Two weekends ago I traveled with my host mother to Mpuluzi, South Africa for the 2011 ELCSA Easter Dioceses Woman’s Conference. Having attended the past seven or so Synod Assembles back in Pennsylvania for the Lower Susquehanna Synod, I was excited when Mama asked me if I wanted to go with her to the Women’s Prayer League Conference. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa’s WPL (Woman’s Prayer League) holds an annual conferences within their diocese, where women get together to discuss current issues they’re dealing with, pray together, lift each other up, and just be together.
Thursday afternoon Mama and I packed our bags for the weekend into Baba’s bakkie (truck) in preparation to head to the church to get ready for departure. When Mama asked me if I had a sleeping bag, because there aren’t beds at the conference, I was super happy for once that I had brought along my camping bed roll. (This bed roll gave me extreme difficulties in the airport arriving in South Africa as it continued to fly off my backpack and onto the airport floor. As the 12 of us volunteers dashed through the Johannesburg airport to catch our flight on time to Durban, a handful of times I had to turn around and pick up off the ground or was handed the bed roll as we made the mad dash to get to our gate on time.) “Yes,” I said to Mama “I have a bed roll and I can bring along a blanket.” I grabbed my bedroll and stuff it into my backpack and loaded my last bit of luggage into the bakkie.
Around 4pm we pulled into the church yard to depart with 7 other women. We were traveling in a Kombi (the name for taxis, which most are closer to the size of a large mini van) and attached to it was a small trailer packed tight with our entire luggage. The 8 women, including Mama, were dressed in their Woman’s League Outfits: black tops and skirts, with a white collar and white hat. As the Kombi started, and we began to pull out of the yard, the eight of them began singing. I recognized the song from church. It was a song thanking God and saying that with God in your life, you have no problems. It put a smile on my face. After the song, they all began to pray out loud forsafe travel to the conference and to have the Holy Spirit be with us all this weekend, and then, we were off.
When we arrived in Mpuluzi, it was already dark. The kombi pulled into the grounds of one of the township’s high school yards. Each parish had their own classroom where for the next 4 days we were to sleep, eat, get dressed, and as I found out the next morning, wash in. The classrooms were bare with all the tables and chairs pushed to the side. We loaded all of our bags in and I helped put down our congregation’s mattresses (or in my case the infamous bed pad) onto one half of the class room. In total there were 6 parishes there, and in each parish there maybe 2 to 3 congregations. The parish I was with is the Bethal Parish, making up our Embalenhle congregation as well as a congregation from Bethal. The Bethal congregation arrived shortly after us. There were in total about 8 of them as well, and they were all dressed in their Woman’s League outfits. They used the other half of the classroom to place down their belongings and make their beds.
The schoolyard and classrooms in Mpuluzi
Once we were all moved in, we walked out of the classroom and down the outside steps to a building adjacent to ours. This was to be where all the large gatherings were held through-out the day. (I believe it was the room where most of the high schoolers had their lunch) The conference began with all the women who were there so far (about 50 in total) gathered in the room to have an evening service where the Dean of the diocese presided.
Women at the conference singing in the large gathering room
Once the service was over it was close to 11pm. I was thoroughly exhausted and my throat was beginning to ache. We all headed back up to our perspective rooms, and I was ready to go right to bed. As I sat down on my bed pad, I realized the women were beginning to get out their dinners. I had completely forgotten that we had packed dinners to have once we arrived. I told Mama I wasn’t feeling well and was just going to head to bed. “Okay,” she said smiling, “We’re going to go have dinner then be up for bed. Goodnight” I feel asleep within a few minutes.
The sleep was not to last, however. I was woken up around midnight with the sounds of talking. I turned over and found the room was still very much alive. The lights were on and everyone was chatting and laughing. At first I, I have to admit, I was annoyed. No one likes being woken-up, especially when they’re not feeling well. I looked around the room and found all of them changing into their sleeping clothes while talking to one another. Some telling stories so dramatically and others were laughing hysterically. The whole scene reminded me of a sleepover party: women in bed chatting with each other while a container of cookies was passed around to share. I was feeling frustrated, exhausted, and my throat ached more than earlier in the night. It was only after seeing my host mother laughing so hard ( harder than I’ve seen her laugh yet…there were tears rolling down from her eyes) that I began to relax and get over my prima donna moment of needing everyone to be quiet so I could get some rest. It was then that I began to think of this conference as also a time to just be together, in community with one another.
I don’t remember when I feel asleep, I think around 2am. I was woken up around 7am as the lights were turned on and I heard the sounds of water splashing around. I was so exhausted, and my throat was hurting even more than the night. Breakfast was being served at 8am and the day was to begin at 9am with a morning prayer, so I figured I could get in 15 minutes more of sleep. As I laid there trying to fall back to bed, I heard around me all the women chatting. I couldn’t understand much of what they were saying, and feared that I wouldn’t be able to understand any of the conference.
When we were all finished getting ready, we walked over to the other building to the larger room where the evening worship was held the night before. I was still feeling a bit sick, and looked around for where the tea mugs were that everyone was carrying around. Upon filling up my mug with water and beginning to stir in my tea packet, I turned around and was welcomed by dozens of women, whom not even knowing who I was or why there was a twenty-something white girl at the conference, gave me large smiles and countless hellos. It was comforting having this positive morning encounter with all these women, especially after having a night of such little sleep and feeling sick. I felt…well honestly, special. Not that I was more special than them, but special to be in such a situation. Blessed to be around such welcoming people. I can’t help but think of times in the U.S. when we see someone completely different looking than us and shy away from them. I stick out like a sore thumb in the places I’ve been volunteering in South Africa. I am in black communities, and I am white. For the most part, except when I traveled to a nearby town close to Embalenhle , I have been the only white person in sight. Not once have I felt ostracized for looking different, or for that matter, speaking different, but instead embraced and welcomed. I can’t help but wonder how those people who “look” and speak different in America feel when we make assumptions about who they are or where they come from, instead of embracing them as a person.
If the interaction was reversed and I was placed in situations I can think of in the U.S. where ones sticks out so obviously as being different, I can’t imagine, in most cases, receiving such a warm welcome. Having been feeling sick and tired, and all together new and nervous, I’m thankful that this wasn’t the case. I wonder how people in American feel who can’t speak perfect English, or dress “differently” than most Americans when such strong negatives comments have been made towards them? I fear that without even knowing someone’s story, judgments are all to often made- I myself have been responsible for such instances. These women didn’t know my story, didn’t know that I was sick, didn’t know that I was volunteering or why I was even here, and and quite frankly after the reign of the apartheid, could have displayed negative feelings towards a white person, but no they didn’t. They asked me to sit near them, asked me why I was here, waved, smiled…. they were curious and delighted to have me at their conference. One of the pastors even asked me if I would like him to interrupt what all the speakers and pastors were saying for the weekend. I did not even ask this gentleman to do this for me, he volunteered his time and sat next to me the whole conference interrupting every word that was spoken.
Desmond Tutu’s book, “Not Future Without Forgiveness” has an excellent passage in it about embracing community and other humans… this idea of Ubuntu that I believe was (and has been consistently) displayed so well during my stay at the Woman’s Conference ( and in South Africa). He writes, “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human…you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say ‘A person is a person through other persons’ It is not, ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate, I share’ A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole…” This is not really different at all from what Christians say they follow. Jesus spoke of the same ideas in Matthew 22: 39 “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I added the emphasis there, but think about how much power that has behind it. Loving someone as yourself, is embracing them for who they are. Is saying we are all bound up together because I am to love you as I love myself. These women were displaying Ubuntu, and consistently did the whole conference, not only to me but one another.
During the Saturday evening activities, a mini-choir competition was held. My parish placed last, and I was completely frustrated by this. My mind was so caught up in the fact that my parish got last place, that I found myself totally zoned out for the rest of the evening. I kept thinking to my self, “but wait, there is no way they should’ve got last. I know, for I’ve been in countless singing competitions, choirs, musicals my whole life, and I know that they did better than so and so parish.” How ridiculous that my mind was so tangled up in my own selfish pride that I couldn’t even concentrate for the rest of the evening? Talk about opposite of Ubuntu! Looking back at that moment, I was missing the big picture of why the choir competition was even being held. This was the first year they were able to get a judge from a university to come. The women were so excited to have this opportunity, and they were sincerely happy for one another when others ranked higher than themselves. They saw the gifts that other parish had, and faithfully and happily acknowledged these. (There was also a hand-work competition as well as different fundraising competitions).
Bethal Parish's hand-work
To bring this back to the idea of Ubuntu, Tutu writes about not feeling threatened that others are able and good, and the Bible too speaks to this message in Romans 12:3-6 “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” Why did I feel so threatened that another group performed better than mine? Why did I lose concentration for the whole evening? Do we lose site of why we do things? Do we let negative emotions control how we feel? I wasn’t thinking about the spirit of Ubuntu, loving others as myself, acknowledging the gifts everyone offers… I was the opposite of what Tutu says about Ubuntu, I felt threatened and I was thinking only of my selfish pride.
I’m not beating myself up over this, but these women and men at the conference displayed a spirit of community that I find often is lacking in the American culture. Our culture revolves around the idea of the “American Dream” which isn’t how can I embrace my community or love others as myself, it’s how can I get to the top? Don’t misunderstand me, I believe there is beauty behind the American Dream, that there are opportunities offered in America that many other countries around the world don’t have, but in all this I believe there is a lost dimension of appreciation, love, support, and care for our neighbors. When Tutu speaks of being caught up in each others’ humanity, and the Bible says love your neighbors as yourself, I don’t think either is implementing those humans or neighbors that look or speak like us. It means everyone- all humans. It’s when regardless if a person who looks and speaks totally different than you, is embraced and welcomed because, they are human because you are human and we all belong, our humanity is strung together.
Rev Pereira(wife), Rev Mamba, Bishop Mnisi, Rev Pereria(husband), myself, Dean Dlamini, and the alter boy
At the end of the conference, I was feeling significantly more sick than at the beginning of the long weekend, but I was also more than ever happy that I came. The hand-work made by all the congregations was for sale, and I bought a traditional Zulu pot from one of the ladies (luckily I even got one thing, because everything was going so fast!) I said goodbye to the women I had met, and thanked as many as I could for allowing me to spend time with them. I gave a special thanks to Rev. Pereira for interpenetrating for me and thanked the other pastors, Dean, and Bishop. Our congregation packed our last belongings into the Kombi, and figured out a way to fit our trophy into the van. Oh yes, Embalenhle did win one of the categories as they raised the most money over the year for the church.
Some Women from Bethal Parish with their trophy for raising the most annual money
As we pulled out of the school yard, the women began singing a song and then prayed once more for safe travels home. While the lack of sleep and forgetting my inhaler did add to my sickness over the weekend, the tight quarters, friendly smiles, willing and thoughtful pastors, and example of the community, gave me a healthy spirit. One of the final messages given by one of the pastors was that no-one likes to be alone, humans need each other to build each other up. While this message was to encourage the woman to go back to their congregations and continue to help in their communities, I saw it once again as the power of community shown through out this conference and another reminder to me (and as I write this, us all) … why not make a valet effort to embrace one another, all people, in the spirit of Ubuntu?