"‘Ubuntu’ is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks to the very essence of being human … it also means my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We say, ‘A person is a person through other people.’"
The daughter of Nobel laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of South Africa has given up her clergy credentials after marrying a Dutch woman.
The Rev. Mpho Tutu told the local media that since her church did not recognize her wedding, she could no longer serve in the country.
An annual “snow bird” sojourn to South Africa was convicting. The constant news highlighted the American political “silly season” along with the drumbeat reports of President Jacob Zuma’s illegal brutish behavior. An African storekeeper exclaimed, “Do Republicans not see the Trump antics are undermining the good feelings we have because of President Obama’s accomplishments? We are afraid for all of us.”
South Africa’s Anglican bishops have taken an initial step toward including LGBT people as full members of their congregations with the passage of a resolution at a meeting in the Grahamstown Diocese. The resolution now goes to the Provincial Synod, the church’s top decision-making body, which meets later this year, said Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town.
It occurred to me: South Africa is no longer under legal apartheid, but apartheid still thrives here — through de facto economic segregation. There are no signs that say “whites only” as they did under apartheid, but there has also been no move by the black government to restore the people to the land that was taken from them.
One question haunted me: How does a white Christian South African live in this apartheid from day to day? 1) One must actively fight injustice, or 2) she must embrace a theology that has nothing to do with it.
When I was eighteen years old I knew that I knew everything there was to know, especially in regards to the “us” and the “them” of the world. Eighteen-year-old me knew that being gay was a sin and that LGBTQ people were not called to leadership in the church (and my conservative Christian college did nothing but reinforce these beliefs). But four short years later I found myself on a hill across from my alma mater, standing in solidarity with dozens of LGBTQ young adults and allies, advocating for change in Christian universities with policies that discriminated against LGBTQ people.
How did I get from “there” to “here”? How did my view of “us” and “them” shift so radically?
Sipping ginger beer at an outdoor restaurant in Gugulethu, one of South Africa’s murder hubs, Prince January said he feels safe.
Across the train tracks at their shared home in Manenberg, Hlubi George said she can finally sleep through the night.
January, who is gay, and George, who is lesbian, are both temporary residents at Inclusive and Affirming Ministries’ iThemba Lam LGBTI safe house on the outskirts of Cape Town. The two-bedroom center provides refuge and counseling for at-risk sexual minorities from across the continent and a safe space for residents to integrate “God’s gift of faith with God’s gift of sexuality.”
IT SEEMS AS though after liberation, the voice of conscience left the South African public sphere and retired to a quiet church life, so that the current generation barely knows that the church ever influenced South African political and public affairs.
On the day of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously announced that he was returning to do the “real” business of the church by leaving politics to qualified politicians. Years later, during the era of President Jacob Zuma, Tutu often lamented about the undesirable state of the country under the current leaders. He must have forgotten that by leaving politics to politicians in 1994, he too played a role in leading the nation to this position he now regrets.
Kairos South Africa recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Church leaders from as far as Norway, the U.S., and Palestine all remembered how the 1985 Kairos document taught the worldwide church a hopeful language to address injustice. Yet now the majority of young people in South Africa do not know anything about this heroic church history.
South African anti-apartheid leader Allan Boesak referred to the Kairos movement as a “dangerous memory.” It does indeed have the potential to be a dangerous memory—one that should be remembered by every one of the Christians who make up 81 percent of the South African population. Unfortunately, it is a memory held by only a select older minority.
How can this change? This summer several members of the new generation of South African Christian leaders traveled to the U.S. to study how to be effective Christian agents of social justice. At the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, I listened to Bree Newsome explain that it was her faith in God that gave her the courage to pull down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol after the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!” she said.
FOR NON-WHITES born in post-apartheid South Africa, the country promised equal rights and legal freedom. But the first generation of “born frees,” as they are called, also entered a world where HIV/AIDS was destroying their families and communities. Many children and teens were left largely fending for themselves in townships plagued by poverty, disease, and violence.
Author Kimberly Burge, a Sojourners contributing writer, entered this world not as an aid or social worker, but rather on a Fulbright scholarship, to form a writing group for adolescent girls in the township of Gugulethu. Too old for the child-centered programs and too young for adult assistance, the girls were falling through the cracks of established programs. The writing club offered them the opportunity to creatively express their fears, frustrations, and dreams.
To Burge’s credit, the book is not primarily about her or her experiences. She keeps the focus on the girls themselves and the often breathtaking words and thoughts they express in their writing. Burge is not there to rescue them, but rather to help them find their voices. She acts less as a teacher than a peer, encouraging girls to lead the group themselves and prompting them to write about such topics as “I wish I could ...” or “I need to find a place ...”
ONLY SOCIAL MOVEMENTS really change history. Developing, nurturing, and supporting a new generation of leaders is central to the long-term success of these movements. As leaders like me get older and look to the future, mentoring young leaders is particularly important. More and more of my time is spent doing that mentoring, not only broadly but in relationship to particularly promising young leaders whom I have met. It is some of the most important and enjoyable work that I do.
For many years, Sojourners called together large conferences on biblical justice and peace. Thousands of people came year after year, and many positive things happened—new relationships, connections, projects, and organizations—even marriages and families! Now, several other groups are having justice and peace conferences, which is exactly the kind of “competition” Sojourners has always hoped for.
Last year, some of our younger staff came up with a great idea—to have a leadership “Summit” for people already providing leadership for the biblical vision of justice and peace. All the participants would have to be nominated by credible leaders doing this work, and instead of Justice 101 with big speakers and standing ovations, this would become a new, creative environment for moving justice agendas forward—Justice 202. We didn’t publicly advertise these gatherings—instead, the invitation spread by word of mouth as leaders, especially younger ones, were drawn together by experienced justice leaders who nominated them.
Flags are only symbols, of course. Chucking one for another does not automatically overhaul a society’s deeply entrenched structural oppression. Lowering a flag and relegating it, belatedly, to a museum does not change people’s hearts and minds. Under South Africa’s new flag, the Born Frees are inheriting a country awash in contradiction. How free can this generation be with one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world? With the rampant violence that especially plagues black townships and is frequently directed against women and girls? With the remnants of a broken school system that was not designed to educate all its citizens equally?
Week after week, we can take on the biggest issues we face as a society — from continuing racism, mass incarceration, inequality, and poverty to gender violence and human trafficking, climate change, ISIS — and just try to be hopeful.
Or we can start by going deeper, to a more foundational and spiritual understanding of hope — rooted in our identity as the children of God, made in the image of God, as the only thing that will see us through times like this.
I believe we should start there. Because the biggest problem we face — the biggest enemy at the heart of many of the issues we must address — is hopelessness.
And perhaps the most important thing the world needs from the faith community is today is hope.
I was privileged to co-host with former colleagues the visit of former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, an ex-convict from the apartheid era. He served 10 years in prison for the “treasonous” act of standing against the Afrikaans Nationalist regime, along with Nelson Mandela and 1000s of others who spent many years on Robben Island or in Pretoria Central Prison. Many died in the process. President Motlanthe was accompanied by Denis Goldberg, who was convicted along with Mandela and served 22 years. Nicholas Wolpe, the facilitator of the trip, is a cousin of the late Congressman Howard Wolpe. Nic’s father would have been one of the Rivonia accused at the trial in 1963-4 but for having made a daring famous escape with several other comrades.
Not many people traveling in southern Africa consider Venda in the northern Limpopo Province a worthy touristic or project partnership visit. For years visitors to the South African Development Community have seen this more isolated, beautiful mountainous area of northern South Africa as a shortcut to Kruger National Park or to/from Pretoria and Johannesburg en route to the wonders of the 1,000-year-old Great Zimbabwe ruin or majestic Victoria Falls.
Perhaps a quick stop was worthy on the Musina-Beitbridge border to photograph the “great, green, greasy Limpopo River” made famous by Rudyard Kipling’s “How The Elephant Got His Trunk.” Not much else would interrupt the dash on the N1, similar to America’s own Route 1 from Canada to Florida.
Big mistake! As I found out when saying ill-advisedly to our travelling companions that “there really is nothing to see or stop for in the area … and we do have an important dinner appointment in Pretoria.” The twofold result was a serious late night ”domestic” with my more adventurous and intuitive wife, Karen, and secondly, a necessary, more open-minded review of the unexplored albeit minimalist pages on the Venda Region section of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guidebooks. Alas the travel guides seemed to have the same misperception as my 30-year-old wisdom.
“Come to the living God … Come to stand alongside those who suffer
Come to those who seek freedom … Come to resist all that offends God’s justice
Come to Jesus as He hangs on the Cross … Come to the living disturbing God.”
DURBAN, South Africa — A precursor to Easter sunrise and call to commitment is the now 30-year ritual Good Friday packing of the International Exhibition Center with 3,000+ ecumenical congregants participating (with dance, choir, prayers, and prophetic preaching) in the call to “Arise – Act for a Just Society.” Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip set the scene with a moving historical reminder of the reason for the 1985 first march to the central prison. It was to protest the silencing of the 16 Durban “treason trialists” (including congregational deacon Archie Gumede, and Frank Chikane, post-apartheid member of the first multiracial Assembly, Apostolic pastor, and future President Nelson Mandela staff chief). Family members of the incarcerated and current elected leaders carried a cross to city hall, calling all to love mercy and act justly. We paused to give thanks for their courage at the one remaining wall of the prison now in the front plaza of the iconic convention center. When the first march 30 years ago stopped to sing and pray, “voices were heard from inside the prison joining in the singing of Good Friday hymns.”
I was in South Africa on August 9, when a young, unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. It didn’t take long before Michael Brown’s story was on all the news channels in South Africa. After that, in every media interview I did Ferguson came up. “How could this have happened?” all the journalists asked. When I laid out the pattern of this happening regularly to men of color in America at the hands of white police or other men with guns, they were stunned. “White cops couldn’t get away with that anymore in South Africa,” they said.