Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Perhaps no other story has impacted my life more than the story of South Africa. South Africa's story is one filled with pain and hope. I do not recall efforts in the United States to impose sanctions upon the country years ago. I do not remember my eyes seeing much on the television regarding the struggles of the country. Perhaps I was too young to notice. More likely I was involved in other things. Fortunately, however, my eyes were opened through a South African professor who taught at Duke Divinity School for several years, including the time when I was a student.

Peter Storey taught two classes: "The Local Church's Mission in God's World" and "God and Caesar: The Church's Role in Ending Apartheid." I enrolled in both of the classes during my final year of seminary. My entire body was awakened. Then in 2004, as an administrator at Duke, I traveled with the Storeys to South Africa for a "Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope." My life has not been the same since.

I experienced a new calling while in South Africa and began to pray a prayer, "God, please take me out of my place of comfort and success, please give me a heart for hurting and broken people, and please make me more prophetic." I returned home from South Africa, told the dean of the Divinity School that it would be my last year in admissions and continued praying this prayer. It is this prayer that led to my appointment at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in 2005.

The story of South Africa is filled with pain. It is filled with great lines of separation, barriers that were seemingly impossible to break. The lines and the barriers separated black from white. The lines were all based on a person's skin color. Whites were in a place of privilege. Blacks were sometimes in a cage like animals. Whites were treated as children of God. Blacks were treated as anything but made in the image of God. There were times on the pilgrimage where all I could do was to cry when I realized this horrible hatred, and how each of us has within us the capacity to hate - to torture - to tear down instead of build up.

I preach about South Africa often. I use the story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to talk about what real reconciliation and forgiveness look like. I read books about South Africa. And, I try to take advantage of other opportunities I have to learn more about the pain and the hope of this nation.

On Sunday night, I went to see, "My Children! My Africa!" at the Studio Theatre in Washington. This play, written by Athol Fugard, is undoubtedly the most powerful play I have seen. The play has three characters, and each character tells the story of the pain of apartheid. Anela Myalatya (Mr. M) is a teacher who is assigned to one of the schools for black children. Isabel Dyson is a white student who visits the black school for a debate. Thami Mbikwana is a black student who is the star of Mr. M's class and debate team. Soon, Isabel and Thami develop a friendship. Mr. M then recruits them to enter into a debate contest together. Things run smoothly for a while but the struggle is always apparent. Isabel speaks of her family's response to her spending so much time in a black township. Thami talks about the political uproar developing around him. And, Mr. M continues to speak of hope.

Mr. M wants nothing to do with the political machine that feeds upon hatred. He chooses instead to stay in the classroom. He speaks lovingly of the power of words - words that unite, words that build up, words that provide a glimpse into another world. He yearns for his students to use the power of words over the power of stones and guns. His hope is that apartheid can end - not with brutal fighting but with the power of words.

Mr. M teaches, against all odds, because he has hope. Mr. M has hope that apartheid can end through the power of words. Mr. M seeks to impart his hope upon his students. His commitment is unwavering.

Mr. M has also left an impact upon me this week. His vision for hope keeps returning to my mind as I think about why I do what I do. There are many times when I love being a pastor. There are times when I think this role is the most amazing role any of us can play. It is a privilege for which none of us is truly worthy. There are other times, however, when I wonder how much longer I can do what I do. I yearn for rest. I yearn for projects to be completed. I yearn for a Saturday and a Sunday when I do not have to work - when I can enjoy a weekend like the people around me. Still, when I start thinking about all the other things I could be doing with my life, I come back to this hope within me.

I have this hope, a hope imparted to me by my professor, Peter Storey, that things in this world can be different. I have this hope that the rich and the poor can dwell together. I have this hope that people can take what they have and share it with others. I have this hope that a life that seems to be drowning can discover purpose again and be transformed. I have this hope in a Gospel that sets the prisoner free - the one who is in bondage to sin, addiction, and despair can be absolutely liberated because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have this hope that the Spirit of the Lord gave to Jesus when he said, "I have come to preach good news to the poor." I have this hope that people will discover that the greatest blessing is not taking care of ourselves but taking care of others. I have this hope - a hope that comes from a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it. I have this hope that people can see that their greatest worth is not in the title on their business card but in the fact that they are a beloved child of God - made in God's image, precious in God's eyes. I have this hope that the church - every church - will see that it exists not for its own members but for the people outside - for the transformation of the world. I have this hope that the people who gather inside a church will resemble the creative nature of God's hand - that a congregation is called to be reflective of the extraordinary diversity God created. I have this hope that the church will be the church - a place very different from the rest of society - a place whose doors are open to all people.

I have this hope....and I would not trade the opportunity to share it for anything in the world.

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