Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Rest & Retreat

I had a sweet weekend retreat at my favorite little place in Pretoria North, Mohale Rest & Retreat.  Wanted to share this poem that particularly touched my heart & soul...

"For Solitude" by John O'Donohue

May you recognize in your life the presence,
Power and light of your soul.

May you realize that you are never alone,
That your soul in its brightness and belonging
Connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.

May you have respect for your individuality and difference.

May you realize that the shape of your soul is unique,
That you have a special destiny here,
That behind the facade of your life
There is something beautiful and eternal happening.

May you learn to see yourself
With the same delight,
Pride and expectation
With which God sees you in every moment.

Excerpted from:  To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue (Doubleday, 2008)

I loved the poet's reminder that no one is part of a solitary story -- we are all part of a bigger picture than we can see.  I loved the glimpse of our lives being just a facade for something beautiful and eternal going on, often behind the scenes.  And it brought hope & joy to my heart to read that last stanza.  Like my parents, God loves to show me off!  It's amazing that "in every moment" God sees us with delight and pride.  


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

River Town & Soshanguve

A friend recently sent me a chapter from the book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. The author, Peter Hessler, served with the Peace Corps in China and later published his experiences.  I found myself nodding along with most of what he wrote, and there were some parts in particular that resonated with me…

“For the first few weeks, Dean Fu searched for tutors who could help Adam and me.  He was as lost as we were—he had never known a foreigner who was trying to learn the language, and I suspected that secretly he felt the project was hopeless.  Waiguoren couldn’t learn Chinese—everybody in Fuling knew that.  Our students found it hilarious that we even tried.  They would ask me to speak a little Chinese, or write a character or two, and then they would laugh at my efforts.  At first this didn’t bother me, but quickly it became annoying. They thought I was dabbling in the language when in fact I was serious: I knew that studying Chinese was one of the most important things I could do in Fuling. So much depended on knowing the language—my friendships, my ability to function in the city, my understanding of the place.”

Peter Hessler, I hear ya!  The early days of my language learning were similar—my team leader Luc searched for a suitable teaching arrangement.  My teammate Julie and I were matched with a teacher in the local Adult Education Program, but she could not even fathom teaching non-native speakers, let alone those with white skin from a whole different country.  She struggled to wrap her mind around where to start – our first lesson was filled with her attempts at teaching us what syllables were (they’re the same in Setswana as in English, by the way.)  She was accustomed to teaching literacy to locals who had grown up their whole lives speaking the language.  So, it was a rocky ride from the start.  One essential piece of language learning: a sense of humor!  Unfortunately, that set up only lasted about a month before we moved onto lessons with a neighbor, Mama Jane. 
People here also giggle with delight to hear me greet them correctly.  They often assume, incorrectly, that it means I can hold a conversation beyond a mere greeting.  Then I stumble, they laugh, we move on.  It becomes annoying.  Just earlier this week someone asked me if I knew how to write my given name, Mapula.  I grumbled, “yeah, of course,” and all but me were amused.  I have never tried to learn Chinese, but maybe it’s a little bit like trying to learn a local dialect that is a combination of 6 Bantu languages (plus some Afrikaans thrown in for good measure.) I frequently feel all alone in a crowd here, present with people but surrounded by foreign customs & language. Like Hessler, I know that learning the language is the key to relationships and my ability to function & understand this place. 

“…For the first few weeks we often complained about the honking and the noise, the same way we complained about blowing our noses and seeing the tissue turn black.  But the simple truth was that you could do nothing about either the noise or the pollution, which meant that they could either become very important and very annoying, or they could become not important at all.  For sanity’s sake we took the second option, like the locals, and soon we learned to talk about other things.”

                The sound & air pollution in Soshanguve aren’t quite as bad as Hessler describes in his town, but there are still plenty of aspects of local life that present me with the same choices: magnify & be annoyed or overlook & move on.  Often I know the right choice is to overlook but the mental shift becomes difficult.  In my case, many of the honks are directed at me, being white in an all-Black township after all, so even now, after a year, it is still greatly annoying. 

“And Fuling was a frightening place because the people had seen so few outsiders.  If I ate at a restaurant or bought something from a store, a crowd would quickly gather, often as many as thirty people spilling out into the street.  Most of the attention was innocent curiosity, but it made the embarrassment of my bad Chinese all the worse—I’d try to communicate with the owner, and people would laugh and talk among themselves, and in my nervousness I would speak even worse Mandarin.  When I walked down the street, people constantly turned and shouted at me.  Often they screamed waiguoren or laowai, both of which simply meant ‘foreigner.’  Again those phrases often weren’t intentionally insulting, but intentions mattered less and less with every day that these words were screamed at me.  Another favorite was ‘hello,’ a meaningless, mocking version of the word that was strung out into a long ‘hah-looo!’ This word was so closely associated with foreigners that sometimes the people used it instead of waiguoren—they’d say, ‘Look here come two hellos!’  And often in Fuling they shouted other less innocent terms—yangguizi, or ‘foreign devil’; da bizi, ‘big nose’—although it wasn’t until later that I understood what these phrases meant.”

                Living in Soshanguve is a challenging, and sometimes frightening, experience because they also have seen so few outsiders.  South Africa is a much more racially diverse nation than China, but the townships are just not places where you see a lot of different kinds of people.  They are pretty homogeneous; it is highly unusual to see even a white South African, let alone one who has come all the way from America, “the land of dreams.”  So, I guess it can be expected that there are LOTS of stares, shouts, hoots, hollers, marriage proposals, requests for phone numbers, etc. 
                The local term of choice directed at me is usually lekgoa, which means white person.  Because of the history of South Africa, this term is loaded with more than racial connotations.  Light-skinned Black South Africans may also receive this term, but more importantly anyone who has really “made it,” with a good job, money, etc., will often be teased and called a lekgoa by friends, family, and neighbors.  White in South Africa is synonymous with having money, resources, education, and power.  I just learned today a new word that basically means boss or one who has people under him.  I was then told that this term could apply to me.  “But I haven’t hired anyone!” I protested.  No matter, my friends said. Being white was enough to warrant the label. I’m sure the sight of me has also generated other terms, whose definitions I probably wouldn’t appreciate knowing. 
Side-note: I remember tutoring with a girl here, helping her with an assignment form English class.  She had to read a short article about a Western (American or British) journalist’s experience in China.  It was very similar to what Hessler writes here, but it was so ironic for me to help her understand while sitting there thinking, “I know exactly what this guy is experiencing.”  My young friend probably had no idea what was going on in my mind!

It was quite validating to read and relate to Hessler’s experiences, but it still doesn’t make the fitting-in process any easier. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Human Trafficking -- A Redemption Story

I had been wanting to post this story since Sunday, and I just found out that yesterday was Human Trafficking Awareness Day (thanks to my friend, Emily!)  So, that makes this post all the more timely.

So, as you probably know, our team volunteers at a local government-run facility for orphans and youth who have been removed from unstable home situations.  This particular facility previously housed a juvenile detention center, so many people still see it as the place for bad kids.  While part of our ministry there is to encourage and affirm the kids by pointing them to God's love, I also feel like another aspect of our involvement is to serve as a prophetic witness to our neighbors.  The fact that we willingly spend our time there and can speak of the kids beyond the typical characterization as "naughty" is quite remarkable to many people.  The kids who end up at this center mostly come from Gauteng Province, but some come from other parts of South Africa and even other African countries.

This story is about a girl, we'll call her Mary, who arrived at the center several months ago from a country in East Africa.  You see, Mary was an orphan in her home country.  I don't know the full story, but from what I've heard, a nice neighbor approached Mary and whoever was taking care of her and offered to bring her to South Africa for a better education.  Mary had been trying to attend school and take care of her younger siblings.  I'm sure the opportunity sounded appealing to Mary -- it was probably a bit scary too, but it was a chance at a new future! Or, maybe Mary didn't even know what was promised and was just told to go without asking any questions.  So, Mary went with this neighbor.  When they arrived in South Africa, Mary learned that she was actually part of a deal with an older South African man who wanted to take her as his wife. Mary is14 years old.  So, this neighbor who had fed Mary on hopes of a new life was now handing her over to this strange man -- not quite the future that Mary had imagined.  This is no way for a 14 year old girl to live, and Mary knew that.  So, she somehow escaped the man's possession and sought refuge at the Catholic church that she had attended with the neighbor when she first arrived in South Africa.  Oh yeah, one more thing -- Mary didn't speak a word of any South African language.  Why would she?  So, she found someone at the church who could translate to the priest and explain her situation.  The priest contacted the officials and thus, Mary ended up at the facility where my team volunteers.

The story gets better.  I met Mary after she arrived at the Center, but she was shy and hesitant because she couldn't speak the local language.  As I've learned -- if  you can't speak the local language here, it can feel like you're on a different planet!  You have no idea what's going on around you and you can't share your feelings, confusions, or questions with anyone.  And most of the kids who suddenly became her dorm-mates were probably unfamiliar with a peer from another country, so what could they do?

My teammate Luc and I went to the facility this past Sunday to support them as they resumed their regular Sunday church services for the kids.  Since it was the first Sunday of the year, several kids got up to share their testimonies of what God had done in the past year, or resolutions they were making for change in the new year.  And then, Mary came up to the stage.  Luc accompanied her because, by God's amazing providence, he also speaks the same language as Mary.  Ever since Mary arrived at the Center, Luc's presence has been like a beacon of hope to her -- I imagine a very real demonstration to remind her that God had not forgotten her.  You could tell Mary was still feeling shy, but there was also some spark about her, like something inside she just needed to let out.  She proceeded to tell her story, through Luc.  She arrived at the Center not knowing anyone or anything about the place.  She was totally alone.  Even though she had been in grade 9 in her home country, the staff placed her in grade 6 at the school on the premises.  She struggled, she said, because she couldn't understand what the teachers were saying or teaching.  The only thing she understood was math, because "the numbers speak for themselves."  She said the teachers were gracious, spending extra time trying to help her understand.  She reached out to another child and somehow, despite their lack of common language, they were able to communicate and help each other.  The smile on Mary's face continued to get bigger and bigger as she told her story.  You could tell that this was something she was meant to share.  By the end of the school year, Mary said, she had passed all her subjects and now she'll be going on to grade 7.  This is amazing!  I sat there, my heart welling up with joy and awe.  It was an encouragement to me, also still feeling like such a foreigner in this place, that Mary came and not only figured some things out, but learned how to thrive in such a strange new place.  That's a tall order for any 14 year old, not to mention all that she had experienced to bring her to that point.

It was only after Mary shared her story on Sunday that I learned the previous parts of her journey.  And that just made the latter chapter all the more amazing -- just think about what could have happened to Mary.  And although visiting the Center is not always filled with pictures of hope and encouragement, on this day it was.  Sure, most of the kids there wish they were with their real families, but Mary was experiencing the redemption of God on a daily basis.  He had taken her situation, with the deception, death, and injustice it carried, and was turning it into something beautiful, in a place where Mary could succeed and discover who she was made to be.  I was filled with hope as I thought about Mary's story and what else God might do through her.

Some good sites to check out regarding the fight against Human Trafficking:
International Justice Mission
Not for Sale
Slavery Footprint

Friends blogging about Human Trafficking:

Monday, September 05, 2011

On trials & steadfastness...

From the FighterVerses blog on August 29, commentary on James 1:12, "Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.". (Read the full original post here: http://www.fighterverses.com/blog-post/how-do-we-remain-steadfast-in-trials/)

"…People who turn away from God under trial show that they treasure a trial-free existence more than they treasure God.

God's people do not treasure a thornless life. Their chief aim is not to a have a tribulation-free existence. Their chief aim is to see Christ glorified and to be satisfied in the sight of his glory, and this is why they can remain steadfast under trial.

In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 a trial came to Paul in the form of a thorn in the flesh, and Paul pleaded with God to take it away. God chose to let Paul remain with the thorn in the flesh. Did Paul then forsake God, saying, "What good is it to follow you if I don't achieve what I really want through you?" No. Rather, he began to see his trial as something to boast in, because he saw that Christ was being glorified—Chris's strength & grace were becoming more evident—in Paul's weakness. This is where steadfastness under trial comes together with love for God. Paul's treasure was not a thornless existence, it was Jesus glorified. He loved God, more than anything."

Amen and amen! Lord, I'm certainly not there yet, but may trials increase my steadfastness and my love for you.