Sunday, July 10, 2011

Goodbye, The Beloved Country

In August 2010, I boarded a plane to Chicago in which would be the beginning of my year living abroad.  I had to say goodbye to all my friends and family, knowing that I wouldn’t see them on Christmas, my birthday, Easter, or any other special holidays.  At that time, it was the hardest goodbye I’ve ever had to experience.  I was leaving all that I knew, and leaping into an unknown world.  But now, a year later, the goodbyes I have to experience with my South African hosts hurt worse than those a year ago.  I find difficulty leaving the people who have supported me during my most vulnerable times, and I cannot grasp the reality of this experience coming to an end.

When I left to come to South Africa, I didn’t expect to fall in love.  But I have felt a love stronger than any love I’ve felt in my past.  I’ve fallen in love with the generosity, hospitality and Ubuntu seen in every South African I’ve met.  I’ve fallen in love with Jesus like never before.   I’ve fallen in love with the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, the golden velds of the Free State, and the crashing waves along the coasts.  I’ve fallen in love with the world’s most marginalized people who have taught me so much.  And my love for the majestic Maluti Mountains of Lesotho has been renewed, and so has my love for its people.  Now my heart truly belongs to Africa.

This past year has been the most challenging, difficult, stressful, agonizing and unpredictable year of my life...and it’s been the best year of my life. 

Despite the numerous hurdles that presented themselves this year, I wouldn’t be who I am today if I never faced them.  I was challenged in ways I never could have imagined.  I saw things I never saw in the flesh before, and felt emotions I didn’t know I had.  I walked alongside those I once ignored, and I felt the presence of the Lord in places I’ve never known.  I was at my most vulnerable this year, but fell upon a plethora of grace and love by my hosts.  And this year I lost someone very important in my life, but gained so many new wonderful people. 

I admit that in the beginning of my experience here, I wasn’t quite sure how what I was doing benefitted the ELCA and the partnership with ELCSA.  But as the time progressed, I began to see how my presence here was impacting those around me.  I began to see how accompaniment was a powerful tool and a way to break down cultural barriers.  And I began to see how relationships with our fellow human beings are the true wealth in life, and without them I am nothing.

I am forever thankful for the love, compassion, grace and hospitality I experienced from my South African hosts.  I cannot express how blessed I feel to have experienced what I have with the people I have.  I was blessed with the most loving and caring host family anyone could ask for.  I was blessed with the most amazing supervisors at work.  I was blessed with a spiritual church parish full of love and praise.  I was blessed with wonderful co-workers who are now simply my brothers and sisters.  And despite these people being “assigned” to me or stumbled upon, I now consider them family.   

I must say goodbye to the beloved country, but thankfully I will say hello to a new life as a more globally formed and informed person.  I have a better understanding of the realities and pains of this world, and know how to live simply.  I was told when I first arrived in Bloemfontein a saying that says, “You cry twice in Bloemfontein; once when you arrive and once when you leave.”  I have not only shared those tears at those times, but many others in between.  I’ve had tears of joy of the wonders of life, but also tears of sadness for so many people in despair.  I cannot, and will not, forget the tears I’ve shed.  I will hold dear to me every happy experience and every painful one, for it made me who I am today.

There is an endless list of the things I’ll miss when I leave this Rainbow Nation.  But I know that despite leaving Africa, Africa will never leave me.  I will carry with me all that I’ve learned this year and will share my experience with all those around me at home.

Thank you South Africa for shaping me into the man I am today.  My heart will always long for your sunsets, clear night skies, hospitality and inherently beautiful essence.  I will always carry your spirit with me.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

I Am An African

The following poem was shared with us at YAGM orientation in August, 2010.  But it wasn't until recently that I fully grasped its meaning and found myself deeply connected to it.

I Am An African
By: Wayne Visser

I am an African
Not because I was born there
But because my heart beats with Africa’s
I am an African
Not because my skin is black
But because my mind is engaged by Africa
I am an African
Not because I live on its soil
But because my soul is at home in Africa

When Africa weeps for her children
My cheeks are stained with tears
When Africa honours her elders
My head is bowed in respect
When Africa mourns for her victims
My hands are joined in prayer
When Africa celebrates her triumphs
My feet are alive with dancing

I am an African
For her blue skies take my breath away
And my hope for the future is bright
I am an African
For her people greet me as family
And teach me the meaning of community
I am an African
For her wildness quenches my spirit
And brings me closer to the source of life

When the music of Africa beats in the wind
My blood pulses to its rhythm
And I become the essence of sound
When the colours of Africa dazzle in the sun
My senses drink in its rainbow
And I become the palette of nature
When the stories of Africa echo round the fire
My feet walk in its pathways
And I become the footprints of history

I am an African
Because she is the cradle of our birth
And nurtures an ancient wisdom
I am an African
Because she lives in the world’s shadow
And bursts with a radiant luminosity
I am an African
Because she is the land of tomorrow
And I recognise her gifts as sacred

Friday, July 1, 2011

Jesus Behind Bars

“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.” 
Hebrews 13: 3

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day at the religious center of the Mangaung Correctional Center here in Bloemfontein.  The Mangaung Correctional Center is a maximum security prison and the second largest private prison in the world.  A few months ago I was given a tour of the facility, which I blogged about here:

But on my recent visit, I spent the day in the religious center of the prison.  Within five minutes of arriving, I was brought to a general Christian bible study where 15 men were singing before starting the bible study.  I was shown my seat and left alone with the inmates in a classroom-type atmosphere.  After the singing was done and some prayers were said, I was asked to come to the front and talk about myself and share some scripture.  When I asked how much time I had, they said, “You have about 20 minutes.”  Ha!  I almost fell over as I did not anticipate having to give such a talk.  But, as many situations this past year have taught me, I had to think on my feet and make the best of it.  So I got up in front of them and basically gave a sermon.  Giving a sermon to my congregation in South Africa was hard enough, but I really had no idea how to preach to maximum security inmates.  However, the Holy Spirit must have grabbed a hold of me because before I knew it, my 20 minutes were up and I was receiving many smiles, “Amens”, and “Hallelujahs.” 

My second session of the day was another bible study, this time for the Assemblies of God.  This time there were over 30 inmates in attendance, and I was much more of an observer this time.  However, towards the end I was again invited to the front to share some of my story.  They treated me like a guest in their home, and were every courteous the entire time.  The leader of the bible study said towards the end, “Brother Andrew, know that you are family here and your family will always be ours.  We are all family in Christ.”  These were powerful words, especially coming from a man such as him.  After the bible study had ended, every inmate came and shook my hand and thanked me with “God bless,” as they left the room.  It wasn’t until after everyone had exited the room that I remembered I was in a maximum security prison.  The hands I just shook have killed, raped, and robbed other human beings.  These were the most dangerous men in South Africa.  But none of that seemed to hit me, not when the Holy Spirit was so strong in each of them. 

In the afternoon I observed a Zionist Apostolic worship service held outdoors.  This is a religion that combines Christianity with traditional, ancestral beliefs.  There was a large traditional drum, lit candles, and an object made of various string, rope and wool hanging above the candles.  The men would occasionally dance and spin around the candles when singing was going on.  It was fascinating to observe such a service, so unlike anything we have back home in the States.  And as the service went on, they tried to translate into English to accommodate me.  They didn’t have to do this, but they did.  Towards the end of the service, one of the inmates who was translating into English came up to me and started talking with me.  He explained to me what was happening in the service, the history of their church and what the leaders wished for me to know.  He continued to come and assist me in following the service.  He showed me some of their documents, which showed that they were recognized as an independent church and registered with the national church.  It was amazing to see how these inmates had created their own church and gone so far as to register it officially. 

The singing was beautiful, and I couldn’t help but tap my foot and clap my hands.  There was such passion in the voices of the men who preached, and so much enthusiasm for God in their bodies.  As the service came closer to an end, the same inmate who had been helping me had a conversation with me that I’ll never forget.  He asked where I was from, where in South Africa I’ve been, and other basic questions.  He then started to talk about his life in prison.  He told me that most of the inmates worshiping there had found God once inside the prison.  That he, along with the others, lived lives “on the outside” they were ashamed of.  He spoke eloquently of how they have changed and become new people.  He assured me that if and when he would be out, he would live a life with God as its central point.  After exchanging more words and dialogue, we stood up and embraced each other.  Here I was, hugging a man who has created such a horrific crime that he is in a maximum security prison.  But we shared the love of Christ and it was so strong that I was never afraid.  As the service was winding down, we said our goodbyes and he leaned over and said, “I want to leave you with some scripture.  Please don’t ever forget it.  Jeremiah 29: 11-12.”  I quickly wrote it down on a piece of paper.  When I got home that night, the first thing I did was look up the verses I was told by the inmate.  

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then when you call upon me and come pray to me, I will hear you.”  
Jeremiah 29: 11-12

I sat there dumbfounded by the day I had just experienced.  I had spent the day with some of the worst sinners on Earth.  But these men are humans, and their remorse and dedication to their faith was inspiring.  It was one of the most spiritually fulfilling days of my life.  I could feel the presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit amongst the prisoners.  I could see how their lives were no longer surrounding crime, but now surrounding God.  For people who are forever judged by others, they still welcomed me with warm hospitality.  It is fair to say that Jesus is behind bars.  He lives in each and every one of the inmates in the prison.  He is the strength they receive each morning to wake up and the peace they need to sleep at night.  I pray that God’s grace will shower the inmates with the peace, comfort and repentance that they will need.  I will always have the memories of the bible studies and services from that day.  And I will never forget two verses in the book of Jeremiah that, for some, is the hope and strength to live each and every day.