Tuesday, June 22, 2010

10 Suggestions

Hello dear family and friends, the sun is shining on Soweto, as it has for the past month and will throughout the rest of the South African winter. The days are fairly warm and the nights are cold, often dropping below freezing. The World Cup is in full swing and the children are on an extended school holiday. It is great to be in South Africa in the midst of it all, but there is one upcoming event that cannot escape my thoughts. In just four weeks I will be leaving this place. In four weeks, I will have to bid farewell to all those who I have grown close to this past year (Although I refuse to really say goodbye for good, jut goodbye until we meet again). I doubt I will discover the impact this year had on me for quite some time, and there is no way to know how I will react to returning home until I get there. I have been told time and time again that the reverse culture shock experienced upon coming home is more difficult to handle than anyone would expect, yet I continually told myself that “home is home and it has always been home so why worry?” However as my return date is rapidly approaching, I have accepted the fact that it may not be as easy as I once thought. All I can do it take each day as it comes. I am sure I have been changed in ways I will only discover later. I AM looking forward to coming home, for many reasons, but the joys of coming home will be mixed with the sadness of leaving. The emotions are complicated and will take me some time to process. To help those to whom I am returning, I have included part of a letter written by former YAGM, and current country coordinator for the Mexico program, Andrea Roske-Metcalfe. It is an open letter to friends and family who have a missionary returning home. Many of the following suggestions will apply to me, and some will not. But I think the suggestions are worth reading and thinking about.

 10 Suggestions for Helping your Young Adult in Global Mission (YAGM) Return Home

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 carloads 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 Macy’s 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.

 I am looking forward to sharing my stories with everyone at home, but not all at once and perhaps not right away. I am excited to be reminded of the taste of Starbucks, Pike Kiltlifter Ruby Ale, and home cooked meals. Most of all I am looking forward to being with my family, going to worship at Mountain View Lutheran, and perhaps catching a few baseball games, hopefully before Cliff Lee is traded. I will take it in as it comes, but some part of me will remain here in Soweto, and I anticipate a longing to come back. My life has changed in more ways than one, and I am looking forward to see what comes next.

God’s Blessings. 

Monday, May 31, 2010

Port Elizabeth and beyond....(Part 2)

Hello again! I am now in the swing of things after my two weeks away. It is nice to be back in the DAM office (hehe) with my colleagues. I already had to say the first of my difficult goodbyes (I miss you already, Ncomeka) but I now have a special bond with the two other volunteers that attended CBCO training with me, as is the nature of going through such a week together. The upcoming weeks will take me to our final retreat and then World Cup craziness, so whatever I wish to accomplish better be done soon. My time here is running short. Aybo!

CBCO training ended on Friday, May 7. Even though we had our end of training party Thursday night (and my birthday party), we had workshops right up until it was time to go. We then got our very official-looking certificates of completion (it felt like graduation all over again!) and then it was time to say goodbye. It was quite difficult to part with the small group to whom I had grown close over the course of the week (I can’t even imagine what leaving Soweto will be like in seven weeks…). Good thing there is this little website called Facebook that will allow us all to keep in touch. If any of my CBCO people are reading this, thanks so much for being so great to me. I love you all and I will never forget you.

My departing sorrow did not last long, however. Brian Konkol (our fearless leader), Nate Berkas (the fearless volunteer in Port Elizabeth) and Nate’s brother, Ryan (who fearlessly flew all the way to South Africa to see his big bro) came to pick me up from the retreat centre. Whenever I see any or all of the other volunteers it feels a little bit like coming home. We are a family in the truest sense of the word. The four of us spent the afternoon and evening around Port Elizabeth taking in the sights. We had dinner at a pub and unbeknownst to us, a major rugby match between the Blue Bulls (I think they play in Pretoria) and a team from Australia was being televised. Every patron there had an appreciable lack of pigmentation (meaning they were all white), as rugby is the favorite sport of white South Africans (speaking in generalities, of course). It funny how I can feel comfortable in Soweto or at CBCO training when there is no one else that looks like me, but I feel terribly out of place in a restaurant filled with white rugby fans. That was a new kind of cultural experience (plus, quite frankly I have no interest in rugby). After we ate, we retired to our accommodations at the Hippo Backpackers (which oddly enough is about three blocks from the place CBCO training was held). I would also like to say congratulations to Brian and Kristen Konkol as they will be adding a member to their family come October! (I just had to throw that in there)

The next morning, after saying farewell to Brian, the remaining three of us went on an adventure to Addo Elephant Park and Scotia Nature Reserve where our guide, Malcolm, displayed incredible instincts as to where the animals would be. We had an amazing day and saw four out of the big five (no leopards in this park). I highly doubt I will ever get tired of seeing lions, giraffes, rhinos, elephants, hippos, and, of course, the rare and majestic impala (rumor has it, my father had a couple when he was younger). Thanks to Nate and Ryan for allowing me to tag along.

Early the following day, it was time for my real adventure to begin. I said goodbye to Nate and Ryan and boarded the Baz Bus (a hop on, hop off bus for backpackers in SA) all by myself. My first destination was a little beach town called Chintsa about four hours north of Port Elizabeth. This was really my first time taking a solo trip (although I did wander alone for a few hours in Tokyo, not venturing off the street that lead to Matt’s apartment) and admittedly I was a bit nervous. To travel alone, one must have a go-with-the-flow-and-see-what-happens mentality. I arrived at Buccaneers Backpackers in Chintsa after a pleasant bus ride through rolling green hills (except I always manage to sit on the side of the bus with the sun baring down on me). The setting was absolutely breathtaking. The accommodations consisted of a number of bungalows on a hillside overlooking a lagoon and miles of pristine beach. For 130 rand per night (about $17), I had a bungalow to myself, although I would have had to share with other people had I not been there during a slow time of year. It only took me a few nanoseconds to drop off my stuff and head down to the beach. I walked for a long time and only occasionally saw other people. The Indian Ocean was refreshing but not unbearably cold like the Pacific is off the Washington and Oregon coasts. I quickly met a number of friendly travelers, including Jen (pronounced like yen) and Annalie from Denmark. I had dinner that first evening with the two of them, a couple from the Netherlands, and a girl traveling by herself from the UK. I could not help smiling to myself and thinking that this is what it is all about. The conversations flowed, as did the cold drinks. It did not take long to find commonalities with my fellow travelers. After all, we are all on this adventure together. I also met a trio from Seattle, who helped remind me that although geographically I am about as far from home as I can get, the world is still quite small.

My second day in Chintsa began with another beach stroll to check out the tide pools, breakfast at the backpackers overlooking the lagoon and the beach, and then some more beach time and a feeble attempt at surfing with Jen and Annalie (surfing is WAY harder than it looks, and it certainly doesn’t LOOK easy). Buccaneers hosted a free evening event that involved free wine and volleyball, in that order. Needless to say a good time was had by all. Dinner once again found us sipping cold drinks and socializing. I spent another night alone in my bungalow, woke up, walked down the beach for the last time, and then got back onto the Baz Bus to continue by adventure. The bus wound through the hills of the Transkei (the birthplace of Rolihlahla Mandela, better known as Nelson, among other notable South Africans). The scenery was beautiful, the houses small and modest, and the likelihood of seeing sheep or cows crossing the road higher than that of seeing people. I got off the bus in the town of Mthatha, bid a very fond farewell to my Danish friends, and got on a shuttle bound for the beach town of Port St. Johns.

Port St. Johns is a vibrant little beach town located on South Africa’s Wild Coast. My accommodations this time were at a place aptly named the Jungle Monkey Backpackers, which indeed was situated in the coastal jungle. The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the colorful bar decorated in sort of a Rastafarian style and the small stage with an array of musical instruments set up along with amplifiers, microphones, lights, and the works. It did not take long for one of the staff members to ask me if I play any instruments, to which I replied that I dabble on guitar and bass. When asked if I wanted to jam later that night, I nonchalantly said that would be great (you know, to play it cool). I started out on bass with Conway on guitar and Fez on the drum kit (I mean, how many people get to jam with guys with names like Conway and Fez?). It felt great to play some bass again as it had been a long while. I then switched to guitar when someone mentioned that day was the anniversary of Bob Marley’s death to do a little rendition of “Redemption Song” to honor the Legend himself (I was just playing, Conway was singing). I then brought out a little “Rockin’ in the Free World” on the Fender Stratocaster to keep in lively. Needless to say it was a blast, but as it turns out, nothing compared to the following night.

In the morning, after sleeping in a big dormitory with a number of other solo travelers (and one of the loudest snorers I have ever heard), I decided to take a stroll into town where I found a coffee shop owned by an elderly Dutch couple. I sat in a little garden and drank delicious French-pressed coffee and chatted with two guys from Spain who, the night before, thought it would be a great idea to save money and sleep on the beach, a decision they regretted that morning. As you can imagine they looked a little rough when they arrived for coffee, but when they asked if they could join me at my table I politely gave the affirmative. After a great conversation, the old cliché about not judging a book by its cover was once again proven true. I returned back to the Jungle Monkey and then decided to take a walk to Second Beach, which is about four kilometers away. Fez the drummer, who is a Xhosa fellow from a neighboring town, decided to come along. Fez and I became fast friends during our hike to the beach (which look a lot longer than either of us anticipated) and then spotted a hiking trail heading back in the right direction. The trail took us along the cliffs overlooking the ocean, down to a formation called “The Blowhole” and through a village. The views of amazing rock formations being hit by enormous waves were spectacular. We arrived back at our place exhausted but incredibly pleased with our decision on how to spend the day.

I was informed that afternoon a musician named Ashley was coming to the backpackers that evening to jam with us. Upon arrival, he picked up the guitar, sporting long dreadlocks, and began a rendition of Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile. The big boys had come to play that night. Ashley (the first Rastaman I’ve ever heard speak Afrikaans), with Conway on drums and Mike (the owner of the Jungle Monkey) on bass, played a nice mix of rock, blues, and reggae. They took a break a little while later and Mike the owner (who was obviously still learning to play bass) introduced Ashley and I and said that I am also a musician. They asked me if I wanted to play bass for the next set. I, of course, calmly said I would. We rocked, rolled, and reggae-ed until my fingers were raw. We played classics like “All Along the Watchtower” and “Little Wing” and Bob Marley favorites like “Kinky Reggae” and “Who the Cap Fit.” Somehow, I have actually become a better bass player then I was in high school. To say that I had fun would be the understatement of the century. To jam on stage with musicians like that was a dream come true. They guys tried to convince me to stay another day so we could rock some more but I had already made up my mind to press on to Durban. You can’t make this stuff up. Things like this only happen when you take the risk of stepping out your front door to go exploring. I think I made the right choice.

The end of my trip was fairly uneventful. I visited the coffee shop again the morning I left Port St. Johns and took the shuttle back to Mthatha. This time the Baz Bus took me to Durban where I spent the night at the Happy Hippo (a place that brings me found memories of a previous trip there) before going all the way back to Johannesburg. I had originally planned on traveling a couple more days but both my body and my wallet were becoming exhausted. I was as glad as ever to see Soweto and return to my cozy little flat. I had a great time on my two-week adventure through Port Elizabeth and beyond, but traveling alone took its toll on me. Despite all the fun I had, I also had moments of loneliness and homesickness. It was bittersweet to be in such amazing places but be unable to share my experiences with my loved ones. I have no regrets about taking this trip, but next time I think I will take someone with me. Traveling solo taught me a lot about myself and about other people, which I suppose fits perfectly with the goal of the YAGM program. Thanks be to God I made it back safely. These were just the highlights of my trip; the full story could probably be turned into a novel. It is great to be back in Soweto, and in just seven weeks, after another retreat and this little soccer tournament, I will be home.

Blessings to everyone on this Memorial Day.





Sunday, May 16, 2010

Port Elizabeth and beyond....(Part 1)

Greetings on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Soweto! There are only two months to go until my feet will touch American soil for the first time since August, a reality that I do not think will hit me until I am actually home. I will try my best to make the most out of my final nine weeks here in South Africa. My work will continue at Diakonia AIDS Ministry and I will keep spending time with those who I consider my South African family. I will also be attending the final volunteer’s retreat in June followed by a few soccer matches (in case you haven’t heard, there is a big soccer tournament starting in June that’s supposed to be kind of a big deal…). I thought winter was settling in but after a few chilly weeks, it is warm and sunny once again. I have been away from Soweto for about two weeks, so, as always, it is nice to be back.

 Much has happened in the last fortnight (yeah, I really wanted to use “fortnight” for the first time ever in my writing). On May 2, I departed with seven of my fellow Sowetans on the Greyhound bus headed for the city of Port Elizabeth located in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. A short sixteen hours later (tongue planted firmly in cheek) we arrived in PE and ventured over to St. Luke’s Retreat Centre, which was to be the site of a week-long training designed to impart the skills of a community organizer on each of us. You may have heard the term “community organizer” before in relation to our nation’s President. In fact, Mr. Obama took part in the very same training lead by the very same facilitator, Mr. Greg Galluzzo, founder of the Gamaliel Foundation based in Chicago (in 2024 the Oval Office is mine!). This organization is affiliated with CBCO South Africa (Communities Building Credible Ownership), which seeks to mobilize average citizens to rally together in order to induce positive changes in their communities. My supervisor at DAM, Reverend Mugivhi, sits on the board of directors for CBCO Soweto, hence my being sent to this training. Community organizing is all about influencing political change. It involves becoming a player in “the public arena,” which is a step many of us who are comfortable in our everyday private lives are afraid or unwilling to take. To influence change one must have to power to do so. To obtain power, one must be able to organize people and organize money. This workshop, in a nutshell, sought to give each of us the tools to do just that. Throughout the course of history, there have been many great organizers. From Moses to Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr. to Caesar Chavez, and of course in the context of South Africa, freedom fighters like Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. The concept is not a new one.

 I will not go into great detail about the theory of community organizing since I do not wish to condense what I learned over the course of a week into this entry. I will just say that the training was an empowering and enlightening experience. Although entering the public arena to influence political change is not an easy task, it seems a bit less daunting after my week in Port Elizabeth. My preexisting ideas were continually challenged. For instance, the notion of “helping” people was something we examined. Instead of helping people, the facilitators suggest we focus on mobilizing people so they can help themselves. For example, it is all well and good to feed the hungry, but the real courageous thing to do would be to rally people together who are angry about hunger to challenge the root causes of hunger in the community. As someone who loves giving others a hand but hates confrontation, this was not that easy to take in. However, I do not doubt the validity of the theory. This world needs organizers; I just have to figure out whether or not I have the courage to become one of them.

 There were times during training when I felt like I did not belong there. While I am used to feeling like a bit of an outsider anyway due to my nationality and the color of my skin, this time is was more because of my past. Throughout the week, we were encouraged (if not required) to share about our lives in order to really unveil what our passions are. For instance, a friend of mine from Soweto lost her mother to and AIDS related illness because she was unable to get antiretroviral medication from the government. It is no wonder why my friend is now volunteering at Diakonia AIDS Ministry. Another person shared about how his late father spent eighteen years imprisoned on Robben Island, sentenced alongside Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial (read about it, please). This person told me personally how he made bombs for the MK (the armed wing of the ANC). He now is a pastor who wishes to bring about political change peacefully. Everyone in that room besides the facilitators and myself were oppressed by the apartheid regime, the physical and emotional scars still evident today. There were times I allowed myself to be reduced to the role of spectator, feeling that as a white American male I could never even begin to empathize. When we had one-on-one conversations (something that was part of the training), I always insisted on being the listener rather than the one telling the story. I suppose that has always been my personality, though. It was difficult for me. I was not only taking part in an intense training, but I was also wrestling with why I was there in the first place. Even as I write now, I am still trying to come to grips with the whole thing. One reason I came to South Africa was so I can find my place in the world. If anything, I am less sure now. Good thing I’m only 24.

 Not all of CBCO training left me feeling like I had gotten my butt kicked (I haven’t even mentioned the “agitation” workshop, which is pretty much as it sounds). I met many amazing people of all ages and different walks of life. I found the younger crowd, many of whom reside in Port Elizabeth, who were eager to take me away from the retreat centre and show me good time around the city. We went out to their favorite bars down at the boardwalk, had late-night hamburgers and ice cream, and laughed until our sides hurt. As a missionary overseas, I often have to take a moment ask myself, “How did I get here?” (Talking Heads reference not really intended) How did I get to a casino in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, having drinks with a bunch of people I just met, yet feel extremely comfortable around? It just the way this year works. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I was also with this crew when I celebrated the 24th anniversary of the day I entered this world. Luckily my birthday coincided with the end of training party, so at least there was a party I could pretend was for me. Good times were had by all.

 I am really glad Reverend Mugivhi sent me to CBCO training. I doubt that I will know for some time how the information I leaned will be useful to me, but I am certain that it will be in whatever I choose to do. I did not agree with everything the facilitators said, but I have a lot of respect for them and what they do. I am sure my description of the training did not do it justice, so if anyone is curious to know more do not hesitate to ask (probably when I get home). Following CBCO training, I set off on another kind of adventure. It was originally my intent to write about both CBCO and my solo backpacking trip in this one reflection but I think it is better that I do it as a two-part series. So stay tuned for the second half of my story, which will be posted as soon as I write it. Thanks again for reading. Peace. 

Friday, April 9, 2010

HOLY Holy Week

To say that Holy Week is a big event here in the Soweto circuit would be the understatement of the year. I was able to take part in all the festivities, which conveniently took place about 100 yards (or 91.44 metres to be more regionally correct) away from where I stay. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and a Saturday night vigil that went right on until Easter morning where the scheduled events, and not one was lacking in either number of attendees or enthusiasm. All the Lutherans in Soweto were invited, and many where there. It was quite the spectacle, and I witnessed it all from the second row (reserved for pastors and their families, but I make the cut being an American missionary who happens to be very close to the Dean of the circuit). Without further introduction, here is my account of my Holy Week marathon church experience, unedited, uncensored, uncut.

 I suppose it is not entirely accurate to say I was there for ALL the Holy Week festivities. I strolled over to church on Palm Sunday, very much on time, and the sanctuary was completely deserted. I guess I missed the memo, which most certainly was in isiZulu. I still have not received an explanation of where everyone was but I am guessing they had some sort of joint service with our partner parish. This miscommunication led me to be very diligent in finding out the schedule for the rest of Holy Week, especially the starting time for the Maundy Thursday service. I did not want to chance missing anything else.

 Maundy Thursday rolled around and I made it there at 6 pm sharp. For some reason I had it in my mind that it would be a smaller service. It was a rainy night and I figured a number of people would be heading home for the Easter weekend (Soweto is not considered “home” to most people, they only “stay” in Soweto, home is where they were born). I could not have been more wrong about the expected crowd. Over 1000 people filled the church that evening. Luckily the Diocesan Centre has the facilities to accommodate that many worshipers. Maundy Thursday is my favorite day of the church year. To me, the combined events of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and then giving them the new commandment to love one another is the cornerstone of my faith. I am always deeply moved by that text. The words were put into action that evening, with the pastors washing everyone’s feet and later distributing Holy Communion on the very night commemorating the first time it was done. There was plenty of singing and dancing in the way that only South Africans know how. My site supervisor, Reverend SS Mugivhi delivered a poignant sermon and I went home feeling spiritually rejuvenated. The service lasted a little over three hours and it was seemed like it was over in the blink of an eye. One service down, a few more to go.

 Good Friday began with a procession that started at a park nearly two miles (3.22 km) away. I estimate about 500 people taking part in the walk. We followed a roughly constructed cross upon which a crown of thorns was placed. We paraded through the streets of Soweto singing and stopping seven times to hear readings from the back of a van with speakers rigged on the top. These stops represented the seven Stations of the Cross. It was a new experience for me to be so public with my faith. I found it to be extremely enjoyable to be out there with my fellow Lutherans. For that hour we took over the streets of Soweto, and could not have enjoyed it more. Upon arrival, the church was already almost full. There were even more people than the previous night. After more readings, singing and a sermon by Reverend Mangka, we had a brief lunch break and then found ourselves back in the church ready for more. Seven Bible verses were read and a different pastor gave a short homily on each one. It was a great opportunity to hear different pastors preach. Many of these pastors have become my good friends and it was a joy to see them in their element, preaching passionately on this mort important of days.

 Now we come to the part of the Good Friday service where things got a little interesting. I will start by saying that Lutherans here in South Africa worship with an enthusiasm that perhaps even eclipses the rowdiest of Southern Baptist congregations in the States. The pastors work up a sweat while preaching, often beginning by speaking softly and allow their voice to crescendo until the are yelling at the top of their lungs prompting equally fervent responses of  “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” (Lent or not) There is plenty of clapping and dancing, as well as singing spontaneous choruses that seem to be known from birth. I have said before that South Africans seem to all be blessed with beautiful singing voices and an innate ability to harmonize. There is also no fear of singing in front of others. If there is a pause in the service, one person will stand up and start singing alone before the other congregants join him or her. If this individual can get their hands on a microphone, all the better. There is no fear, but I suppose if I could sing like that I would not be afraid to show off a bit. There were times on Good Friday where people simply refused to stop singing, even when there was someone up front asking for quiet. The Spirit could not be contained.

 The pastor that preached on the seventh and final Bible text is known for his flamboyance during worship. He requested a constant gospel-sounding melody be played on an electric keyboard as he preached. He worked himself into a frenzy and took most of the congregation with him. He began to pray, and then he began to babble. I think he was speaking in tongues (and it was not the first time I have witnessed said pastor do so), but as an American Lutheran I am not all too familiar with the practice. The people were then invited forward for blessings and a long line (or a queue as they call it here) quickly formed. Fortunately the other pastors mobilized and started giving blessings as well; otherwise, we would still be there. It was then when individuals began to fall, “Slain by the Spirit” as someone close to me calls it. I have never seen anything like it: falling down, shaking, just laying there. Eventually the slain seem to snap out of their trance and get up no worse for wear. This went on for some time, congregation singing all the while. It was quite the spectacle, and a little bit freaky, and something I never thought I would see in the Lutheran church. The Good Friday service ended with the laying of flowers on the same cross with which we paraded through the streets and then stripping of the altar. The mood changed to somber, the way I am used to Good Friday being. Whew! Nearly seven hours of church before calling it a day! It was an experience I will not soon forget.  

 Saturday’s service was the one I was a little nervous about, but excited as well. The reason being that Saturday evening’s service was to go on right through the night and become Sunday morning’s Easter service. Yes, an all-nighter. Second row to the left (my usual seat) and strait on ‘till morning. There was a set program that was more or less loosely followed. South Africa is the first place that I have ever seen an hour set aside for just “praise and worship” (there was more than one hour block for that as well). There were a few words spoken by the pastor who was leading (more of an MC on this night), some banging of drums, dancing, and as always, singing those choruses. I thought there was no way there would be enough choruses stored in the memories of the congregants to make it through the night, but with the exception of a few repeated favorites, there was always a new song to sing. A group of talented youth from one of the parishes delivered a powerful drama acting out the Passion story. It was meaningful to me that the young man playing Jesus, in addition to effectively portraying our Savior’s anguish, spoke some of his lines in English and other lines in the actor’s native tongue (forgive me for not recognizing which language). I found that Jesus speaking an African language creates a sense of God’s presence throughout the entire world. There was then a time set aside for individuals to give their personal testimony of how God works wonders in their lives. Many of these were not in English (luckily for me the majority of the services were conducted in my language due to the diverse nature of the people gathered… diverse in terms of language, anyway), and I will say that while some testimonies were quite moving, others were a little lengthy and repetitive. There was supposed to be an hour break, but somehow that got thrown right out. We did each get a cup of soup (mmm liver) to get us through the night. Representatives from individual parishes came forward to lead a chorus as a sort of gift to the circuit, and of course, to God. Always singing. Always praising. Never wanting to stop.

 All this and more brought us to about midnight (only) and then it was time for another sermon, which was a sort of mass bible study conducted in a professorial way by a very bright and dynamic pastor. He chose a series of related texts that were read by volunteers from the congregation and then would reflect on the text and tie it into the next one. It was a fantastic way to keep the people engaged after midnight. Following the lecture was something that I am pretty convinced that has never been on an agenda for a Lutheran service. It was time for the alter call. The pastor who speaks in tongues was in charge, so I knew it would be an event in itself. He began by rallying the troops in the way only he can, then got to work praying and blessing until people all around were falling over once again. After a while, as the crowd up front began to disperse, I witnessed another thing that I have never seen. I cannot say for certain, but I think I saw an exorcism take place. A young woman, probably a few years younger than me, was visibly trembling while she was brought to a chair in front (other blessings were still being done so it was not as if she was the center of attention). Seven pastors then gathered around, laid their hands on her, and started praying with fervor. She began to thrash around violently and it was all the pastors could do to keep her in the chair. I swear at one point I heard her scream. It did not seem to me that anyone else around thought this to be unusual, so I tried to watch the scene unfold with as neutral of an expression as I could muster. Admittedly, I was a little freaked out by what I saw. Eventually the girl got up and walked away a little dazed. I guess the demons were successfully cast away.

 The early morning hours brought more praise and worship and more testimonies, my memory of which is a little fuzzy to me. I was there in body but my mind was trying to concentrate on something other then the warmth of my bed. However, starting at 4 am was an event that was one of the highlights of my year in South Africa thus far. It was time for the resurrection procession. The pastors changed from wearing black robes to their Easter whites, then with lit candles in everyone’s hand, lead us out the door into the streets. We marched as many people wide as could fit in the street. We began singing “Hallelujah” in a hauntingly beautiful melody. Thousands of people with candles singing because our Lord has risen. There were still folks coming out of the church when we made it around the block the first time so we went around again. The mood was solemn and joyous at the same time. I will never forget it. We then went back into the church and began the final part of our Easter service. This was pretty “normal” compared to the rest: readings, a sermon by Dean Kasper, baptisms, communion, and then the long awaited benediction. I returned back to my place exhausted in more ways than one, but I survived. Thirteen hours, only stepping out a few times for a drink of water and some fresh air to stay awake. I am glad I had that experience, however I am not too eager to do it again anytime soon.

I found myself in church for approximately twenty-three hours during holy week. I can guarantee I will never complain about a “long” service in the United States again (not that I ever did before). At times I was incredibly moved, and other times I was a bit weirded out. Once thing for certain is that the Soweto Lutherans worship with admirable enthusiasm and are not afraid to praise God in any way they see fit. I want to make it clear that just because it is not the way many of us in the US like to worship, it does not make it any more or less right. Rather it is just different. I could probably write a book on my Easter weekend worship experience, and this reflection is becoming more and more book-like as I continue to write. Thanks again for reading. I would like to wish everyone a pleasant Easter season. Christ has risen, indeed!


Friday, March 19, 2010

The Many Sides of South Africa

Greetings! From Soweto and happy March to my friends and family back home. It is most difficult to believe that in four months I will be back in the United States. I hope the coming of spring (in the Northern Hemisphere) and the Easter season fills everyone with optimism and joy despite the seemingly endless stream of bad news materializing from around the world on a daily basis. With less than three months to go before the FIFA World Cup, South Africa is scrambling in preparation to host the World. At this point all we can do is keep our fingers crossed that everything is ready (and yes, I got my tickets!). The weather is starting to cool off a little bit in the Johannesburg area and the summer thunderstorms are much less frequent. My apologies for not updating my blog sooner.

 Since the beginning of the New Year, I have been fortunate enough to do some traveling around the country. From the rural areas of the Limpopo province to the luxury and beauty of Cape Town, I have had the opportunity to see many sides of South Africa. Although disparities between rich and poor are common all over the world, South Africa has the largest divide between social groups on the planet. Yes, this region has been blessed with breathtaking beauty that calls many all over the world to pay a visit. However, I believe it is all to common for tourists to visit places like the Cape Town waterfront and Kruger National Park while turning a blind eye to the corrugated metal shacks and malnourished children, the site of which is all to regular. I will gladly testify that Cape Town and Kruger are incredible and I strongly recommend seeing those places in one’s lifetime, but I strongly believe it is an injustice to the people of South Africa if those are the only places a visitor uses to build their perception of the country.

 My family visiting in February gave me the first real opportunity to see the “touristy” side of South Africa. Fortunately, we were able to also spend a couple of days in Soweto so I was able to show them the environment in which I am living as well as the way that many South Africans live. My family was even able to participate in a church service that lasted nearly seven hours! It is an absolute blessing that I was able to introduce them to many of the people who have become my family away from family as I serve here. After our short stay in Soweto, we were off to the Mpumalanga province in the area close to Kruger National Park where we had an amazing time meeting great people, eating wonderful food, and seeing all the magnificent animals that call Southern Africa their home. This was the beautiful and wild side of South Africa, a side that should been seen during a visit. We then took a scenic drive though Blythe River Canyon and then flew to Cape Town. Our entire trip was wonderful and exactly what I needed to sustain me for the rest of my term of service.

 Cape Town is regarded by many as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and it is indeed. However, there is a side to Cape Town that is vastly different from the main part of the city, which is sandwiched between Table Mountain and Table Bay, the numerous beach towns dotting the shoreline of the Cape, and the scenic wine country. One does not have to travel far to reach the Cape Flats. The apartheid regime was extremely skilled in implementing their separation of people based on skin color. The Flats are a glaring example of this separation. This huge expanse of land, primarily sand dunes lacking trees and fresh water, is home to millions of black Africans who mainly live in those corrugated metal shacks that are seen so often. It does not require a second glance to realize the harm caused by the apartheid system. No human should me made to live like that, and no government should ever allow it, let alone sanction it. During our volunteer’s retreat, we had the privilege of visiting the largest single township in South Africa, Khayelitsha, which houses around two million people (Soweto has four million but is considered a collection of townships). We were invited by a program called Africa Jam, which is an after school club that uses song, dance, poetry, and drama to provide a positive message for other young people in the township based on the Gospel of Jesus and social awareness. The participants were eager to demonstrate their incredible skills with us in attendance. It was another one of those missionary moments that is difficult to describe because it was so deeply moving. It was a beautiful side of Cape Town that cannot be found in a travel book.

 Spending the vast majority of my time in Soweto since my arrival in South Africa has affected me greatly. I suppose I have grown used to seeing the way the majority of South Africans live, a way that would be considered sub-standard by most Westerners. Because of this, going to a “Westernized” place like Cape Town took some major adjustments. I have certainly seen more than my fair share of fancy places in my life, but this time I could not help but feel a little guilty. Eating at fancy restaurants, drinking nice wine, and being driven around by tour guides is something that most of my Soweto friends will never have the opportunity to experience even though this is their home country. I struggled with listening to our tour guides give their personal versions of South African history, which often seemed to me to be slanted in favor of the Afrikaners, white South Africans of Dutch decent. I had to continually remind myself that South Africa belongs to all those who call it home, and that not all Afrikaners were supporters of apartheid. I had to remind myself that I can get all riled up about racial oppression in South Africa, which is fine to do, but I also have to remember what my American government has done to the indigenous peoples of our homeland, putting them on reservations that are really no better than South African townships. This provided me with a great opportunity for personal reflection. It is amazing how I have become quite comfortable in Soweto, but that a nice hotel in Cape Town made me feel a little out of place. I still love the look of shock, horror, and concern on people’s faces when I tell them I am staying in Soweto. It gives me the opportunity to tell people how wonderful this place contrary to ordinary beliefs. In a way, after witnessing the wide spectrum of South African lifestyles, from townships to wineries in old Dutch manor houses, I have come out of it less sure about my place in the world, less sure about how I am supposed to be feeling in these different situations. Everything has been shaken up now. I still have some processing to do.

 When someone witnesses people living in poverty while others are living in luxury, the natural response is to wish to make a difference. I think this is especially true when such an encounter occurs in another country. Driving past the seemingly endless rows of shacks along the N2 freeway on the way from the airport to the main part of Cape Town can be an eye-opening experience and we immediately wish we could do something to help. However, when the destination is reached, whether it is a nice hotel or guesthouse, it is easy to forget about the scene along the freeway. I think the single most important thing to do is remember. We all must acknowledge the issue at hand. Millions of people in South Africa are living in terrible poverty while many are living richly. Before any help can be given, and before time and money can be donated, we need to think about the problem. When we return home, after a two-week vacation or a year long mission, it is important to tell the stories of those whose stories may not otherwise be heard. When someone asks if Cape Town is as beautiful as it is in pictures, I believe the reply should reflect both on the positives, such as the beauty of the city and all the fun things to do, as well as the negatives, like all those living in poverty clearly due to the aftermath of racial oppression. There is always more than one side to a story. Unfortunately, we often only hear the side that is the easiest to stomach. I have challenged myself to remember above all else. To acknowledge. To tell the stories. Perhaps then we can really begin to make a difference in the world.


I would like to thank my family for coming all the way to South Africa to see me. I had an amazing time and I love you. Also, thanks to Brian and Kristen Konkol and my fellow volunteers for a great retreat. I feel recharged after spending that time together. To those at home, thanks for your support and for reading my blog. I will be home in four short months.




Monday, February 1, 2010

The Joy of Cooking (on a rusty hotplate)

There are quite a few things I took for granted in the United States. Not the least of which are reliable kitchen appliances (it’s not that they don’t have reliable kitchen appliances in South Africa, they do, I’m just talking about my living situation in particular). There’s the refrigerator that occasionally and randomly decides to make a sound like it’s taking off, perhaps to orbit the earth or even make a pilgrimage to the moon (the sound may or may not be related to my kicking of said refrigerator in frustration at the unreliability of other appliances or the perpetual presence of ants and cockroaches that treat my kitchen like some sort of insect Mecca to which they travel many meters or even dekameters [that’s 10 meters, for the metrically challenged] against torrential rain and wind to find their way under my door, across my cement floor, and into the promised land of my tiny kitchen). The refrigerator, although seemingly eager to exit the Earth’s atmosphere, is, of course, my newest and most reliable appliance.

 Then there’s my electric hot water kettle, ubiquitous in South African kitchens. It’s the type of kettle that you plug into the wall and hit a button and it’s supposed to boil water faster than you can say Starbucks Readybrew Singles. However, my particular kettle is a bit inconsistent to say the least. One time I will throw the switch and it will immediately kick on a begin heating the water (to which I respond with a Masters or US Open-winning-putt-appropriate Tiger Woods fist pump, a practice that I began before all the Tiger scandal stuff), and the next time I will turn it on the kettle and then ten minutes later I’ll hear it kick on (responded to with a Buick Open-appropriate fist pump). There is a third process, in the common event that the previous two scenarios don’t occur, for heating water that requires a sacrifice to the pagan god of electric water kettles (or goddess, which may be my problem, I don’t know). If that doesn’t work, I either have to convince myself I don’t want tea or coffee or go next door to the office and use the kettle in there. Then I give sort of a finally-my-practice-round-is-over-appropriate fist pump and enjoy my coffee or tea, or not.

 So what else? There’s the microwave, which is conveniently located in the office next door, which requires the unlocking of my two locks to get out, locking one behind me so someone doesn’t sneak in while I’m defrosting my chicken or heating up leftovers (‘cause you never know), unlocking the two office locks, then reversing the process to get back in. I, naturally, usually end up leaving what I was supposed to microwave in my place to begin with or in the office when I leave. The microwave, however, despite the counterintuitive knobs and buttons, has yet to fail me. Plus, I commandeered it while the office is closed for the Holidays (muh ha ha) so it’s in my place for the time being.

 Moving on, past my behemoth of a water purifier and my disappearing toaster, we come to my front-loading washing machine, or as I like to call it, 100 percent of my counter space. Washing machines for clothes are generally not considered kitchen appliances, but mine is located in my kitchen so it counts. I was initially ecstatic that I actually had a washing machine in my place, but I soon learned that washing machines don’t magically synthesize water from the sky, and that the nearest suitable water source is either Victoria Falls or the Atlantic Ocean. Okay really the nearest water source is my kitchen sink, which naturally has completely the wrong sized faucet to use it for my washing machine. I can also run a hose from the outside valve, in through my kitchen window, over the river, through the woods, bypassing grandmother’s house, and to the washing machine. This would work great if it weren’t for the fact that they are evidently against reliable garden hoses here and instead go for random bits of flimsy tubing usually held together by a combination of wire, twine, and prayer (they don’t have duct tape, hence the prayer requirement). I have attempted to remedy each problem. I made an attempt to adapt my kitchen sink faucet using a combination of plastic bags, duct tape (brought from home), and, yes, prayer. I felt like the guys in Apollo 13 when they needed to figure out how to adapt that one thing to the other thing to save Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and the other guy. My contraption was foolproof, until I turned on the tap and water proceeded to spray all over my kitchen. My attempt to run water from outside into my window had nearly identical results. I’ve given up on the washing machine for its intended purpose. It’s now used as 100 percent of my counter space, since my kitchen has no counters.

 That brings us to the crown jewel of my temperamental kitchen appliances. The hotplate. In all its glory. Nope, I don’t have a stove. Nope, no oven. I have a rusty hotplate that sits on the aforementioned washing machine/counter. This hotplate has two burners and two settings: unplugged (off) and plugged in (on). There are knobs, which to my knowledge are only there for aesthetic purposes, because they really don’t do anything. Fortunately, one burner is hotter than the other, so when the recipe says “reduce heat” I see it as “slide from the left burner to the right.” However, not being able to control the heat of cooking other than pulling the burner switch-a-roo is a challenge. I’ve abandoned cooking eggs any way but scrambled (where 68 percent of the egg sticks to the pan, which I believe to be the polar opposite of “nonstick” pans, I have “stick” pans, I guess), and even the most simple food known to man, the immortal grilled cheese sandwich, is no easy task. The drunkest person in the world can make a perfect grilled cheese sandwich on a stove with a Teflon pan, but with my hotplate and my “stick” pans, I can be completely sober, motivated, and in broad daylight, and end up with a pile of mush that hardly resembles anything close to a sandwich, or food for that matter. The joy of cooking, indeed.

I hope you enjoyed a glimpse into my life as a missionary. I am in no way complaining. I’m merely making observations. I apologize for the insane number of parenthesis I used and I jut remembered that “the other guy” in Apollo 13 is Bill Paxton, best known for not winning an Academy Award for Twister, which will go down as one of the greatest snubs in history. Now to go make some dinner, or try to. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hello 2010

Happy Holidays! I hope everyone had an enjoyable Christmas and I wish you all a prosperous new year. I managed to survive my first Christmas away from my family in my twenty-three and a half years of life. Although I miss my family terribly, especially during this season, I rejoice that I have to opportunity to celebrate the birth of Christ and the coming of 2010 in a new culture. I will admit that it never really felt like Christmas, mainly because it is summertime here and the holiday certainly is not as commercialized as it is in the US (which is quite refreshing, actually). It was a new experience to barbecue in December (or braai, as it is called in South Africa), and a new experience to eat Christmas dinner outside potluck-style. Despite the differences in the weather, Christmas here is a time to spend with family and close friends just as it is at home. My heartfelt thanks goes out to my South African friends that made the Christmas season enjoyable. It has been a blessing to meet so many great people within the Church and in my neighborhood of Central Western Jabavu, Soweto.

 As the sun is setting on 2009 and rising on 2010, a year that promises exciting things for both myself and for the country of South Africa, I wish to look back on 2009 and reflect on how I got to this point. The past year has, without a doubt, been the most monumental one of my life. I graduated from college, worked a great job at a community health center in Bellingham, set foot on four different continents, and above all else, became a part of the wonderful ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission program that send me to this place halfway around the world. The year has found me shivering on the summit of Mt. Fuji and sweating in the sun of the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. I have met many wonderful people, many of whom I know I will be friends with for life. My career ambitions have changed, as has my outlook on life. Indeed, 2009 has been a year of changes and surprises, but I could not be happier to be where I am today.

 At the beginning of 2009, just about one year ago today, I had only begun to think about filling out the application for this Young Adults in Global Mission program that I had recently discovered. Just before then, I had my medical school application halfway completed and was about to move forward in the process of becoming a medical professional. And although I had already decided that I should take a year off before applying to medical school to make sure that is what I wanted to do and to build my resume, that was still where my sights were set. It is funny to see where I ended up. I am not in medical school. I am not in some job really related to my Biochemistry degree. I am a Lutheran missionary in Soweto, South Africa. The Lord has a sense of humor to be sure, and works in mysterious ways.

 Although I cannot say exactly what 2010 will bring, I am certain that it will be an important year for many. Those here in South Africa can hardly believe that 2010 is finally here. The upcoming FIFA World Cup, of course, is on everyone’s minds. Road crews and construction workers are working frantically to get everything ready. For about a month, starting in June, the Republic of South Africa will be at the center of the world’s attention. Just yesterday I traveled past Soweto’s Soccer City Stadium, which will be hosting the opening match between Bafana Bafana (the nickname for South Africa’s national team) and Mexico, as well as the final match. I smiled to myself thinking about how that stadium, which is beautiful on its own, will be the focal point of the entire planet in just a few short months. Although some have gone into panic mode because of all the work to still do, I think this country that has adopted me will be fantastic hosts.

 Ironically, the Winter Olympics will be held virtually in my own backyard in February, so 2010 is an important year for Vancouver, BC as well…

 I still have just under seven months of service here, but it is difficult to not look to July 20, 2010. That is the day I must say farewell this beautiful place and all of the great friends I have made before boarding the plane for my long journey home. More importantly though, that is when my mission work really starts. It is then I will be able to really share my experience. I have already seen, heard, and learned so much in my four months here and I am sure the trend will continue. I have a feeling that the next seven months will pass in the blink of an eye. I will try to absorb all that I can.

 What will the year 2010 bring? We cannot say for certain, but I am optimistic that it will be another great year for me. There are many things unknown, but I do know that I will be living in South Africa for almost seven more months, experiencing the World Cup in on way or another (hopefully, hopefully attending a match or two), and making my return home to be reunited with my family, friends, Mexican food, quality microbrews, my record player/vinyls, Starbucks, salmon, sushi, and, well, I think you get the idea. I will come back a changed person, perhaps not in obvious ways, but I cannot deny that my life has changed a fair amount already. Whatever happens this year, I hope I can look back on 2010 and think, “Wow! What a year!”

 Blessings to everyone during this holiday season, and GO TEAM USA!