Sunday, September 25, 2011


Here's the transcript of the sermon I gave at church this morning. Enjoy! =)

Good morning!

I have a confession to make everyone. I hope you will forgive the vocal nature of this- I know us Lutherans are all about silent confession- or confession in community you know, that whole part about “WE confess that WE are in bondage to sin?” Yes- well, I am here to confess that I am a missionary. Ugh. The word just makes you cringe doesn’t it?? MISSIONARY. Just think about what comes to mind for a second… MISSIONARY. Ugh. If you’re like most people in the world today, your image is probably close to what mine was before I spent a year in South Africa as a missionary. Maybe you think of colonialism… westernization… white people passing out bibles to darker people. And seeking to change their culture to make them more “civilized”. Well, I have reeeeally good news if this is what comes to mind when you think of missionaries. I am a missionary and I am totally disgusted by those types of images that come to our minds.

With all these things that come to mind, missionaries have the power. They are not coming to people to learn, to be changed, or to participate in cultural practices of local people. They are there with an agenda… to change people and spread a message! But it doesn’t have to be that way!!! We are missionaries to the world- not to change people but to accompany them.

Okay, I’ve definitely gotten ahead of myself.

WE are missionaries? Did I say that? YES! When I think of what a missionary is, I think of THIS! What I see right now when I look at a congregation of people who have assembled together in community and are interested in hearing more about message of peace, love and hope that God envisions for our world. I think of people like you- working in the community, loving your neighbors, being there for people who need your helping hands or your shoulder to cry on. I think of you when I think of missionaries…

And what else did I say there?? I said that WE are missionaries in the world- not to change people but to accompany them. What does that mean? The ELCA’s Global mission program is based around an idea of accompaniment. Meaning that they send people to other countries not to change other cultures but to build relationships in which partners walk together- sharing the way God is working in their lives. Missionaries of the ELCA are sent abroad to provide a ministry of presence. Especially in the Young Adults in Global Mission program which I was a participant in, we were not selected for our skills, expertise or intelligence. We were placed in communities to allow ourselves to be shaped and molded by the community and culture. I got to be friends with the people at my site. I learned about their families, met their children and learned the value of just being present with someone during hard times. Sometimes all someone needs is someone to listen to them. So, did I change anyone? I’m not sure. But I do know that I had some wonderful conversations while stapling papers, making copies, helping kids with their homework or having meals in people’s homes. In these ways, they changed me.

When I went to South Africa, I went to build relationships. Not to bring a message, change people, or DO anything. I just had to be myself and that made a huge impact on people. I had no idea how easy it would be… while being so hard. I learned people’s stories… I listened to them, talked with them and got to know their families, I became part of a community of people who cared about me and I learned to love them. But it took time and patience. Of course, part of me hoped I’d be busy helping people- making a difference and DOing a lot. But I quickly learned that community came first . People were more interesting in who was than what I could do for them. People wanted to talk to me more than they wanted to know what my educational background was or how smart I was.

Shortly after my arrival in my community just east of Johannesburg, I came to find that I wasn’t thinking of South Africans as “them” or “they” or others. South Africans became my friends, my family, my community. When I was missing home or struggling I went to my South African friends. I spent evenings and weekends with the people I became close to. They taught me so much about myself, my faith and the world. They made me think about the world differently.

Let me try to explain what I mean about seeing the world differently--- I am learning to drive a stick shift right now. I recently bought a car that I got for a pretty good price… but the catch was, I had no idea how to drive a manual transmission and so, I had to learn. It has changed the way I drive. Not only am I more attentive to what I’m doing, but I’m also more patient when the light turns green and the car in front of me doesn’t move… maybe they stalled out!! Like I still do on a regular basis! I know how it feels now. As I was driving around town the other day, I realized that my metamorphosis in driving is like what happened to me in South Africa. Learning about other people requires us to be uncomfortable and living out what others go through. It requires us to make ourselves vulnerable to others. We must know what it feels like to be stalled out in the middle of a busy intersection and we must learn to help others when they find themselves in that situation.

For my South Africa experience, it was mostly about race. I have never in my life been a racial minority. Living for a year in a country with tense race relations and as a member of the minority has changed the way I view race in this country and in our world. They say you can’t understand a person until you walk a mile in their shoes. I say, a mile is not nearly long enough. We may never get the opportunity to live the life that many struggling people in our world live. But we must try to understand. We must remember a time when we were stalled out in an intersection, hopeless and praying for the forgiveness of the people around us. We have to remember what it felt like to have someone welcome us when we were the outsider. When we see people at their most vulnerable, we must know that they need us and our support most at that moment.

Among many other lessons that I learned in South Africa, I learned the importance of relationships and community over all other things- including time. Here in the States, it’s so easy to let our schedules rule us… we want to stay busy and plan ahead. By sticking to our schedules, we sometimes miss out on opportunities to build relationships with people and reach out to them when they may be struggling. We in the church are really good at having meetings and planning events… but do we take the time after meetings to get to know the people we are working with? Do we understand the people we are raising money for? Have we taken the time to hear the stories of the people we are helping? Sometimes, I believe we get caught up in our schedules and forget the value of human connection. We are sometimes DOing too much- and we’re really good at DOing great things for people in need! But we also need to remember the value of being with people- being present with them. It’s not just Pastor’s job to visit and talk with people who are struggling, but it is what we should all be striving to do as missionaries.

When I think of missionaries, I think of you. But I also think of people who may have never set foot in church but have a vision for a world full of peace, justice, love and acceptance. I think of those on a mission of love. A mission to make our very confused world understand that there is a better way for humanity to live in harmony together. We gather here in church to share good news with each other. News that there is more to life than the daily struggle. We have come to share our stories with each other and celebrate how God is working in our lives. We should leave this place ready to begin seeing people for who they are… and what they are- Children of God and members of humanity.

In Zulu, you say Hello with the word “Sawubona”. Literally translated it means, “I see you”. I see you for who you are- I recognize you as a person, a member of my community, worthy of my time and my presence. We should see everyone we meet this way. We are missionaries. We are called to walk with people in their struggles and in their joys. We are called to remember what it feels like to be stalled out in an intersection, totally hopeless and praying for someone to have mercy on us. We are called to see people. Sawubona.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The challenges of home

I have been home for a little over 6 weeks... perhaps it's time for an update. =)

Let's Tarantino this entry and I'll start by telling you what has been so shocking about being home (i.e. what has inspired this entry to be written RIGHT NOW) and then I can recap what has been happening in my life the past several weeks. K?

Recurring themes in my life that remind me how much I have changed and remind me that I am no longer in South Africa:

I was just driving around town and was waiting to pull out onto Route 611, a pretty decently large road with a lane of traffic going in each direction and a center turning lane. So I'm sitting there, half listening to a story on the radio and waiting for a good opportunity to turn... there was no one waiting behind me so I was taking my time. There was a gap in traffic and I decided to wait, even though it probably would have been enough time for me to gun it and enter traffic... then this guy, passes and gestures to me with a shrug like "What the heck? Why didn't you go?" It really irritated me! What business of it is his if I go or not? It's not like I was being ambiguous or indecisive. I was just sitting there... why does he care that I just didn't feel like burning rubber out into traffic to make it where I was going. It was like he was saying "Why aren't you in a rush like everybody else!?" My opportunity came about 30 seconds later with a large gap in traffic coming from both directions. What's 30 seconds? Why is everyone always in a rush??

Joburg is, by no stretch of the imagination, a slow city. It's fast-paced, people jump out in traffic all the time, and walk quickly to get where they're going... but there's a balance. If I want to stand and talk to someone for a while, there's no problem with that. It's still perfectly acceptable to take your time...

I didn't think that being car-less would be such a challenge for me. I didn't have a car for most of my time in college... I lived without a car for a year in South Africa. But, my life living at home now has been extremely restricted by not having a car. I miss the taxis in South Africa SO much. I could get absolutely ANYWHERE by taxi during my year there... for very cheap! Of course, I'd have to wait for an unknown amount of time before I could arrive, but the point was I really could get anywhere. Now that I'm back in the states, I can't get anywhere! The public transportation here in the Poconos is lacking, at best. To get to Philadelphia, about a 2 hour drive away is $40 by Greyhound bus! That's 280 rands! I could go from Joburg to Pietermaritzburg by busfor that much! (6 hours away!!) And by taxi, it'd be even less.

It's funny that the USA is called the "land of the free"... what does this actually mean? Do we really believe we are more free here than people are in other countries?? (See South Africa's constitution... I think you may be surprised) And even if our economic, social and political world is supposedly constructed to fit with the "land of the free" picture, does our culture live up to that title?? Are we free? Are we free from the influence of corporations? Free from the grip of poverty? Free to REALLY speak our minds in a politically incorrect way? Are we free to be strong, healthy, educated and strong-willed people who challenge our government and keep them accountable? Or are we taking what we're given and living as victims?

Shifting gears a bit, I have never been more grateful for my family. My immediate family, who I am currently living with, has put up with SO much emotional up & down from me. It has not been easy for them to re-adapt to having me home. They missed me, but any change in family dynamics upsets the previous established order. My sister got used to being an "only child". My parents got used to only communicating with me once a week (now they have to hear about my weird dreams and strange ideas all the time!! Haha) They have been patient. They have talked me down from my occasional melt-downs. They have told me to breathe on numerous occasions. They are awesome.

My MUD family, the other volunteers, have been so good for me, as well. So far, I communicate with at least one of the other volunteers nearly every day... And some days, like yesterday, I get to talk to 4 or more! =)We are all at different points in our readjustment. Some are 100% ready to go back to South Africa, while others are just glad to be home but continue to struggle with getting re-established. Some are already gainfully employed, while others of us are still searching for work. But we all speak the same language these days and it's nice that they understand.

That's all for now, I believe. I will write again with the nitty-gritty details of how the past few weeks have been going. For now, I need to go do some dishes (yay for contributing to the workings of the household! Haha) and I also need to prepare for this evening as I am going to see some friends from camp. =)

Hope each of you is doing well and remembering to enjoy every moment, every challenge and joy that life hands you. =)
I promise I'll update again soon.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Transitions and goodbyes

Please take a moment to read the words of a fellow volunteer, Andrew Steele, placed in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He expresses his experience so powerfully that it will help you glimpse what we all have been through this year in this incredible country.

I don't think I am capable of putting it better than Andrew has.

As we prepare to leave our sites and gather together in Pietermaritzburg for our close-of-service retreat on Wednesday (two days) please keep all eleven of us in your prayers. The emotional weight of this time of transition is not easy to explain or accept. As we move towards attempting to make sense of how this year has changed us, your support and prayers are SO very valuable to each of us. Thank you for all you are and thank you for your support and love.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Next year, July.

There are certain phrases I have said countless times this year. These include,

"I live in a state called Pennsylvania"
... no reaction from whoever I'm talking to...
"It's about 2 hours from New York City."
"OHHHH New York!"

"Yes, I miss my family, but I love everything about South Africa. The people, the music, your sports, everything!"

"I love your weather! Right now it's about 15 degrees below zero (Celsius) at home and there's about half a meter of snow on the ground!"
or, more often these days,
"I'm not enjoying the weather so much anymore... June, July and August is our summer at home. I liked it better when it was hot here and there was snow there!" =)

One of the things that always comes up is how long my term is. These days, people can't believe I've been here since "August, last year". They ask if I've been home at all (nope!) if I miss my family (yup!) and if I'm going to miss it here (of course!) But last year the conversations were very different.

When I would meet people in September or October they would ask me how long I'm here in South Africa for and I would reply, "Next year, July." "JULY!?!?", they would exclaim. Perhaps they didn't believe I was going to make it... maybe they didn't understand why I would go away for such a long time. Sometimes I even had those kinds of doubts. Would I make it to "Next year, July"? What would my perspective be at that point? Would I wish myself to stay longer? Would I be anxious to go? It was so far away, I could not at all guess how I'd be feeling. But I thought about "Next year, July." constantly.

I thought about the first day in Allentown airport. I thought about hugging my family and friends for the first time in a year. I hoped everyone would still be happy and healthy and not too different from when I left them. Slowly, but surely, the concept of "Next year, July." was pushed to the back of my mind... and I only thought of it when I said it to someone. Or when I completed another milestone. The past few weeks and months, however, the idea of it has been pushing it's way to the front of my mind, interrupting my daily activities, constantly on my mind.

And now... July. It's July. Wow.

Nearly 11 months have passed since I left home last August. Since I cried and snotted my way through the Allentown airport security and had people thinking I was crazy when I got on a plane for Chicago (for orientation) haha. A year.

This year has taught me some incredible lessons about myself, life, people, faith, culture, joy and love. Near the end of one of my favorite movies, Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carrell's character, a Proust scholar, shares some reflections from Proust with his nephew Dwayne. He says, " [Proust] gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, Those were the best years of his life, 'cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn't learn a thing. " =)

Now I'm not going to say I have "suffered" this year... I'm not going to tell you that I have not had an incredible, happy time here in South Africa with incredible friends and surrogate family. If I were to tell you those things, it would be a lie. I love my friends and "host family" here and I love this country. I have had so many adventures and I have many happy memories from this year. But in the midst of the joy, the laughter and "is-this-really-my-life???" moments, there has been struggle. There has been loneliness, grief, heart-brokenness, homesickness and working through these challenges has changed who I am. They have made me who I am.

I feel so much more independent now... while simultaneously so much more interdependent on the community of people around me. I am astounded by my strength, my inner peace and my patience. I have connected with people this year in ways I never had before. And I made it! I made it to July!

I cherish each day. I know the time will fly so I am enjoying each second here with my SA family. But... I made it! =)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

10 Suggestions for helping your YAGM return home

Written by Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, the Mexico Country Coordinator

1. Don’t ask the question, “So how was it?” Your YAGM cannot function in one-word answers right now, especially ones intended to sum up their entire year’s experience, and being asked to do so may cause them to start laughing or crying uncontrollably. Ask more specific questions, like “Who was your closest friend?” or “What did you do in your free time?” or “What was the food like?” or “Tell me about your typical day.”

2. If you wish to spend time with your YAGM, let them take the lead on where to go and what to do. Recognize that seemingly mundane rituals, like grocery shopping or going to the movies, may be extremely difficult for someone who has just spent a year living without a wide array of material goods. One former YAGM, for example, faced with the daunting task of choosing a tube of toothpaste from the 70-odd kinds available, simply threw up in the middle of the drugstore.

3. Expect some feelings of jealousy and resentment, especially if your YAGM lived with a host family. Relationships that form during periods of uncertainty and vulnerability (the first few months in a foreign country, for example) form quickly and deeply. The fact that your YAGM talks non-stop about their friends and family from their country of service doesn’t mean that they don’t love you, too. It simply means that they’re mourning the loss (at least in part) of the deep, meaningful, important relationships that helped them to survive and to thrive during this last year. In this regard, treat them as you would anyone else mourning a loss.

4. You may be horrified by the way your YAGM dresses; both because their clothes are old and raggedy and because they insist on wearing the same outfit three days in a row. Upon encountering their closet at home, returning YAGMs tend to experience two different emotions: (1) jubilation at the fact that they can stop rotating the same 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts, and (2) dismay at the amount of clothing they own, and yet clearly lived without for an entire year. Some YAGMs may deal with this by giving away entire car loads of clothing and other items to people in need. Do not “save them from themselves” by offering to drive the items to the donation center, only to hide them away in your garage. Let your YAGM do what they need to do. Once they realize, after the fact, that you do indeed need more than 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts to function in professional American society, offer to take them shopping. Start with the Goodwill and the Salvation Army; your YAGM may never be able to handle Macys again.

5. Asking to see photos of your YAGM’s year in service is highly recommended, providing you have an entire day off from work. Multiply the number of photos you take during a week’s vacation, multiply that by 52, and you understand the predicament. If you have an entire day, fine. If not, take a cue from number 1 above, and ask to see specific things, like photos of your YAGM’s host family, or photos from holiday celebrations. Better yet, set up a number of “photo dates,” and delve into a different section each time. Given the high percentage of people whose eyes glaze over after the first page of someone else’s photos, and the frustration that can cause for someone bursting with stories to tell, this would be an incredible gift.

6. At least half the things that come out of your YAGM’s mouth for the first few months will begin with, “In Mexico/Slovakia/South Africa/etc…” This will undoubtedly begin to annoy the crap out of you after the first few weeks. Actually saying so, however, will prove far less effective than listening and asking interested questions. Besides, you can bet that someone else will let slip exactly what you’re thinking, letting you off the hook.

7. That said, speak up when you need to! Returning YAGMs commonly assume that almost nothing has changed in your lives since they left. (This happens, in part, because you let them, figuring that their experiences are so much more exciting than yours, and therefore not sharing your own.) Be assertive enough to create the space to share what has happened in your life during the last year.

8. Recognize that living in a very simple environment with very few material belongings changes people. Don’t take it personally if your YAGM seems horrified by certain aspects of the way you live – that you shower every day, for example, or that you buy a new radio instead of duct-taping the broken one back together. Recognize that there probably are certain things you could or should change (you don’t really need to leave the water running while you brush your teeth, do you?), but also that adjusting to what may now feel incredibly extravagant will simply take awhile. Most YAGMs make permanent changes toward a simpler lifestyle. Recognize this as a good thing.

9. Perhaps you had hopes, dreams, and aspirations for your YAGM that were interrupted by their year of service. If so, you may as well throw them out the window. A large percentage of returning YAGMs make significant changes to their long-term goals and plans. Some of them have spent a year doing something they never thought they’d enjoy, only to find themselves drawn to it as a career. Others have spent a year doing exactly what they envisioned doing for the rest of their lives, only to find that they hate it. Regardless of the direction your YAGM takes when they return…rejoice! This year hasn’t changed who they are; it has simply made them better at discerning God’s call on their lives. (Note: Some YAGMs spend their year of service teaching English, some are involved in human rights advocacy, others work with the elderly or disabled, and at least one spent his year teaching British youth to shoot with bows and arrows. The results of this phenomenon, therefore, can vary widely.)

10. Go easy on yourself, and go easy on your YAGM. Understand that reverse culture shock is not an exact science, and manifests itself differently in each person. Expect good days and bad days. Don’t be afraid to ask for help (including of the pharmaceutical variety) if necessary. Pray. Laugh. Cry. This too shall pass, and in the end, you’ll both be the richer for it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Happy Birthday and the Mother City!

Recently here in South Africa I have been enjoying some new events, new places and new friends! Just two weeks ago on May 27th, I celebrated my 23rd birthday in South Africa! It was a beautiful day, cold and sunny. I started the day by visiting the kitchen where my friends Sakhile and Jane grabbed me and sang happy birthday and then proceeded to try to pour water on me! A strange birthday tradition. After enjoying breakfast, I had a simple day at work just hanging out in my office and doing some writing, making photocopies and of course, visiting friends around the center. Trevor, one of my favorite pastors here in SA, was visiting the office on my birthday for a meeting so it was great to sit with him during lunch and enjoy the conversation.

That night, I went out with three of my friends here, Mantsha, Mpho and Mahlodi. We went to a seafood restaurant and I told them that probably more than half of you at home in the states have no idea how beautiful and modern some places here in South Africa are. So they demanded we take a picture so you all can get a better idea of what this corner of Africa is like =) SO here is a picture from the evening:

After enjoying their wonderful company, I came back to my place and began packing for the next big adventure! In the morning, I would be leaving for a few days in Cape Town! How can one spend an entire year in South Africa without at least seeing the beautiful city known as "The Mother City". So I was off to experience this awesome city that I have heard feels nothing like the rest of South Africa.

On Saturday, May 28th, I landed in Cape Town and was immediately struck by the beauty of the city between an ocean and a mountain! Gorgeous. The weather for my 5 days and 4 nights there was not ideal but that's why it's called the off-season! I was appreciative of the lowered prices for accommodation and most attractions. And I got to see most of the big attractions in the city including a trip up Table Mountain, a tour of the Cape Winelands, a ride through Camps Bay, many museums in town, the infamous Long Street and the penguins of Boulders Beach on the southern peninsula.

And yes, I was traveling alone! I was a little bit worried about it but I think that just as in any other major city in the world, one simply just needs to be smart about things. I was just fine for my stay in Cape Town and I enjoyed the freedom of doing things by myself! I could change my mind at any moment about what I was going to do next or what I was going to have for dinner. =) It was sort of nice not having to consult with a travel buddy. Figuring everything out on my own also made me feel very independent and accomplished.

By the end of my trip there though, I was missing Johannesburg! Which, when I said this to a man in a restaurant in the city, made him laugh uncontrollably for about five minutes "You miss JOBURG??? Seriously??? You're telling me you're in Cape Town right now and you MISS Joburg." Hahaha. Seriously though! Joburg has such character and a much more "African" vibe if I can say that... Fruit vendors, people yelling, music in the streets, almost getting hit by taxis... there was nothing like it in Cape Town! =)

It was a nice escape to experience this metropolitan city. Parts of it felt like NYC or a european city... but I was glad to get back to my friends and my life in Joburg.

I hope to post pictures of my Cape Town adventures some time next week! =)
Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tick tock... living in the moment

When I arrived here at my placement site in September of last year, I watched clocks and calenders a lot. I counted the days to our first all-volunteer retreat. I counted until Christmas. I counted until July when we would travel home. I thought about that first day back and what it would be like. Especially as I was challenged in the early months, I thought about how long the year would be and what things would be like at the end... would I be SO ready to go? Would I be begging to stay? It was almost impossible for me to imagine.

I also watched clocks a lot because the pace of life seemed so different from what I was used to. Everything moved so much slower. (Little did I know that I was in one of the fastest areas of the country and some of my fellow volunteers were experiencing a MUCH more dramatic slow-down!) Getting used to "Just now" was challenging; waiting for what felt like an eternity for a taxi to fill up or having someone walk away saying "I'll be back just now" and then waiting for up to 30 or 45 minutes took a while to get used to. Coming from a culture of now means NOW and "Time is money" it was culture shock and it took me a long time to acclimate.

Slowly but surely, I have come to love this country's pace. I find myself rarely irritated by having to wait. Sometimes I have moments where I really can't believe how much I've changed. Like when I wait over 2 hours for someone to pick me up, for a taxi to leave or for someone to call me and I don't get the least bit irritated. Now, I was a bit abnormal in this respect before I even came to South Africa... I didn't mind traffic too much (especially on a beautiful day! Roll down the windows and turn up the music!) I also didn't mind lines and the grocery store or post office. It is what it is, right?

But South Africa has taught me patience to the EXTREME. Things happen when they happen. People arrive when they arrive. There's no use in freaking out about having to wait for something, because it will do no good. Better to just take out your book (always have a book with you!) and enjoy the day.

I also don't count the days so much. My family is counting for me now. =) They know exactly how many weeks and days (maybe even hours and minutes!) until I step of the plane. For me though, that day will be SO awesome and yet so sad. I'm very, VERY much looking forward to seeing family and friends who I love dearly and miss tremendously. But coming back to the states means leaving this country that has become my home and the friends here that have become my family. It means leaving a place that has taught me so much about independence and interdependence. It means leaving a life that I love and people that I love even more.

This year has not been a "trip" to Africa. This has been a year of my life in an extraordinary country. I have been challenged, I've learned, I've laughed, I've cried and I've grown so much as a person. So, I'm not counting anymore... at least I'm trying not to. I'm embracing each day as an opportunity to love this life, this place and these people. I hope you are doing the same... wherever you are, whoever you are with and whatever you are doing- love the day, love the moment. Life is too unpredictable to not.

Having July 13th on the horizon as the last day at my site is somewhat scary and foreboding because I know much is going to change when this year ends. But it's also a blessing in a way to know how precious these days here are. And I'm loving each one. Each conversation I have becomes precious. Each moment with my friends is one I enjoy and value. I am loving each day and living as though it is my last... are you?

Monday, May 16, 2011

All while God weeps...

*Disclaimer* I’m fine everyone! Sorry for 2 depressing posts in a row, I promise everything is 100% terrific! =) Just some things I’ve been thinking about recently.

I’ve never really been a big fan of the death penalty. Maybe it was that I saw the movie “The Green Mile” a little too early in my life and the injustice of it all bothered me deeply. Or maybe it’s just because as an excessively philosophical child, I could never wrap my mind around the backwards logic of it all. “You killed someone, so we’re going to kill you to teach everyone that killing is wrong.”

My Dad probably loves me and my siblings more than any father ever loved his child. (Which was embarrassing when we got into highschool and it wasn’t cool to get along with your parents anymore… but he persisted and put up with all of our teenage-ways.) Anyway, I remember him telling my siblings and me that if anybody ever messed with us that he would have no mercy. He would seek the death penalty and if the government failed to deliver, he’d have no problem taking justice into his own hands. Now that’s love.

I recently heard it said that “Anger is the sister of love”. So, when we love someone and their rights are violated, their life is taken from them or they are otherwise damaged, the appropriate response is anger; anger at the situation, anger at the perpetrator and so on. So when my Dad says his anger would rule him if someone were to hurt those he loves, it’s not really an expression of extreme irrationality, but an expression of extreme love.

I watch a lot of Oprah here in South Africa… Not at all something I was expecting would be a part of my life this year, but it is! The other day, she was interviewing a man whose entire family was tortured and killed in their Connecticut home about 4 years ago. He woke up in the hospital as the lone survivor of the incident and had nothing left. Even the home the horrible event had occurred in had been burned. About mid-way through the interview, Oprah clumsily asked about forgiveness and whether or not the man felt the need to forgive the men who did this. The heart-broken man explained that he doesn’t believe the pure essence of evil should be forgiven and that it would be inappropriate to do so. And Oprah replied “I love that answer.”

Sorry Oprah… I don’t love that answer.

In Desmond Tutu’s book “God Has a Dream” he writes of the brutal apartheid system;
“As we listened to accounts of truly monstrous deeds of torture and cruelty, it would have been easy to dismiss the perpetrators as monsters because their deeds were truly monstrous. But we are reminded that God’s love is not cut off from anyone. However diabolical the act, it does not turn the perpetrator into a demon. When we proclaim that someone is subhuman, we not only remove for them the possibility of change and repentance, we also remove from them moral responsibility.” (Page 10-11)

Thus if we refuse to recognize perpetrators of evil as humans… as God’s children who have gone horrifically astray, we release them of their moral responsibility and we release ourselves from the experience of looking at something which is terribly unpleasant and reveals a truth about human nature that we may not want to face. We don’t want to see such evil as being part of us. We don’t want to think that we have the potential to be that.

As we stand in the glow of the Easter season and hear the message that Christ has risen. As we sing “Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?” and hear that death has been conquered, are we not conflicted? Are we not confused when we turn on our TVs and see people celebrating death? Not celebrating life. Not celebrating the conquering power of the cross… but celebrating death.

Last week, the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death hit me like a ton of bricks. At the time, I was cut off from regular communication with the outside world. I was in a very rural area of Kwa-Zulu Natal, the Southeast province of South Africa, when a fellow American friend I was with got a call from someone in the states telling us that Bin Laden had been killed… and Americans were in the streets celebrating. From that moment on, we received a barrage of questions from South Africans about why Americans were celebrating. We didn’t know what to say.

I won’t celebrate death. Osama Bin Laden acted in ways that make my stomach turn and my heart sink. To know that one man could create such destruction and could perpetuate such evil is heart-breaking. However, our God is a God of reconciliation and of peace. A God of unity and of love. Our God loves each one of us because we are His own children. I believe that God wept when Bin Laden masterminded plots that killed thousands of innocent people. But I also believe that He wept when Bin Laden, His child, was killed. And now the cycle of hate continues and at least 80 more lives have been lost in Pakistan in an attempt to avenge the death of Bin Laden. When will it end? (

My Dad would kill for those he loves. But if the situation was such that one of his children killed the other, would he still seek the death penalty for the perpetrating child? One child who he loves so dearly has taken the life of the other who he loved equally as much. He would weep. He would find himself horribly conflicted and in an unnaturally terrible position. This is the state that God finds Himself in. His children are killing each other. They are celebrating the death of their brother. They are dancing in the streets in victory. All while God weeps.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tears and dancing

I stand in a sea of South Africans. We are singing. Men have lined up in front of us and about 10 of them have picked up shovels working their way through a pile of dirt about 6 feet high. The orange sand is slowly filling the large rectangular hole in the ground at their feet. As I stare at the pile slowly diminishing, I start to cry. It’s an eerie scene as our sea of people merges with a sea just to our left… fellow mourners, also singing and watching men from their group fill another 6 foot deep hole just 2 graves away. The men are shoveling with such force and fury that I can’t help but see the anger that they must be feeling. Some men have to be forced to relinquish their shovels so another man in the group can take his turn. In just 10 or 15 minutes, both graves are filled and the excess dirt is piled in a mound over where the coffin lays 6 feet under.

When both graves are filled, the singing is stopped. One pastor speaks to both groups in a language I can’t understand. Then, our group has a spokesman who says some final words about the deceased… again addressing both groups. The other group does the same- their spokesman also talking to the entire crowd. Finally, a pastor gives the benediction to all assembled “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.” And we all depart.

I’ve never seen a graveside service like this. In my experiences in the states, it’s usually a very private time. Not everyone who went to the funeral would go to the graveside… it seems like a more private time for family and friends. The family is front and center and usually has front row seats. Also, if there is another funeral going on in the cemetery, it’s usually at least several rows away and the family is given their own personal bubble. I also know people who don’t like seeing the casket being lowered into the ground at the end of the service because it’s so physically final.

However, in this case, the first order of business was the burial. Mourners were the ones filling the grave. The family was set back from the grave and probably could see very little of what was happening. We combined with the group next to us and as we left, there was a row of open graves waiting to be filled later that day.

How have I lived here in South Africa for so long without experiencing a funeral? Perhaps I have been fortunate. Death is a significant part of life here… something that is experienced often. Additionally, I suspect that because of the anti-apartheid struggle and the HIV/Aids pandemic, the death of young people is also a rather familiar and frequent occurrence.

Perhaps it was a fortunate thing that I was able to live here for so long without attending a funeral. However, I felt I was at a huge disadvantage on Good Friday when I experienced what felt like a huge dose of culture shock as people danced and sang in celebration on a day that has always felt like the ultimate funeral to me. I have memories of Good Friday being somber, mournful, dark and quiet. However, as I went to church for the entire day on Good Friday, it was a day of celebration! People were dancing in the aisles of the church, singing, playing instruments and to me it just didn’t feel right!

After attending this funeral over the weekend, I understand a little better what was happening on Good Friday. At the funeral itself, there was a lot of dancing and singing and it was far less depressing than funerals I’ve been to in the states. The man who died was rather young and left a large family. Yet people were there to celebrate his life and rejoice in God’s promises for making us whole despite the brokenness and injustice of this world.

Why these differences? Why do we as Americans cry so much at our funerals? Why don’t we like seeing the grave being filled? Why do we like our graveside experience to be so private and closed off? Perhaps it is because death is such a significant part of life in this culture and people are less afraid of it. Perhaps it is because the entire culture is more focused on community and death is understood as being a part of our human condition.

I’m not sure what it is exactly. All I know is that as tears fell from my eyes at the grave of a man I had never met, I looked around me and saw the sea of South Africans dancing and singing… this man’s friends, family and co-workers. I saw a range of emotions; joy, anger, numbness. But above all else, I saw a community. Some were strangers, some friends, and some would never see each other again. But all were united in the understanding that death affects us all and is part of our experience as humans. And in response to that reality, we stood among the graves dancing together.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What it means to be white

Never before coming here to South Africa did I really have to think about what it means to be white. Sure, I had a few friends in grade school who could be considered “students of color” and in college, I was constantly frustrated by the homogeneous nature of our college’s campus (rated the 7th most homogeneous school in the country, in fact). But beyond that… beyond dreaming up ways to include the minority or to celebrate diversity I never was forced to think about my race and what it meant to be white in this world.

I recently shared this observation and experience with a group of black South African youth at a parish I was visiting for the weekend. We had been talking about the differences between my experiences at home and my experiences here and I told them that never before had I been a racial minority. I had never had to think about my race so much. I had no idea what kind of reaction I was about to get. Jaws dropped and I was asked “Really?” about 10 times. It was unfathomable to these young people between 14 and 25 that I had never really thought about being white.

Here, race has the potential to be discussed nearly anywhere; with secular conferencing groups at the center where I stay, on taxis with people who are curious about who I am, and even on street corners with people who claim they have never seen an “mlungu” (white person) around here before. While this can occasionally be suffocating, most days I find it very refreshing. It’s nice to be able to talk to people openly about the issues of race in South Africa and the world.

Most people, when they find me in a place they don’t typically see white people, begin fishing for the thing that makes me different. Usually, I’m initially asked if I’m lost or if I need help getting somewhere. Then I’m asked where I live, what work I do, etc. Finally, they get to what they are looking for; I’m a foreigner. To them, they have figured it out… because according to their understanding, South African white citizens would never venture into such places; into townships, on taxis etc.

Unfortunately, I have in some ways fallen into this rhythm; this way of thinking. I expect white South Africans to cringe when I say I am taking a taxi to Kempton Park by myself. “Aren’t you afraid?” I am asked, “Have you ever had a problem?” To which I reply that I am not afraid, I’ve never had a problem and actually, I quite enjoy taking taxis. In some ways, I like defying their expectations and showing them a truth some have never seen before. I like being different.

I was beginning to feel comfortable, special and like I was breaking down barriers, when just then- I was hit squarely in the face with the reality of my own racism; my racism towards white people. Some might want to call it reverse racism... but this is a term I refuse to use. Racism is racism. The pre-judgment of another person based solely on their skin color.

At the arts school where I have been volunteering with music instruction, I went to talk to Mr. Kok, one of the few white teachers at the school who teaches vocal lessons. I knew he was a good man from several conversations we had had about the school, the students and how much he enjoyed his job there. However, I was skeptical and very curious about his past… how did such a skilled, experienced, white musician come to be teaching students from townships in Eastern Johannesburg how to sing? Our conversation started on his topic of research, music education. He wanted to know about our system of study in the states. So, I shared with him what little I knew about music education from my experiences in college and then somehow we ended up on a tangent about his education and experiences with music programs at township schools. He told me stories that nearly made me cry; about gunfire he nearly got caught in during the anti-apartheid uprising, death threats he received because of going on tour with his choir, even being held hostage with other teachers. He has been teaching primarily in black schools for more that 25 years. When I asked him bluntly to tell me what he thought made him different or what shaped his ideas about race, he replied with another story about a black domestic worker with whom he had grown up and as a child had learned to respect as his own mother. He then continued, “I’ve just always looked at people regardless of color, age, whatever as children of God.”

It was at this moment that I realized that this man was truly breaking down barriers and was shining as a true beacon of hope and truth. By living his life in a way that honored each and every person regardless of their situation and not doing it to feel special or different, Mr. Kok has bridged major gaps and his accomplishments are only possible because of great amounts of love. I’m reminded of the verses from 1 Corinthians that are always read at weddings, “Love is patient, love is kind.” But perhaps more importantly “Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong-doing but rejoices with the truth.”

How many times do we boast in the name of “love”? How often are we insistent on having things our way and end up acting arrogantly to pave the way for “love”? For me, feeling like I was breaking down barriers was more about my own validation that I was making a difference than it was about truly loving people. It was more about me being a “different kind of white person” than it was about building relationships with all people. Have I been loving white South Africans in the same way I have been loving black South Africans? I cannot say I have. I often feel uncomfortable with white South Africans. I feel judgmental and I feel judged. I feel like I need to be different and prove to the strangers around me that I’m different. But this is not what we are called to as Christians.

When I think about what would be the Christ-like way to handle this situation, I think of the Pharisees. People who Jesus had little desire to take after. Jesus, as a religious leader was probably grouped with them during his early ministry. (However, one would only have to stick around for a minute or two to see that he was actually, radically different!) How did Christ set himself apart and point out the flaws in their perspective while still genuinely loving them and guiding them? I believe it’s probably impossible for us to do this as successfully as Christ did, but I’m reminded of a part in the liturgy here that I have come to love (when I hear it in English of course). This line in the liturgy states that we worship, we love, we confess “not as we ought, but as we are able.”

We must do our best to love others as we are able, even if we will fall short. We must truly and genuinely love those who we disagree with and those whose perspectives we believe are flawed. We must stand for what we believe in while simultaneously loving those who stand against us. And we must not assume we know what people stand for because of how they look. We must always put unity ahead of our own desires to feel different. This doesn’t mean becoming apathetic in an effort to keep the peace, but it means making love the top priority and the number one goal in all interactions.

I’m still learning what it means to be white. But even more importantly, I’m learning what it means to be a follower of Christ.

This blog entry was written for the ELCA MUD3 blog, which can be viewed at:

Monday, April 4, 2011

A discovered prayer

There is so much in church I do not understand. Much of the liturgy is in either Isizulu or Sesotho, depending on the congregation I am visiting that week and often the sermon is a mix between English and the parish's language. However, yesterday, as I sat in church enjoying the harmonies and sang along with the parts of the service I knew, I was suddenly handed a booklet I had never seen before. An order of service! With the liturgy written out! In English!

I knew we were at the confession and forgiveness which the gogo (granny) who had handed it to me had the book opened to. So I followed along with the English as the congregation sang in Sesotho "Lord have mercy on us."

Then we came to a prayer. A prayer that I have probably heard prayed tons of times here. But this was the first time I was exposed to its meaning in English. I was so moved by it that I copied it down. Part of it read:

"Grant this congregation all that is needed for its spiritual welfare;
Strengthen and increase the faithful;
visit and relieve the sick;
rouse the careless;
restore the fallen and penitent;
remove all hindrances to the advancement of the truth;
and bring all to be of one heart and mind within the fold of thy holy church."

What a beautiful prayer! For strength, restoration, truth, healing, unity and rousing from apathy. This is what OUR Church is praying for.

More and more, I find my ideas changing here. My ideas about faith, what it means to be a follower of Christ and a lover of justice and what our vision as Christians should be. To love across all borders and barriers; to strive for truth, justice and unity in our world; to hate apathy and carelessness and to put an end to all division... this should be our vision. And this prayer gives me hope in our ability to align our will with the will of God and bring this vision to pass.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Brothers and Sisters

I can’t tell you how many times I have been called “Auntie Amanda” this year. It is beyond my ability to count. I also can’t tell you how many times I have been confused about how people are related because they refer to everyone as their relatives.

“This is my Aunt Eunice” said the Dean of my circuit a few months ago when introducing me to a woman in his former congregation. Only after some further conversations did I realize they weren’t ACTUALLY related.

“My sister passed away” said my friend here … Only after some more questions did I find out that they were ACTUALLY only cousins.

“Mother!” Thando and Kerah exclaim when they see Susan… only after some more observations and questions do I realize she’s not ACTUALLY their mother.

Even to strangers, it is common to say “Dumela, mae” to an older woman you pass… meaning “Hello mother” or “Siyabonga, Baba” (Thank you, father) to an older man who has helped you out in some way. Sisi and Buti are also common names to call strangers (meaning sister and brother). And of course, there are the “Gogo’s”- literally meaning granny, any old lady can be your granny and let me tell you, you’d best be respectful. Those gogos WILL put you in your place… just like your own grandmother might.

At first, this reality was confusing and strange to me. I mean, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. I had a friend growing up who was raised to call female family friends Aunt _______... for example, Aunt Kathy or Aunt Beth. I always found it a little strange but as we got older I thought it was sort of interesting. Here, I find it fascinating. People will often introduce me to their children as an “Auntie” and immediately the child knows that I am not really a stranger anymore and they can feel comfortable with me. It is a fast way of breaking down barriers between people. It seems that in many ways, this relational way of thinking permeates the culture beyond just what people call each other.

The other day, I was on a taxi in which the people in the front were having some trouble making change for the other passengers. The woman behind me asked me “Ntombizan (my girl), did Gogo get her change?” referring to the elderly lady next to me who was not really paying attention to the situation. I replied that “Yes” she had. As brief and simple as it was, this moment struck me because I felt as though we were all looking out for each other, making sure everyone was taken care of in the process. It may seem like a small example, but it is a glimpse into a significant facet of the culture here.

I have experienced generosity beyond all my expectations in every part of life here. Whenever I have asked for directions in downtown Johannesburg or elsewhere, people have led me for blocks to where I needed to go or they have taken me by the arm and dragged me through busy city streets to the taxi I need to be on. Of course, a large part of this generosity is that people feel they need to help me because I’m white and if they don’t, I might be scared or feel unwelcome. The fact however remains that regardless of skin color or background, people look out for each other and treat each other as brothers and sisters.

In the Christian tradition, we have the tendency to use the phrase “my brothers and sisters in Christ”. But how sincerely do we mean that? How often do we actually treat others as though they are our brothers and sisters? How often do we treat our blood brothers and sisters with the love, generosity and compassion that we should… let alone strangers? I have come to love the relaxed nature of relationships here. It is usually very easy to joke with someone you’ve just met and it’s comforting to know that no matter where you are, most people are looking out for you.

Many times throughout this experience, I have been reminded of a time in highschool when I was working at CVS Pharmacy as a cashier. It may seem like an arbitrary thing to think about here but let me explain. During the year that I worked there, I was totally miserable. Customers rarely gave a genuine greeting to me or my co-workers. I often left my shift feeling like not one person had even noticed me that day… even though I would be ringing up their items patiently and happily. The day I quit was liberating and I was happy to be done with the mundane job. However, the experience stuck with me because after working there, I have never treated another clerk, cashier, waitress or receptionist the same. It’s my firm belief that everyone should work some kind of job like this to truly understand the life of a minimum-wage person who is at an under-appreciated, boring job.

Here, it’s true that there are people who are over-looked and under-appreciated. However, there is relief from that situation in the way that the culture unfolds in a relational, intentional way that encourages “Ubuntu”- the concept that “I am because we are”. Even the IsiZulu greeting, “Saubona” literally translated means “I see you”. I see you as a legitimate, worthwhile human being and I recognize you as a member of my community.

It is my hope that we will someday come to realize that we cannot de-humanize others by treating them in a way that perpetuates their loneliness or feelings of isolation. We must see others as God has seen us- as His children- and treat our siblings as members of our family. All people deserve to feel the love and compassion of God and this love and compassion will not drop out of the sky for them. We must be agents of love, peace, understanding, reconciliation, compassion and kindness in the world. We must be representatives of our loving God and show others the love God feels for them. Brothers and sisters, this is my hope for us. This is my hope for our family.

This blog entry was written for the ELCA MUD3 blog, which can be viewed at:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Take the long way home

After a long day in Soweto, I am headed home to Bonaero Park. I had been visiting another YAGM volunteer, Joy and her visiting family. At around 4:15, I walk through the busy township which has become one of my favorite places in the country. I have three taxis ahead of me and the sun here has been going down around 7pm so I want to be back by 6:30 at the latest. As I approach the main street in Joy’s neighborhood I hold one finger in the air pointing sky-ward. A taxi goes by and the driver holds up 4 fingers. Darn… Orlando. About 5 seconds later another taxi, another 4 fingers. What the heck is happening in Orlando today? Finally, the third taxi, about 10 seconds later acknowledges my index finger with his own and gives a happy beep as he pulls over. I slide the door of the taxi open to find about 8 people already there. “Sanbonani, taxi!” I greet as I climb in with my clumsy backpack behind me. And we are Joburg-bound. As we drive through the busy streets, the driver beeps to get people’s attention. Slowly, but surely, stop after stop, we fill the taxi.

As the last of the 15 passengers climbs in and we set off on the highway, we surrender forth our 7 Rands and 50 cents… or 8 rands and 50 cents depending on where we boarded. Each row passes their change forward to the individual in the front seat next to the driver. I try to avoid that seat at all costs. The potential stress of having multiple sets of money coming to me with people saying “one, 8.50. two, 7:50” Ah, I’m not sure I would do well! Finally, all the change is worked out and we are whizzing through the outer layers of Jozi. We pass Orlando Stadium and the security outside means the Pirates must be playing. Oh! I remember now what’s happening in Orlando- the Pirates play the Sundowns tonight. How could I forget? I’ll be cheering the Sundowns later. We pass the world cup stadium, Soccer City. I think about the last game I went to there. Just about 2 weeks ago with my mom- Kaizer Chiefs facing Maritzburg United… Chiefs won, of course.

Finally we come into downtown and I quickly recognize where I am. Newtown, Bree street, Ah- here’s my stop! “Short left!” I exclaim with a bit of a South-African slur so the driver actually knows what I’m saying. I slide the door open and step onto the street knowing exactly where I’m headed. Ooh, bananas… I need some of those! 3 rands. Oh, and I need airtime. Luckily the street vendor I just passed yelling about airtime is selling some vouchers so I can recharge my cell phone. 12 rands. I keep walking down the street I know so well. Fruit, t-shirts, soccer jerseys, shoes, hot mealies (corn), house music bumping from a cd stand, pan-handlers. Ahead there is a crowd gathered around about 10 young people in traditional dress. They are singing and clapping. Two girls come forward and begin kicking high in the air… Zulu dancing. I continue walking. Finally I get to the BP station where I cross the street and make my way to a parking lot behind a church where my taxi to Kempton Park is waiting. There are people all around and about 20 or 30 taxis are parked and waiting to fill before they leave the city. The Kempton Park taxi is not where it usually is so I ask a driver nearby “Kempton Park?” to which he replies “That red one.” And points to a taxi about 3 away.

Terrific… as I approach the red taxi I wonder if it will be different from most other red taxis I have taken… For some reason, the red taxis, I have found are the worst. Many taxis, regardless of color, have been in operation far longer than they should be. The doors sometimes get stuck… the seats bend when you lean back on them… I’ve even seen people hold the sliding door on it’s runners as the taxi travels. This taxi was not quite as bad as I was expecting. However, some assembly was still required to make the seat and door functional. Here we go!

As we come out of the city I can’t help but look around at my surroundings and wonder how I ended up here in this vibrant city thousands of miles from what I have always known. After being here for several months, it’s amazing to me that these moments still occur for me. I am struck by the beauty of a sunset, a deep conversation with a stranger or music in the streets. At times, I still cannot believe I’m here and this is my life. It is a privilege and a blessing to have this opportunity. Seeing life here and learning from the people I meet has been the most unique, extraordinary experience of my short life. So this is what I contemplate on the taxi. =)

Our bright red taxi arrives in Kempton park. This busy suburb area still feels like a mini-Joburg. People everywhere and lots of bars, clubs and shops line the streets. I step off the taxi after a minor struggle with the taxi door and seats. I cross the street quickly to get to the final taxi rank. Although this rank can be rather hectic at times, it is a place where I feel pretty comfortable. Men throw coins down on gambling tables in a way I don’t really understand. People sit on crates playing cards and there is all kinds of food, candy and sodas for sale. I have taken taxis from this rank all over the area. I find the Bonaero Park taxi in its usual place and sit next to a very pregnant woman in the first row. A moment later, a woman with a small child comes and sits in the front row, as well. A few minutes pass as we wait for the taxi to fill. A robust woman approaches with her boy friend and a loud exchange takes place at the taxi door as she pulls herself into the seat. As soon as she sits in her seat and releases a loud sigh, she glances around and sees me “Ah! Amonda!” she exclaims. “Hello, Dinah!” I reply. This woman works at the conference center where I live! She has become like a surrogate mother to me, actually. We talk about where we have been during the day and say how surprised we are to see each other on this taxi!

Finally, we zoom off to our final destination. 7 rands collected from each passenger and Dinah and I disembark after a short trip up the road. We walk several minutes to the conference center where we both live. I am happy to be back at just 6:20pm with plenty of daylight left. It has been an adventurous day and as exciting as it has been, I’m happy to be back here at home in Bonaero Park: just another day in the beautiful country I have come to love so much. And I love to take the long way home.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Visit from "Mom-zozo"!

In the days leading up to my mother's visit to South Africa, people around my site could tell I was getting excited. I could barely keep the smile off of my face. I had a countdown from about 10 days prior... I was planning our schedule for her two week visit here and things were looking terrific. My friends Sakhile and Jane who work in the kitchen at the conference center where I live would tease me incessantly every morning. "When is your Mom-zozo coming??" "Will you feed her chicken feet when she comes to see you?" "Will you sleep in the same bed?". I would laugh at them and report how many more days... yes, she would love to try chicken feet... and no we would not be staying in the same bed. =) Haha.

Finally the day came! She was to arrive around 10:20am and my friend Thomas who works here in reception was going to come with me to the airport. He insisted that he be the first person to hug her when she came off the plane (after me, of course!) So we stood there in the arrival area, me with my stomach in knots SO excited to greet my mother after 6 months in this country. It seemed like forever before we saw her coming into the waiting area! SHE'S HERE! Instantly, Thomas started snapping pictures and we hugged like we'd never seen each other before. It was basically terrific. =)

After meeting everyone here at my site and seeing the sites of Joburg, my mom and I travelled south into the Kwa-Zulu Natal province to visit Brian and Kristen, the country coordinators of the YAGM program and to see the sights of South Africa. We saw many animals at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi national park and we met several of the other YAGM volunteers in Stanger for lunch one day. We stayed with Valerie in a very rural area of the country. We stood on the beach and put our feet in the Indian ocean. We stood in awe of the mountains and stared up at the clear, dark sky at the milky way galaxy. We spent some time at the Apartheid Museum outside of Joburg and we attended a Chiefs soccer game at a World Cup stadium. Overall, the time was incredible. Most importantly, I got to spend some terrific, high quality time with my "Mom-zozo". It was such a blessing to have her stay where I stay, meet my closest friends here and tell her stories about my life and experiences here.

Thomas, my mom and William at the airport on her last day.

When she left on Wednesday of this week, it was sad but it was worth all the good times we had. When I went to breakfast the next morning, Sakhile and Jane were there to make fun of me again... asking me if I cried when my Mom left. I said "Of course I did!" I then went on to explain to them that we live far apart and won't see each other for a long time. They reminded me that they also live far from their families. Sakhile's family lives in Zimbabwe and she only gets to see her parents one time a year. I realized that while it has been hard for me to be away from home for this long, I am not the only one here who is faced with this situation. Many of the employees here are from Zimbabwe or the Northern province of South Africa and are removed from their families on a regular basis. While I am younger than most of them and much further from home, I was once again reminded that my life and my struggles are not so different from those with whom I am living and working. There is a temptation here to feel different and special... like a martyr, suffering for this work. But the reality is that when we honestly engage in relationship with those around us, we will see that we are more similar than we ever could have dreamed and we are all part of one family. We are faced with the same sorrows and we encounter the same joys. We are all connected and are bound to each other.

So, while I miss my family, my mom's visit and the subsequent realizations have reminded me that this is a short-term experience. As I grow closer to my friends and family here in South Africa with each passing day, I also am reminded of how quickly these days are passing and how soon I will be back in the states missing South Africa. So Mom-zozo, I know you miss me and want me home, but I'm not done here! My South African family has so much more to teach me. =)

It's just a bug... right?

In my years of being a camp counselor, I can’t tell you how many times I have told screaming 10 year old girls (and boys, occasionally) “Calm down! It’s just a bug!” I also can’t tell you how many times I have sprayed campers with bug spray or gotten itch cream for a kid with a bug bite. I myself have suffered from the incessant itching of countless bug bites. But none of these experiences were particularly remarkable for me because people can’t die of a bug bite… right?

In reality, 750,000 people die of a bug bite each year. 2,000 children die each day… of a bug bite. What is this horrible bug? Is it the black widow spider, some kind of killer bee? No, it is a mosquito. Malaria is one of the leading causes of death for the developing world… and it’s entirely preventable.

In mid-January, the office of LUCSA, the Lutheran Communion in Southern Africa, held a conference and planning meeting to develop their 2011 Malaria program strategy. This program is relatively new and at this point is entirely funded by the ELCA. Five countries within Southern Africa were represented at this meeting by their Malaria project coordinators and field officers. The week consisted of reporting on the past year’s activities and proposals of the upcoming year’s plans and budgets. Programming varied from net distribution and instruction, to destruction of mosquito breeding grounds to education for identifying symptoms of malaria and rapid response. Observing these meetings was such an awesome experience for me and I felt honored to witness such an important meeting that will save thousands of lives in southern Africa.

Malaria is not a major problem in the country of South Africa. I have anti-malaria medication in a drawer somewhere for when I travel to the eastern part of the country where there are game reserves and the malaria-risk goes up. But I rarely think about malaria here. How often do North Americans think of this deadly disease? Probably about as often as I do here in South Africa. Malaria was eradicated from North America in 1950. Since then, 41 million people have died of malaria in the rest of the world. How is this possible? We know how to prevent malaria. We ourselves have purged it from our country and continent, saving the lives of our children and future generations. The issue of malaria in developing countries is not just an issue of public health. It is also an issue of economics and social justice.

On one of the first days of the malaria meetings, Rev. Benyam Kassahun of ELCA Global Mission delivered an important message to those in attendance at the conference. He stated that North America does not face the challenge of malaria. We have not had to think about this problem for decades. However, here in Africa, malaria is a problem. A part of the body of Christ has a problem with malaria and so the entire body is affected. Thus, we DO have a problem with malaria in North America. We are compelled by our understanding of the gospel to solve this issue and work together to save the lives that are being lost.

Why is this such a difficult concept for us to grasp and act upon? Children are dying of a preventable disease; a disease that we know how to stop and that we put an end to for ourselves a long time ago. Yet somehow, it continues. Why is it so easy for us to push such issues out of our minds and turn a blind eye? Is it because we are so far removed from it that it doesn’t feel like real people are dying? Does it simply fit our picture of “poor Africa” and we have accepted that these things happen in “Africa”? If 2,000 American children died each day of a preventable disease, what would be the response of our people and our government? If 250 million Americans were infected each year by this deadly disease (more than 75% of our country’s population) how would this change our perspective? Now imagine if this was the health crisis in America and there was another country somewhere that had solved these issues for its own people over 60 years ago. If that’s not injustice, I don’t know what is… So why are we allowing it to continue?

More and more, I am discovering how ignorant we are of how the policies and economy of the U.S. impact the lives of people around the world. We are dependent on the rest of the world for so much and yet we sometimes act as if we are functioning in a vacuum. We only see the issues that are right in front of us and we do not bother to understand the way our policies impact the entire world. I, too, am guilty of this ignorance. I have never completely understood global economics or the centuries of war that have shaped our influence around the globe. However, being aware of these issues that impact so many is the first step in understanding our position in the world. This knowledge moves us towards finding solutions for problems that affect millions of fellow humans.

Not only are we morally obligated as members of the human race to make ourselves aware of these issues, but as Christians we are, as Rev Kassahun said, compelled by the gospel to face such issues head-on. Christ challenges us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. To address their issues as we address our own. What would Christ’s life and ministry look like without empathy for the stranger? What would be notable about his life if he was only healing his friends and disciples? Always curing his own headaches and bruises and drying the tears of his own family? Perhaps the most remarkable, compelling and confusing parts of the gospel are moments in which Christ welcomes a stranger or an outcast to be part of a miracle or part of his ministry. Repeatedly we hear the stories of lepers, prostitutes, Samaritans, or just strangers who Jesus comes across and treats as equals. We must emulate this example and learn that while there is nothing we can DO to earn God’s love, the only appropriate response to the wonderful gift of grace we receive is to love others as God has loved us. This love we must have for others means that malaria must be ended for all people.

All figures and demographics included in this essay were provided by the World Vision campaign to end malaria, the World Health Organization and the U.S. census bureau. Check out the World Vision campaign to end malaria website to find out more about advocacy opportunities and for more information about ending malaria by 2015. Additionally, you can contribute to the ELCA Malaria fund at or you can make a donation to directly provide nets to those in need through ELCA Good Gifts. Thank you!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Merry Little Christmas. =)

In the weeks leading up to the holiday season, I was feeling a lot of pressure. Since I arrived in Bonaero Park in September, people have asked me what I was going to do about the festive season. “Aren’t you going to miss your family??” to which I would reply, “Of course!”. The inquiries were also laden with worry. “You know, we will all leave. You shouldn’t stay here. You can’t be alone!” So as November crept onward and the 25th loomed closer, I began to worry. I had talked to some of the other volunteers about their plans. Most had plans with their host families already and said they would ask about having another person, but I didn’t want to impose too much. Finally, Valerie, another volunteer who lives alone here in South Africa contacted me and we decided to spend Christmas together… we didn’t know where we would go, but we would be together.

Fortunately, Kate, a volunteer in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the Southeast province of the country offered to have us to her community for the holiday break! Kate lives with 4 other volunteers who are all from Germany. The Kenosis community where she lives is home to several dozen foster children and houses a crèche (nursery school) on the premises. With the holiday slow down, most of the foster families had left the community for rural homes. So Kate was also not sure what she would be doing for the holidays. Going to Kate’s was the perfect solution to our holiday worries! Valerie, Kate and I are all good friends and we knew that it would be a fantastic holiday season together!

Valerie, myself and Kate on our way to visit a waterfall nearby

In the days leading up to the big day, Kate, Valerie and I volunteered around Kenosis as much as we could. We painted a house, washed the Kenosis van and looked for little projects to help with. We also traveled down to Durban for a few days to help at Mike’s site with a Youth camp in a township. Before we knew it, it was Christmas Eve! We planned a wonderful dinner for Christmas Eve which included chicken with spice we found in Durban, veggies, broccoli casserole, twice baked potatoes and for dessert, traditional Christmas cookies and cold milk. We also invited Michael, one of the Kenosis kids who is about 16 and didn’t have Christmas Eve plans. As we sat on a blanket spread on the floor of the hall where we had prepared our meal, we listened to Christmas carols and smelled the branches of the Christmas tree in a Ziploc bag which Kate’s mom had sent us. It was a perfect evening.

The next morning, we woke up nice and early and met the sisters who live at Kenosis. Oh, did I forget to mention that? =) At Kate’s site there are three Lutheran nuns who live together there and offered to take us with them to church on Christmas morning! So, we piled into the van, eight of us all together and zoomed down the highway on our way to church. It was a fantastic experience to laugh and chat with these three women on a warm, sunny Christmas day!

Church was relatively short (only 2 hours!) and afterwards, we squished into an already full public taxi on the way to Maqonqo, a rural area outside of Pietermaritzburg. There we would meet up with Tandekile, one of the Kenosis foster mothers and spend the day with her and her family. When we arrived at her home, she was the only one in the kitchen with about 10 men and 5 kids already enjoying the day. So we dropped everything and helped make salads, meat, pap and all kinds of food for the Christmas dinner. Just a few hours later, we enjoyed a terrific meal and found ourselves playing with some of the kids at Tandekile’s home. The afternoon went WAY too fast and soon it was time for us to go.

We went back to Kenosis for dinner with the sisters who were hosting a large meal for the volunteers and some of their families who were visiting for the holidays. After another wonderful meal, we helped the sisters wash the excessive amounts of dishes. This ended up being my favorite part of the day as we sang Zulu choruses in the kitchen, dancing and doing the motions to the various songs as we put the dishes away. It was a wonderful way to end the day.

I did get the chance to talk to my family over the phone on Christmas day. I cried when I heard my brother’s voice, who I haven’t talked to since arriving here. I loved hearing from them and hearing about their day. However, I wouldn’t trade my South African Christmas for anything. It was a once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget. To celebrate the birth of Christ with people who I see Christ in everyday was so exciting. Ever since, I have felt more at home here in South Africa and I have been more and more appreciative of how beautiful and diverse this country is.

Christmas day at Tandekile's home

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ngiya xolisa kakhulu!!

Here is a wonderful Zulu phrase I have discovered is priceless knowledge here.... ngiya xolisa kakhulu... I am very sorry!!! It actually sorta means I apologize very much, but either way, it is used to express remorse and the sincerest of apology... which is what you deserve from me. It has been FAR too long since my last blog update and there has been SO much to update you on! Our first all-volunteer retreat, my travels throughout South Africa and Lesotho over the holidays, volunteering at other YAGM's sites and my joyous return to Bonaero Park. SO, stay tuned because you will be receiving update on all these things in the upcoming week or so.

I have resolved in this new year to communicate better with those of you who mean so much to me and to spend my time writing about my experiences. It's awesome how easily I get caught up in conversations and laughter with the people who live here with me in Bonaero Park but I need to remember that it's super important that I tell you about how great it is! After work, I usually go to the kitchen to catch up with some of the staff there who have been having rather quiet days lately since the year has been slow to start. Then I usually run into the security guys or the groundskeeper, Lungisani on my way to my room and end up chatting about the day, the weekend, the holiday or anything. Then after getting to my room, I usually find myself either visiting the staff house to see other friends here or I get a call from another YAGM or I get the chance to read a letter from the states. Before I know it, it's time for dinner and Generations! My favorite soapie here. =)By the time Generations ends, it's 8:30... which is not super late but there's not much else to do! So I usually journal or read the verses of the day and then head to bed. =) SO, you see, it's not impossible to find some time to blog. Though the past month with all my traveling throughout the country with very limited internet access, it was relatively impossible.

But new year, new resolutions and a new start means frequent updates! So again, stay tuned and I'll be telling you some wonderful stories about this beautiful country which has become a second home to me. =)