(Each week I will attempt to post a story or reflection about some aspect of the work that our missional community, NieuCommunities South Africa, is currently engaged in here in Pretoria. I’ll simply attempt to answer the question, ‘What stories are you co-writing with God in South Africa, and how does this story fulfill your unique mandate to apprentice South African leaders into sustainable mission around the globe?’)
Pulling into Baavianspoort Youth Prison this morning behind the Pure Hope Quantum, I felt a familiar sense of excitement and anticipation as I joined Maxie’s team walking the long halls of Emthomjeni, the cell block area where we began a fresh round of our Life Compass course just a few hours ago. This past year we ‘graduated’ seven inmates from a multiple-month course in leadership development, a holistic look at one’s past influences, preferences, personality, and gift mixing, all focusing upon a directionality and life vision that God is birthing in each one of us.
Not sure how relatively young inmates would digest the material, Maxie and I were stunned at the depth of relationship, commitment, and authentic vision these young men displayed as they wrestled with envisioning a path different from the one that had landed them behind bars. I found myself wiping tears from my eyes most weeks, deeply challenged to embrace my own Life Compass vision, a central piece of which is “to form the Church to discern + engage their vocation in community for the world.”
Needless to say, my anticipation level was high in returning to partner with Maxie and her Pure Hope team once again for another round. 16 (!) inmates filed into a cramped room this morning, relatively identical in their matching maroon sweatsuits, save a few ‘designer’ labels attached through an ingenious bit of sewing (Many inmates pass the time behind bars through learning skills such as sewing, and thus ‘design-up’ their clothes with Nike, Adidas, or Puma self-stitched labels!). After introductions and a lively discussion as to who would win the latest Soweto Soccer Derby this weekend (Seems to be a split between the two local soccer teams, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, with one’s hometown playing heavily in who one roots for), Maxie got down to business, laying out the hope that with commitment and hard work, the material presented in this course has the power to literally transform one’s life.
Conrad Damies, who completed the first round of our course in December this past year, then stood up and testified to the power that vision has to help one stay the course in the long tedium of life behind bars. Imprisoned for 14 years, he certainly captivated our minds this morning as he spoke eloquently of the task ahead of each one of these young men. Maxie and I quickly appointed him ‘Vice-President’ in charge of everything from corralling these men together each week, to the ‘point-man’ in charge of answering questions. Looking in his eyes, it seemed as if there was fresh purpose filling them, Conrad eager to walk alongside us in leading this process, and in some future day, bringing this material back to his hometown.
And so, a fresh round of discovery, struggle, and listening for the heartbeat of God within our own begins. I couldn’t imagine spending more valuable time in my week than this!
(Here is Conrad’s vision statement from this past December)
The Encouragement Lake
I want to e a place where there can be peace, a place where people can come who think they have made mistakes, a safe place where they can speak out their problems. I want to be a source of life for those who spent most of their time with me; I want to be a place that provides encouragement for those with broken hearts, I want to be a place for those who come from afar and a source of life for those that are close and around me. I want to be a place where people can come and fish, get some advice or to just get fresh air and maybe even spend the night. Even if some just come and throw their garbage in me I will never change — that is what makes me different from the sea, I like being a lake. There is no other metaphor I will take that is more powerful than The Encouragement Lake.
(Conrad Damies, December 2010, Baavianspoort Youth Prison)
(I asked Maxie to write up her take on the past few weeks leading up to our engagement as a way to introduce you to her…so, ‘Now I proudly present, in her very own words, Sarah Magdalene Van Der Merwe…the future Mrs. Kamalski!’ Happy Valentine’s Day love!)
It’s not Hollywood, its better… it’s real!
I woke up Saturday morning with Chris coming into my room and handing me a big envelope… ‘What? What’s going on? I can’t focus on anything this early in the morning, what are you doing?’ If you know me, you’ll know I’m not the best morning person, especially anything before 7:30 and/or before a shower. So grumpily I opened the envelope and found Chris’s storyboard inside.
Wait, what? You’re not supposed to give this to me before you ask me to marry you, I thought. My confused morning person took time to try and figure out what was going on. I started to read through each page, trying to figure out where we are in the story. But it took me so long; Chris had to come get me as I just stayed in my bed, trying to figure this out. When I realized what was happening, my first response as Chris came back in was “You’re doing it in the morning?’ because all I thought was who’d really want to marry morning Maxie, she’s not always the best person.
But he decided that this was real. In the morning I am at my rawest self. And the thought of him loving me completely, even when I’m that grumpy (I’m really that bad, especially in the morning), was overwhelming…
I’ve always had this weird idea in my head that there’s really no-one out there that will ever get me, love me and want to be part of the things I’ve given my life to. I mean, who’d want someone who doesn’t want the white picket fence, can’t cook and burns rice but goes into prisons, builds shacks, hangs with dirty kids, and can’t seem to stay in one place long enough to settle.
I always used to ask God why he made me the way he did. Why was I completely and absolutely made for relationships (I’m an extreme extrovert, verbal processor with all my 3 top strengths being woo, includer and connectedness). I was made for people. 100 %. But the one relationship that epitomizes intimacy and deep connection never seemed possible to me. I always thought it would end up being God and me on some crazy adventures. My deepest heart’s desire was to know the deepest relationship God uses to describe his love for us. Maybe I will get God’s love a little bit more if I can experience this…
Most of my closest friends over the past 10 years have wiped tears and listen to the ramblings of my lonely journey. I always remembered saying, I know God is with me, but he can’t play soccer with me…
I’m a very cheesy person. I love romantic comedies, cheesy love songs and cheesy gestures. And God always seemed to woo me with the cheesiness in friends, in movies, in songs, but God always reminded me that He does not forget. He will walk with me through whatever happens. I might not know how it will look, what will happen, but I know He is good and somehow I’ll be okay. I really never thought it could happen for me…that I will meet someone who gets me, loves me and wants to journey with God and me into the brokenness of our world and be a force for good in restoring this beautiful world God has placed us in, loving broken people back to life.
Its been 10 years since I left high school and decided that I want to give my life for something bigger than myself, no matter what the cost would be. Choosing to follow the call I felt in my heart launched me into a 5 year journey with YWAM all across the world, starting with a year and half in Texas (the US, with a trip to Mexico), 3 and a half months in Australia, 2 months in New Zealand, 6 months in Hammanskraal (a township outside of Pretoria), and almost 2 years in Durban, South Africa. After an 8 month Sabbatical the Pure Hope journey started, and I’ve been living and working in Pretoria since 2007. I’ve hopped around the world, trying to be obedient to the still small voice inside. And it has been guiding my heart into this greater unfolding story…
It feels surreal to see the most beautiful ring on my finger as I type this, feeling a little bit like Alice in Wonderland, having to pinch me to make sure that this is real.
God never forgets.
Since May 2003, I started on a journey of no turning back. I remember writing in the front of my Bible during a teaching in Texas, ‘No matter what happens, I will not quit’. I will not quit this story God was writing. I will walk through whatever may come, how hard, how painful, how lonely that may be.
Over 18 months ago I met this intriguing red-headed American out in Pretoria North, not realizing that he will become my husband.
Walking with him through his fears, through my own fears, through the conflict of our false selves, we have gotten to know each other deeply, intimately. We have come to find that there is life: That God loves us beyond what we deserve, that we want to give our lives to be part of God’s greater story, that His grace is enough; that His hope will not disappoint.
He asked me. He chose me. He really did. He loves me. He really loves me. He’s even more than I ever imagined…
And I can’t wait for what lies ahead!
Who would have thought that this African-American love story would be God romancing us…
Its not Hollywood – its sooooooooo much better…