One of my visits on my second day in South Africa was to the Tshwane Leadership Foundation in central Pretoria. Describing itself as "an inner city community organization committed to socially inclusive urban transformation", TLF tackles poverty at its roots - including a major focus on accessible housing provision and other forms of community-rooted empowerment - seeking, as this beautiful poster puts it, to "increase the seats at the table, and even to help create new tables".
I was so grateful to have been connected with TLF - this was precisely the kind of opportunity to look, and listen, and learn that I'd been hoping for during my time in South Africa.
What I'd not been expecting was to be invited to "lead devotions" as my first act on arriving at their offices. No hiding quietly in the corner, observing what went on, listening in on conversations! This was what they expected of "guests" - to come and share something of oneself, to bring something to the table.
Luckily, I had something up my sleeve that enabled me to share a little of where I come from (I told the story of our community passion play), but also start a conversation among the 100 or so people gathered that morning. This is mostly not about me, but let me explain briefly what I did.
On the whiteboard at the front of the room I drew a series of concentric circles, labelled "our lives" (in the centre), "neighbourhood", "city", "land/country", and "world". And then, simply, asked the question, "what is going on?". It's a question more and more of us seem to be asking, in these troubled and troubling times - with more and more exasperation. The only constraint I put on the responses to the question was that they had to be in the form of verbs: "doing words", as our school teachers used to call them. We're often more practised at answer the question with nouns (homelessness, poverty, Brexit, violence, etc). In the abstract. But verbs force us to describe relationships - the agency of human beings, as well as those on the receiving end of those actions.
As you can see, the question sparked plenty of responses. People in the room who were homeless told stories of friends who had been killed. Others spoke of corrupt officials who dealt in lies and bribes. Yet others shared their own stories of coping, sometimes barely surviving, and sometimes losing hope, amidst the life-denying challenges of poverty and injustice. Alongside the stories of desperation, however, there were also profoundly hope-full statements: people named the power of sharing, of eating together, of weeping together, praying together; others talked about the loving labour of encouraging, comforting, supporting, advocating for and with their neighbours and friends.
Next, I asked them to identify which of these verbs reminds them of a bible story, or something we believe or know about God. In the picture above, you'll see some verbs underlined. They were words that rang bells with the story of the people of Israel, the story of Jesus and those around him, the story of the early church. And those words that are circled are just some of the verbs that people recognized as words associated with God - God with the people of Israel, and/or God seen in Jesus.
And by this point in the conversation, it was inescapably clear that we were on holy ground. Through our conversation together, our sharing of our stories and experiences, we had named just some of the many, profoundly tangible ways, in which God was at work in our midst - in us, with us, and to us through others.
The last part of the 'exercise', if you can call it that, was to ask people whether there were any other verbs that describe the way God is at work in the world, that we needed, longed, to see in the emerging picture. Sometimes when I've done this in other places, this has taken significant extra time. But here (if I remember rightly), there was little to add. Here, in this gathering of lives, relationships, experiences, stories; here, in inner city Pretoria in a South Africa wrestling with the lasting legacy of apartheid and the ongoing inequalities of global capitalism; here, where we had just heard first-hand stories of lying, stealing, oppressing, killing, we heard the same voices witnessing to where God was seen, working through people's lives, weeping, forgiving, sharing, mending, restoring. At least one person told a story of eyes being opened - a biblical verb, a verb speaking of God at work, if ever there was one - and in the midst of the struggle and the longing for a better world, we heard echoes of Mary's song of the future already becoming present: "he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty".
After the morning gathering, in my conversation with Wilna de Beer, TLF's CEO, Wilna described for me a "third sector organisation" with 80 staff, tackling poverty in the city in all kinds of concrete and structural ways (not least among them building housing, nurturing forms of mutual support and community, and engaging with local government), but also an organisation which knew the importance of "beauty, play, dreaming"; which encouraged "practitioner-scholars", whose critical and creative reflections were firmly rooted in their work in local neighbourhoods; and which, increasingly, was wanting to pay attention to "spiritual formation" in urban contexts, practices, rhythms, ways of being that would shape communities - members, volunteers and staff together - to reflect and evaluate together, mourn and celebrate together, dream and plan together, pray and lead together.
As someone involved both in leading a church community, and in helping a neighbourhood-focused community-building partnership to find rhythms of reflecting and celebrating together, this was music to my ears. As someone who had travelled from post-Christian Britain to a South Africa where around 80% of the population call themselves Christian, I was aware that our differences of cultural context raise different kinds of challenge for this possibility of integrating inclusive community-building work with what practices of spiritual formation. But in both contexts, it feels to me like this is one of the most profoundly important possibilities of our time.
Of all the questions I wanted to ask Wilna and her colleagues, one seemed particularly to "stick" - in our conversation at the time, and in my reflections since. Was what she was describing at TLF becoming - or already - "church"? Her reply was cautious, hesitant, in just the way that I find myself responding about some of the forms of community emerging in our neighbourhood in Hodge Hill. In South Africa as in the UK, "Sunday morning worship" is still the definitive way in which imaginations of "church" are shaped. Denominational structures are still, overwhelmingly, geared towards sustaining that kind of ecclesial imagination. And even when churches and denominations are invested in community-building and tackling poverty, the investment is largely in terms of the impressive scale of "service-provision" which the church is able to offer. Could these messy experiments in bringing human beings together across boundaries of race and class, nationality and language, culture and even faith, attentive to practices and rhythms which nurture spiritual depth - could these be called "church" in any commonly understood sense of the word? A conversation later that day helped to sharpen the question, to ask it alongside the sacramental questions - what about communion? baptism? But despite the qualifiers, despite the tentative caution, that day in Pretoria I heard the quiet beginnings of a "yes..."