Healing Hope

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28

She stood there, alone on the corner, bent under the weight of the illness that smothers her from the inside out. Her waif-like body swam within the dress that flowed from her shoulders and her hands shook as she greeted her friends and sisters. She’d come to show us the way to her home. Amidst the houses and alley ways of the Township, we’d lost our way, so there she stood – our very own broken and bent beacon. Gentle and adoring hands guided her into the waiting car. As we walked, Thembi tells me that this woman has been in Durban for the better part of a month for extensive health care. She’s now able to live on her own at home, but is unable to make it to church. So we’re bringing church to her.

We arrived at this woman’s gate and before we crossed into her yard, we were singing. Without even knowing the words, the message of support and love and encouragement and hope was evident on the many faces lifted up in devotion. Ushered into her living room, we perched on any surface we could, flooding her house with the sounds of worship. Alternating between prayer and song, the atmosphere became one of indescribable peace – the kind of peace that passes all understanding. She stood, shaking at first, as we sang a song of heartbreak, healing, loss, and hope. And as she stood, the magic began. Never before have I heard the singing of a spirit. Her voice, raised in some hidden strength above all others, rang crystal clear from her entire body, but even if I had been deaf, I would have heard her song. Her spirit burst from her frail body, held aloft by the melodies that soared around and through us. Tears flowed freely down her face. While it seemed to take all the energy she had, she stood there, completely absorbed in praise.

As we came down from our immense spiritual high, she thanked us for being there, and in the midst of one last song, we emerged back out into the sunlight. Through the hugs and the tears, we said our goodbyes and piled back into the waiting vehicles. She stood there, alone at her gate, waving, as we drove away. Though I’m sure the effort cost her, she stood tall, smiling and blowing kisses, a completely transformed woman. I never learned her name, never learned what it was that seemed to be eating away at her. But that information almost doesn’t matter. Who needs a name when you’ve met a soul, when you’ve listened to the song of someone’s heart? Who needs a diagnosis when you’ve witnessed healing?

She stood there, alone on the corner, my broken beacon, healed, at least for the moment, beckoning us into her healing presence, inviting us to witness the love and power of an ever present Holy Spirit.

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Touring and Living in South Africa – plus photos!

It shouldn’t come as too great a surprise that touring a place and living in a place are two completely different entities. Touring South Africa, you get to pet lion cubs on your very first day in country, feed giraffes, and watch ostriches snap at each other.

Baby lions - I got to pet the one on the right!!

Baby lions – I got to pet the one on the right!!

Giraffe tongues are actually kinda disgusting, but really, really cool.

Giraffe tongues are actually kinda disgusting, but really, really cool.

Lounging cheetah

Lounging cheetah

Living in South Africa, especially among my new community, is to face the struggles of poverty, the remnants of Apartheid, and to laugh and celebrate with my host family over the small things. Touring South Africa is to taste all the new foods, living in South Africa is learning to cook them. Touring South Africa, while amazing and breathtaking, is limited in ways that don’t allow for the rough housing I do with my little host brothers or the time I spend in the kitchen with my Auntie or walking into town and practicing my (very limited) Zulu. Touring, while allowing for broad exploration, struggles to achieve the deep relationships, the roots you can establish by living in a community.

Vryheid, my new town, is a small city surrounded by farm land. During Apartheid, the city was exclusively white with a black township just east of the city limits, which means that race and race relations, while peaceful, as far as I can tell, are constant reminders of the past. The country side here reminds me more of the Scottish highlands or the northern Alaskan tundra than it does the Savannah. Stark, but not barren, with low growing vegetation and few trees. The ever present, insistent wind whips through wispy grass mown short by the herds of cattle that roam everywhere. Somedays I feel as though I’ve stumbled across the Midwest of South Africa, with dairy farms and fields stretching out for hours in every direction, outlined with the vestiges of untamed wilderness, and only interrupted by sparse, isolated, rural communities, some simple places of refuge, some dominated by missionary built churches. As we drive, my host father points out which churches are still only attended by white or by black congregants. “Blacks are not allowed there,” he points, shaking his head sadly, and soon we are immersed in a deeply theological discussion about race, a reminder that this idyllic landscape, so far removed from civilization, is certainly not free of the corruptions of humanity. But, in spite of it’s tainted history, Vryheid is a bustling area, a large town on the border of becoming a small city.  Almost every day, I walk the 15 minutes into town to explore and get better acquainted with my new home. There is always someone to greet, someone to chat with on the way.

I live in an ever busy house – my host father, the local dean, my host mother, a local grade school teacher, my grandmother (Gogo, in Zulu), my Auntie, my Uncle, my adopted brother who is my age, and three younger brothers – Mazwi (5), Maqwahe (2), and Alwande (1). Every single one has been incredibly welcoming, allowing me the time I needed to find my feet, while gently laughing at my stumbling attempts to live like a South African. “You must try everything, but do not feel bad by saying you do not like it,” encourages my Umama (mother) in the kitchen, but I find her advice applicable every where I go. “But why?” is the constant question from Mazwi, who is learning English at school but insists he doesn’t understand me (especially when he knows he’s in trouble), forcing me to explain all that I can before he erupts in a fit of giggles at my funny behavior. Alwande, the youngest, smiles so huge it melts your heart every time you pick him up and has made it a habit to crawl into my lap every time he’s tired, which then results in a totally enamored Rachel cradling a snoring toddler. And Maqhawe, the stubborn one, makes me work for every smile and giggle, but we’re slowly warming up to each other.

Teaching Mazwi the definition of a selfie

Teaching Mazwi (5) the definition of a “selfie”

Playing hide and seek with a camera and Maqhawe (2)

Playing hide and seek with a camera and Maqhawe (2)

The food that Auntie and Umama make every night is comforting, lots of rice and pap (a kind of cornmeal that can be similar in consistency to cream of wheat), supporting thick sauces and various kinds of meat. Walking around town, the very popular South African pasty pies are easily found, as well as just about every kind of food you can imagine, although I’ve been told that it’s prudent to stay away from Eastern Asian cuisine and stick to the Indian if I’m feeling international.

Alwande eating lunch in my room

Alwande (1) eating lunch in my room

And it’s cold! Not cold by AK standards, but chilly. We’re just emerging from “winter” into spring here, and most days it isn’t much warmer than high 60s. The few warm layers I brought with me (because even moving to Africa, the Alaskan in me just couldn’t leave behind polar fleece) have earned their spot in my suitcase again and again. Living with a host family has been an incredible experience and has comforted me as I struggle to find my place here. While I don’t yet know where I can help in the community, dirty dishes and energetic little boys are international phenomena and I’ve found it easy enough to help with both (these boys are total suckers for peekaboo and anything with wheels), although Auntie still tells me I’m not allowed to do the dishes. “You are a guest!” she insists, so instead, I finish them while she’s out of the house, earning me a small huff and a big smile when she gets home. “Dear,” she calls me, “what will I do with you?” The day that Auntie lets me do the dishes will be the day that I know I am forever a part of this family. So for now, I just sneak my chores and smile at my brilliance, entertained by my own sneakiness, not unlike my new little brothers.

Until then, walking around town and constantly meeting new people keeps me busy enough. Soon, I’m going to be visiting local rural churches more often, attending confirmation classes here in town, and shadowing Umama at school. While I might not have a routine yet, I’m beginning to wonder if I ever really want one.

A plaque from the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

A plaque from the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

Insta-family – just add stress, emotional upheaval and a heavy dose of laughter.

Before I start, let me say that I am safely settled in my host community. I’ll post more soon about how incredible that experience has been, but I wanted to briefly introduce you all to my new YAGM family!

Less than five months ago, I was introduced to nine strangers. As we all physically collapsed under the knowledge that we would be moving to South Africa together, I couldn’t help feeling a little overwhelmed (a feeling I’ve come to feel comfortable with over the last few weeks). Not only had I signed on to travel to and live in a completely different universe from the one I knew, I felt an expectation to become so close with these people, so vulnerable to each and every one, that we would consider each other family. I like to think that making friends comes easily to me, but faced with nine complete strangers, nine intimidating strangers, I had my doubts.

I had no idea it was going to be so easy.

I say intimidating, because as I get to know these incredible people, I’m constantly awed by how amazing they all are. There’s Abby, who’s lobbied for her convictions more times than I’ve even expressed mine, who can cuddle, laugh, and dance with you all at the same time; Hannah, who’s incredible passion for those considered as outsider, as other, shines through in every question, conversation, and loving hand-hug; Brent, who’s quiet wit and charm will have you rolling on the ground in hysterics; Luke, who’s selfless manner is so glaringly obvious in all his hushed wisdom. There’s Keenan, our Montana Mountain Man, blazing a trail of self discovery while constantly folding us all into teddy bear hugs; Emily, who’s endearing playfulness reminds me so much of the goats she adores; Joe, who’s passion and talent in all things musical manifests itself in a constant soundtrack to our ever changing reality; Kelly, so like the jolly ranchers she pulls from every pocket, is all sweetness, but with just the right amount of tart to keep you laughing; and Elle, who is so full of light and laughter that she is constantly overflowing, erupting into giggles and impromptu hugs.

And yet, as intimidating as each one of my new siblings is, each one has been blessed with a heart so big that I can’t help but think of the image of the Grinch on Christmas morning – each heart so large that it destroys the Suessian heart x-ray. Almost instantly, we loved each other, willing to forgive disappointments and celebrate victories. As we’ve grown to understand one another, we’ve only grown closer, laughing now at inside jokes and shared humor – so much laughter that our country-coordinators’ daughter once asked us, in childhood exasperation, if we ever stop. As we say our goodbyes and spread to every corner of this incredible country, I’m heartbroken, but comforted by the fact that in less than five months, we’ve grown so close. I’m so excited to see the amazing work that each one of my new siblings will work from within their communities, the changes that will be forged within them, and to see how far their big hearts and open eyes and willing feet will take them. And so very grateful for every smile, tear, hug, and song that has forged us into soul mates.

My YAGM Family! Back row, R-L: Hannah, one of our fearless leaders Tessa, Elle, Brent, Kelly, and Luke Middle row: Joe, Sophia, our other fearless leader Jon, Abby, and Emily Front: Keenan, Isaac, and myself

My YAGM Family!
Back row, R-L: Hannah, one of our fearless leaders Tessa, Elle, Brent, Kelly, and Luke
Middle row: Joe, Sophia, our other fearless leader Jon, Abby, and Emily
Front: Keenan, Isaac, and myself