Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sonnet on the beach

Like the sighing of the ocean waves upon the sand
Is Your voice that calls me to a place of rest.
The tidal ebb and flow marks wetness on the strand;
Your paw prints fill with water as I strain to keep abreast.
It’s the purring of a Lion, it’s the soughing of the sea
That pulls me out of fretting to a place you call delight.
When I feel the anxious chatter and the world things beckon me,
Turn low the blaring volume and pull down the shades for night.
Your voice is indistinct, and when I reach, You seem to fade--
Sound-bytes, trailers, blogs and twitters clamour for my brain:
Or apathetic “chill; don’t sweat it” threatens to pervade--
So doff the sweater called “whatever”--seek a lost refrain:

I’ll know You when I see You and hear Your voice anew;

You’re not tame, You’re wild and free--You’ll do what You will do.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Out of the Black Shadows

Imagine yourself a seven year old with a younger brother and baby sister. You live in a township outside a major African city. Your mother brought you three into the unfamiliar city on a busy afternoon. Then, telling you she had to use the toilet, handed you the baby and told you to hold your little brother’s hand. And left. Sorry about the spoiler, but that is what Out of the Black Shadows is about: aloneness. 

Some twelve years later, a violent, confused, self-hating teen with a bag of petrol bombs sets off with his gang to attack a bank in Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe). He and his buddies see an evangelistic tent meeting on the township’s edge and decide it would be a much better target with many more casualties than a solid concrete bank. After reorganizing their game plan and countdown, they duck into the tent to blend in with the crowd.

But the Holy Spirit had other plans, and  Stephen Lungu’s life changed irreversibly that night. Out of the Black Shadows (co-authored by Stephen Lungu and Anne Coomes) is described as a “spiritual thriller” by Michael Cassidy, founder of African Enterprise. But it is much more than that: it is the spiritual autobiography of a self-described loser, a young man who carried the weight of abandonment and rejection within his soul to such an extent that death often seemed his best option.

The Black Shadows was the name of the gang Stephen led, the only family he had, and the ragtag mob of boys he slept under a bridge with. It derived from a wild west movie and the fantasies they lived on to supplement their diet of digging through white people’s garbage cans and tips from chasing tennis balls.

Stephen lived under much blacker shadows than the name of his gang. Abandoned so young, Stephen carried the weight of responsibility, self-hate and bitterness. But this amazing account, after focusing on the impossibility of redemption or humanisation of this street boy gone “terrorist”, reveals a most unusual story of hope and grace.

The vehicle for this grace was the South African based Dorothea Mission. These missionaries came with their own apartheid issues, but God was greater and used their desire instead of their faults. The “coincidental” finding of Stephen by Hannes Joubert after his conversion and Joubert’s loving discipline cover us like a soft warm blanket after the chilly hard ground of Stephen’s grave-bed under the bridge. Although Stephen was from Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and abhorred the apartheid mentality from the south, he was not as scarred by it as those directly under its domination. His resentment focused on his own family who betrayed him and let him down.

Most heart-warming is the delightful friendship and sparring partnership that Stephen developed with (now world famous) Patrick Johnstone. Stephen knew him before “Operation World” and Johnstone is a model for many who wish to lead and challenge others to reach beyond what they think they can achieve. Much of the credit for the man Stephen Lungu became he gratefully credits to Patrick and Patrick’s nurturing of him and confidence in him.

This book reads like a simple story told by a simple man, but the undeniable power which changed him makes it a rich story, complex in life, relationships and grace. It can be compared to Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy, story of a young street boy who makes good and arrives in America to escape apartheid’s oppression. Their experiences of hunger, abuse, cold, and self-hate are similar. But while Mark gained the privilege of education and leaving, Stephen was burdened to share his wonderful gift with anyone who would listen and Africa became his mission field as well as his home.

This book reminds us of the difference we can make, one person at a time, when we are willing to step out in faith and let God do what He will do. 

(Unlike Mathabane’s book, this one can be read to younger listeners.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ordination in the Township

Ever since my first encounter in 1976 with high holy days, ancient tradition has enchanted me. A service with people called acolytes, deacons, priests, bishops, thurifers, and crucifers, wearing, not robes, but vestments called chasubles, dalmatics, surplices, stoles, copes, albs, and cassocks--even pointy hats called mitres--this was celestial. If that weren’t enough, they carried huge candles, ornate candlesticks, intricately designed crosses, thuribles, monstrances, shepherd staffs and chalices. And the music--ah--the music.

My parched, low-church, evangelical spirit soared with the heady fragrance of incense, the tinkling of musical bells (in all the right places) and the richness of liturgical prayers and responses with angelic choir voices glorying and alleluia-ing in a seamless whole which left me breathless and inspired. No wonder the medievals built such lofty cathedrals: room for their spirits to ascend to empyrean and be reminded that no matter how small they were, God in His bigness, came down to them.

My favourite has always been the midnight Easter Vigil ending the mourning and meditation of Lent, bringing the “alleluias” back into the calendar and brass triumph insisting that we not find the resurrection hum-drum. It matters not the decades we have known He is Risen. He is RISEN, people--and that is a miracle beyond all our imaginations, bells, incense, vestments and prayers combined. Risen. Centurions flat on their backs with amazed faces. And the Lord smiling, walking barefoot from His empty tomb.

Over the years I have attended so few festival days (living in remote non-Anglican parts of Africa), that I relish each one. When we at East Mountain heard that our three Anglican students would be ordained in September at a truly high ceremony in Langa township, I knew we were in for a treat. I just didn’t know how much of one.

As Americans, we predictably arrived early for the 3 pm service. We rejoiced with our students, Mphumelelo, Sazi, and Khaya. We met the presiding bishop and the local rector as well as another visiting bishop. 

The ordination was held in a community hall, much like a gymnasium, because the churches were too small. Excellent idea because it was filled to capacity in less than 45 minutes. The hall was draped in red and white cloth, probably to cover up the non-ecclesiastical feel of such a secular place. An added touch was that all the ordinands were given stoles in matching red and white with the PX symbol like a large football insignia on their backs.

The service itself was truly an inspired blend of the best of the church's liturgical, medieval tradition with the fluidity, vibrance, and volume of the African township. I was entranced. The choir was dressed in brilliantly patterned dresses (no men that I noticed). Some wore the pattern in shades of red, orange and yellow, others in green, blue and yellow. But their outfits were nothing compared to their voices--at least three of them could have competed with Whitney Houston, and won. 

As I was taking it all in: the decor, the elaborate altar draped with festival linens up front, the chalices and candelabras, the chairs set out for bishops, priests and the multitude of acolytes scurrying about in their white surplices and shiny white Nikes (or were they Adidas?) something else caught my eye.

Over behind me and to my left, up in the balcony section of the hall sat three men. Not noisily jostling and greeting all the folks around them, quietly smiling and enjoying the ruckus before we started. The procession was attempting to untangle itself in too small a space at the back, the thurifer checking his incense pot for the fifth time, acolytes running up to the front to get the lit candles they had forgotten to bring up in the procession, and these three gentlemen just soaking it all in.

They appeared to be a family, three generations. One definitely with his white hair seemed more patriarchal, but their closeness and knowing glances made them feel more like brothers. No one seemed to notice them or go over to greet them, they were clearly visitors, not members of the families or parishes of the ordinands. 

As the procession processed and the choir began the entrance hymn, I jumped at the sound of a gunshot. What was going on? We’d joked about violence in the township, but this was guaranteed a peaceful Sunday afternoon. No one else jumped. Hadn’t they heard it? Then it went off again. Why wasn’t anybody doing anything, and how could they keep processing like nothing was wrong? The three gents were smiling and nodding their heads in time. When the third gunshot went off, I realised it was in time with the music and it was not a gun. One, no two, of the choir members had small dense cushions strapped to their hands and belted on them like portable drums. It definitely syncopated. Then another choir member picked up a metal cup and started banging it with a spoon and the percussion section was well underway. Cowbells, gunshots, and rich amber voices created music you will never hear in a cathedral in Europe. I was transported.

The three gents in the balcony were, too. I saw the bliss and sensed their delight in everything that was going on. No matter that the thurible was over-filled and the incense reached such an intensity that I was looking around to see what was on fire. The service carried on--a picture of unbridled enthusiasm barely held in by the centuries-long format of “ordination service.”

We made our confession, sang the Lord’s Prayer in isiXhosa (so we Americans just thought it in our hearts), we heard the readings--some in English, but the gospel chanted in isiXhosa: now that is something to hear complete with clicks and pops. And the congregation all nodding along, hanging on every word. This may be ritual, but it is not boring or solemn: all of us facing the deacon in the aisle with the tiny acolyte holding up the Bible.

When the activity heads front and centre, chairs up there start getting rearranged, blankets for the ordinands to prostrate on, just a little chaos and confusion so we can all settle back and gear up for the next part. Over my shoulder I see the three gents, watching with interest and appreciation. The rest of us are restlessly resettling, it’s been going a while, but the three are entirely focused. At intervals during the service bursts of mayhem are evident. Well-intentioned confusion: books handed around, papers in plastic sheathes with the words of the next part passed from deacon to priest. Stoles brought for the ordinands, draped, admonitions. Priests switching sides and discovering where to stand. Deacons helping ordinands to stand from being prostrate on the floor. You try that, without stepping on your cassock and ripping it off. (Besides, one of them is carrying a bit of weight which makes it more difficult for him.) The choir director starts and is stopped for announcements. The bishop is intermittently taking his mitre off and putting it back on, depending on what is happening and whether he is permitted to wear it at that moment. He has Parkinson’s, so he needs a little help from a nearby deacon to get the little ribbons lying correctly down his back. He sits for his sermon which is straight from his heart. He believes in these men. He reminds them of the responsibility ahead. A responsibility he has carried for years and will soon lay down.

The Passing of the Peace is utter pandemonium and Rodney sitting next to me (somewhat a stranger to liturgy) asks if it is half-time. Apparently there is a lot of peace in Langa, because it takes a while to pass it all around; the three gents are not passing it, however. They are practically ignored by everyone, which seems strange to me. But they don’t mind in the least, they are revelling in the abundance of joy milling around them.

And then, when I have given up on Eucharist because it is now so late, and to have mass at this point would make the service interminable, the chant introducing the Lord’s Supper commences. To my amazement, we have communion, we share the broken Body and we share the cup of our Salvation. It is not interminable. In our eagerness for this blessing and perpetual reminder of how much we have been given, we tumble forward in orderly chaos. One of my own students gives me my wafer and whispers not “the Body of Christ” but “you can eat it.” My heart bursting at the significance of this moment.

On my way back to my seat, I look up at the three gentlemen. They are not in their seats. I scan the aisles. Not there. The doors haven’t been opened. But they got clean away. Odd. They were clearly enrapt by the whole proceeding. You’d have thought it was all for them.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: The Help

**This week in a step away from South Africa (where we currently life) I'm looking at an American book/movie, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and it’s contribution to the conversation-in-story we have been pursuing about apartheid and colour issues.  It has been difficult to decide whether to blog on this book or not, because it has generated a lot of discontent in that it has a white female protagonist and focuses mainly on her, rather than the black women she is attempting to help. There are flaws: the author was naive and brings her own baggage of having been raised by a black servant who was closer to her than her own mother--parallel to the character in the story. I would suggest, however, that this book is closer to having a trinity of protagonists that merely one who is pale and not extremely heroic. Rather than complain that this story is not written by a person of the correct colour and background, let's attempt to learn what we can from her efforts. 

I live in a very pale neighbourhood  where women of colour push babies without colour in little prams on smooth sidewalks leafy with shade. My neighbourhood is a few kilometres from the neighbourhood I suspect a number of these pram-pushers live. Let’s just say there aren’t any shady or smooth sidewalks for pushing prams there, and few enough prams. 

Reading The Help and watching the movie again brought me some unsettled feelings, especially when I encounter pram-pushers in my neighbourhood walks.

If you’ve seen the movie, The Help, the book (as usual) is ten times better. The movie is delightful, humorous, ironic, and involving. The 60s decor, news, technology, and fashion are amusing and remind us how far we’ve come. But have we? The book gives us more to reflect on, more opportunity to look into our hearts as we get to know characters as more than caricatures.

The depth of the book is in its three alternating narrators and the issues each struggles with. Skeeter is the gangly, white college graduate and aspiring novelist. She wrestles with her lack of sex appeal, her towering height, and a tyrannical, faded beauty queen mother. Aibileen is an older, prayerful, coloured maid who has raised 17 white children and loved each with mother-love. She wrestles with the seed of bitterness germinating since the death of her only child, her 24 year old son. During a work accident, his boss dumped him at the coloured hospital which did not have the facilities to treat his crushed lung. Aibileen watched him die on her sofa at home. Minny is an outspoken maid, famous for her cooking; but she cannot keep a job very long because she speaks her mind. She wrestles with mothering five children (while working) and a brutally abusive husband.

When the story opens, Minny and Aibileen are working for Skeeter’s two best friends and Skeeter has just come from from college. We soon realize that Skeeter is different from the other women in the League and the bridge club. While consulting Aibileen for advice for a column she writes, she sees past Aibileen’s colour and discovers a woman she would like to get to know. Hence, this story: the perspective of the maids serving across colour lines. We hear tales of love and gratitude and others of scorn and abuse. Each one has been true in some time and some place; this is one work of fiction full of much truth. Many of the stories shock us--we try to comfort ourselves that that was the 60s and the Civil Rights Movement was just gaining momentum. Back then, people were ignorant and callous. That was then. This is now.

We don’t hear anyone called “the help” anymore. And few would admit to having a servant. But I have heard enough tales of woe about “domestics” to know that at the heart level, this story still needs to be heard, and needs to go to the heart.

It is true, young black men are no longer being beaten and blinded by tire irons for using the wrong entrance, and as far as I know, there are no segregated bathrooms. However, the truth of the matter is: apartheid is alive and well under the surface. I am sorry. I know people are weary of the “colour issue”. Most of us would like to think that we personally are not prejudiced in terms of colour. My goodness, wasn’t it Hilly Holbrook herself (the queen of colour-bar) who warned Skeeter that there were some “real racists in town” and she had better watch what she was reading? Hilly, of all people.

But after we smugly look away from Hilly’s pernicious attitude, we need to reflect on ourselves more deeply. The Help is a story about two women of colour and one without colour who started out clearly unsure of each other and protective of self-interest.

Then something happened. They developed relationships. From wary observation to interest, from there to beginning to share and finally trust, they risked relationship. That process of building relationships is how apartheid in the heart will be eradicated. Distrust across colours is a deterrent to finding out how how precious others are. Reasons for distrust abound: many are historic and some are current stereotypes. What spoke to my heart was hearing the battles each woman was fighting. “Be gentle” is the watchword--everyone is engaged in her/his own battle. 

The Help offers a beautiful description of community at work in Aibileen’s church family. Community is people getting together and helping one another through those battles. Courage is risking for others, as her pastor poignantly brought home. Here in Africa, we call it “Ubuntu”, which means that a person is a person in relation to other people.

Although this book is about the US in the 1960s, it speaks people on any continent today. What do I believe about those different from me? Where did my beliefs come from? How do my beliefs align with Truth, eternal and unchanging? When we walk through this process, then we will be ready to step out and build relationships with people unlike ourselves. Take a risk. Possibly start a change that could spread like wild fire.

Read The Help, then reflect.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Cape Town Coolie

RĂ©shard Gool takes on the challenge of a retrospective look (written in 1990) at the advent of apartheid in Cape Town Coolie, the story of an Indian lawyer living in the Cape who finds himself caught up in a political frenzy he barely anticipates and his own personal life gone haywire. Our protagonist is Henry Naidoo. For the most part, we learn his story told from his Afrikaans best friend, Adrian, but as the keeper of Henry's letters and diaries, we are treated to excerpts which unfold the story.

We have a premonition, since it is Adrian telling the story, that things do not bode well for Henry, but his outcome is unclear till the final pages. That we are reading a tragedy is not immediately obvious, but it is grey-toned, despite the beautiful Cape sunshine and surrounding wine lands. In the first paragraph, Adrian introduces the CID men sent to check him out, his comic “with gangster hats belonging to a dated Hollywood movie” does not prepare us for tragedy within tragedy; but this is all one can expect from a pawn in a doomed social construct.

The year is 1948 and the wheels of apartheid can be heard coming down the track. But Cape Town is the most enlightened of the provinces and least onerous on its non-white inhabitants. In Naidoo’s own words, describing his feelings upon first arriving in the Cape from Durban:

Traditional liberalism still made it possible for an outsider like me, an Indian, a Hindu moreover in a predominantly Cape Coloured and Malay community, to retain some human dignity, even if the right to sit anywhere in a bus, or to elect a fellow “Non-White” to a Municipal Council was not more than a privilege reluctantly granted and daily threatened. The liberty of the Cape bemused me. I recognized my kinship in spirit with other under-trodden South Africans, in fact, with the under-trodden throughout the world.

The backdrop of the story involves the presaged takeover of District Six. Before the actual removal of 60,000 residents of colour to clear prime real estate for exclusive white living, there were businessmen wheeling and dealing, devising ways to profit from another’s misfortune. After a call from Shaik-Moosa (one of these infamous business people) Naidoo ruminates: it registered an industrial wasteland of impersonal machines and neurotic tycoons and faceless toiling millions in whom life had grown as precise as a clock and as bereft of depth as an advertising slogan.

While Naidoo, a diligent lawyer in straightened circumstances, finds himself sucked into working for men he cannot respect, he develops a love-interest that clouds his thinking and waxes the slippery slope. With the inevitability of a Greek tragedy we watch something happen that “could so easily have been avoided” but will not be. As though Fates station themselves throughout the book, the system which feeds on breaking relationships grinds on. While describing community among the coloureds, Gool in fact high-lights the ways in which they are torn out from it by the very outside pressures which made them pull in together initially.

This book is not for everyone: replete with political dialogue, it is a valiant attempt to verbalize and give audience to the schools of thought to counter nationalism: communism, marxism, and liberalism. Writing in hindsight, Gool is able to know which of his characters had flawed ideas and predictions, but still manages to give them plausibility. Gool also reaches earthy depths in the relationships of his characters: they live desperately in desperate situations. Normal expectations and constraints are sidelined for the urgency of crises. (This is a book for the robust reader.)

The blending of personal lives against a historic backdrop of change is a popular technique which works well in Cape Town Coolie. We are intrigued by the plot even as we learn more about the machinations behind the District Six evictions. It is very gratifying now (in 2014) to see a vast weedy emptiness in the heart of Cape Town: the very place where so many lives were uprooted and cast aside is a desolate reminder of the selfish potential in each heart. 

Beyond the politics, Henry Naidoo learns about liberty and love. “A little liberty is insufficient, what I hankered after was a freedom of a more positive kind, one coupled with equality and responsibility . . .” And as we know in looking back, that kind of liberty was not to be had for another half century. He developed that further with the understanding that: “there is only one kind of true love, and that is responsible compassion.” So responsibility resonates in Naidoo's mind and when he learns the truth about his own father's depth of responsibility, it almost overwhelms him. (Another facet of personal tragedy in multi-layers of pain.)

He wanted justice. That is why he became a lawyer. But, as noted by the lawyer in AndrĂ© Brink’s Dry White Season, justice and law were not on speaking terms in South Africa in those years. So Henry lost faith in the pacifist answers inherited from his Hindu mother and Gandhian tradition.

Though this story does not pull us in--even the narrator seems emotionally detached--it is capable of evoking the sense of futility and helplessness the wider spectrum of humanity must have felt as apartheid gained momentum and found its way into the laws and underpinnings of the whole nation. So while the Tenants’ Association attempted to stem the tide which would lead them to losing their homes and neighborhood, the clever business people turned into sharks in a feeding frenzy. 

Once again, this is a story about brokenness. Broken hearts. Broken relationships. Broken laws. Broken morals. Broken people. All in context of a broken society.