Ok, so I haven’t blogged in a while. In the main this is because I have firstly been away in South Africa for a month on placement, followed by 10 days on family holiday back in my beloved Mendips. I had originally planned on blogging while away but, as happens in these situations, things got in the way of that, so here I am having had an unplanned blogging hiatus. Now that I’m back and (kind of) settling back into life in Cambridge (I have another placement coming up in a week, this time a week long one with the Royal Navy Chaplaincy) I thought it best I pick the blog back up – and it is difficult to know where to begin!
Indeed, the things at the forefront of my mind to blog on – the amazing reality that England are currently the No. 1 Test-playing team in the world, the shocking and tragic news of the death of a former fellow rugby team member, the worries I have relating to on-going medical tests – are not the things most people who read this (who are, it must be admitted, a fairly limited bunch of folk) are most interested in. No, what you kind folk who seem happy to massage my ego by reading my random ramblings most likely want to know about is my trip to the other side of the equator. So, here goes with some initial thoughts:
It is important to say first off that it was an amazing and incredibly worthwhile trip that I will always be grateful for having the opportunity to undertake and which will, no doubt, feed my ongoing development and ministry for the rest of my life. I say this because some of those things that currently stick in my mind, and are therefore likely to be mentioned in the forthcoming ramblings are negatives. This is the way of the world. This is the way my mind works. But I do not want the impression to be that I had a constantly challenging and difficult time and couldn’t wait for my time to be over. Because this is not the case. The reality is that it was an amazing, enriching, growth-inducing, affirming experience that contained within it some challenges (some theological, some cultural, some personal) with which I am still struggling and which therefore predominate my current thoughts.
The biggest cultural challenge for me is summed up in the first two words of the title. In the UK most people tend to think of electric gates as symbols of the laziness and paranoia of the very wealthy. In South Africa they are a symbol of the general environment. Only the very poorest do not have electric gates and barbed-wire-topped walls or fences. Even in the townships that we spent a fair amount of time in there are properties with such protection. Many such properties also come with signs indicating that the property is under the protection of a private security firm whose first and only response will be armed. I am fully aware that serious crime is a major issue in South Africa – you would be a fool to go to South Africa unaware of this. Indeed, while I was there a number of police officers were shot and killed in separate incidents. Yet I found the constant presence of these gates, the constant need to open and close such gates as we left and entered the apartment block we were staying in both oppressive and depressing. At one point towards the end of our visit we (that is, the other Cambridge student who was with me and I) had a conversation with a South African that considered the differences between the process under-gone in South Africa since 1994 and in the US Deep South since the early 1960s – an appropriate comparison since both the South African and I have spent time in Mississippi. While I am sure that he was right that the South African process of “integration” is better than the general US process of “desegregation” (for a start it has a more positive sounding name) his zeal for the over-all ongoing success of integration was, I think, somewhat misplaced – not once while living in Mississippi did I see electric gates and armed response security to the levels that exist in South Africa! I cannot see how integration will come to a successful fruition while paranoia runs so rife that an electric gate and armed response security are seen not as a (unnecessary) luxury but a necessity. And as far as I experienced it is paranoia – I felt far safer wondering around in the poorest parts of the townships we visited than I did wondering around Pietermaritzburg. Such a situation also, I believe, has a valid theological consideration. It is my belief, along with many others, that one of the significant parts of Christ’s ministry was the breaking down of barriers: religious, cultural, political, theological, spiritual, physical. Peace, true peace, is found not by building walls but crossing boundaries – I wonder whether, in the context of South Africa, those walls that need to come down include the electric gates, and they may well need to come down before the crime problem is solved, not after. Indeed, starting to take them down may, somehow prove to be part of the solution.
And if any group of people are able to make such a move then it is the wonderfully generous and open-hearted people of South Africa! The physical environment may have left me feeling depressed but it was not possible to spend time in the company of the people we met without leaving with one’s heart lifted, even if their situations were incredibly challenging and tear-inducing. They were so generous, with their time, with their thoughts, with their food, with their resources and money. I have never met better examples of people who give praise to the Lord forever, who pray without ceasing. The clearest example was the Zulu-language funeral we attended. It was an amazing experience, with confident speaking from numerous folk, amazing singing (as always in an African setting!), and wonderful dancing around the coffin – true joy in the Lord in the midst of grief! Yes, I faced challenges while there – that was the point, in some ways, of going! Not just the physical environment, but some homesickness (this was the first time I was away from Mrs Nomad & Wee One for such a long time and at such a distance), and some other health issues (the result of which is the current tests mentioned above), as well as some theological issues (especially around the place, importance, and form of the sacraments) but as time goes by I am convinced that my overwhelming memory of my time in South Africa will be the people and the warm and generous welcome that they gave too strangers from the UK – a true example of the overflowing love and hospitality we Christians are called to offer on behalf of and in the name of the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Wherever you are, and wherever you’re currently going, even if you’re not sure of the destination, “Go well.”