Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Bar in Johannesburg

(This post is an expansion of the largely off-the-cuff communion sermon I gave at worship yesterday.  To my fellow FCC-'ers, you will recognize parts of this! -E.A.)

During the summer of 2006, I had the blessing and privilege of traveling to the sub-Saharan African countries of South Africa, Angola, and Kenya on mission in conjunction with Global Ministries, the international mission arm of my denomination.  We spent the most time in South Africa, primarily in the cities of Johannesburg and Durban.  And after the passing of Nelson Mandela last week, several of my fellow missionaries on that trip took to Facebook to re-post photos and images from our trip.

It stirred a lot of memories for me.

I remembered playing soccer with a gaggle of children outside of a soup kitchen in Soweto.

I remembered praying and posing for pictures with the children of Bridgman's, a community center in one of the other Johannesburg slums.

I remembered the AIDS clinics we visited to deliver medical supplies, and I remember being told that as many as 90% of the patients who would come to these clinics would test positive for HIV.

I remembered visiting the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pieterson memorial, and museums to both Mandela and Gandhi.

I remembered more mundane things as well, like the bandanas I used to tie my (then shoulder-length) hair in.

I remembered watching the 2006 World Cup--the first World Cup I watched in a truly soccer-crazed setting.

And I remembered a long conversation I had in a bar in Johannesburg after a long day of site visits with an affable Brit who had made his living in Johannesburg for many, many years as a mining engineer.

I don't remember how we got to talking.  I do remember that he resembled my paternal grandfather George, with his thick white beard and taciturn manner.

Over the course of an hour and a half--and several whiskies--he told me all about his life in South Africa, and about how much everything around him had changed and progressed, especially since 1994, when Mandela became President of South Africa and apartheid was officially abolished.  He told me it amazed him--in a good way.

And from him, I learned something tremendous: despite how some of the media reports depict some of the white South Africans as concerned more about retaliation with Mandela gone, plenty of South African whites were--and are--tremendously proud of Mandela and of what he accomplished.  Many of them mourn Mandela as a hero and an inspiration to them.  Like any other population, it is impossible to paint them with such broad brushstrokes.  For me, that is a good reminder.

Listening to this British-born engineer expound upon his adopted nation with such pride and obvious patriotism, I realized that I was directly benefiting from Mandela's legacy.  He--a white South African--was sharing his life's story with a multiethnic American missionary in a bar surrounded by people of color.

That simply would not have been possible when I was born.

But Nelson Mandela--among others--made it so.

The strength of the human will is staggering...when we want it to be.  When we allow it to be unleashed.

It is not often that we do.  But the names of the people who have managed to do it--and subsequently shape the world for the better--are rightly immortalized.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mahatma Gandhi.

Mother Teresa.

Nelson Mandela.

In the smallest and most mundane of ways--a barroom conversation--I was presented with a spiritual experience of the highest order: to hear the voice of one who had gone before me and was sharing his story with me now because his country had changed so much that such conversations were now possible.

It is the joy from that conversation that I remember along with the joy of the children I played soccer with (and the laughter at having to tell the kids that no, I was not friends with 50 Cent) and the joy of the many other people I met in my short time in South Africa.

That I even got to experience and share in such joy at all in a country that was all but closed off to the world when I was born is nothing short of a miracle.  And for that, I remain forever indebted to Nelson Mandela.

Go with God, Madiba.

Yours in Christ,

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing those important remembrances Eric! He was a remarkable man and a courageous leader.