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.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Sabbatical reflections #11: handing over

Image result for urcsa communion

Sunday was the day I would be handed over: from the hospitality of Cobus van Wyngaard and Dutch Reformed Church friends in central Pretoria, to that of Luc Kabongo, his family and their Inner Change missional community, in Soshanguve township on the far edges of the city.

Having talked a lot in the preceding days (with Cobus and others) about church, and having spent time in spaces that were hesitant to call themselves "church" (despite being tangible and radical embodiments of community, and attentive to practices of spiritual formation and transformation), today was my first taste of "church" in its familiar, traditional, Sunday-morning-gathering sense.

Cobus was preaching (I posted his sermon here a while ago), and Klippies was presiding - two familiar faces for me now. But this was a URCSA (Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa) congregation - a historically black denomination (as I've mentioned previously) - and so other than Klippies' wife Alta, Cobus' young son, and me, the only other white faces in the church were the two men leading the service.

Had I not just spent time getting to know Cobus and Klippies, I would have found this profoundly disturbing, I think. But I knew that this was not a position of comfortable authority for them either. Both are engaged whole-heartedly in the painstaking work of deconstructing the taken-for-granted assumptions entangled with whiteness (that white people are best qualified to lead worship and preach, for example), critically examining power structures (including those that they themselves are embedded in), nurturing, supporting and cheerleading for leadership among people of colour, and responsibly stepping back from positions of power and authority so that they no longer "fill the space" in ways that prevent others from inhabiting it. A different kind of "handing over" is under way - and a very deliberate one, however slow it may sometimes feel to all involved.

Of much that was unfamiliar about the service (most of the singing, some of the prayers and a translation of the sermon were in Sotho; and my stiff English body failed again to express itself with the fluidity and tangible joy of most of my fellow congregation members), one moment stood out with startling clarity. After initial words of welcome and psalms and songs of praise, before we turned (as I would have expected in a familiar underlying liturgical flow) to confession, Klippies led us in these words, said together as we stood:

I stand tall and dignified in the presence of God
and among my fellow human beings.
I accept myself as a precious and unique person,
created through Christ to be the image of the living God.
Together with animals, trees and rivers
we are one living community,
belonging to the earth, our common home.
Guided by the Spirit, we discover who we are, as a family:
Motho ke motho ka batho.

The last lines, I discovered later, mean, in Sotho, "a person is a person because of other people" (similar to the meaning of the more familiar Nguni word ubuntu). As the URCSA worship book 2015 explains:

"Traditionally the liturgy moves directly from praise to the reading of the Law of God and the confession of sin, but in that way the importance of creation is underplayed. Human beings are creatures of God – with God-given human dignity – before they are sinners. This fundamental article of the Christian faith must be affirmed liturgically to prevent Christian worship from strengthening or perpetuating the negative self-images produced by racism or sexism. It is helpful for congregation members to affirm their God-given human dignity and worth before the liturgy moves to Law or confession of sin."

In fact, in Klippies introduction to these words in the service, he emphasised both the underlying of God-given human dignity, and also the fact that we (a "we" particularly resonant for this congregation, with this country's history) are often victims of sins which diminish, degrade, oppress, exclude and wound, as much as (if not more than) we are perpetrators. I was reminded of Jesus' "handing over" at the Last Supper, which was both his betrayal by Judas into the hands of the unjust systems, but also his willing giving of the gift of himself, in bread and wine. How often do any of us know, when we experience betrayal, that we are also God-given gift, gift in our own hands to give freely?

After such a profound moment (for me, at least), there was something slightly comical about moving on to celebrate people's birthdays. Or there might have been, perhaps, were it not for a tangible sense in the gathering that birthdays - for young and old alike - were precious moments to celebrate the God-given gift of life, at once fragile and scarred by tragedy, and yet a cause also of joyful thanksgiving. It made me want to celebrate birthdays in our church back in Hodge Hill with a renewed seriousness.

Another moment in the service that struck me was near the end. In the notices - so often a cause of slightly-impatient muttering and watch-tapping in services that I'm involved in. The notices in URCSA Melodi ya Tshwane did, to be fair, go on a bit. But among them was an announcement from the leader of the men's ministries that they were setting up a new men's group, with a professional psychologist, to help men in the congregation address "unresolved emotional hurt". I was left struck both by the rawness of that need in post-apartheid South Africa - and by the potential for such an offering in my own contexts in the urban edges of Brexit Britain. One of the joys of returning from sabbatical was to hear that our own organically-evolving men's group, in the midst of our community-building work in our neighbourhood, had made several positive steps forward, and a wonderfully diverse bunch of local and not-so-local men was beginning to meet regularly to enjoy each other's company, deepen friendships and, often tangentially rather than directly, talk about some of the harder aspects of life.

So, when the towering figure of Luc arrived to drive me and my luggage to his home in Soshanguve, I found myself "handed over" bearing many blessings on which to ponder and chew.