting your entire trust into something can be hard.  But God has given us his grace, and no matter what troubles we come across in life, we have his grace to save us.  So as we devote our lives to the kingdom of God, we cannot not be afraid to take a step when the 2nd and 3rd steps are not in view.

Leaving your comfort zone is not an easy thing to do.  It is easy to become worried about your future, especially when times are tough.  How can a student not worry about a test in the coming days?  How can someone not worry about their future when looking for a job?  How can a mother not worry about the well-being of her young child?  But if you remain faithful to God and put all of your trust into his love for you, you can leave your worries behind. 

There may be times when we go to bed hungry.  There may be times when the clothing on our body is not enough.  But if we truly take God seriously, we know God created both body AND Life and will provide for us.  The one who created body and life will surely take care of food and clothing!

As Lutherans, we have a comfort that should never let us get carried away with the stressful situations in life.  With baptism and by the Grace of God, we are not defined by what we eat, what we wear, what we look like.  We are defined by something much greater: the love and trust we have in our GOD, and we have a prosperous eternal life ahead of us.  That should be comforting and eliminate all worries.

This week a friend of mine shared the following with me:
If you live in the past, you'll be depressed.
If you live in the future, you'll be stressed.
If you live in the present, you'll be blessed.

God has not given us the strength today needed for tomorrow’s difficulties.   Today must be fulfilled before tomorrow arrives. 

Psalm 95:7 reads “O That TODAY you would listen to his voice.”
Lamentations 3:22-23 “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; They are new EVERY MORNING; great is your faithfulness.”

It is true that when tomorrow comes there will be new troubles,
but OH will there be renewed strength!

God will take care of you, so take care of God's justice in the world.  There is more to life than concern for daily needs, though this may be difficult to understand at times.  But Jesus expects his followers to do things that give more meaning to life.  We shall work to learn how God is working in the world and how to participate in acts of justice on God's behalf.  Beyond that, everything else will take care of itself.  Or, as Jesus said, God will deal with the rest.