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: