Becoming Chris Kamalski

"There's a Writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us" ~Don Miller

Tag: poverty

Keeping Hope, Shedding Complacency.

How do you encourage people to keep their hope, but not their complacency? [Barbara Kingsolver]

A semi-nasty bout of flu + fever (hopefully brought on by the imminent arrival of spring!) kept me prone most of today, trying to prevent getting sicker before the week has really begun. This afforded me a rare privilege throughout the morning though: An uninterrupted chunk of time to read and ponder, oblivious to the world around me. I’ve been slowly working my way through Barbara Kingsolver’s memoir of her family’s journey to live off their farm, as ‘locavores’ for an entire year. It’s been a really thought-provoking book that is pushing both Maxie and I slowly towards taking ownership of our own food intake (First step for us in the right direction: Heading to the best Farmer’s Market in Pretoria, ‘the Boermark,’ every few Saturdays for an increasing amount of our produce, meat, and the best Protea flowers around). A bit evangelistic in its fervor towards all things local, but really convicting and interesting all the while.

Late in the book, Kingsolver quoted a friend of hers named Joan who was making a documentary about climate c hange at the time this book was written. Regarding environmental concerns, her friend asked her, How do you encourage people to keep their hope, but not their complacency? I was stunned at the complexity, yet conviction, found in such a simple sentence. That truly is the question we all must wrestle with in regards to any belief we consider important enough to act out in our lives. I think this may be a central question regarding issues of poverty and injustice in particular: Given the crushing realities of global poverty, how does one continue moving forward while fighting off a mounting cynicism + complacency at how little actually changes?

My two cents: Maybe we think small, local even. One life at a time…

(If you missed our latest [Field Stories] report on our work with inmates in prison, entitled “Refusing To Perish,” click here).

This Place Is Not Toilet (Project 365, Day 92).

Aperture: f/18     Focal Length: 47 mm     ISO: 160     Shutter Speed: 1/60 second

Meet My Fiance, Maxie Van Der Merwe.

My frou is beautiful!

(Late last year, Natashia Hudson, a university student majoring in journalistic studies, asked Maxie if she could profile her as a final project. We recently were emailed her final paper….short of a minor obsession with Maxie swearing, which she NEVER does in reality, I think the portrait that emerges is strikingly realistic. I present my lovely fiance: Maxie Van Der Merwe!).


“Why must I sacrifice my comfort, my life, my stuff for someone else?  Because…” Maxie van der Merwe stops midsentence and chuckles.  “Ugh, this sounds like a Maybelline…” She quickly stops again, before shrugging it off and continuing like she doesn’t care what it sounds like anyway “but because they’re worth it.  Because their lives are connected to mine.” She plays with the silver beads around her right arm while explaining patiently, slowly.  “Why are we connected?  Because we were made for relationships.  Why were we made for relationships?  Because God is a God of relationships…with Him, with people – that’s how we are wired,” she says, emphasising the word wired as if it’s the most logical thing on earth.

“That’s the only explanation I have.  Otherwise I can just as well go and live on an island and look after myself.” 27 year-old Van Der Merwe looks like someone who would loathe being on an island by herself.  Curled up in Seattle Coffee’s armchair, she chats animatedly, cell phone beeping every now and again, before jumping up when a friend arrives unexpectedly.  While chatting to her friend, one can’t help but think of Van Der Merwe, founder, director and co-ordinator of NGO Pure Hope, as a social butterfly – not someone who earns her bread and butter by building shacks and “hanging” with criminals.

Pure Hope is a youth program created by Van dDr Merwe in 2007 for NG Moreleta Park church where students could come and work in areas of need for a year.  She chuckles, “You know, a program for 18 year-olds to come and say, ‘For a whole year I’m going to commit working in areas of poverty and give myself.” In 2008, Pure Hope kicked off with 10 students, five carefully selected projects, and a few local outreaches and an international trip planned to Brazil.  According to Van Der Merwe, the main idea behind Pure Hope is to build relationships and walk alongside people that live in utter despair and to ultimately restore dignity and create space for these people to be human.

The Pure Hope projects include “building relationship” in Mabopane with 120 orphans at Mama Mary’s orphanage, 70 abandoned and disabled children at Sisters of Mother Theresa, 100 people at Baviaanspoort Youth Prison, 30 children in an afterschool program in Danville and  a shack-building project called One Life Shack Build.

This year, the Pure Hope team consisted only out of Van Der Merwe and five students.  “So five people had to give to all these people and physically that’s just impossible – physically we can’t do it, it’s only God that can.  Mother Theresa said ‘If you can’t feed a 100, then feed one.’  So, we build one shack.  We go to these projects every week, become part of it and get to know the kids.  We build deep relationships and try to give them another picture of the future and try and create space where people can see hope.”

A week after meeting Van der Merwe in Seattle Coffee, her enthusiasm and passion continues to bubble over as she sits on a red couch in her apartment, “It is that classical thing…you get angry about what you are passionate about, but I get angry because I see their faces and I know the kids.  I get angry when I see Khetso and know his grandmother sent him with his little Checkers-bag down the street and said, ‘Voertsek!’  The police later picked him up.  You cannot, if you experience these stuff every day, not do something.”

Her little apartment is warm and snug.  The red couch takes up most of the space, romantic comedy and animation DVD’s are stacked by the television, and the walls lined are with hearts, “Grace” and “Peace” signs, and countless photos of smiling children, friends and family.  It is very different from the spaces van der Merwe mostly spends her time.  “This is where the crap comes in, because if we really want to see change, if we really want to deal with poverty and all these injustices, it takes your heart, your life and it takes of your everything.”

“And it’s extreme, and very difficult for me to live in.  After a long day of blood, sweat and tears, I can come home and shower.  But the guy for whom I build a shack must continue moving in, then try and make food on a fire somewhere, go and fetch water…it is a hard thing to live in..  This tension.” Van Der Merwe still remembers the conflicting emotions she experienced while building a shack for someone in an informal settlement opposite Woodhill.

“I thought, ‘You are shopping and we are sweating blood here.’  Poverty is poverty, even in the East of Pretoria – the oppression is the same.  So I stand there looking over Woodhill…but then realise, ‘I also shop there, walk in those malls…  So I can’t judge, I also live there.  But how do I live in this tension of two extremes?  But that’s what I want to do, create space where these two worlds can meet.”

While thinking back to her childhood, Van Der Merwe abruptly becomes serious when remembering her first real “significant moment.”  She was driving with her father through town, marvelling at the amount of black people everywhere when an impatient white man nudged an elderly black man out of the way with his car.  The man fell down on the sidewalk and “I almost got an anxiety attack inside the car and knew ‘this isn’t right’.  This shouldn’t happen no matter who it is.” She stresses the last bit determinedly and fiercely – one almost sees little Van Der Merwe balling her fists.  The bubble of Van Der Merwe’s narrow mindset burst.

Van Der Merwe started reaching out to a world that she never knew existed.  After finishing matric, she decided to become a Bible teacher and work full-time in the missionary field.  She shakes her head and grins at the memory of having to tell her conservative parents that she wasn’t going to study after school, but was going to use  the money saved up for her to do a three-month bible course in Texas instead.  She talks strong-mindedly about how her rights, wrongs, and narrow worldviews have changed since then.  In America, the more she explored, the more she realised “Oh, crap!  Everything I thought is real isn’t actually real.”

Van Der Merwe states firmly, her hand tugging at her multi-coloured scarf becoming still for a moment, “The deepest, deepest thing was established in me then…the fundamental value that humans are humans and that we are all equal…that is what I’m about.” She doesn’t say it indifferently; she says it as if each word is measured carefully before being allowed over her lips.

Trips to Australia and New Zealand followed before spending a year and a half in Durban teaching at the Discipleship Training School.  During this time, on an outreach to Zimbabwe, she realised, “I’m not just a Bible teacher.  If I’m not actively involved in poverty and where people are suffering, then I’m missing something…I was made to go and sit with that person, and just give them a little bit of hope.”

That is why Pure Hope exists.  “I don’t get a moerse salary or a pat on the back every day.  It’s not a glorious job because you bleed from inside, from your heart, because you have to fight the whole time for guys sitting in the crap.” When thinking of the impact they are trying to have through Pure Hope, her usually cheerful voice becomes solemn.

She speaks slowly and thoughtfully, “I met Impi on Monday, he was dead on Saturday.  Here was this little boy sitting in the corner.  His skin was hanging off him.  All he kept on saying was ‘I want pie.’  His parents couldn’t give a crap, his aunt didn’t care to take him to the clinic and – after using his grant – left him at Mary’s (Mother Mary’s orphanage in Mabopane) when he was too sick.

Van Der Merwe’s strong voice begins to crack, “That’s not right – but if we at least acknowledge him, we acknowledge that his life wasn’t meaningless and had no significance, but touched and changed my heart and nine other people who got to meet him for a week and his story will continue to be told.  If we can get their stories out there, their lives get meaning when it’s heard, valued and remembered and they become remembered as people.”

Van Der Merwe says sadly, “The problem is, you are always just a kid in Mabopane, you are always just a number on a list – you’re just a shack number.” She stops, looks up with her piercing blue eyes and smiles, “I want to remember these kids that nobody would ever remember because that gives their life value and meaning.”

Two weeks later, on an icy-cold and rainy Friday morning, a bunch of people is huddled together at NG Moreleta Park church.  A few moments later, a 14-seater Toyota Quantum with a trailer pulls up.  Van Der Merwe’s short frame, dressed in a bright red hoody, jeans tucked into her camel-coloured boots, jumps out from behind the wheel.  Her long dark hair is pulled up in a rough bun and the excitement of the shack building that lies ahead shows in her twinkling blue eyes.  She briefs the group with quiet authority.

Two boys from Mama Mary’s orphanage have turned 18 and are legally required to leave the orphanage.  They are in Grade 9, however, and have nowhere else to go.  Today, these two boys will each get a ‘home’.  “The whole idea is to create a little space where they can do homework etc.  And, hopefully, the rain clears up a bit when we get to Mabopane, I wouldn’t want to shock someone with a generator,” she teases before jumping in behind the wheel of the Quantum, indicating that the ‘mission’ has officially started.

The rows of shacks in Mabopane seem as lonely as the empty dusty streets.  The dynamic group of people unloading equipment looks oddly out of place in block W 10 – the smell of despair hangs in the air.  All clouds have disappeared and the sun beats down mercilessly as people start digging, drilling and sawing.  Anxious faces seem to appear out of nowhere.  A man on a shabby bicycle approaches tentatively.  Van Der Merwe walks over, gives him a special handshake, and greets him warmly in Sotho before explaining what is going on.  A group of toddlers are peering curiously from behind a fence and a group of mothers are also approaching.  An old man is looking distrustfully at the group.

As the word starts to spread, the curious toddlers come closer and the old man gives a surprised smile.  The women offer to help fetch water.  Only the young man on the bicycle is showing no reaction.  After a while, he says softly, “It’s good to see people care.  People care – about us!  Thank you.  Thank you.” Van der Merwe shrugs it off, glowing, “It’s our family here.  We love it.” The man looks her in the eye, gets on his bicycle, and simply says, “We love it too,” before driving away.

She rubs over the Ichtus-tattoo on her left wrist and says, “I don’t need to understand why all this is happening, but just know that God is good in the midst of all these things and somehow, someway He is the only one that can make something good out of this massive mess-up we live in where life means so little.  I won’t quit.  Because I believe in a different story.  I believe that there is hope…and that you are a God of love and goodness and that there is something good in the world.” She fetches a ball, and starts playing soccer with the children in the dusty road.  The children, their bone-thin arms and legs sticking out from underneath tattered clothing, are screaming with laughter as they run around kicking the ball with Van Der Merwe.

(Written by Natashia Hudson)

Vignettes Through Submersion (Words Fail).

Vignette |vinˈyet|noun 1. a brief evocative description, account, or episode. 2. a small illustration or portrait photograph…
Lawrence, my host (and fellow 'sharer' of his twin bed) in Block KK.

Lawrence, my host (and fellow 'sharer' of his twin bed) in Block KK.

  • Hospitality is consistently re-defined by our friends in Soshanguve.  Lawrence shared everything he owned with me: His twin bed, best food, ‘bath’ (Small, round, plastic tub filled with boiled water on his floor), love for house music, ability to cook (We enjoyed avocado on white bread for breakfast one morning).
Relatively new aluminum outhouse.  Reminded me of APU Mexicali days!

Relatively new aluminum outhouse at my house. Reminded me of APU Mexicali days!

  • The smells of the township are so vibrant: Fresh pap (corn maize) cooking, trash burning, dust swirling, strong detergent cleaning.
How we submerged as men within the community.  Passing the hours on the stoep with the boys.

How we submerged as men within the community. Passing the hours on the stoep with the boys.

  • Time stands still in Soshanguve.  We sat on the stoep in front of Granny’s house for hours each day, laughing about anything and everything.  Men seem to stay outside in conversation or activity (We often played soccer or simply walked around) while the women were busy cooking and cleaning in the house (Gender roles are entrenched as ‘normal’ within this society).
I spent each morning sitting in a barbershop stall near a major intersection in Block KK, watching the neighborhood begin its day.  Listening to the taxis honk for passengers was strangely lyrical.

I spent each morning sitting in a barbershop stall near a major intersection in Block KK, watching the neighborhood begin its day. Listening to the taxis honk for passengers was strangely lyrical.

  • In January, I spent a week in London visiting new friends just prior to heading down to South Africa.  One Saturday I walked through Portobello Road towards Notting Hill, stopping at a famous roundabout in front of the Notting Hill Gate, marveling at the modernized activity all around me. Contrasted with the busyness of life at a local intersection in Block KK (Friends selling bread, taxis picking up passengers through rhythmic hooting of horns, women lighting coals to cook and sell corn on the street corner), these two intersections tell parallel stories of the development of our world.
Our local walking buddy, Alex, posing in front of a tuck stall that sold amazing lollipops.

Our local walking buddy, Alex, posing in front of a tuck stall that sold amazing lollipops.

  • Somewhere early in my travels, I let go of the idea that local food is to be avoided for sanitary/health reasons.  I have subsequently enjoyed local delicacies far and wide (Manzana Lift in Mexico, Quatro Staggioni pizza in Italy, the greatest cherry lollipops here in Sosh).
Shacks in Sosh exude character simply through their paint color.  Beauty personified.

Shacks in Sosh exude character simply through their paint color. Beauty personified.

  • Cliched as it may be, everything in Africa is colorfully vibrant.  The shacks throughout the townships are a gorgeous mismash of primary colors almost haphazardly painted.  It’s as if the colors were exploding artistically from the paint brushes, and testifies to the pulsating ‘life’ that is found throughout Soshanguve in particular.
Our nightly ritual at sunset.  Walking to buy electricity for the evening.

Our nightly ritual at sunset. Walking to buy electricity for the evening.

  • Food for each meal and electricity are purchased as needed, usually for the next meal or evening’s light.  Everyone walks to the local neighborhood tuck shops for just enough provisions for the evening.  At sunset each night, a whole crew of us would make an event of the walk to the local hardware store to buy light for the nightly festivities.  It was so relaxing and fun!
Dryers are non-existent throughout South Africa.  Granny's well-used clothesline.

Dryers are non-existent throughout South Africa. Granny's well-used clothesline.

  • I have always hated laundry with a passion, and can’t wait for the day when I can bargain with my wife over the release of this chore.  But something about the reliance on the sun’s daily provision of warmth to dry my clothes outside has made this an enjoyable activity these past few months.  Seeing colorful clothes flapping in the breeze in each yard brings a smile to my face nowadays.
The apprentice crew (+ Doug) with our host families.  Grateful for this shared experience!

The apprentice crew (+ Doug) with our host families. Grateful for this shared experience!

  • We were (are) loved as family these past few days, and our return has already been requested by many of our host families.  They have taught us so much by opening their homes, families, and lives to us.  Living together inescapably shapes a person.
Outhouse beauty (Alt caption: Township servilletes are readable!).

Outhouse beauty (Alt caption: Township servillettes are readable!).

The Week That Was: March 26th-April 1st, 2009.

Jealousy is the only appropriate option.  NCSA Men's Trip to the Drakensberg Mountains, departing in 5 hours!Jealousy is the only appropriate option. NCSA Men’s Trip to the Drakensberg Mountains, departing in 5 hours!

Going to cheat y’all a bit and write this in short-phrase style, as I am up WAY TOO LATE prior to our Men’s Trip, which leaves in 5 hours.  Images, video, and actual thoughtful posts coming next week!

The Week That Was: Wed and Thurs the Apprentices went to Jo’Burg and stayed at Curtis’ parent’s Guest House, which smelled like fresh paint but was amazingly accomodating and fun!  We enjoyed 1/2 price pizza and fine ales at Curtis’ local joint, Jolly Rogers.  Then headed to an outdoor lounge area for our first taste of South African jazz.  Listened to a funky combo group for about 90 minutes.  Thurs had another fantastic David Bosch discussion (Click here for my thoughts) and left deeply challenged about the missional nature of the church.  Fri was a blur to me right now–Oh, what am I saying?  Colletta Cole and I co-lead our Friday Night Rhythm gathering, and basically provided a means for our entire community to check-in with each other.  Then we headed to Lorraine’s for the weekend, and spent 48 hours on a silent retreat that officially ‘ended’ our Listening Posture.  I’ll blog on this later, and have some hard things that I wish to share regarding my own journey–but I’m not finished yet!  Fall seemed to come this past weekend, and I spent Saturday afternoon laying in the grass watching leaves whisk to the ground all around us.  There is a briskness to the morning air which I love!  Monday was an exhausted blur which I don’t remember.  Tuesday was spent having our community ROCKED by Rob Bell’s Tour DVD entitled ‘The Gods Aren’t Angry.‘ I had a visceral response to his message of grace, in which he repeatedly stated “You don’t have to live this way anymore.”  Yes I do!  Grace doesn’t mean I actually let go of all my structures and means of saving myself, does it? (Sarcasm alert!)”  Still reeling.  Finalized plans with Luc and Petunia Kabongo to begin group spiritual direction with 23 NGO health care workers who carry grief and death daily in their medical work.  Will begin this after Easter, which I am anticipating greatly.  Today was a blur of chores, ‘gyming’ (A verb here!), and getting ready for our Men’s Excursion.  Going to be epic!

On My To-Do List This Week: Man Time.  Paintballing + Hiking + Settlers of Catan + White Water Rafting + Leaving Pangani = MUCH NEEDED ADVENTURE!

Procrastinating About: Going to bed, what else?

Books I’m In The Midst Of: Flying through The Shack with thoughts forthcoming.  Want to get into Barack Obama’s memoir  Dreams of Our Father to see the man behind the myth.  Have actually heard he is a pretty good writer!

On The Current iTunes Playlist: Been shuffling a lot now.  Digging the new Black Eyed Peas single “Boom Boom Pow,” which is the song of the Apprenticeship for us so far.

I’m Thinking About: Why don’t I have poor friends?  Would having poor friends be simply a societal experiment for me?  Am I truly that prejudiced? (Light, I know).

Next Trip: See picture above and wipe that drool off your face!

How I’m Feeling About This Week: Ready to check out, and hit the road.  Need an emotional vacation.

Prayer Request: Emotional vacation.

My Own Internal Reluctance.

“My Own Internal Reluctance.”

Falling from Tom Smith’s lips as a way of explaining his rationale in not engaging with poverty in a more profound way in his daily life, I sat in our second book discussion of David Bosch’s master work, Transforming Mission, profoundly disturbed by the searing truth of Tom’s words.  Have you experienced those brief moments when all becomes clear, as if your mind starts to order fragmented thought, flashes of desire, and your fleeting heart passions into one cohesive statement of fact?  The phrase above was that experience for me this morning.  

So much could be/should be reflected upon our shared conversations thus far, and I’m sure both myself and others will pour out their thoughts in the next few days, and throughout the course of this amazing discussion that is unfolding. We ‘attempted’ to unpack some of Bosch’s thoughts in terms of how Matthew’s theology of mission as shown through his writing, and (again) barely scratched the surface of Bosch’s masterful work.  I’ll follow up with further thoughts on the introduction and initial chapter on Matthew’s Gospel, as well as what we are diving into as we continue reading in Luke/Acts and Paul’s writing throughout the New Testament.

However, I don’t want to stray far from Tom’s initial phrase this evening.  In a wide-ranging, convicting discussion on the gospel, the nature of mission, and the integration of the poor and marginalized among us, my heart was laid bare by the honest admission above.  Questions that prevent me from sleeping easily tonight & desiring to turn off my heart in a sea of endless Internet surfing include the following:

  • Why am I not ‘doing more’ to engage the end of poverty in my world?  
  • Why have I allowed guilt, my own comfort and sense of security, and a healthy distance from ‘the poor’ (Even that label de-humanizes the people that this entails, exposing my continued, deeply rooted hypocrisy) to determine how I live?  
  • Why is there a sense in my heart that I am living in a ‘better way’ than those with ‘less’ than me?  
  • Why do I not have poor friends?  
  • Wouldn’t having ‘poor’ friends be nothing but a social exercise for me, something that further rounded out my personality?  
  • At my core, am I as deeply prejudiced as it seems?  
  • Why do these problems fall on my shoulders alone (at least, I make it out to be this way)?  
  • Is poverty a much deeper and more pervasive disease than pure material possession (including such things as poverty of spirit, purpose, family, hope, etc. as Curtis brilliantly pointed out tonight)?

The fact that I am rich beyond measure (Check out for a disheartening confirmation of this matter), and yet impoverished in so many other ways, is both disturbing and hopefully catalytic tonight.

One thought from Bosch:

It is unthinkable to divorce the Christian life of love and justice from being a disciple…To become a disciple means a decisive and irrevocable turning to both God and neighbor (Transforming Mission, pp. 81-82).

Another from Henri Nouwen:

Wherever I turn I am confronted with my deep-seated resistance against following Jesus on his way to the Cross and my countless ways of avoiding poverty, whether material, intellectual, or emotional (Spiritual Direction, p. 138).

Just to clarify, I’m speaking publicly to myself with these words, not in an effort to self-martyr, or to declare my own existential sense of goodness, but to call my own apathy out.  I love ideas in all forms, and yet am deeply aware that my ideas often do not become action, and therefore actualized reality that has power (infused hopefully by the Spirit’s work) to actually transform and heal.

In another of Tom’s haunting phrases, “I need a new conversion.”

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