Up early this morning. Coffee and general fumbling around, as the coming winter peaks through mid-autumn here in Pretoria, drawing a coolness to the morning air that begs a few minutes more under the covers. Out the door on my way to Baavianspoort Youth Prison to meet the Pure Hope team (alas, sans Maxie as she is required in another meeting this morning) and to continue our Life Compass course with 17 inmates.
This is the second time we have facilitated this course for youth in Block B of ‘Emthomjeni,’ a prison vastly different within the South African penal system for its emphasis on education, rehabilitative work, and as their slogan says, “A Place of New Beginnings.” Regularly, the hour plus that Maxie, Bianca (one of Maxie’s Pure Hope students), and I spend facilitating this course for ‘our boys’ is the most meaningful time I spend in South Africa on mission each week. This morning was chaotically normal for us, as we lost six of our boys to the last day of a course on Anger Management that a local psychologist was presenting that many of the inmates were required to sit in on as a part of their rehabilitation. While we are grateful for the opportunity for inmates to process their anger in hopefully increasingly helpful ways, it is depressing when it comes at the expense of them having to miss our training course.
We are nearing the 2/3rds mark of this 4 month course, designed as a holistic look into one’s past + present from every conceivable angle, including one’s timeline, personality profile, natural skills + abilities, and a host of other windows into the life that God has birthed within us. All of this past reflection is done in one big soupy bowl, building slowly upon each other in the hope that one’s self-awareness will crystallize into a life vocation (a ‘call forward’ by the Spirit into the life we were created to live) and vision that carries these inmates through the rest of their sentences and out into freedom and a dramatically different life than what they have previously imagined. This morning ‘tedious’ describes best our efforts, as we were tallying scores from a host of personality, spiritual gifting, and leadership tests, seeking to make sense of how we are wired. Much of the morning, Bianca and I moved among the guys in the room, seeking to translate overly Western questions (“I am able to speak enthusiastically and clearly about doctrinal truth”) into language and concepts that make sense within an African context. It’s tough, to say the least! But the guys were heartened as we announced that in an effort to catch up, we have been granted a double session of time with them next Tuesday by the head of the prison block we work in.
We leave a bit early so I can scurry off to catch the last hour + of time with our sister organization with Church Resource Ministries (CRM), InnerChange South Africa, a monastic order living in simplicity among the poor in Soshanguve, a large township outside of Pretoria. I have worked closely alongside Luc and Petunia Kabongo and their team for several years now in a variety of capacities, and am currently joining their Tuesday morning rhythm of breakfast, prayer, learning once a month to provide spiritual direction for their growing team, facilitating an environment of listening + reflection for our friends who live in an environment where need is constantly at hand. I rushed late to join their team this morning, a bit frantic and still thinking through our time in prison, unaware I was taking the wrong highway towards Sosh for almost 20km! ARRRRGGGGHHHH! Flipping the car around, I finally arrived to their entire team waiting for me (DOH!), a mere 25 minutes left in their morning.
Feeling ashamed and apologetic, they were gracious with me, welcoming me into their midst even as they were wrapping things up. Knowing I would not be able to facilitate spiritual direction as normal, helping them to process where God is at work within their lives and mission, I fumbled around, seeking for something to offer them. In the hesitation, Luc mentioned that he can rap in French, which just destroyed everyone, and quickly solidified into him becoming the latest performer at our wedding in a few weeks! I left the team with a powerful song from Jesus Culture entitled “My Soul Longs For You,” thinking about the question of where they found themselves in desiring God at this point in their journey, seeking to open the conversation that at times, we must ‘desire to desire God’ again in our lives, and that this dryness is a part of life!
Talking with Maxie as I made my way through the city, getting lost yet again (How long have I lived here?), I now sit at my computer, needing to press on in final preparation for our weekly Tuesday evening dinner and learning conversation with NieuCommunities, a core piece of our missional community’s rhythm each week. Tonight I facilitate a conversation birthed from our submerging posture, seeking to meld disparate thoughts of how Jesus dwelt among men with the larger meta-conversation that still resonates within everyone’s mind here, namely the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s killing and the lingering questions of justice that many South Africans are raising to any American they can find (Cue, US!). I recently re-watched a few powerful West Wing episodes from the end of season 3 that touched on this very issue, and thus I’m going to bring clips from these shows as a framework to ask larger questions of justice and how Jesus lived among us, showing us an example by which we are to live. It’ll either be the most brilliant thing ever–or the largest stinkbomb in teaching history!
Whew, I’m tired even writing this! What an abnormally full day! Tomorrow, rest and reflection, and hopefully some restoration awaits.
(Each day this week I will post a story or reflection about some aspect of my work and life that our missional community, NieuCommunities South Africa, is currently engaged in here in Pretoria. I’ll simply attempt to answer the questions, ‘What does a week in my life look like? while framing that within the larger question of ‘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 in the way of Jesus into sustainable mission around the globe?’)
Shortly after I returned to Pretoria to begin work as Field Staff a year ago, our missional community quickly realized that NieuCommunities still found itself entering into a season of transition. Initially we believed that as several Field Staff had moved into different areas of mission around the country or with CRM in other parts of the world, a transition of leadership was what God had in store for our community. In October 2009, that change was clarified, resulting in a dramatic shift of focus (from hosting a 42-week missional apprenticeship program each year, which largely served North Americans, to seeking to apprentice South African leaders alone into sustainable mission around the globe) that caused us to move into the heart of Pretoria, eventually settling within the Clydesdale neighborhood.
Back to my initial sentence, however.
As I returned to help shepherd this transition of place, mandate, and staff, the Spirit of God clearly helped us see that the transition we thought already largely completed was in fact just beginning. As the ‘formation guy’ for our staff, I scrambled around for anything relevant to help us discern the Spirit’s voice in this process, ultimately landing on Parker Palmer’s brilliant take on the ancient Quaker spiritual discipline of A Clearness Committee (Download Palmer’s PDF here):
Parker Palmer defines the purpose of A Clearness Committee as follows:
“Behind the Clearness Committee is a simple but crucial conviction: each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems. But that inner voice is often garbled by various kinds of inward and outward interference. The function of the Clearness Committee is not to give advice or ‘fix’ people from the outside in but rather to help people remove the interference so that they can discover their own wisdom from the inside out. If we do not believe in the reality of inner wisdom, the Clearness Committee can become an opportunity for manipulation. But if we respect the power of the inner teacher, the Clearness Committee can be a remarkable way to help someone name and claim his or her deepest truth.”
Later in his article, Palmer describes what the Spirit can do in the midst of a group of people seeking clarity of vocational call for a dear friend, writing:
“The Clearness Committee is not a cure-all. It is not for extremely fragile people or for extremely delicate problems. But for the right person, with the right issue, it is a powerful way to rally the strength of community around a struggling soul, to draw deeply from the wisdom within all of us. It teaches us to abandon the pretense that we know what is best for another person and instead to ask those honest and open questions that can help that person find his or her own answers. It teaches us to give up the arrogant assumption that we are obliged to ‘save’ each other and learn, through simple listening, to create the conditions that allow a person to find his or her wholeness within. If the spiritual discipline behind the Clearness Committee is understood and practiced, the process can become a way to renew community in our individualist times, a way to free people from their isolation without threatening their integrity, a way to counteract the excesses of technique in caring, a way to create space for the spirit to move among us with healing and with power.”
For several weeks I helped facilitate a weekly space in which remaining members of our community (some Field Staff, some former apprentices, some other CRM people working in different collectives) came together for the express purpose of listening without comment or agenda, asking honest, clarifying questions that helped a person come to a design regarding what God was asking them to do with their vocational call. Interpersonal, family, work, mission, and many other dynamics were at play, but a common thread emerged that was simple, yet profound:
When we intentionally allow the Spirit room to move among us, seeking to listen for His voice, God always shows up and speaks.
After a season of this, we began to enter another season of clearness and discernment with two other groups of people near the end of 2010, Jody Thomas, and Doug + Colletta Rhoads. Jody was an apprentice with NieuCommunities in 2008 and had a profound year through which God grew a tremendous burden and calling to work alongside Zimbabwean refugees within South Africa, ultimately possibly leading towards full-time missional work within Zimbabwe itself. He had returned for a 9-month internship with NCSA for the express purpose of testing this passion. With just over a month remaining, we are excited to report that not only is Jody engaged to a wonderful Rwandan named Francine, but that Jody is moving towards returning to NieuCommunities at the end of this year as Field Staff with his new wife, having clarified his call and sensing that a further season of development and work among the existing Zimbabwean community here in Pretoria (There are many!) is where he is to focus at this time.
The Rhoads walked a much different path than Jody. Doug Rhoads has been involved with NieuCommunities since 2005, and is the longest remaining Field Staff among our team. Colletta Rhoads (Formerly Cole) was an apprentice alongside myself and Curtis Love in 2009. Not only did she sense a call to South Africa, she fell in love with Doug, marrying him this past June. Returning to our community in early August, they had a growing sense that God was moving them towards life and mission within Soshanguve, a large township outside Pretoria that another CRM team, InnerChange South Africa, works within. Yet they were unsure of the what, when, and how.
Clearness begins again, and was difficult at times with the adjustment to married life, shared ministry, and the individual callings Doug and Colletta were now bringing together. Ultimately however, in January the Rhoads began exploring starting an Ethne team out in Block KK of Soshanguve, another expression of CRM that focuses on work with a specific ethnic group of people. Through a long process, this has been confirmed!
Thus, our community found itself circling Doug and Colletta two weeks ago, engaging in the bittersweet custom of laying hands on them to send our dear friends out from our midst…this time not out of the country, but to a sister city + sister mission within our little tribe. As we commissioned them outwards, we prayed over them, realizing that in a deep way, we are all sent ones. To be involved in this work means to embrace the inevitable reality that at some point, we all must go, following the wind of the Spirit as faithfully as possible.
We’ll do the same thing with Jody in a month, and at some point, with everyone in our community. The Future Kamalski’s will even be sent out at some undetermined point in the future…
Thanks to the creepy immediacy of Facebook, last night I stumbled across the horrible news that an old friend from my first church internship, Ocean View Baptist Church in San Pedro, CA, passed away suddenly on Saturday. Miles Ghormley (and his wife Susan, daughter Emily, and son Jonathan (‘Juanathan’ in those silly days) hosted me throughout the summer of 2000 as I was a High School Intern for OVBC, and participated in many of the shenanigans that a young sophomore in college would come up with to entertain 16 year-olds bored out of their minds, yet without wheels or much freedom at all.
I chuckle remembering a warm summer evening in Rancho Palos Verdes where we zoomed down his hill in Juanathan’s mini motorbike, before those things quickly became illegal (Who’s old enough to remember that brief fad?). We laughed at the ridiculousness of my knees several feet above the bike itself as I simply tried to hold on for dear life.
I didn’t sleep well last night, unnerved by the reality that death should not be the final word in our stories. In fact, it most certainly is not, at least if we participate in the Grand Story God is telling, where life has the final say. But in the immediacy of an epic heart like Miles’ departing our reality, it sure feels that way.
I grieve with the Ghormley family this morning. I stand with them, reminded of these words I scribbled last year after participating in a sudden funeral in Soshanguve:
In fact, much of the weariness that I feel this evening stems from a deep sense of the injustice of death. God was devastatingly accurate in describing the reality of death once sin had crept into the world–truly, death is a curse through which we all carry its sting. The pronouncement given to Adam in the Garden has such a sense of finality to it–that mankind is now cursed to death and separation in all aspects–from life with God, to eternity spent in the midst of His creation, to the all-too-brief moments we have with those we love most deeply.
I can’t wait to return to the dusty roads of Soshanguve, one of many township slum areas (think ‘a South African Tijuana’) stationed nearby most major South African cities originally as a forced settlement area for black South Africans to live separate from ‘white’ South Africa, yet be near enough to commute in each morning to work. Since the fall of apartheid in the early 1990’s, these sprawling mega-cities have evolved into the proud home of the majority of black South Africans. ‘Sosh’ is no different, and yet it’s realities are staggering: It is home to at least 1.5 million people, with an unemployment rate likely hovering near 40-50% of the population and an HIV/AIDS rate at least that high, if not higher.
Luc and Petunia Kabongo lead the InnerChange team that lives incarnationally among the poor of Soshanguve. I befriended the Kabongos upon my first visit to Sosh in the summer of 2008, and knew immediately that I had found a kinship among new friends. Among the many holistic ways that they care for the poor in their neighborhood, I have come alongside Petunia and Anna, who are both nurses leading a group of Hospice Care Workers who provide compassionate care for hundreds of families who are dying of complications related to the HIV/AIDS pandemic sweeping through South Africa (South Africa has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the whole world!). My job is to provide sustainable care, spiritual direction, and ‘loose’ group therapy for these Care Workers, that they may continue to offer themselves to their neighbors.
Luc and I have become fast friends and partners in a short time this past year. We have begun to meet regularly together for accountability and mutual peer mentoring, as well as to strategize as to how we both can utilize our gifts to transform Soshanguve in holistic ways as God restores this forgotten place. Likely, I will begin leading their growing team in spiritual direction and a process of spiritual formation this year, as well as potentially exploring how we can influence a network of local pastors Luc is involved with in Soshanguve.
I can’t wait to see my friends again!
I see 4 avenues of missional engagement with South Africans as the primary ‘currents’ within which I’ll swim as I return to South Africa for the next two years. Here’s the third avenue I see myself engaged in:
3. Spiritual Direction & Training of Care Workers in Soshanguve, a local township slum: I will continue my work with our sister tribe, InnerChange, an incarnational order that lives among the poor of Soshanguve, a local township slum area of 1.5 million South Africans about 20 miles outside of Pretoria. I will be partnering with Luc and Petunia Kabongo to train, mentor, and provide spiritual direction for their growing team living throughout this township by providing self-care and sustainable training for a group of 25 Care Workers. They are frontline hands and feet in the fight against the devastation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa (Highest AIDS rate in the world!) as part of a home-based NGO that provides medical care to those dying of HIV/AIDS & related diseases.
My role is to care for these care workers.