Monday, 4 November 2019

Sabbatical reflections #12: good news agents

Soshanguve, around 40km from central Pretoria, was, like the other townships on the edges of South Africa's big cities, a product of the apartheid regime's racist geography: cities of concentric circles, starting with the central business district and the inner city, working outwards through white suburbia, and the industrial zones (where working men would often have to live, away from their families, for 11 months a year), before finally reaching the outer ring of townships, which housed black and so-called 'coloured' people, most of them forcibly re-located from established neighbourhoods closer to the city centre, to places with the most basic of housing and facilities. The building of a shopping centre just a few years ago was, for Soshanguve, a significant moment of "restorative justice", my host Luc explained.

Soshanguve has a particular distinction, having divisions built into its very existence. Created for four different tribes / language groups, Soshanguve's name is a compound of SOtho, SHAngaan, Nguni and VEnda. Each was allocated a different section, the dividing lines running down some of the more major 'roads' criss-crossing the township. "Divide and rule," Luc said. It's slowly beginning to be more mixed now, but over the years those geographical divisions have created suspicions, hostilities and, sometimes, violence.

More visible to a new arrival in Soshanguve is the number of churches. In some parts of the township it felt like there was one on every street corner. Investigate a little further, and divisions show up here too. Denominationalism is rife: "you're not a Christian if you're not coming to this church", Luc told me, more serious than joking. "And the pastor is always right," he continued. We laughed, darkly, knowingly, at the foolishness.

Luc is pastor of no church. He is, however, leader of the Inner Change missional community in Soshanguve (and with wider responsibilities with Inner Change across the African continent). The home he shares with his wife Petunia and three wonderful children is also Inner Change's base in Sosh. The garage in their back yard (see photo, above) reminded me strongly of our "Hub" on the Firs & Bromford estate, a youth and community centre in a converted shop. From Luc's garage run English classes, basketball and football training, home visits to young people and their families, and much more, all contributing to a broad and generous vision of community-building across Soshanguve. And several times each week, Luc's team of young community-builders (mostly in their teens and early twenties) gathers together to learn, reflect, plan, study the bible, and pray. On the day I joined them, these young adults were working on identifying their particular gifts and leadership styles, as well as coming to a greater awareness of some of their weaknesses. Starting from Jesus' "who do you say I am?", Luc suggested to these growing leaders that "to know who we are, it sometimes helps to ask others". And there's a responsibility on both sides of that conversation, he reminded them: how might they find within themselves "the voice that builds others up"?

Luc was interested, he told me later, not in "making Christians". Rwanda, he noted gravely, was 90% Christian, "and that didn't stop them killing each other". What Luc was interested in, was making "good news agents". Good news has to be tangible, he insisted. People have to be able to see it, feel it, experience it - not just hear it. It has to make a difference to lives, relationships, communities, societies. And it has to come from below, from the grassroots. "The [post-apartheid] government promised change, but it hasn't delivered. We've shifted from a 'white capital monopoly' to a 'white-and-elite-black capital monopoly', but there's still no accountability. If you dare to criticise, then you must be either 'white' or an 'outsider', or you're labelled 'disloyal'". Luc also identified an insidious "generationalism" in South African culture: "the old are always 'wise', the young are always 'unruly'". Elders in churches would all too often talk down to young people, and blame their "antisocial behaviour" for society's ills. "Instead of waiting for the government, or blaming others," Luc insisted, "we need to claim our own agency."

That first evening in Soshanguve, over dinner around the Kabongos' table, their oldest daughter Mosky, in her early 20s, led us in a simple bible study. We read together a passage from Isaiah 58 (vv.10-14), and Mosky asked us three questions:
  • what struck you in the passage?
  • what is this passage saying to you?
  • who will share this with?
Just before dinner, Luc had taken me for a walk through one of the nearest 'informal settlements' (otherwise known as 'squatter camps'), just as the sun was going down. We saw lots of people building their own houses, and a few watering little patches of garden (with water pipes illegally attached to the mains supply) - including one man, carefully tending a beautiful yellow rose. I was struck, in our conversation around the dinner table later, that what Luc and his growing team of community-builders are doing in Soshanguve, is the work of "restoring streets to live in" - a holy name, given to them by God. I was reminded of my friends, neighbours and colleagues back home in Hodge Hill, doing our own community-building work in an incredibly different yet strangely similar context - many of whom wouldn't call themselves Christian, but yet doing something that God sees and values and delights in - that to them too, God gives the holy name, "Restorers of Streets to Live in". I was struck too, as we - age 7 to 43, Congolese, South African and English - opened the Scriptures together and shared bread and wine around the table, led by a funny, confident 20-something young woman, what a profoundly earthed, embodied, intimate expression of church I had found myself in the middle of here.

Over another meal the next day, with a few of Inner Change's young leaders, the question of "church" came up again. Most of this group of passionate, energetic community-builders, committed Jesus-followers with a profoundly rooted faith, described themselves when I asked them as "de-churched". Their involvement in the work of community-building, and the personal, spiritual and team development that flows underneath it, had led them to ask all kinds of questions of both wider societal and church structures. Having grown up in churches where "numbers through the door" counted more than community-building and justice-seeking, and where questioning was generally unwelcome, especially from the young, one or two had stuck with it, seeking to make a difference from the inside ("like bridesmaids getting the bride ready for the wedding", as one remarkable young woman put it). But many others in this group had left conventional church behind. "This is my church," said one - and others nodded in agreement - "this is the place where I come alive". This small missional community was the place of formation, of purpose, of discipleship. This was the beating heart of a movement with ambitions to grow: drawing in more young adults, and parents too, spreading to other neighbourhoods, and ultimately growing a new generation of leaders for South Africa as a whole - for government, for education, for science and engineering, you name it - the kind of faithful, prophetic, questioning, contemplative, self-aware, humble, collaborative leaders that South Africa (and, I thought, the world) is longing for.


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