Justice Conference: Notes & Reflections Part 5

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After months of dialogues and conversations about racial identities with Izwe Lethu and other dialogue platforms, of trying to understand a little more about what it is like living in a black body in our country today, I have a) not often been in contexts where I heard the stories of Indian and Coloured people; and b) wondered at times, given many other facets of identity, how urgent and important it still is for us to continue having discussions about racial identities?

Listening to my fellow-contributors at the Justice Conference session, “Navigating the Deep Waters of Identity” and witnessing the engagement of people in the audience, their emotive comments and questions (ranging from fear to uncertainty to anger) it became clear to me, once again, that we really still need to keep on listening to stories of people from different race groups.* I have found that as a white person it is so easy to think that I know or understand the reality of racial identities, when in fact, I hardly have any idea of what it feels like to live as a black, Indian or coloured person in our country today. I believe that God shapes us through these very stories to become people who respond to the challenges in our country with empathy, generosity and love (rather than fear, defensiveness, ignorance and hatred). And if there is one thing we will need to overcome the brokenness in our society, it will be deep empathy with one another.

An hour and a half was always going to be too short for a session on identity in South Africa, and much can be said in hindsight about the session, so check out the following links (I have unfortunately not been able to get hold of all the contributions to this session):
– For a great summary of quotes and notes from the session, check out Brett’s blog post (number 2 in a series of 3 that is well worth checking out!).
– Tristan Pringle shared an extract of his contribution (plus some thoughts and reflections on the session).
– Sam Mahlawe kindly sent me a full transcript of her contribution on navigating her identity as a black women in South Africa.
– Parusha Naidoo shared a thought-provoking piece, The Daily Commute.

(I shared my contribution in my previous blog post)

*I know that there are some who argue that we needn’t pay attention to the differences between race groups or racial identities and rather just focus on what unites us in Christ (by quoting Scriptures like Galatians 3:28 or 1 Corinthians 12:13). I hope to share how reading Miroslav Volf’s, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation, have helped me understand how overlooking differences between us (even in an attempt to include and unite) can actually be an act of exclusion. Christ bringing us together does not mean erasing the differences between us so that we all become one “undifferentiated sameness”, but to erase the enmity that exists between us: “Unity…is not the result of “sacred violence” which obliterates the particularity of “bodies”, but a fruit of Christ’s self-sacrifice, which breaks down the enmity between them.” (Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p. 47).

Justice Conference: Notes & Reflections Part 1

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I decided to write a series of notes and reflections about the Justice Conference (17-18 March 2017). The conference provided the space for fantastic conversations, here was so much depth to what the contributors shared and so many unforgettable thought-provoking moments, that I feel it would be selfish not to share this with friends and family who didn’t attend (and if you didn’t, you really missed out BIG time #justsaying…)

I was disappointed to be honest, by the absence of influential church leaders from Durban (where I live), but so encouraged to hear that there were influential leaders from other churches in other cities who have not always engaged with issues of justice.

These posts will also be a way for me to reflect on what I heard and experienced at the conference and invite the readers, including all the wise and smart people I met in Cape Town, to share their views and opinions.

If you have not yet heard about The Justice Conference, I encourage you to check out their website for more information and follow them on Facebook for other posts, video’s and media from the conference.

One further note for those who will be reading these posts. Craig Stewart, director of The Warehouse* in Cape Town, made such a good point during one of our sessions: We often and easily sense the Holy Spirit working in our hearts and lives when we feel good, happy and excited about something, but we also need to be attentive to the voice and guidance of the Spirit when we feel offended, uncomfortable and disoriented. So, I will ask you, if you read anything in my notes and reflections that leaves you feeling offended, uncomfortable and not as sure about everything as you used to be, keep an open heart and mind to what the Spirit is saying and leading you into in those moments.

 

*I am completely blown away by The Warehouse team members I had the privilege of meeting at the conference and the amazing ways in which they serve the church…so be sure to check out their website. I hope to write more about them in future posts!

Stories about Giving

 

givingA few months ago, I heard a man say that if someone asks you for financial or material help, you have been placed on their path for a reason and need to render assistance. I can remember thinking to myself that he obviously had not spend a lot of time in poverty-stricken areas (like a eyes rolling emoji you know…gosh, how judgemental and self-righteous of me).

As you may know, our God has a sense of humour and quickly made me aware of my self-righteousness…I started recounting how often I rationalised not giving money to people. I have been “programmed” by people around me and the media I have consumed, “Don’t give money to beggars, they will just spend it on drugs or cigarettes.” Or “Don’t give something to a child on the street, it will just enable them to stay on the street for longer.” There may be some truth to this, but how in the world did I get to the point of thinking that I am actually the expert of people’s lives, being able to judge their character, their history and their story? (Shame on me emoji)

So I felt challenged to, for a period of time, give whatever is asked of me. I gave what I had regardless of when, where or who asked or the merit of what was being asked. I gave food, take-away foods, coins, a somewhat bigger amount to a single mom in need, taxi money, shelter money. I realised that the “experiment” was helping me become more patient and open to the humanity of people – in other words, my openness to give, has enabled me to see the humanity of the person asking something of me. (I think that when we give rather than withhold we experience the divine “flow” of God through us. Life flows when we give rather than withhold.)

One day I was having a conversation with a woman on the street, let’s call her Jo. She often asked me for coins, but I neglected spending time with her, so that time I stopped and talked to her. As we were talking and I was scratching in my wallet for coins, a man, let’s call him Bruce, came up and interrupted us. I have chatted to Bruce before. I knew that he sometimes acted a bit obnoxiously. So I asked him to hang on a second while I finish my conversation with Jo. He seemed a bit impatient and after I gave Jo some coins, he could not contain himself any longer and blurted, “I want to ask you something that is going to sound impossible, but with Jesus all things are possible!”. I said, “Yes Bruce, what do you want to ask me?” and he said, “I want your belt”. I laughed and asked why in the world he wanted my belt. He lifted up his shirt and showed us that his pants were falling down because he had lost so much weight and said that with the recent rains it got really wet and started sagging down even further (Jo’s eyes were as big as dinner plates at this point). So I said, “Of course you can have my belt Bruce!”. I took off my belt and gave it to him. This did not seem to have surprised him (maybe it was his faith!?) and he proceeded to put the belt on. Jo, on the other hand, could not believe what had happened. As I left the interaction, I chuckled thinking that our God certainly has a sense of humour.

In my thinking and praying about giving and generosity, I became aware of how often I considered myself “generous” without my giving actually reaching the point of being sacrificial. I realised (after a conversation with my clever friend Kayley) how many of us hardly ever give in a way that really costs us something. We live in a world that seats on the “heroes stage of generosity” the rich and famous who give enormous amounts of money without having to adjust their lifestyle or sacrifice anything of significance (or be transparent about the means in which they have acquired their wealth). We live in a world that has forgotten about the gogo who spend her whole pension on sustaining her grandkids or the daughter who lives in the city and sends money home every month, while her friends get to shop for clothes and buy cars. I know many people who give all the time – to their families, and people in their communities – not millions or even thousands, but relative to their income, hugely sacrificial amounts of money. Yet, the spotlight of honour for generosity never shines upon them. We live in a world where we expect others to be “as generous as we are” without realising that many of the people we are talking about are in fact way more generous than we have ever thought of being.

So, what is generosity? Despite the narratives of the world we live in, I am not convinced that generosity has much to do with the amount we are giving. Generosity is defined by the heart and the sacrifice involved in our giving.

Last week, a young boy living on the streets was standing outside a shop asking people to buy him items of food. I walked past him and stopped to make conversation. He asked me to buy him bread, milk and peanut butter. At that very moment a man handed him milk and bread without saying anything. So as per my “experiment”, I went into the store with the idea to get him a jar of peanut butter. Someone came into the shop telling me that the boy just told him that nobody has given him anything yet the whole day (even though he watched from the car as he was given the bread and milk).

I got the boy the peanut butter even though I knew he was lying and deceiving people. This was not the first time it had happened since I started the “experiment”. Giving with a cheerful heart when you know you are being deceived has been the most challenging giving I have had to do. Giving to the “undeserving” felt like a such an unwise thing to do. I was mocked and even scolded number of times for doing this during my “experiment”. How foolish I felt…

But it was this foolishness that defined Jesus’ giving, wasn’t it? He died for the sake of the world with no guarantees that we would be grateful, responsible stewards of what we received from him. Still he gave himself. Dorothy Day said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” And that is the foolish beauty of giving.

The Forgotten Act of Taking Off Our Shoes

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One of my favourite quotes of all times must be this one from Elizabeth Barret Browning:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

So often I feel the Spirit gently reminding me that I am sitting around plucking blackberries instead of taking off my shoes and noticing what God is doing around me. Anne Edwards, a fictional character in Maria Doria Russell’s Sparrow, says that when faced with the Divine, we often take refuge in the banal…”as though answering a cosmic multiple choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs or (c) recognise God?” In our awareness of what is happening around us, how often do we interpret events as emergencies or opportunities for entertainment or self-satisfaction, rather than the presence of God?

Last week in South Africa, we saw the rise of the #feesmustfall movement. And I wonder how many of responded to it as an emergency…”Oh my goodness, see what is happening with this country!”. How many of us responded to it as an opportunity for entertainment by sharing posts making fun of the whole situation, or responded to it by how it would benefit us…”I wonder if I could also claim back my university fees from way back in the 90’s…”? And how many of us saw Jesus in the midst of those crying out for justice and equality? How many of us noticed the Divine hovering above, amidst and in people to oppose that which is not right in our world…and energising imaginative dreams of what could be?

Let us as South Africans be a people who can take off their shoes and notice God in the blackberry bush.