The Peacemaking Program’s Travel Study Seminar to South Africa
The following was written on Friday, November 7 while in Johannesburg, South Africa
A system, Apartheid, had a nation divided black from white. Nelson Mandela, a hero for freedom and forgiveness, draws me from the largest city in the United States to the largest in South Africa – Johannesburg or “Jo Berg” as they say here. The question, Why?
The ruling elders of the church I serve, although blessing my participation last July, wondered why? On the Tuesday before I was to board a plane, they asked me a strange question. A New York doctor had been recently infected with the Ebola virus from West Africa, and a nurse, solely on suspicion of infect had been isolated against her will. The rising fears of an Ebola outbreak led one of my members to contact our General Presbyter and ask, “Doesn’t the pastor need to be isolated for three weeks after his trip?” Additionally, they wondered, “How will this trip benefit our congregation?”
“How?” they asked. As I wrote in my application to the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, I want to listen and learn. Its all about social justice. We need to seek and pursue reconciliation. It is one of the things we promise in our ordination, ruling and teaching elders alike. We need to stand together where many seek to retreat from crucial issues and fears affecting us.
South Africa and Ferguson, Missouri seem so far away, but are they really? The need for greater racial reconciliation is breaking the hearts of many in our country. Helping those tainted by prison seems to be a lost priority in the church. Who really are ‘the least among us’? Does faith trump fear? Would we honor a political prisoner in our community, like Nelson Mandela?
God is nudging me to lead my congregation to be stronger in their social witness. I ask myself if we are the ‘beloved community.’ Are we ‘an authentic community’ of broken people reaching out to find ourselves in mission? The church is struggling. We may sing a favorite hymn on Sundays, Here I Am Lord, but do we ponder the question God is asking us, “Whom shall I send?” Can God’s people let go of their comforts and security to take time to listen to those who deserve a just peace? Will God’s people extend God’s mercy and bring about reconciliation for those who wait for their delayed justice?
I have heard the pain of the prisoner in the East Meadow jail. I have heard the captivity of those locked in fear in the pew, and the anguish of the people. And this week, I have seen and heard those who still live in Soweto. Poverty, pollution and persistent hopelessness are only the outer crust of this pie of despair.
Democracy, equality, reconciliation and diversity echo from a building just 25 minutes from Tambo International Airport, that demands that Apartheid is exactly where it belongs – in a museum, The Apartheid Museum!
Allan Paton, Steven Biko, the Groote Schumer Accord, Botha, De Klerk, the Sharpeville emergency, the Pan African Congress, Ernest Cole…Are these names or struggles you can relate to? They tell the story of how much we need to open the windows of our own prejudices?
Am I ready to answer my elders question when I return? Are you and I open enough, to hear how racism undermines God’s rich plan for my congregation, our community, our country and our world?
The story is just beginning to be heard. The prison where Mandela was held, where Gandhi was also held, the horror of their prayer cells cannot, nor will not, contain their strength and courage to change the world.
A play at the Market Theatre, “My Name is Rachel Corrie” set the stage for our journey of listening and learning. We visited the Khulumani Support Group, a group whose mission is to build a just society in which the dignity of people harmed by Apartheid is restored through the process of transforming victims into victors. This group, which in Zulu means to ‘speak up’, leaves my heart strangely warmed. I see their video of recent killings of mineworkers by the police. I ponder the disappearances of people and the struggles of their loved ones each day. I see a poster on the wall reminding all to keep the 30th day in August each year before us.
Pain, killings, sufferings are evil, even in a post Apartheid world. It seems never to end! I came here to listen and learn, perhaps to find some answers. I am left with the profound awareness of the ongoing difficulties in achieving true justice, restoration and reconciliation.
Tomorrow I get on a plane, but not the plane to go home, but a plane to Cape Town where we will travel to yet another prison cell, that of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. I ask myself, have I heard and listened well enough to answer my elders question? Thankfully, tomorrow the plane is not heading back to JFK.
One thing is for sure, although the word, ‘Apartheid’ is meant to stay in a Museum, racism continues and its ramifications are still very much alive in our midst.
James W. Barnum
Jim has served for 25 year as the pastor of Bellmore Presbyterian Church, a congregation of about 300 on Long Island, outside of New York City. His doctoral studies at Columbia (Georgia) focused on working with families living with a child with a disability. He and his wife, Linda, have two adult children.