Monday, May 30, 2011

50 Days

Seriously?!  Really?!  No way!!

As I was walking around downtown Bloem this afternoon, I started to think and realized that I have exactly 50 days left until I leave South Africa.

I couldn’t believe it.  I actually stopped in my tracks, quickly did the math and realized that I was in fact correct.  This hit me like a brick from the sky, and I immediately felt a bit of sadness.  Of course I started to think of all the things I am going to miss once I leave.  I will miss my host siblings starting our nightly prayers with, “Thank you Lord for the world so sweet.”  I will miss the warm African sun and the way it introduces me to a new day as I walk to my taxi in the mornings.  I will miss the everyday excitements and twists and turns that have made my life exhilarating.  I will miss the spontaneous conversations between complete strangers that open my mind and heart to things I’ve never before conceived.  (The list goes on and on, but I will save that for my blogs closer to my departure!)

And so I began thinking to myself, “Ok Steele, you have to live it up your last 50 days here.  You have to spend every minute here in a worthwhile way and not take anything for granted.”  But then I realized that I’ve pretty much lived this entire year like that so far.  Everyone is guilty of taking things for granted, and I have been no exception throughout my life.  But I have lived so differently this year, and can honestly feel good about how I’ve spent my time.  I have been so blessed to be here, and truly understand what a privilege it is to serve my community.  So all I could do was smile and promise myself to really embrace my remaining days here.

My hope is that this newfound attitude towards life, time, and each waking day will stick with me when I am back home in the States.  I also hope that some of my experiences, stories and reflections will inspire others to see each day as a blessing, and to seize every opportunity in front of them.  I’ll never forget the day a friend here asked me, “Druza, are you ever in a bad mood?”  I could only simply answer, “Well, I am alive and am loving my life, so no.”  Don’t let a bad situation or mood get in the way of you embracing and loving life, the most awesome gift God has given us.

So later in my day I was browsing through a book in a bookstore when I came across a picture that caught my eye.  The picture was of a painting of an active township scene, with signs above a building displaying a phrase that perfectly sums up how I feel about my year here.  It read:

“Some say I’m in Africa.  The truth is…Africa is in me.” 

This will never change, not even 51 days from now when I am no longer in South Africa.  I will take the lessons Africa has taught me home, especially the lesson to Live Life.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Two Weeks of Changing Lives

The last two weeks (or so) have been some of the most rewarding, extraordinary days of my year thus far.  I had two different but equally amazing experiences, and I thought it was worth sharing with you.

Tshepo Foundation Sea Trip

On May 8, the Tshepo Foundation (where I volunteer) embarked on a very progressive, worthwhile and awesome project.  We took 23 orphans and vulnerable children to the sea for the first time in their lives.  We all packed on a mini bus and left Bloemfontein around 4am and headed south.  Our destination was Jeffrey’s Bay, a surfing town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.  Jeffrey’s Bay is actually considered one of the world’s best surfing locations on the globe, and the plethora of surfer dudes in the town are a testament to its ‘supertube’ waves.

After our long journey of 11 hours, we finally made it to the sea.  We stayed in a nice Christian operated hostel, only 2 blocks from the beach.  The kids were so excited to be there that they couldn’t wait until the next day to see the ocean.  So we walked them down to the beach, and their reactions were priceless.  They all sprinted to the water from the edge of the beach, and dipped their toes in the water.  They didn’t know quite what to do with the waves, and the excited apprehension was a beautiful sight.  The smiles and pure joy were plentiful, and it was such an incredibly special moment. 

All of the children we took to the sea are in great need, and are either orphaned or living in extreme poverty.  None of them had seen the sea before, and many may never have had the chance if not for Tshepo Foundation and this trip.  Throughout the week, the kids couldn’t stop smiling.  It was a week of pure bliss, of forgetting the troubles and struggles back home, and time to relax.  I, too, couldn’t stop smiling the entire week.  Sitting back and seeing the kids discover the wonders of the crashing waves, endless sand and surplus of sea shells was incredible. 

For me, the beach is a very spiritual place and probably where I feel most connected to God.  The awesomeness of the ocean and the beauty of the ecosystems along the water are a constant reminder of the power, love and grace of the Lord.  And I think the kids got the same feeling.

The Steele’s come to South Africa

Immediately after the sea trip, my family arrived in South Africa to spend 10 days with me.  I was elated to welcome them to the Rainbow Nation, and was excited to show them the people and places that have so greatly impacted me over the last 9 months. 

Despite being jet lagged, my family was a bunch of troopers.  We had a few hiccups along the way, most notably the manual car with the wheel on the right, all while driving on the left side of the road.  I had to do quite a lot of directing and navigating from Shotgun as my parents adjusted to driving here.  (Oh and the massive flat tire we got in Lesotho was a bit of a hiccup.)  But we persevered through all of the adversities and made a plan in every situation. 

On May 15, we shared a very special church service with my home parish in Bloemfontein.  My parents were in the service, and it was one of the coolest cross cultural religious experiences any of us Steele’s have been a part of.  My father gave the sermon, my mother baptized two children and they both gave Holy Communion.  My mother, bless her heart, had tears in her eyes the entire service because of how incredibly special, loving and spiritual the day was.  Afterwards, the Steele’s had a braai, (or BBQ) with the Monama’s.  So this was a time where my American family got to spend time with my African family.  We feasted well into the evening, and I was so happy to be able to have both of my families finally spend time together.

Later in the week we headed to Lesotho, the place that first changed me and planted the seeds of service deep within my soul.  It was important for me to show my family the place that has played such an intricate role in shaping who I have become, and it was an equally inspiring experience for them.  There is just something about those Maluti mountains and the Basotho who live simply but with so much love. 

And to end the week we spent time in Kruger National Park in northern South Africa, a wildlife reserve the size of Wales.  We spent time on game drives observing the wildlife and weren’t disappointed in what we saw.  We saw many animal species, from the common Hornbill to the rare Cheetah.  And being in Kruger gave us a spiritual feeling, for it is a place of such enormity and endless wilderness, that it reminded us of God’s awesomeness. 

I continue to be blessed during my time here, and the last two weeks have continued the trend.  Being a part of such a unique trip to the sea with such wonderful children was a great opportunity.  And being able to share my life for the last 9 months with my family will always be something I cherish and something my family will always share together.  I look forward to the final two months of my service and will start mourning the approaching departure date from this amazing country.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Amazin' Dr. Rowan

Tshepo Care Center, where I currently volunteer, is a special place for many reasons.  It is a beacon of hope for children in one of Bloem’s poorest townships.  It provides 155 children with 2 meals every day and a safe environment to learn and play.  The children of Tshepo Care Center also have a unique chance to be seen by a general practitioner doctor, something many have never been able to do in their lives.

A few years ago, the University of the Free State sent its first medical students to Tshepo Care Center to volunteer and conduct a project.  At UFS, third year medical students are required to volunteer with a local NGO and help raise funds and awareness for the organization.  Students then present their work to the department, and the project is a major part of their overall grade.  Well, a few years back a third year student named Rowan Nichol was assigned to Tshepo Care Center.  And now, several years later, Dr. Rowan Nichol is still making weekly trips to Tshepo.

In March of this year, Tshepo celebrated their 10th anniversary as a Foundation and Care Center.  The anniversary also saw the opening of a wellness center, which provides unprecedented medical attention to the children attending Tshepo, as well as the surrounding community.  The wellness center is complete with a bed, examination table, desk, scale, sink, and a cabinet full of medical supplies.  Dr. Rowan has been coming to Tshepo weekly for two years now, each time seeing at least 8 children.  She gives the children a basic check-up physical exam, which has proved life saving in some cases.

Many children living in the Freedom Square township have never seen a doctor.  The clinics available to the general public in South Africa are commonly crowded and under staffed.  So the opportunity to see a doctor is something many of the people in Freedom Square never have the chance to do.

Dr. Rowan coming to Tshepo once a week during her busy schedule is no little matter.  She has discovered many ailments, some which are of a serious matter.  She has discovered HIV in some children, TB in others.  Just earlier this week she discovered a tick in the inner year of a child, something that could have ended up terribly if it wasn’t for her early intervention. 

When Dr. Rowan diagnoses something, she then refers the children to see specialists, something that again would be impossible otherwise.  When the illness is serious enough, Tshepo will even help with the prescription medicine.  It is so beautiful to witness her selfless work each and every week.

The acts of Dr. Rowan are truly inspiring.  She does this for no money, just out of the love and kindness in her heart.  She is the true epitome of a Christian, acting as a Christian.  Tshepo is blessed to have her services, and the many children whose lives she has saved or improved will be a lasting testament to her loving commitment to equality in healthcare. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Young Adults Aren't Sticking With Church

An article by Cathy Lynn Grossman appeared in the USA Today titled “Young Adults Aren’t Sticking With Church.”

The article presents findings by a recent survey on young people’s memberships and involvement in Protestant churches.  The article states:

“Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30. That means about one in four Protestant young people have left the church.”

This is startling news, even though many of us knew that church attendance in Protestant churches was down.  I personally witnessed it at my home congregation in New Jersey.  Growing up, there was a core group of us regularly attending Sunday School and Confirmation class.  But quickly after we were all confirmed, I saw less and less of my Lutheran comrades sitting in the pews on Sundays.  I always attributed their absences to college, the American rat race or moving away.  But there are other reasons that so many young adults leave the church in their large droves.  

In the article, Ed Stetzer, director of Nashville-based LifeWay Research, states, “"Too many youth groups are holding tanks with pizza. There's no life transformation taking place.  People are looking for a faith that can change them and to be a part of changing the world."  It is true, there is more of a connection to the deep dish supreme than the gospel in youth groups these days.  LifeWay Research associate director, Scott McConnell puts it this way, “It seems the teen years are like a free trial on a product. By 18, when it's their choice whether to buy in to church life, many don't feel engaged and welcome.”  There is simply a lack of a connection for many youth in the church.  There lacks the spark that engages people, that gives them feeling in their hearts, minds, souls and faith. 

I recently read Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical.  It is a great book in which Claiborne shows how ordinary people can be radical in their faith if they do things  in unique ways.  And many of the unique ways of being radical are actually quite simple.  Shane discusses simple ways he connected with the poor and his local community.  He befriended homeless people in Philadelphia and simply got to know the poor and destitute.  His eyes and heart were opened by these unique experiences.  I’ve experienced similar feelings of love and transformation while in South Africa.  It doesn’t take any super hero actions, rather simple acts of love, kindness and peace.  Perhaps this is what Protestant youth need today, ways of practicing their faith that is completely ‘outside the box.’  In his book, Claiborne talks about the loss of youth in today’s church:

“God forgive us for all those we have lost because we made the gospel boring.  I am convinced that if we lose kids to the culture of drugs and materialism, of violence and war, it’s because we don’t dare them, not because we don’t entertain them.  It’s because we make the gospel too easy, not because we make it too difficult.  Kids want to do something heroic with their lives, which is why they play video games and join the army.  But what are they to do with a church that teaches them to tiptoe through life so they can arrive safely at death?” 

I think Shane hits the nail on the head.  The church has become too complacent with Sunday School lessons and pizza party youth gatherings. What is exciting and intriguing for kids about the Apostle’s Creed?  Maybe by providing scenarios in which the youth are challenged and start to understand the gospel by not just reading it, but living it, will transform their feelings about the church. 

There is a song that is sometimes sung in church here in South Africa.  It goes, “My father was a Lutheran, my mother was a Lutheran, that’s why I’m a Lutheran.”  For me, this was certainly the case.  As a PK², (Pastor’s kid squared,) I have grown up in the church.  I used to terrorize parishioners, running up and down the aisles as a kid, (so I am told.)  So I never really questioned my involvement in church.  Admittedly, when I went to University my involvement decreased a bit.  I attended chapel on Sundays here and there, and always made it to the “big services.”  I fell into a bit of a lull period, where I wasn’t theologically stimulated or involved.  But that changed when my mother was diagnosed with cancer.  This was a very difficult time for my family, and especially since my sisters and I were all at school.  But this is where my home congregation showed me the importance and beauty behind the church community.  People started cooking meals for my Dad and sister, cards flooded our house, and the prayers could literally be felt.  There were people I spoke with, cried with, and who supported me during the most difficult time of my life.  I then realized how important and special my church family was to me.  Without church, the support system and outpouring of love and support would not have been there.  I then realized how special church can be.  Then my new grown love for church led me to apply for the Young Adults in Global Mission program, where I have been transformed by the people, places and experiences in South Africa.  My faith has strengthened while here, and I have been engaged in a way that will always keep me involved in my church.  I have received too many blessings to not reciprocate the love.

So the million dollar question remains, what can churches do to keep young people more involved?  I don’t claim to have the absolute answer (or a million dollars!) but I have a few ideas that may prove worthy.  Something I’ve learned in South Africa is that we simply have our priorities confused back home.  Today’s church has become too self concerned with the structures and other material items rather than the youth and lifeblood of their church.  There is so much time, energy and money spent on the church “building” rather than the church “life.”  Why have we become so obsessed with the church “building” when the book of Acts tells us, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands.”  (Acts 17:24)  I have seen firsthand that church does not need to be in a building.  You can worship anywhere.  For example, on our first retreat this year, we worshipped under the shade of a tree outside our backpackers.  The wind was strong that day, and so was the Holy Spirit.  Our offering that day was of personal stories and reflections, and we had Holy Communion to the backdrop of the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal.  It was one of the most beautiful, touching and personal services I’ve been a part of.  I think there is a lot we can learn from this.  Also, a common church service here usually lasts 2-3 hours, if not more.  Church acts as a place of great praise, worship and joy.  Instead of rushing through the liturgy in order to get somewhere, people here enjoy church and what it offers.  We should focus more on the fellowship and the church as a community.  In South Africa, the church community is not one you only spend an hour with one day a week.  It is a community you see often, spend time with and share experiences with.  We need more of this at home.  I also believe that our church needs engaging, unorthodox ways of expressing our faiths.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  (Romans 12:2)  We should heed Apostle Paul’s message, and become the ordinary radicals that can transform people’s lives, faith and belief in their church.    

The results of the survey surely pose unsettling facts about the Protestant church.  But I don’t think it’s too late.  What the church needs to do is return to its roots, and provide the support, engagement and inspiration that it did for early Christians.  Instead of luring the church youth in with pizza and movies, we should begin by being that shoulder to cry on, the best friend you can count on, that life changing experience and live out the examples provided by the Prince of Peace.

This blog was written as a monthly reflection for the elca-mud blog, which can be found at: