Narratives (part 1)

Let me tell you about my friend Gretchen. We met my first semester at Smith during Professor Link’s office hours for Advanced General Chemistry, or Chem 118. We both showed up so often to office hours with a few other students, that eventually we formed a study group. And let me tell you, I would not have survived three semesters of Chemistry at Smith without this study group. Fast forward four years, Gretchen is living in Nairobi and I flew up from Johannesburg a few weeks ago to visit her.

In more than a few ways, Gretchen inspired me. She’s spent the last four years learning Swahili and watching her speak to people really shifted my view on language and role it plays in connecting with people. Even though I couldn’t understand the words being exchanged, I could see people warm to Gretchen as she spoke and somehow give me grace for being her friend. People were so surprised to hear a “Mzungu,” the Swahili word for “white person,” speaking their language. It seemed like these Kenyans were used to Mzungus swooping in, speaking English, and swooping out, or maybe staying in the country but isolating themselves in nicer neighborhoods and rental cars. This reinforces the narrative that the only languages worth spending your time learning are European or maybe Chinese. If you want to get ahead per say, you must learn English. And indeed, we live in a globalized world.

But then, all of the sudden, they hear a Mzungu speaking fluent Swahili and the narrative changes. People start to wonder why she knows Swahili? And the simple answer lies in the famous words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understand, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart.” Investing time in a language that the rest of the world says is useless to connect with others is radical love, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that Jesus calls us to.

Jesus spent time with the Samaritan woman at the well, a woman cast off from society (John 4). He seeks relationship with us, He wept (John 11:35), and ultimately died on the cross so that we may know Him. In Luke 10:38-42, when Martha and Mary hosted Jesus, Mary sat at Jesus’s feet while Martha was busy preparing the house. Jesus said, “Martha, Martha,”…” you are worried and upset about many things, be few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Mary chose connection and relationship, even at the expense of doing what seems practical. She was wise and sought Jesus first by being in his presence, because indeed, that’s what it’s all about.

The view from our train from Nairobi to Mombasa.

One guy that we met on a train to Mombasa from Nairobi, another person amazed by Gretchen’s Swahili, said he’d like to exchange stories, and I found that interesting. He meant just totalk more, but it got me thinking more about narratives, the stories we embody, perpetuate, and internalize.

There are narratives floating around about Mamelodi, too. I’ve spent the last few months talking to a lot of people about Mamelodi. I’ve talked to security guards, entrepreneurs, university professors and administrators, young people at bars, social workers, youth pastors, and artists, even Capetonians and people from Joburg. People talk about danger, chaos, busyness, and the rioting that occurs every few months in Mamelodi. One Capetonian woman remembered the Mamelodi soccer team, the Mamelodi Suns. Some talked about the lack of education in the township and others spoke about the high quality of education there. Mamelodi encompasses stories of rebellion, unkept promises, disrupted processes, and micro economies.

And as I listen to all these stories, I wonder if the narrative of the gospel has taken root in Mamelodi. Do the children of Mamelodi know that they are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26)? Do they know that they are loved by Him (1 John 3:1)? The gospel is the ultimate narrative. It is the narrative through which I hear all other narratives. That “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).” He died for you and I, and He died for Mamelodi.

Uncovering the whole truth

Everyday in South Africa is a new adventure, and the latest was sitting in on a class at the University of Pretoria on Leadership in Urban Transformation. This class is filled with people from different backgrounds, ages, and vocations, but all united by a desire to see South Africa transformed and I felt like the luckiest girl in the world to be in the room. I’ve felt like this a lot lately because God has been meeting me so faithfully and clearly here.

When I first arrived in South Africa I felt overwhelmed. I really wasn’t sure what I was doing and my mind filled with doubts. Were the sacrifices I made to come here worth it? Am I doing anything worthwhile?

As I actually step out though, these doubts quickly fade away.  The words of Psalm 40 become real:

“I waited patiently for the Lord
And He inclined to me,
And heard my cry

He also brought me up out of a horrible pit
Out of the miry clay.
And set my feet upon a rock
And established my steps.

He has put a new song in my mouth,
Praise to our God!”

In just one month, He has allowed me to connect with people I never knew existed, listen to and read unique and broad perspectives, step into sacred space, walk through broken and hurting neighborhoods, and all along the way hear encouragement after encouragement. Indeed, He is faithful and keeps His promises. He will complete this work in Mamelodi.

The University of Pretoria Leadership in Urban Transformation class walking the streets of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, a hurting and impoverished neighborhood.

So I found myself on Monday morning discussing Mark 5:25-34 with pastors, social workers, academics, students, missionaries, and government workers.

“(25) And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. (26) She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. (27) When she heard Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, (28) because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” (29) Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

(30) At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched me clothes?”

(31) “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask ‘who touched me?’ “

(32) But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. (33) Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. (34) He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” “

We first reflected on the fact that this woman suffered for twelve long years. Indeed, people suffer in Mamelodi for a long time. She tried to get better, but instead grew worse. And eventually she literally reached out for Jesus to touch any part of him, even just the hem of his robe to receive immediate freedom. Incredible.

I read on and my western lens has looked at verse 25 confused. I wrestle with the question, is Jesus upset at this woman for touching his clothes?

But hearing other perspectives around the room caused me to conclude that just the opposite is true. Jesus is singling this woman out, but not to mock or condone her. Instead, He recognizes her and invites her into deeper relationship. She falls at His feet, confesses her whole heart, and is sent out in peace, free from her former suffering.

So when I think about waste in Mamelodi, I wonder where Jesus is in the thick of it all. How can I have faith like this woman to reach out and touch Him? How can faith in Mamelodi lead to freedom for the marginalized and oppressed?

The professor of this class, Stephan de Beer, actually wrote a paper entitled “Jesus in the Dumping Sites: Doing theology in the overlaps of human and material waste” and I think he makes some excellent points. De Beer looked at communities all over the world who actually live on dumping sites. Trash and waste are, in a way, home to whole communities of people.

I’d never thought about waste this way before. I looked at the burning piles of trash in Mamelodi two and a half years ago and was in shock, horrified even to see that this was the daily reality. I saw images that to me, looked post-apocalyptic. But what if I grew up in Mamelodi? How would I see it then?

While context and understanding my own bias and lens is important, there are core truths that motivate me to keep working. Truths such as our God is a God of order (1 Corinthians 14:40), we relate to God in His creation (Exodus 40:34-38), and man has been commanded by God to care for and steward the earth (Genesis 2).

And I’ve seen glimpses of these truths. My friend Thato, who owns a small business in Mamelodi took me on a journey up the Magaliesberg mountain range on the outskirts of Mamelodi. He showed me is this private nature reserve where there are trash cans or “dust bins” as they say in South Africa, maintained green space, quiet, order, peace. And driving up to this preserve, we saw that homeowners are trying to change the tide of dumping with “no dumping” signs along their walls and fences.

Im wondering if faith in Mamelodi and hope for it’s future could be the lynchpin to freeing the community from the burdens of waste. I’m seeking the Lord’s vision for what the City of God looks like. But I know that I must uncover the whole truth just as the woman confessed to Jesus in verse 33.

So I hold all this in tension. Please pray that I would find Jesus in the dumping sites and adopt a new lens through which to see Mamelodi and everything in it. Thank you to all those who have prayed for the Lords provision on this mission. I am continually blown away by His goodness!