This is Rev. Shari Brink’s first in a three-part blog series on her trip to South Africa and Malawi. For the second installment, please click here. For more information join Rev. Brink and other Marble members for a special Spiritual Growth Hour reflecting on the trip on Sunday, November 9 at 1:15pm in the Labyrinth Room.
South Africa and Malawi Reflections
“The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed… it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it is grown, it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13: 31, 32)
“Do you have South Africa courage?” This was the question whispered to me by an elder of the church as I sat down after preaching the sermon. I’d love to think I have “South Africa courage,” I thought, but it’s a high standard! Was he asking because – based on my sermon – he thought I might have it or because he could see I most certainly did not?These questions immediately sliced their way through my brain.
The church was Diepkloof Sud in the Diepkloof neighborhood of Soweto, South Africa, one of three congregations Marble Collegiate Church had ministered alongside from 2001 to 2008 through its South Africa Partnership. I had travelled there on a Learning Tour with 6 others from Marble and preached at the invitation of Rev. Nicodemus “Lesley” Setshedi. (Rev. Setshedi was with us at Marble in September 2014.) We were a new generation of Marble folks there to learn firsthand about South Africa’s history of apartheid and its joys and challenges 20+ years after its end; there to see what had happened to the seeds planted by earlier Marble congregants and ministers, and to dream anew about seeds that might now be sown.
So what exactly had I said in my sermon to evoke the elder’s question about courage? Mirroring Jesus’ words that “the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” I’d said that “small seeds” can make a big difference... in the long run.
I told this congregation of black South Africans that in our visit to the Apartheid Museum, we had learned about the Freedom Charter, a bold declaration that was new to us but that each of them most certainly knew, written in 1952 under the thick oppression of apartheid. Thousands of ideas had been sent in from all over the country and in 1955 the Charter was approved by a grassroots gathering of people of all races. The Charter, I said, represented seeds that had been sown decades before apartheid finally ended, seeds that need ongoing watering as we continue to labor toward equality for the rainbow of races.
Each of us, whether from New York or Soweto, has a seed to plant, placed in our hands to nurture and water so that God’s kingdom of wholeness, healing, justice and shalom might spring more fully into being. So our job – each of ours – in the words of one of my favorite songs, is to
“Take the seed that you have and plant it here.
Give it water and time for a day or a year. Give it love. Give it love.
Take the dream that you have and dream it here.
Give it courage and time for a day or a year. Give it love. Give it love.”
There’s the “courage” piece in the last line. It takes courage to water certain kinds of seed and, both in South Africa and in the U.S., the seeds of racial equality need continued nurturing.
So what did we see and experience on our Learning Tour? Have the seeds of courage planted over decades by so many South Africans born good fruit? Has the seed Marble planted through the Partnership flourished and grown? And what is South Africa like today?
The seed Marble planted by building 3 preschool classrooms and a playground with the Diepkloof Sud Church are indeed bearing fruit. It has proven to be a sustainable investment that has grown into “a large tree in which the birds of the air find rest.” In this case, the “birds” are 109 preschoolers, 24 of which went on to grade R (we would call it kindergarten) last year. And the school is now in the process of becoming a government-certified school, which will open more doors of opportunity. Futures are brighter for children and the families they will one day lead because of the head start they have gotten at the church’s preschool.
That Sunday afternoon we spent time learning about the broader Soweto Township and met an 11th grader named Julia who lives with 5 or 6 of her family members in a 2-room dwelling in an informal settlement (we would call it a “shanty town”). Julia is representative of the youth we met all over South Africa – bright, engaged, working hard for a better future, doing well in high school (a 30-minute walk each way) in pursuit of her dream of college and becoming a PR professional. She’s determined and has all the right stuff! What she needs from her community and country is the opportunity to live up to her God-given potential.
A photo on the wall told us more of Julia’s family’s story. Her uncle, Petros Linda Jabane, was one of the hundreds of teenagers from Soweto and other Townships who died in the protests of the late 1970s. As a teenager in Iowa, I remember the footage on the evening news of South African youth being shot down, and now I was learning personally about the real people who paid the price in that crucial chapter to end apartheid. Later that afternoon, we visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial to the teenager whose death on June 16, 1976 shocked the world.
A visit to MES, a sizeable NGO ($2.8 million budget) working in the Hillbrow neighborhood of Johannesburg, provided a further window into South Africa today. Rev. Setshedi, pastor at the Diepkloof Sud Church, is also branch manager of this sizeable non-profit that provides job training, hospice care, youth leadership development and feeding programs. A Marble Easter Offering grant this year has funded direct outreach on the streets and the daily feeding program that we participated in, fedding 100 people per day.
The neighborhood (an upscale neighborhood not all that long ago) has become a pan-African mecca for immigrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In spite of the fact that South Africa is the richest country in Africa, one has the sense that its capacity is completely overwhelmed by the huge sociological shifts occurring as the result of the end of apartheid.
- So, for example, MES has a government contract to provide hospice care. The cost is 7,000 Rand per month ($700) but the government pays MES only 1,000 Rand ($100). Thus, MES has 40 unused units, which with relatively minor enhancements, could become income-producing AND meet a need. Thus, a relatively small financial investment could have a sustainable impact, given that these units could then be rented to students at the adjacent University of Johannesburg .
- Dancers from the Joshua Youth Program treated us to a special performance of their dances of hope that they share in public spaces. The story of a girl who learns that she has not passed her “Matric exam,” (i.e. high school graduation) and the grace she experiences in the midst of disappointment resonated deeply across any cultural barriers. The Joshua Program is empowering a next generation of leaders!
- That evening, along with MES staff, we went out to share bread and soup with homeless people and others experiencing food instability. As we held out the bread and the cup, we knew we were sharing the bread and cup of Christ with those in need. One member of our group commented that she felt “most authentically herself” as we reached out in love.
Clearly, there are other seeds we might plant in the coming months and years in partnership with the Diepkloof Sud Church and MES. Like those planted by Marble’s earlier South Africa Partnership, these too – when watered with courage and love – might become the greatest of shrubs, so that the birds of the air might come and make nests in its branches.