On Angelic Troublemakers

In recent years I have stumbled across the names of remarkable individuals whose lives have been all but hidden in the vaults of history. They are the people who have worked tirelessly alongside some of the biggest activists and social revolutionaries of our time. They are the myriad people around the world who have demonstrated that “long obedience in the same direction”, without critical acclaim.

We are a people of celebrity. We like our social heroes big and loud. We think that the true weight of social action is found in fanfare: clergy climbing over police barricades, moving speeches, and dramatic arrests. I am convinced that there is a right and fitting place for all of these, that the “theater of social action” is necessary in particular in the face of brazen injustice and evil.

But behind each of those actions are a thousand acts of mundanity and unremarkable revolt.

We all know of Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington in 1963. Few of us have heard of the man who organized that march – Bayard Rustin.

Bayard Rustin organized transportation rosters for the thousands bussing in to the march, ensured off-duty police officers were trained and prepared to serve as marshals, put people in place to direct traffic, and scheduled the podium presentations. At the time, he received no credit for his role; as a black gay man who had already received scathing criticism and been targeted for his sexuality, he was deemed a liability to the success of the march. Nevertheless, he continued to serve in the background, acting as deputy director of the march.

A year after the March on Washington, Rustin was again asked to coordinate a public protest, this time a citywide boycott of New York public schools over segregation. That march involved 400,000 participants and became known as “the largest civil rights demonstration” in American history.

Bayard Rustin wrote,

“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies. And we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”

Bayard Rustin

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who will speak loudly in the public sphere and halls of politics. They must also include those who will speak boldly in the personal realm, at family dinners and in groups of friends.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who march and stage sit-ins on golf courses and hold banners outside parliament and shut down streets and maybe even throw a little manure around (yes, some of our most cherished institutions could do with a little creative compost to help them flourish). They must also include those who run spreadsheets, draft press releases, put together volunteer rosters, make food, plan transport schedules and buy the paint to rename streets.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who boycott school anthems and boycott sports. These groups must also include those who boycott slavery, oppression and environmental degradation by changing their household buying habits.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who bring lawsuits against city bylaws that discriminate against the poor and vulnerable. They must include those who produce powerful social theater against the scourge of gender based violence. They must also include those who chop vegetables five hours a day, seven days a week to feed the hungry in defiance of State gazettes, those who work to establish local food chain supplies that are just and accessible, those who plant gardens on street corners, and those who stage hunger strikes – not eating lunch until all can eat lunch.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who practice civil disobedience, and refuse to pay taxes that fund a violent police force. They must also include those who practice social disobedience, and refuse to  pay anything less than a living wage, even when neighbours complain that doing so ‘drives up the price’ of human labour. They must include those who practice religious disobedience, refusing to buy into the politics of hate that exclude the other on the basis of race, gender, sexuality or money.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who stand in front of weapons of war – in front of tanks, guns, bulldozers, the army, the police, and parliamentarians. They must also include those who wash the feet of the racist farmer whose toes are caked with the soil of his stolen land and who wash the dead feet of the refugee with no land to call home, who hung himself from a street pole in Sea Point. They must include those who name and call out death-dealing conditions, and those who cut strips of cloth to prepare bodies for burial.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must include those who tear down statues of slave holders and throw them in rivers. They must also include those who tear down racist mindsets and perceptions and worldviews. They must include artists and poets and musicians and dancers who make the unfathomable understandable and who unflinchingly bring us face-to-face with the unconscionable.

Yes, these groups of angelic troublemakers must act in boardrooms and church vestries, in school classrooms and staff rooms and courtrooms and bedrooms, in homes and streets, in public spaces and private spaces, in the halls of government, the halls of (in)justice, the halls of power and the halls of abandoned buildings,  on stock market floors and in corner stores.

We may call these individuals angelic troublemakers or ordinary radicals or unconventional saints. The writer Flannery O’Connor writes,

Trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus…the Lord out of dust had created him, had made him blood and nerve and mind, had made him to bleed and weep and think, and set him in a world of loss and fire.

Flannery O’Connor

Here’s to those who will take their bodies – their bleeding, weeping, thinking bodies – and step out into a world of loss and fire and tuck their bodies in places so that wheels don’t turn and it’s no longer business as usual.

On the Parable of the Mangrove Tree

The kingdom of heaven is like a mangrove tree which sends its roots over rocks on the shore. Twice a day the water advances and twice a day the water retreats. The flood does not drown it, the storm does not shake it, the salt does not suffocate it.  It’s roots arch out, stabilizing it against the waves. It’s pores open to breath in at low tide, and exhale at high. Time passes and it sends out seeds which have been fertilized. Some sprouts land on the tidal mudflats and embed themselves in the rich soil; others float away and take root on distant shores. Years pass and a single mangrove grows to a thicket. Gathering mud towards itself, the forest adds land to land.

Tabi tabi, po”, we call at as we wend our way along the coast. The tide is low and a single mangrove tree stands in the expanse of exposed coral. This is unusual; mangroves are known to grow in families, expansive forests of different species growing in the brackish water of coast or rivers. “Excuse us, sir,” we call politely as we walk by this tree, “we are just passing through.”

A small man lives in this solitary tree. Crouched low, he is the Nuno sa Punso – the Ancestor of the Mound. In the right light you can see the point of his woven wide-brimmed hat made from reeds. He stands no taller than a three-year-old child, but is older than the oldest trees. He is older than this lone tree which he has made his home. Perhaps more rightly we should call him the Nuno sa mga Nuno – Ancestor of the Ancestors. The elders tell how he exists as the true and first owner of the land, living here since before humans set foot on the archipelago.

This coast used to be a vast mangrove thicket. All have been cut down, except this one. We are warned that whoever cuts down this tree will be killed, pierced by the point of the old man’s headdress. Our greeting shows we mean no harm; we ask for mercy.

A Reflection

Reader, do not dismiss this as mere animistic tradition. Doing so will only reveal more the blind spots in your own understanding of God – the ontological and epistemological biases in the Western Christianity you have come to believe to hold the fullness of truth – than any false perception of God you feel is revealed in this story.

In a world that has so surely and sharply separated flesh from spirit and seen from unseen, the presence of spiritual beings embodied in this physical reality is impossible to accept. Perhaps such a leap of faith is too large for you right now. Then let us let this be. But perhaps even if you cannot accept the reality of the spiritual, you might be able to recognize the ancient wisdom within the myth.

A single mangrove tree, within 10 years, can repopulate to a vast thicket. This sole mangrove holds within it the redemption of this stretch of coast. Within this last tree is the potential for a thicket vast enough that fish may nurse their young, crustaceans may find their rest, snakes and insects and organisms too small for sight may settle into reciprocal relationships of life. Carbon may be taken out of the atmosphere and stored in these mangrove swamps, up to ten times as much as terrestrial forests of the same size. Corals find the conditions for life to thrive.

Without this tree, there is no chance of the teaming ecosystem which once existed on this shore being restored. Coral gardens will be destroyed, fish will disappear, and the houses built just back from the shore will be endangered by sea surge and storm. Mangrove swamps hold the boundaries of the land in place. Once destroyed, the land erodes and the coastline reshapes at the whim of wave and wind, so fundamentally changing the conditions in which mangroves thrive that they will never be able to grow back in their former habitats.

Mano sa Punso, the elderly being with the flowing beard who lives in this last tree – who sometimes may be seen gazing out at the ocean deep in thought – is the embodiment (in myth, in spirit, in being – it doesn’t really matter), of the wisdom of creation. A wisdom placed within Creation by the Creator. The wisdom of seeds and of seasons and of soil. A wisdom recognized by the ancestors and passed from generation to generation until it reaches us now in story and fable and mythology. In parable. Jesus knew the power of this medium to carry wisdom down through centuries, which is why he chose parables to tell truth to the crowds.

As humans have been doing across time and place, we add our fears and our will-force and our desires to these inherited stories until we have to pull back all the assumptions of our knowledge of reality and our knowledge of the nature of knowing our reality, in order to find a still-small-grain of truth. In this mustard seed of wisdom unfurled from within the encasement of the parable we may find our salvation, and the salvation of all of creation.

As I walk along the beach, I listen to an audio reading of Mark 4:26-3. These two images taken from the green-growing world are offered to us as an image for the kingdom of God: a mustard seed that grows to be a tree of trees, with branches big enough so that birds can perch in its shade. Grains of seed scattered in a field, sprouting, growing, reaching, the soil producing fruit, each seed after its own kind.

What do these three parables tell us about the nature of the kingdom of God? Perhaps that it holds a wisdom within itself that has greater affinity with the wisdom of the rest of creation than it does with the supposed wisdom of man. Tiny seeds produce great trees. Food grows from soil without the fussing of the farmer, producing fruit as man sleeps and rises, night and day, “we know not how”. A mangrove tree learns to breathe under water, knows how to turn brackish water into clean. A  single tree left as a remnant may grow into a great forest, once again providing space for life to thrive.

The kingdom of God is like seeds scattered in a field, like a tiny mustard seed, like a mangrove tree.

Let them who have ears to hear, hear.

On Thanksgiving

Over the past few years, I have found myself drawn time and again to the provision of manna and quail during the Israelite Exodus out of Egypt – a powerful parable which leads us to ask how the sacrament of Manna invites us to a new understanding of what “enough” is, in an economic context which has modelled scarcity, disparity and unjust distribution of wealth.

The story invites us to consider how a community of people, finding themselves in a barren land devoid of the conditions for life to thrive, learn what it means to not only believe that there is enough; but to demonstrate it. Six weeks into their exodus from Egypt, there’s an all too common grumble on their lips: “If only…” “If only we’d stayed in Egypt, why did you bring us here to make us die of hunger and thirst? “ Moses intercedes on their behalf and the Lord rains down supplies. But the provision doesn’t come without a proviso – Take only what you need. No more; no less.

Isn’t this profound? Each family gathers as much as they need and when they measure it out in the assembly, those who gathered much do not have too much; and those who gathered a little did not have too little. The story is so evocative that it’s told and retold by the prophets, becoming a refrain throughout the history of Israel, “Remember that time when the Lord provided bread from heaven? Remember that time when we lived and ate our daily bread together – never again having to ask for it, for 40 years until the moment our feet touched the soil of Canaan? Remember when everyone had enough. Every day. No more than enough; and no less than enough. Remember, remember…”

The refrain is picked up again in the Gospels, as John weaves the parallels together. The crowd cries, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.’ What have you got?” And Jesus responds, “I… I am the true bread”. The telling comes full circle as here, embodied in our midst, is the one who offers himself to us as the bread of life. Jesus takes up this tremendous metaphor and offers his first I Am found in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread of life.” Here he is then, the daily bread come to earth, as it is in heaven. The all-sufficient. The one who leaves us satiated and quenched.

But lest we disembody Jesus’ statement in this moment, let us remember when it takes place. The disciples and Jesus have just returned back to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, after the feeding of the five thousand. That bizarre anecdote, in which a boy’s offering of five loaves and two fish, satisfies the hunger of a crowd of over 5000. It’s easy to lose the weight of this story in light of the acclamation Jesus makes after. “I am the bread of life”, he teaches. His words would have landed in the fertile imaginations of a people who have just received enough, and more. What is manna – sufficiency – compared to the gathering of 12 extra baskets – abundance?!

Just a few months later, this same Teacher finds himself at the feast of the Passover celebrating the Exodus from Egypt and of bread from heaven, sufficient unto each, that sustained a nation for 40 years. In the middle of the meal he calls the attention of those gathered and raising the bread, recalls to their minds that hot day on the mountainside and the 5000 men seated waiting in groups of 50. Then taking the loaf, so similar to the ones offered by the small boy, breaks it and says, “This is my body; broken for you. As often as you do this, do it as a remembrance of me.”

As often as you do this. As often. My imagination is ignited as I think of this basic dietary item, present at every meal. Could the Teacher have chosen a more fitting item to recall ourselves one to another with such regularity?

I know how the teaching proceeds. The bread of life – essential for life eternal; trivial to the physical. A metaphor for the spiritual realm, a covenant for the ethereal. Wholly concerned with the hereafter: discarnate and incorporeal. Try as I might, I cannot reconcile this with the stories that got us here. Six hundred thousand grumbling, hangry, people in the middle of no-man’s land, gathering up the tangible, corporeal substance of bread from who knows where, each as much as they needed and finding themselves in a micro-economy of absolute sufficiency. Or five thousand lethargic, hot, hangry, people on a hillside listening to an itinerate preacher, sharing together the little they had between them and finding themselves in a micro-economy of bounty.

We degrade this sacrament when we insist upon viewing it as a solely symbolic meal. We degrade the remembrance when we break the bread during the sacred moment and yet hoard our bread when our brothers are going hungry. We degrade the remembrance when we share the cup, and neglect to offer even a glass of water to the least of these. Dare I say it, we commit the sin of Sodomy, when we gorge ourselves on real bread while our neighbours starve. Woe to us who seek to absolve ourselves by holding the remembrance of what the Lord demonstrated to us in giving his body for us, above the practice of doing likewise.

Enacting Remembrance

So where does that leave me? I know only that a reading of the I Am of the Bread of Life as disembodied and immaterial leaves me feeling like I’m missing half the story. I know that I resonate with the Israelite community in the desolate nothing, with the lethargic crowds on that sultry hilltop, and with the jostling disciples scrambling around the table in those weeks following the Messiah’s resurrection. I know that the Communion that is offered by my, at times, watered-down faith tradition, detached from the physicality of real bread and real wine, from real hunger and real thirst, leaves me wanting. And I know, that the invitation to partake of the staples of our diet in recurring and regular remembrance of our Messiah, is offered not just to us as individuals but to us as a community. When we are instructed to break the bread and extend it to our neighbour, our offering is devoid of any dynamism if it is merely spirit devoid of substance. Finally, I know, if I approach the table of communion without recognizing and responding to the body of Christ in my midst, I desecrate that holy remembrance.

Beginning on Thanksgiving and ending on Christmas Eve, part of our Advent journey is the Anderson-tradition of “Eucharisteo”. Each day we give thanks; an active remembering of the grace we have received, receive and will receive. But it’s more than just giving thanks. In doing so we affirm the sacrament of communion as a binding narrative for all our relationships. On the mountain before the 5000 and again in a small room with his closest community, Jesus enacts the four sovereign verbs of the Eucharist: he takes, gives thanks, breaks, and shares. So as we prepare ourselves “for that which we are about to receive”, we are reminded daily not to desecrate this family meal by neglecting the four decisive verbs of our sacramental existence: to take, to give thanks, to break and to share. Communion is not only to be remembered; but practiced.

This is how I want to take communion. In homes and before fires, on beaches before waves, on mountains before open skies, in fields before sunsets. Around tables and around friends. In crowded rooms filled with laughter and in quiet corners filled with tears. And even in churches.

This is how I want to take communion. With loaves of bread that fill me, not wafer thin crackers that remind me I am empty. With glasses of remembrance, not sips of observance. I want it to be abundant, not scarce. I want it to fill my being, not dissolve on my tongue before I can even taste its goodness. I want it to satisfy my thirst, not wet my tongue leaving me desiring more. I want it to be sacramental, not sentimental. I want it in sacred spaces and profane, but not in abstracted places. I want it to be intimate and accessible, not isolated and exclusionary.

This is how I want it to be when I remember. This is how I want it to be when I sit with that sacrifice. This is how I want to know those words. This conspiring; this breathing-together. This community; this gift-together. This communion; this sharing-together. This covenant; this coming-together. 

On the labourers at the side of the road

For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a wealthy man who was making renovations to his house and drove down Rosmead Avenue at 7am on a Tuesday morning. He found some men sitting on the side of the road waiting for work. Pulling over, he called over to a man holding a paint roller, another holding a chainsaw and a third sitting next to a box of tools. He agreed to pay them R300 each for the day’s labour – a daily wage twice as large as the minimum wage set by the government. He set them to work at his home.

A few hours later, around 10 in the morning, he drove back down Rosmead and finding a few more men, agreed to the same rate and set them to work. When he went back down at midday, he saw a man who had been waiting for work since 6 am. The man was looking down at his shoes, dejection found in the line of his slumped shoulders. He was so engrossed in looking at the ground that he didn’t even notice the bakkie which had pulled up. Quickly recognizing the call for work, he jumped in the bakkie cab. When they returned to the house the others were already eating lunch. The wealthy man beckoned to the newly arrived worker, telling him to get out and join the others in their meal before starting work. Once more, around 4pm, the wealthy man was driving down Rosmead and found still more men sitting on the side of the road.

He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He ushered them into the vehicle and they too joined the workers on the construction site.

At around 5pm it was time for the workers to leave. A few of the wealthy man’s guests arrived and were sitting around in the garden drinking cocktails as the man gathered the workers and paid them each the wage of R300. The guests looked on in amazement. One of the guests, a lady, began questioning the workers: “Are you not angry that you who worked from early in the morning, skilled labourers who brought your own tools, received the same wage as the men who came an hour before the end of the work day? Isn’t that unfair? And what of the man who arrived at lunch time who shared the food that should have been all yours? He hadn’t even worked yet, before he was sitting down, putting his feet up and having tea!” The more she asked, the angrier she became. The workers didn’t respond, but thanking the wealthy man for the work, went together on their way.

When the workers had left, the wealthy man joined his friends. The woman who had been questioning the workers was furious. She was planning some house renovations and asked her friend whether he wasn’t ashamed that he was flaunting his wealth and driving labour costs up for all the rest of them. Others chimed in: “Now all labourers will expect R300?” “Don’t you think they’ll just stop by the shebeen on the way home and drink it away?” “I can’t afford to pay R300/day. What am I supposed to do now?” “You know they would have worked for you for half that amount. These people don’t need that much – they make do on much less.” “If you pay unskilled labourers the same as skilled labourers, there’s no incentive for people to improve themselves? Wage tiers are put in place for a reason.”

On and on the friends went. Eventually the wealthy man had enough. “What is it to you how I spend my money? You’re angry because my generosity highlights your stinginess. You accuse me, to justify yourselves. You snakes, trying to get away with the bare minimum required by law and hoarding up wealth, gorging yourselves on the labour of others.”

Sullenly, the guests got up to leave. As they went away they murmured amongst themselves, listing out the things they do for poor people and hating the wealthy man’s arrogance.

“Just like him, to try guilt-trip us into giving away everything we have. Well, just wait, because when he’s squandered his wealth away, those men are still going to be sitting day in and day out on the side of the road waiting for work. And then they’ll be forced to take anything they can get,” the lady grumbled.

On Quests and States

Last week, an old friend posted an ostensibly open question: “What is an instance of systemic injustice in South Africa?” Others quickly jumped on giving a few high level as well as every-day examples of areas they see systemic injustice and institutionalized racism at play. Friend A’s response was to carefully and rationally explain why each subsequent example was not, indeed, systemic injustice. I sat back watching, fighting the urge to jump in with several more examples. The conversation felt like a non-starter. Friend A entered the conversation with the intention of proving himself right rather than opening up his views and opinions to being proved wrong (or at least challenged). Instead of asking to expand his worldview, he asked to fortify his status quo.

If your first question is not followed by a second question, you are not listening to understand; you are listening to defend.

Soong-Chan Rah made this comment which has rocked my world over the last two years, “If you’re justice-minded and have never had a person of colour as a mentor, you’re not a missionary; you’re a colonialist.” His follow up was jarring: who has permission to speak into your life? If you are pursuing a genuine quest for understanding, you have to begin asking new questions in new spaces in order for there to be any fair chance of you coming up with any new answers. So ask yourself now, whose perspectives and experiences are you giving preference to? Who is mentoring you? Who have you given explicit authority and invitation to, to challenge you, point out your blind spots and tell you to shut up when necessary? What are the last 5 books you read?

Who are the authors you are regularly reading, the news broadcasts you are following, the editorials you are engaging with, the podcasts you are listening to, the people you are spending time with? Who are the last 5 people you invited across the threshold, into the intimacy of your home, to sit at your table and truly commune with you?

If you are genuinely seeking understanding then you need to demonstrate that commitment by expanding your frame of reference. If you continue to build your carefully articulated rationalizations for the way you experience and understand the world based on the opinions and thought pieces and experiences of the individuals who look and think and live like you, then all you’ll do is continually reinforce your own position. To truly disrupt the way we see the world, we have to start asking different questions in different spaces.

questions-lead-to-a-quest-statements-lead-to-a-state

Not sure where to start? Here’s a challenge. For the next 6 months fundamentally shift your frame of reference to ONLY listen to voices that don’t support your current perceptions and opinions. Seriously. You don’t need any more pats on the back, affirmations of what you think, or evidence that continues to support and reinforce your particular view of the world. That stuff is entrenched enough to handle whatever comes at it over the next 6 months (or maybe it isn’t and wouldn’t that be scandalous?!)

  1. For News
    • Al Jazeera
    • Huffington Post (but only POC authors)
    • Financial Mail
  2. For Opinion and Analysis
    • Eusebius Mckaiser
    • Khaya Dlanga
    • Verashni Pillay
    • Wanelisa Xaba
  3. For Every-Day Thought Leaders
    • Sindile Vabaza
    • Ashley Visagie
    • Linde Ndaba
    • Sam Mahlawe
  4. For Facebook Groups (Secondary challenge: don’t engage for 3 months! Shut up and listen and observe.)
    • Know the past to walk justly into the future
    • Rainbow Racist Rehab
  5. For Blogs
    • groundup.org.za
    • izwelethublog.wordpress.com
    • engagesomemore.co.za

If you have a recommendation for the list and who people might listen to during their 6-month detox experiment add them in the comments.

P.S. To be fair, the invitation goes both ways. For those who regularly engage in conversations driven by or reflected in the above list, how might you diversify the voices and perspectives you are giving credence to and the experiences and stories you are listening to?

On spaghetti and learning

The idea is simple: gather good people around good food and good discussion and see what happens. So we did. We turned off technology and tuned in to people. It was messy and it was chaotic, it was painful and it was personal and it was powerful. It was raw and it was redemptive. Some of us ate spaghetti with a spoon cos we ran out of cutlery. We sat on the floor and on stools and really close to each other – three people thigh to thigh on a chair made for two. We talked and told stories, argued and challenged, wrestled and sat in silence – the good kind and the uncomfortable kind. We left with heads and hearts aching, but full.

Here’s some of what I learnt

1. White privilege is less about access to “stuff” and more about access to choices or, in Sen’s theorizing, capabilities – the real opportunities of being and doing available to attain well-being. Here’s an example: consider a priest who is fasting and a man in a famine-stricken country who is starving. The key element in determining a person’s well-being here is not whether both are experiencing hunger, but whether the person has access to food and is choosing not to eat. The functioning is starving but the capability to obtain an adequate amount of food is the key element in evaluating well-being between these two individuals. Having a lifestyle is not the same as choosing it; well-being depends on how that lifestyle came to be.

Here’s another example. Consider a bike as a commodity which enables the functioning of mobility. Personal, social and environmental conversion factors impact an individual’s ability to convert the commodity (the bike) into functioning (getting from A to B).  If a person is physically disabled, never learnt to ride a bike, if women are not allowed to ride bikes, or if there are no roads, then a person’s capacity to convert the potential of the bike into movement is limited. It’s not enough to give someone a bike if they don’t have the ability, the capacity, the enabling conditions to ride it in a way that moves them forward (or if they don’t have access to a pump, if they cannot take the bike out without being physically threatened by a mugging, etc)

2. In a post-industrial/post-agricultural world, we believe that we too are living in the Information Age, where the primary means of production is Knowledge and the accumulation of knowledge (i.e. education) is the means by which individuals access livelihood, opportunity, resource, jobs etc. I simply don’t believe this is true in South Africa. I wonder if perhaps we are actually in the Age of Connection. Knowledge might be power, but it’s less about what you know and more about who you know. The primary means of production might be Social Capital – the contacts and connections which enable us to network, navigate and negotiate the economic landscape. Perhaps education is the capability, but the functioning is all about social capital – it’s the people we know, the professional contacts, the personal networks that enable us to actualize opportunity. White privilege is at its core all about social capital.

3. While I can sympathize with the pain and anger of black friends, I don’t think I can actually empathize. I can show compassion for, seek to understand, commiserate with, experience anger on behalf of but I can never really experience “from within another’s frame of reference”. As one of our guests so rightly pointed out “We do not and cannot experience EQUAL frustration. You had a choice.”

4. I need to shut up more. Perhaps one of our greatest failings as white people in South Africa is our inability to sit in silence. When we listen to the voices of our black brothers/sisters expressing pain, anger, frustration, or simply sharing their experience, we want to immediately question, clarify, push-back, argue, dissect, debate, wrestle, show the other side, point out the discrepancies or inconsistencies, locate within the “larger picture”, propose solutions, and find “action steps”. We don’t know how to sit – just SIT – with a rage that fills a room, sucks all the air from it, and leaves our friends shaking. We have ears but do not hear, and eyes but do not see.

5. Reconciliation is not the path towards Justice but rather Justice is the path towards Reconciliation. Until and unless Justice has been enacted we can not experience right relationship. (Thanks, Nkosi!)

Read what  Brett Fish Anderson and Nkosi Gola shared about this dinner.

on the Geography of Justice

As husband-man and I have returned to South Africa we’ve begun thinking about where we want to root ourselves and how the space we choose to be in might best reflect our desire to love our neighbors well, to be part of reconciliation in this beautiful land, to rebuild and repair. As we’ve begun to speak about where we might land, I have been profoundly struck by how our society still reflects the history of our country.

So much of South Africa’s neighborhoods are still sharply racially and class segregated and this is no wonder. Apartheid was in large part upheld by the spatial engineering of physical space and geographies. Land was zoned according to ethnicity/race and groups were assigned demarcated areas to live in. Buffer zones of natural landscape features and man-made infrastructure were employed as physical barriers to keep people apart. Transportation, electricity, and water infrastructure as well as centers of commerce were by extension inaccessible to many persons of color who were often assigned land on the very outskirts of cities/towns.

In South Africa, we don’t have metaphorical walls keeping us separate and disconnected; we have physical demarcations of division. Train lines, roads, rivers, mountains, and scrubland are still the tangible expressions and reproductions of our separation.

Apartheid was not only a political, legal and economic dispensation – it was a spatial dispensation.

The inequitable distribution of resources, services and access in South African communities is still largely one of the physical legacies of apartheid.  As Edward Soja puts it, justice has a geography. Injustice is graphically manifested. Our spaces remain imbued with the remnants of the historical project, with power and with privilege or with the lack of both. We are positioned and continue to re-position in ways that reproduce and reinforce inequality.

How can we begin asking the hard questions about the socio-spatial distributions of wants and needs in our cities – access to job opportunities, to health care, to good air quality? How might we begin to recognize that the morality of place and physicality of space – accessibility, walkability, transport equity – is not solely the mandate of government; it is the explicit remit of the church.

“Seek the peace of the city where I have sent you.” Jeremiah 29:7. The peace that is required here is shalom. Not merely the absence of conflict but the flourishing of life.  From the dust of the land we were created and to the dust of the land we will return. Our beginning and end is with the earth, place, space. The use of land not only reflects equitableness, but our relationship to it imbues our sense of placement, home, rootedness, safety, flourishing, and survival. “In whose image is space created?” asks David Harvey. Does space in South Africa reflect the image of God reconciling mankind to one another? Is the Kingdom reflected on earth; is “thy will be done” mirrored back to heaven? Does place and space reflect our shalom imperative?

If our separateness had such an intentionality and physicality behind its formation, then surely our reconciliation has to be both intentional and physical. We cannot be content with merely reaching over the invisible walls; we have to begin crossing the visible streets. What are the tangible ways we can spatially re-engineer our lives to create geographies of justice? How would we tread if we really believed that this ground, the ground, is holy ground?

Husband-man and I we are wrestling with whether breaking down the physical demarcations of our division might mean moving in to the places we’re still socially (if no longer legally) not supposed to be in.

Let’s take off our shoes, and walk as though we believe in the sacredness of place.

geography of my soul

on communion

This is how I want to take communion. I want to hold a loaf fresh from the oven, the dough kneaded by the rough hands of a friend, warmth rising, infused with its sweet scent. I want to take this bread in my hands and break it open with my fingers, releasing its aroma. I want it to leave my hands and fill the hands of the one next to me. I want to take my communion in chunks. I want to indulge in it. I want to fill my mouth with it and I want it to satiate me. I want to hold in my left hand this meal and, after the moment of its recognition, I want to keep dipping it into olive oil and a little salt – raising it to my lips again and again. In my right hand, I want to hold a glass of red wine. I’ll sip it and swirl it and savor it – drawing out the rich breadth of it before swallowing. I want it to be filled to overflowing. I want it, as it fills my mouth with its flavor to remind me that this is everlasting. That it is good.

This is how I want to take communion. In homes and before fires, on beaches before waves, on mountains before open skies, in fields before sunsets. Around tables and around friends. In crowded rooms filled with laughter and in quiet corners filled with tears. And even in churches.

This is how I want to take communion. With loaves of bread that fill me, not wafer thin crackers that remind me I am empty. With glasses of remembrance, not sips of observance. I want it to be abundant, not scarce. I want it to fill my being, not dissolve on my tongue before I can even taste its goodness. I want it to satisfy my thirst, not wet my tongue leaving me desiring more. I want it to be sacramental, not sentimental. I want it in sacred spaces and profane, but not in abstracted places. I want it to be intimate and accessible, not isolated and exclusionary.

This is how I want it to be when I remember. This is how I want it to be when I sit with that sacrifice. This is how I want to know those words. This conspiring; this breathing-together. This community; this gift-together. This communion; this sharing-together. This covenant; this coming-together. I want it to merge beautifully with my everyday, not stand apart from my lived-experience. I want it to fuse my laughter and my crying, my sacred and profane and profound, my before and my after.

This is how I want to take communion.

on passivism, pacifism and peace

I buckle my helmet, check both ways, and pull out slowly into the intersection. As I do a car comes out of nowhere, breaks hard and I swerve. We miss each other and I pull around so I’m on the right side of the road. And then I am assailed by the swearing, the shouting, the angry words pouring out of the car towards me. I am called names and the driver threatens to kill me, moving to force me off the road as she does so. I pull onto the sidewalk and she gets out of her car. I keep cycling. She catches up with me at the next intersection where I wait for a red light. As I make to cross she whips her car in front of me, cutting me off. I avoid eye contact but the barrage of hate directed toward the “f-ing white bitch on the bike” crashes into me. I wait silently and as she pulls off she swerves in again to hit my front wheel. She speeds off and I cautiously cross. I’m shaking and a tear runs down my cheek. Once again I am caught up in the dramatic and chaotic fallout of an emotionally volatile and unstable community. Still, nothing prepares me for it. Nothing prepares me for the fight that breaks out in the street, or the sounds of domestic violence coming through the walls, or the mother telling her child she wished he was dead, the erratic discipline, the man who corners me and threatens me on the street, the gunshots, the threats, the hate, the degrading names and the aggression that permeates the fabric of these relationships.

Several weeks back I wrote on things I have confused over the last few years. Hidden in the middle of that list was this one: “I have confused Not hitting people with Non-violence”, a confusion which came to a head one day as I sat in my room listening to a neighbor’s misogynistic rap. At that time, my interaction with violence – or the ever-threat of it – changed. Non-violence, pacifism, and peacemaking become less theoretical and more personal; no longer abstract, because my relation to them had become embodied. So I asked, how do i do non-violence, how do i practice pacifism, how do i be a peace-maker when violence – the threat, the call, the power of it – is tied inextricably to my being woman. Or my being white. Or my being young. Or my being out of place, a stranger, a foreigner. Or my living, walking and breathing in a violent neighborhood. Or my being hypocritical, abounding in wrath and lacking in mercy.

Here is the complexity of my interaction with violence and non-violence. I trick myself into believing that not raising my voice or my fists is a non-violent response to frustration and anger. I ignore the rage, wrath and fury that simmer within me. I don’t scream at my neighbor but I hate her nevertheless for the torrent of aggression she directs towards her kids from sun up to sun down. I think of the things I would do if I had the “courage” – I secretly hope she leaves so I don’t have to deal with the contradictions her violent stagnation causes in me. I come to believe that passivism (not doing anything in a violent situation directed toward me and not doing anything with the violence within me) is an adequate replacement for pacifism (that fundamental opposition to violence that reveals itself in demonstrative non-participation in violence and counter-commitments to establishing and maintaining peace.) I am caught in this hard space, somehow believing that not seeking retribution is the same as seeking mercy. Saying you are non-violent and lowering your weapons is dramatically and fundamentally different from disarming yourself, your attitudes, your heart, and your spirit. Not participating in violence is radically distinct from participating in peace.

How then do I practice peace and engage in pacifism? How do I make non-violence less a way of thinking and more a way of being? How do I ensure these things begin in me, but don’t end there?

How do I seek the peace (the shalom, the wholeness,the reconciliation) of the city (the place, the neighborhood, the community, the relationships) I am placed in, recognizing that my shalom is inextricably tied to its shalom, my peace found in its peace (Jeremiah 29:7 paraphrased).

on getting it wrong

Ask me in ten years time what I was doing in 2011 and I’ll stream-of-consciousness you out of your socks! You’ll hear of the things I loved about that year: morning prayer and rhythms of life, poker at O’Neals Pub, sitting on the steps in summer, chick-fil-a, house meals and cooking together, riding the El train into Philly city center, games nights with housemates, walking to and from work, late summer nights on the block, playing dominoes in the street, a barbecue on the roof of our house, kids playing in the fire hydrant into the early evening, pretzels and ping-pong at Frankford hall, and potluck meals…You’ll hear stories: a homeless woman bathing in our kitchen sink, hiding a turkey in the oven while someone went through my trash, a 26 hour roadtrip to Minneapolis, sheltering under a kiddie pool in the pouring rain during school supplies, a Minnie and Mickey Mouse dance-off in the street, Christmas dinners, sitting in the emergency room at 2am with a neighbor, knife fights and water fights, celebrations and candlelit vigils for the unknown woman and the young father who were shot…You’ll hear the things that were sparked in husband-man and I during that year and hopefully you’ll see how some of those have come to fruition in our lives. You’ll hear the things we learnt. And hopefully, you’ll also hear the ways we got it horribly wrong and the things we regretted and the things we would have, could have and should have done better. But in case you don’t ask, here they are…

* Talking less and listening more – Looking back, we went in guns blazing, quickly identifying and speaking into the areas we felt could use improvement, the values we thought should be prioritized, and the mistakes we felt had been made. Some of those things may have needed speaking into, and certainly we were honored by the trust (and the grace) that was extended to us to change and adapt and put new systems in place and impact the direction life and work took. But in all honesty, we could have done a lot better if we had taken the time to live in and into the community before speaking into it.

* Avoiding spirals of negativity and gossip – That stuff is like yeast; it insidiously creeps in and grows and expands and thrusts itself into relationships and friendships and spaces of your life its not even related to. And all it takes is three simple conditions to thrive: 1. not addressing things quickly and conclusively with the person you have issue with, 2. spreading the issue to other folks by venting, telling stories, or “asking for advice” and 3. the receiving person saying “Yes….and….” Ah, if we could just stop things at that “YES…” cos it is Toxic. What it does is affirms the person’s experience and associated anger/frustration/disappointment/hurt and says “You are entitled” to feel like that. And then it adds fuel by sharing its own experience, fanning the flame of broken relationship. That “Yes” does not seek to reconcile – it seeks to justify, affirm negativity, identify with it, and widen the rift that exists. Looking back, I would have sought to address things quickly and directly, not shared it with other folks (outside of my safe person – husband-man), and when I heard negativity and gossip I would seek to say “Yes…and….” less.

* Connecting more diversely – Ah, this is the big one! Only toward the end of our time did we start to make connection with some of the absolutely incredible, inspiring, insightful, wise and honest leaders that had lived in the neighborhood and invested themselves fully into it for years! I believe that in any neighborhood there are phenomenal leaders already embedded whom we should seek out and learn from. For us, in a diverse neighborhood like Kensington, we should have been seeking out and sitting at the feet of, listening and drawing alongside the strong Hispanic and African-American voices and leadership all around us. This would have saved us MANY mistakes, misunderstandings, miscommunications, hurt, pain, frustration and puffed-up mentalities we, and others, experience when we don’t intentionally Stop, Collaborate and Listen.

We do not hang our heads in shame over these things, but we do recognize where we fell short. We do not get tripped up by regret, but we do repent. And we put in place strategies that help us do better next time.