Reflections

On reading the parable of the sheep and the goats:

Though it is often unconscious, we tend to imagine ourselves taking part in the stories we read.  For example, in Lord of the Rings, one may identify more closely with Aragorn, while another relates to Frodo.  This perspective colors the way we experience the story.

I have always read this parable as an invocation to show compassion to the poor and hungry.  This has been more or less successful at various points in my life.  At its worst, if I refuse to follow the greater implications, it may result in my dropping an extra coin in the hat of the neighborhood beggar.

However, my living situation has dramatically shifted the way I read this passage.  Most days, I do not know from where my next meal will come.  The pep rally for the poor has been transformed into a hymn of thanksgiving.

Instead of a reminder to give when I see those in need, I am made thankful because of those who have given to me.  When I was hungry, Martha gave me something to eat.  When I was a stranger, Thabiso invited me in.

Additionally, the idea of shelter, accommodation, or dwelling place has begun to resonate strongly with me.

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.” (Psalm 90:11)

“If you make the Most High your dwelling…then no harm will befall you.” (Psalm 91:9)

As I read this last verse, I turned slightly, pivoting on the surprisingly comfortable stump of wood we use as a stool, and looked admiringly upon my home.  A different sense of “dwelling” to be sure.  But that didn’t quell my sense of satisfaction.

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Long Walk to Freedom

Major disclaimer to these reflections: In no way am I attempting to compare myself to Nelson Mandela and in no way do I consider my life in Riemvasmaak like a prison.

Nevertheless, I have compiled some of Madiba’s reflections on his life in various South African prisons in an attempt to draw the parallel between poverty and prison and to portray some of the daily undertakings of life in a township.

“Life…was hard.  They had no heat, no toilet, no running water” (494).

“to survive in prison, one must develop ways to take satisfaction in one’s daily life” (488-89).

“From the first, I tried to read books about South Africa, or by South African authors” (492).

The Mandela Workout: “stationary running in my cell for 45 minutes, 100 fingertip push-ups, 200 sit-ups, 50 deep knee bends” (491).

“Prison was a kind of crucible that tested a man’s character.  Some men…showed trued mettle, while others revealed themselves as less than they had appeared to be” (455).

The marginalized “…must first liberate themselves from a sense of psychological inferiority” (486).

My dream project: “a garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control” (489).

“You can stay in Soweto; you know how to drive.”

I would recommend that everyone visiting South Africa first visit Johannesburg to learn about and experience the history of the country.  It gives context to the rest of the country.  I spent my first semester in Cape Town without seeing the rest of the country, and I am worse for it.

Johannesburg’s museums are extraordinary.  I learned more about South African history in five days than I did in my first five months, including study at the University of Cape Town.  The Apartheid Museum, The Hector Pieterson Museum, Constitution Hill and Prison number 4 paint a vivid picture of the nation’s struggles and triumphs.  Add to that the South African Brewery’s “World of Beer” and you’ve got a mess of stimuli.

Living in Cape Town to experience South Africa is like going to Louisville to try to learn about the South.  You may be there, but you’re missing the reality.  Jozi has culture: museums, theater, energy and identity.  Cape Town, in comparison, is a bit soul-less.  Its identity lies in non-cultural aspects like Table Mountain or surfing.

Cape Town’s most famous township, Khayelitsha, is isolated and (most would have you believe, a no-go zone.  Johannesburg’s Soweto, on the other hand, is safe and oozing with opportunities to experience South Africa.  Walking the same streets as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisilu, Steve Biko.  Tracing the steps of the Soweto Uprising.  Visting the sight where the Freedom Charter was penned.  It is uber-rewarding and the perfect capstone for this leg of the journey.

A Tale of Two Movies

I saw two movies in the days before leaving the U.S. that help to express two poles holding the tension into which I make this trip.

“Up in the Air” is about a frequent flyer whose home is in the airport lounges, hotels, rent-a-cars, and one night stands American business travel.  His life goal is to make the 10 million mile club, and he forsakes all true relationships in his quest.  Along the way, important questions arise about the definition of success, and the proper use of one’s time and energy on earth, and the purpose of relationships.  It appears to be leading toward a cathartic and pedantic moral lesson as the protagonist begins to fall in love, only to find his fears affirmed: love leads to hurt.  The movie ends poignantly nebulous, with our frequent flyer staring up at the Departures Board, hitting the road once again.  His boss jests at him, “send us a postcard if you ever get there.”

Invictus is about the ascension of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa.  Mandela was a reconciler.  As many black South Africans understandably cried for revenge for years of oppression, Mandela steps in with support of the country’s rugby team, long a symbol of white Afrikaner pride.  Mandela memorably states, “Forgiveness is the most important tool in our possession.”  His determination and vision unites a nation.

These two movies frame my fears and aspirations for my year of study in South Africa.  On one side, I fear becoming the man from Up in the Air. I have some of his tendencies: confidence, independence, and self-reliant to a fault.  I have made semi-conscious decisions to sacrifice relationships, specific and general, to the god of travel, adventure and transience.

Invictus, meanwhile, lies at the other pole.  An image of what can be accomplished when you give your whole life to a cause of justice, when you are acutely aware of your vocation.  Furthermore, Mandela was spiritual in his leadership.  I hope to be able to attach and communicate the spiritual foundation for my drive for social justice and vagabonding.

Perhaps it is as simple as selfish versus selfless.