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Blessed

With Naledi (remember, it's winter)

Theoretically, two decades immersed in Christian social justice culture might be thought to give a person a pretty devout and committed faith life.

Yeah, not so much.

I’ve worked for Christian organizations for 19 years—my whole career since university graduation, excepting a brief stint at the McAlpin’s department store jewelry counter. During bridal season. (Never, never, and never again.)

Didn’t intend it that way. I left school wanting to Do Good. I found ways to do that through the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, at Mary Mother of Hope House, a shelter for homeless women in Wilmington, DE; at City Gospel Mission in Cincinnati; Sojourners in DC; and Bread for the World, also in DC. I’ve been grateful to have faith communities built into my 9-to-5 life. For the most part, at least.

But I haven’t consistently gone to a church in DC in years. My prayer life varies from day to day, dependent more on things like schedules and stress levels. I do have an awesome Bible study back in DC that I’ve been part of for years and that I miss. Talking about Scripture surrounded by smart, thoughtful people makes me less likely to want to toss my Bible aside when passages make me crazy and/or angry. And that gathering of folks would understand if I tossed it anyway. They’d also know I’d pick it back up.

But I think I’ve relied on my workplaces and their missions to attend to my spiritual life for me. To remind God, “Hey! Still here! Just so you know…”

Alas, I’m probably just a very lazy Christian.

I wish I could say I’ve become spiritually disciplined in Cape Town. I have a gift of time this year, time to think, write, pray, walk, cook, read, meet people, connect. But my days never quite work out as I envision. I didn’t get a TV so I wouldn’t waste time watching crap. Instead, I end up waist deep in the Big Muddy of the Internets too often.

I love J.L. Zwane, the Presbyterian church where I’m based in Gugulethu. But it’s hard to feel part of the church community when my Xhosa is so limited. (I do know God is Thixo.) The emotional preaching style throws me back to a few overly exuberant and sometimes scary Southern Baptist preachers from my childhood. I don’t know what words these men are saying, but I know what they’re saying. After the sermon, I’m ready to repent, and I also need an ibuprofen.

I’ve discovered a church in Cape Town, Central Methodist Mission, right on Greenmarket Square, the main tourist market. They have a drop-in, 30-minute service on Tuesdays at 1 pm. Low-key, nice. Last week, the pastor, Alan Storey, spoke of ways to worship that God actually seems to prefer. Can the burnt sacrifices—God apparently has enough bulls and goats. Offer instead thanks and gratitude. Keep your promises, to God, to others. Call upon the Lord in times of trouble. And care for the widow and the orphan.

Now, soon after the service, I was heading out to Gugulethu for the Tuesday afternoon orphans’ support group that I help out with. I kind of chuckled out loud at the literalness of the reading that day. At God’s absurd humor. I’m far too often a lukewarm worshipper, and here I was about to do something that I’d never call worship.

I don’t feel that I’m worshipping faithfully when I help with the orphans’ group.  More often, I feel…well, kinda pissed. A big beef I have with God at many moments is why there needs to be an orphans’ support group. Why so much suffering seems concentrated in a few places rather than distributed for all of us to bear. These aren’t new questions, I know, and I’m not expecting any new revelations.

But the revelations come anyway.

Sisters

Naledi is darling and I fell in love with her instantly. She’s 13 years old and lives in Port Elizabeth, about eight hours away. I met her when she visited her sister Annasuena, one of the girls of Amazw’ Entombi, over the World Cup holidays. The three of us went to see Toy Story 3, made tacos and had a sleepover at my cottage.

Naledi was only five when the girls lost their mother. She can’t remember her at all. Last year, her father also passed away. Now she’s being raised by her father’s girlfriend, who thankfully treats her very well. When I was with Annasuena and Naledi, I didn’t feel like I was “caring for the orphan,” or worshiping. We were just having a fun girls’ day out.

In the car coming home after the movie, Naledi asked me, “Are your parents still living?”

Her question threw me for a moment. I’m three times this child’s age, and losing my parents is still my biggest fear in life.

“Yes, they are, both of them,” I said, with a small wave of something like guilt washing over me.

“Oh, you’re very blessed.”

I felt hot tears in my eyes then, and I was thankful to be wearing sunglasses. Naledi is the sort of girl who would get very upset if she thought she’d upset me.

I wish I could describe the tone of her voice. It wasn’t any of the attitudes I could imagine speaking that sentence, if I’d lived her life. It wasn’t envious, or sarcastic, or bitter. It was just pure.

You’re very blessed. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to hearing the voice of God.

With Johanna at J.L. Zwane Church in February

Madiba. His Xhosa clan name.

Tata. Daddy. What his nation calls him.

Today is Mandela Day. What to get a 92-year-old hero? What he asks for – 67 minutes of our time, to honor his 67 years of service to South Africa, to the world. Mandela Day is “a call to action for each of us to help change the world, one kind act at a time.”

Amazw’ Entombi celebrated the day by holding a session of our writing group at J.L. Zwane Presbyterian Church after the service, to help anyone begin to write some of their own stories. The turnout was small; this is a busy church, and we had competition. But it’s not about tallying the numbers, I had to remind myself. Words capture memories and experiences and feelings, so they might be shared and relived and preserved.

Thanks to Johanna Singapi, now I know a little bit about how Gugulethu responded on the day Mandela walked free from prison, 11 February 1990.

Listen to Johanna:

On the day Tata uNelson Mandela was released, I was very excited, for it was my birthday month, just a few days after my birthday. It was summer and a beautiful day. After hearing about him for so long, I was at last going to see him.

It was a Sunday, and me and my friends were getting ready to go to the Grand Parade in Cape Town (where Mandela was to appear). Transport was no problem, for everybody was in a happy and forgiving mood, so you could even get free transport to town. When I got to our main street in Gugs, taxis were overflowing and people were going to the train station in big numbers. We were singing freedom songs and rejoicing, for our nation’s father was coming back.

When we got to Cape Town, the throng of people going to the Parade from the station was so thick that my feet did not touch the ground. I had to be careful not to fall for I would have been trampled to a pulp. More people were coming in by bus, train, and taxi, and the parade was already overflowing.  What a happy day! I had never before seen a gathering of that multitude.

And then our writing time was up, and like a serialized Dickens story, she left us hanging.  I’ve already told Johanna that she must finish this, because I want to know what happened when Madiba finally appeared. She promised me she would, so you’ll hear from her again.

After Johanna mentioned freedom songs, I wrote this post tonight listening to Mavis Staples’ album, We’ll Never Turn Back, with songs from the U.S. civil rights movement and some backing vocals from South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  Some days, it’s easy to draw the line that brought me to this place so far from my home.

Happy Birthday, Tata.

Madiba overlooks the Grand Parade and FIFA Fan Fest, July 2010

My friend Ntombi at Mzoli's

It was satin even.

Cross-cultural beading–in cleats!

Now I know why I didn’t get the Fulbright on my first attempt.

My mama always says things happen for a reason—exactly what I don’t want to hear at moments when I’m bitterly disappointed. My father says it, too, just to double-team me.  Once again, they’re right. (How do they do that?)

If I’d been here last year, I would have missed out on so much. At Mzoli’s in Gugulethu, strangers hugged me and beer rained down from the sky after Bafana Bafana scored that very first goal. Probably two-thirds of the cars in Cape Town sported South African flag “socks” on their side mirrors, including mine. I wore my USA scarf and proclaimed, “But I cheered for Ghana!” which got me a fist bump from a Ghanaian man. We danced together on Long Street after they beat the United States. Joy everywhere that night, except maybe for one guy who stood on a balcony and resolutely waved Old Glory at the crowd below. No one else seemed to notice him.

Agh, shame.

Celebrating Ghana's win on Long Street

BaGhana BaGhana! Hey, if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your World Cup.

So now the analysis begins. Did this event show a different side of South Africa to the world, beyond the tragedy of the AIDS pandemic and the fear mongering about crime rates? Absolutely. For the whole continent, even.

Will it make for a better South Africa? The trickier question, and one that must be decided by South Africans themselves. This is a society still marked in many ways by divisions—racial, yes, but the economic disparity is far more striking. Will the cohesiveness of a nation made proud, and rightfully so, extend beyond this month of showing off to the world.

It really has to. This country has too much to offer the world. And South Africans know that. There’s a Keep Flying campaign to keep up the spirit of the World Cup along with the flags. But flags will fray, and goodwill won’t put food on the table of people who have no jobs. Or put toilets behind the shacks of people who have none. Or put libraries in schools; only about 8 percent of schools have “a functional library with books.” EIGHT percent.

In a great article in the Mail & Guardian, South African Danny Jordaan, the man who worked hard to bring the World Cup here, said, “We’ll have to see how we will ensure that pride is not the pride of 90 minutes in a World Cup but a permanent feature….I think we must find it in addressing some of the issues — housing, health, education, economic growth. We have to come together to deal with some of these issues.”

Not as glamorous as a sporting event watched by the world, but so much more important to the lives of the girls I’m working with in Gugulethu. My hope and prayer is that the World Cup showed South Africans what their country can accomplish, and instilled the will to see changes made even when the world isn’t watching.

Things happen for a reason.

Amazw’Entombi declares itself:

Proudly South African

So there’s this little thing going on in South Africa right now. You may have heard about it. It’s called…I think…the World Cup?

It inspired Sharon’s poem, “Proudly South African.” She’s already a leader in Amazw’Entombi, in the church youth group, and I’m utterly convinced she’s one of South Africa’s future leaders. This country is lucky to have Sharon, and so many young women like her.

Watch her read “Proudly South Africa”:

(Apologies for the Blair Witch Project lighting. It was near sundown, we were losing our natural light. And plus I don’t know what I’m doing with this video stuff…)

My Mother’s Day last week was pretty amazing.

At Amazw’Entombi, we’d been talking about how to remind the church congregation that 20 or so of their girls are getting together every Saturday afternoon to find and share and sometimes loudly proclaim their voices. We came up with the idea to celebrate Mother’s Day by giving each woman entering church a snippet of writing, along with a sweet (a wrapped piece of chocolate or candy).

With Cape Town’s winter rains setting in, our prep meeting was sparsely attended. (“Lovey, we’re like sugar when it rains,” my friend Johanna told me the next day when church attendance was similarly sparse.) But seven girls were there on Saturday, along with Judy, my friend from DC, who made a big hit when she brought small notebooks and pens as presents for the girls. We listened to Beyonce and handwrote 250 slips of paper. Gugu and Ayanda agreed they would explain to the church during the service what we were doing. We’d all stand up together on the pulpit and the other girls would read the poems.

And then…THOSE GIRLS ROCKED.  Check it out:

And…

I was bursting with pride when I sat back down with Judy. And yes, all I got were the “Kimberlys” with Ayanda’s talk, too. Didn’t matter. The church got it.

Then, with Judy’s Flip camera put away, a couple of the women went forward to speak. The first woman’s voice was serious, and quivered with emotion.

“I can’t tell you how much it meant, to walk into church this morning and be handed a sweet and these words—and I’m not even a mother.”

You know how a lump can lodge in your throat in an instance, and you have no idea where it was lurking just a moment before? I was really glad I’d told the girls to hand out sweets to all the women.

The next speaker began with, “Where’s Kimberly?”

Words that can make me nervous in a whole range of settings. Pushed that lump right back down.

I raised my hand to wave, but that wasn’t enough. I got called up there again. You might have noticed I didn’t speak in the video, except to say when we started meeting. Empowering girls to use their voices means I get to cling to my introvert self and stay along the sidelines. Perfect!

But then, this mama presented me with a book of prayers to thank me for the work I’m doing with the girls. It was wholly unexpected. They didn’t know what we were doing. I imagine the idea just came to her while the girls were talking. It was thoughtful and overwhelming, and forced me to find my own voice.

“I’m not a mother either. But today, I feel like I have about 20 daughters. Thank you for sharing them with me.”

That’s all I could get out. With the lump.

In four months in South Africa, I’ve met far too many motherless children, more than I’ve ever known in my life. Out at the Bridges School, where I also lead a group of Amazw’Entombi, our recent writing prompt was, “I wish I could…” A heartbreaking number of girls wrote, “I wish I could bring my mother back from the grave.” I wrote a poem about wishing I could dance.

Some days, I think I don’t have any life experience at all that can really help these girls.

I’m under no illusion that I can, or should, mother them. I tell myself I just want to be an adult presence in their lives. Someone who can listen to what they have to say and cheer them on when they say it well, and even when they don’t. If I really begin to think about all the emotional and physical needs they have, I’d become paralyzed. I’d hide out in my cottage, or scurry back to DC. I’m not going to do that to them. These girls aren’t hiding out anywhere.

Somehow, those mothering moments still happen. Annasuena asked me to come to her school for parent-teacher conference night. Her marks were so good. We did a little dance in the hallway after she got her report. (Her dance: much  better than mine.) Her English instructor in particular raved about her.

“Well, you know,” I told him, “she’s a poet. A really good one.”

I glanced over just in time to see Annasuena roll her eyes and cringe into herself, in equal measures of pride and embarrassment. I knew the move. I’ve done it so many times myself.  Whenever my mother brags about me.

Amazw’Entombi wishes all a happy Mother’s Day! Here’s an original poem from Ayanda…

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