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.
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.