Conflicts of Worship

Face painting - boyA while ago, I was invited to an imbeleko, a traditional Xhosa ceremony honoring the birth of a child (only in this instance the child was 17 years old). This was indeed a unique experience for me. While I would like to say that the highlight of the event was eating a slaughtered goat that was skinned and cut up before my eyes, something else from that day has been lingering in my mind.

You see an imbeleko is a ceremony that announces to the ancestors that a child has been born into a particular family, and therefore make them aware of the child’s existence. The blood spilled from the animal is the channel through which the message is delivered. Although I didn’t participate in the ceremony, I struggled over eating meat that had been dedicated to the ancestors. However, it was important for me to gain a deeper understanding of traditional ceremonies since I mentor young people who are raised in this culture. I was also intent on telling someone there just how ludicrous this whole ancestral worship really is.

Enter the old man. I became conversationally engaged with a very talkative, elderly gentleman who was eager to find out more about this American in his homeland. However, he was also quite passionate and informative in relation to Xhosa customs, including the one in which we found ourselves immersed. While he talked about the need for family identity and the ability of the ancestors to protect them from sickness, I was eagerly waiting to pounce on his ideals until the strangest thing happened. The old man seamlessly transitioned the discussion into his faith in Christ.

The man spoke about the resurrection and the Holy Spirit. He quoted scripture to support our need for a savior. He spoke with as much passion about his Redeemer as he did about the ancestors. I couldn’t believe it. On the heels of celebrating Resurrection Sunday, this man was acknowledging the atoning grace bought with the blood of the living Christ, while at the same time holding on to the need to spill the blood of animals in order to secure the protection of those long dead. It was in that moment that I realized that there was a serious disconnect. While we have been fairly successful in helping some of our students come out from under the bondage of these cultural realities, there is a host of others who are not just lost, but very confused!

Then I thought about myself.   I thought about many Christians I know. I thought about how many Bible-believing Christians embrace all of the tenets, ideals, and blessings locked up in Christianity, but at the same time, hold on to things that can be quite antithetical to our Christian ideals. Whether it is money, television, Beyonce, or our pastors, idolatry runs amuck in most of our lives.  While I’m not necessarily equating sin to ancestral worship, I do recognize the hypocrisy in both situations. The point is that while I will continue to emphasize the need to let go of ancestral worship here in South Africa, I must also challenge myself and all of my brethren in Christ to streamline the faith, return to the simplicity of the Gospel, and live a holy, single-minded life before the Lord!

 

 


Changes

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I have always been a justice crusader.  If there was a fight for doing what was right, I was first in line.  I guess that is what made it easier for me to come to South Africa than it would be for most.  Now that I have been here for over fourteen years, I realize that what I thought would take me a year to accomplish has taken much, much longer. And now, the rules of engagement have changed.  Somehow, I feel that I am living in Animal Farm, and I don’t like it. Here’s what I mean:

  1. When I first arrived in South Africa, Kurland Village was a forgotten township on top of a mountain far from the closest town and any aid societies reach. As far as I knew there was the school, one Belgian girl and us.  Now, this township is teeming with aid.  Aid workers are everywhere – at the school, in the community and on the streets.  There are Americans, Germans, Belgians, and South Africans all ready to lend an opinion and a helping hand to those in need.  Some people might think that this is a great development.  I don’t.  Unfortunately, while the help is great, it is not the kind that actually helps.  Instead, it has fostered an entitlement mentality in parents who used to be grateful, and other options for kids who don’t really want to work that hard.  I mean why do we have to work when all of these aid workers will come fix my government-sponsored house, educate my lazy children, and feed my family after I have spent all my money on liquor?  So, although more options for aid are available to the people who live in the village, rarely is the decay of alcoholism, fatherlessness, sexual promiscuity, and violence corrected.  In fact, the progress we made against these foes in our early years seems to be in decline in the midst of all this new assistance.

 

  1. We used to be able to point to the white boarding school in town as a beacon of educational hope and academic rigor. We drove our students by teaching them on Saturdays, taking away vacation days, and challenging them to learn two years’ worth of lessons in one.  It might sound cruel to your average American, but our students were grateful because when they finally made it to boarding school they were more than prepared.  Yes, they still had to work hard, but they had the foundation that they needed to succeed.  Now, our students go to boarding school after spending several arduous years with us learning Math, Science, English, History and the Bible, and are bored.  They no longer feel challenged.  Instead of them rejoicing for the break, they become depressed.  Children who are brilliant and score well on all testing inside and out of our program have a hard time managing the lack of challenge at the best boarding school in our area.  For the first time ever, we had a student not pass their matriculation exam.  It’s terrible that any of our students would not pass, but for her, it was tragic. This student, who scored the highest score of any student on our entrance exam while still in the fourth grade, could not manage to pass her matriculation test and had her teachers convinced that she was mentally challenged.

 

  1. The school where our program is housed decided to free itself of its eighth and ninth graders. I was told that they were a behavior problem.  So, now, instead of the average child in our community dropping out of school after the ninth grade, they drop out after seventh.  Thus, instead of being told to settle down in class, they are roaming the streets of the town with nothing to occupy their time, brains and life.  At the same time, the boarding school in our town, which has increasing numbers of black and colored students, decided to comply with the South African government and LOWER their standards.  If you don’t have to teach the majority of students math, why do it?  Instead, they send children to consumer studies which I call lessons in becoming a housekeeper.  No one has to go to school to learn that; my students can learn “Intro to Housekeeping” hanging out in the township. Sadly, even with these lower standards, the average child in the township cannot pass their matriculation exams which means that they cannot go to college.  So, they are stuck right back in the township where they came from.  The cycle is successfully unbroken and no progress is made!

 

  1. Somewhere along the line, my students discovered television. With it, they discovered covetousness, jealousy, false ideals of beauty, and social mores that work against community and family.  With it, they lost the desire to learn just for the sake of learning, the ability to read, concentration and focus, creativity and the ability to dream of an attainable future.  When I first came to South Africa, boys wanted to be soccer stars and some girls wanted to be singers, but most of the children wanted to be things that would help their community like teacher, builder, doctor, lawyer, police officer.  Now, more than ever, they all have one goal: to be famous.  They want to be famous more than they want to be useful to their greater communities.  I know that there is a wave of people who think that giving every child in a developing nation an iPad and allowing them to watch “educational programming” would solve all academic issues.  Well, I am here to declare that too much media clearly muddles the mind.

 

I know that all is not lost.  My students still have the flashes of brilliance that I long to see.  Their attitudes, although in need of the occasional fine tuning, are still open and loving.  We are constantly blessed by the fact that they still fight to get into our programs and are willing to embrace the difficult tasks we place before them.  However, more than all of that, they show an increasing love for Jesus and willingness to do things His way that warms me.  So, in the midst of all of this challenge, our desire to inoculate them against this so called progress seems to be working, a bit too slowly for my taste, but working nevertheless.  We do know that the answer lies in getting them out of their current environment, and we are working on that.  However, in the meantime, we are still justice fighters and we will not stop until the battle is won.


Saving Dolphins

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The Dolphin Circle is a famous landmark in Plettenberg Bay.  Actually, it is a traffic circle that is punctuated in the center with a statue of two dolphins intertwined in a downward dive. Most pedestrians and motorists in this small town will pass or encircle the statue at least once a day, which makes it a popular and unforgettable fixture in our town. As I drove past that point on Saturday morning, I noticed that the landmark was marred. The sight of orange cones signaled caution for an impediment that was nonetheless unavoidable: a police truck had crashed into the dolphin circle. Poor dolphins!

As any rational person, I thought of how horrible an incident this was, and then quickly began wondering and reasoning what could have happened. Unfortunately, Plett history guided my first conclusion to assume a couple of police officers, following a familiar Friday night pattern, were driving the vehicle under the influence of alcohol.  After talking with some friends who had heard numerous stories, we all came to the same conclusion – the officers were drunk.

Sadly, a long history of police corruption and inebriation exists in this town and in the country. In fact, the accident immediately reminded me of another incident involving a fellow missionary and a local police officer. As she was driving one evening, the cop ran into the side of her car. He emerged from his vehicle in a state–slurring words and behaving aggressively.

Of course, these specific incidents are rare, but they highlight a disturbing fact about the local culture. Under the legacy of Apartheid, Blacks and Coloureds were permitted to pursue only a few professional careers: teaching, nursing, and policing. We still see evidence of this today in the young students who come into the Learning Center. During our interview process, we often ask the children what they would like to be when they grow up. Although we always get a few that say they want to be doctors, the overwhelming majority of girls want to be teachers, and the great abundance of boys want to be policemen. This is because the only “professionals” they see in their community are teachers and policemen. These are their role models. And what terrible role models some of  them are!

People in the U.S. have recently been horrified by the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown of Ferguson, MO, at the hands of law enforcement. Yet, in South Africa, it is commonplace for people not to trust the police. When a policeman shoots a suspect, there are no long investigations or public demonstrations. If convicted murderers here only serve a few years of their long mandated sentences, how much more do police officers get off the hook?  A prison guard recently told me that when inmates step out of line, the guards beat him down, many times to the point of hospitalization, in order to teach a lesson. He was actually a little proud of that fact; there are no repercussions. The police get away with that and much more.

The continent of Africa has long been known as quite possibly the most corrupt region on the planet. However, the children don’t see what goes on behind closed doors in the government, and they are not keenly aware of the economic effects suffered because of bribed politicians or greedy officials who pilfer aid money. What they do experience is the haphazard approach toward education by many of their teachers. They also see policemen in their communities commit the crimes they are supposed to stop, and they hear about the numerous stories of policemen robbing people or sexually assaulting women. And then there’s the traffic circle! What examples are these children supposed to follow?

This is why we are here fighting to not only teach these young people the right way to go, but also to be an example and show them the right way to go. This is the face of the modern missionary.  Churches all around; sometimes, the gospel is preached. What we try to do is live the gospel, and that is extremely rare. These children need to see men and women who walk in purity. They need to see men treat women with respect. They need to see people who don’t lie to or cheat other people. They need to see Christians who aren’t filled with the Holy Spirit on Sunday and filled with box wine and beer on Friday and Saturday. Do we need Americans to come to South Africa and become policemen who are role models? No! But we need people to be the salt and light in a place that is desperately searching for it. Whether you come here yourself to be that example, or support the people who do, we need you in the game. We have to do more to not only lead youth to follow the standards of Jesus, but to defeat a culture of sin and complacency in order to improve the lives of the people in this region. We must do it to protect the children and give them a legacy of hope, and in the process we may even save that precious landmark—the dolphins!