August 30, 2007

My First Xhosa Teacher

There are a number of challenges ahead of me as I adjust to life in Mthatha but the dominant one right now is language. While many people in Mthatha speak English as a second language, seemingly everyone who lives here would prefer to speak Xhosa. In Itipini, there are many people who have never learned English and can only speak Xhosa. Since I want to be able to help them and learn from them, learning their language seems like a good first step.

The trouble for me and Xhosa is that the language has three click sounds that are used like any other consonants in English. I am having so much trouble both making the click sounds properly and hearing the different click sounds when other people talk. How can you learn a word if you quite literally cannot even say it?

While many people have been supportive of my attempts thus far and will tell me how to say something if I ask, there is one particular person who should be singled out for his help.

Yele (yeh-lay) is about six years old and I happened to sit by him the first day I went to the pre-school. Like many other children in Itipini, he has a great smile and craves any attention any adult will give him. With all of the children, I have been trying to get them to the point where I can point at something and say it in English and they say it in Xhosa. For the vast majority of the children, when I say the English word, they just repeat it after me. And when I say, “In Xhosa” they just laugh and repeat how I have mispronounced Xhosa. (As near as I can tell, I make the “q” click when I should make the “x” click and so I am basically saying Qosa, which is nonsense.)

But Yele gets what I am trying to do. I will point at a body part and he will say, for instance, “elbow – nqlilile.” Today a plane flew past and he pointed at it and said, “Oolobrai, oolobrai” and made his arms into wings and flew around. All the children call me “teacher” (pronounced almost like “t-shirt” – “tee-shaw”) but Yele today pointed at himself and said “Yele” and pointed at his friend and said “Caspah.” I pointed at myself and said “Jesse” and he repeated it after me quite well.

Most importantly, Yele has been pointing out how I am messing up. For instance, the Xhosa word for elbow has a “q” click – you’re supposed to put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth and then click. Yele (and everyone else) does it effortlessly but I strain so hard the tendons on my neck stand out. Yele noticed that and kept pointing at his throat. I didn’t get it at first but I finally realized what he was doing and realized I was trying to hard and didn’t have to make my clicks so pronounced. When I (finally) pronounce a word right, the nod he gives me is worth so much. I’d almost describe it as business-like, as if to say, “great, got that one, let’s move on.”

Yele’s English is better than my Xhosa but not by much so I’ve been trying to return the favour. Today, I pointed at my shirt that said “Life is good” and had them repeat it. They got it quite well but I couldn’t figure out how to explain what it meant in their terms, though it is perhaps not a phrase they need right now.

I am learning about the importance of non-verbal communication. Even though Yele and I cannot speak the same language, when we play and learn together it still feels like we are sharing something important.


On my first day in Itipini, I stepped out of the pre-school to take a quick break and heard a sound I thought was someone trying to start a cranky lawnmower. I can’t spell the sound but it was kind of like someone kept pulling the starter cord and the lawnmower kept coming close to turning over before dying.

My first thought was, “Oh, someone’s taking advantage of the nice weather to mow the lawn.” Then I thought, “Wait, Itipini is a dump. It’s all dirt and glass and garbage – not grass.” So I turned in the direction of the sound and saw about six pigs snorting and digging their way through the trash. Pigs – along with chickens, roosters, dogs, and who knows what else – wander around freely all day long, including right in the middle of the children’s playground. Indeed, they drink out of the wastewater ditch that runs through the playground.

Just one of the many ways in which I have to re-calibrate my expectations in Itipini.

August 28, 2007

My First South African Friend

While waiting for the bus the other day in East London, Lebo started talking to me... and talking and talking, no doubt egged on by my endless questions (once a reporter, always a reporter...). Lebo is from Jo-burg and has had a run of bad luck lately - she called this the "lowest point of her life" and said if she started telling me about her sorrows she would start crying "and would not stop." (She did tell me, she did cry, and she did stop.) She is convinced someone has put a witchcraft spell on her so she was visiting a town near East London to see a woman who could give her a "cleansing bath" to help the spell go away.

Lebo is articulate in a way she did not even know and I learned so much from her about life as a black person in South Africa, even now that apartheid is over. She has a degree in cosmotology but she cannot find a job because whenever she shows up for an interview and people see she is black, they tell her the position is filled. So she works at a bar, 7 days a week. Her parents died when she was 18. When a group of white men on motorcycles pulled into the parking lot where we were waiting, she said, "When whites ruled, you had to run when you saw a gang of motorcycles," as I guess they were known for their violence. She also said, "They are probably looking at you, saying, 'What is that white man doing with that black woman'." (We were the only inter-racial couple there.)

While she took her cigarette breaks, I frantically scribbled down some of what she had said so I could remember the experience. I don't take it as Gospel-truth but it is certainly interesting (and these snippets barely do justice to the five-plus hours we spent together):

  • "You have probably never starved but look at me. I am starving, I am freezing, and I can't pay the bills."
  • "If I wrote a book of my life, it would be full of sorrow. But someday I will come out of Egypt. I look at myself - I am smart, I have a degree, I am not ugly - sure I am fat - but why can't I drive a car, have a good job, you know?"
  • "I am complaining but there are people who have it worse than me. I may not know how I'm getting home but some people don't have a roof over their head, education, they're sleeping on the streets. I, at least, have hope." (She quoted Forrest Gump's, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get" several times.)
  • "On the day that man [Nelson Mandela] was released from prison, crime shot up in this country. I wish this was a 3rd-world country because that is how people are acting. Don't think because you see people driving cars and having nice things they are doing well. They are stealing, they are selling drugs."
  • "One thing about the previous government - yes, we were mistreated, we were disrespected, but we had jobs. Now we have a government that promises jobs - where are the jobs? Where are the houses?"

We only talked a little about HIV/AIDS but she is very clearly disappointed in the (controversial) response of the government.

When she found out I had left Alaska to move her, she said, "You quit your job to come to this country? You know what you have done? You have ruined your life.... but you might enjoy it because you are a visitor and you can leave anytime."

It was fascinating (on a theoretical level) and terrifying (on a practical level) to be confronted so openly by someone who was so honest about the disparities between the two of us. She openly said she did not have enough money for a ticket back to Jo-burg and was going to Durban to see if she could get some money for a friend. She only had a few rand in her pocket (less than a dollar) and had only eaten a bag of potato chips all day. I bought her dinner because a) $5 seemed like the least I could do for her; b) I wanted to keep talking to her; and c) I wanted the safety of numbers while we waited for the bus. But I didn't offer to give her money for the Durban to Jo-burg ticket - I can't say why - even though it was probably less than $30 U.S., though I did think about it.

I hate being on the upper end of the inequality equation!

Getting to Mthatha

In the spirit of Moses, who led the people of Israel through the wilderness before arriving in the Promised Land, and of Christ, who fasted in the desert for 40 days before beginning his earthly ministry, but mostly due to the delays of British Airways and my own misguided sense of adventure, I took an unorthodox route to Mthatha, South Africa, finally arriving at 12:40am on Sunday morning, more than 48 hours after I had started.

The flight from Toronto to Heathrow was uneventful. Somehow the check-in clerk in Toronto knew I was a missionary and said he would not charge me for bringing my guitar, which was my third piece of luggage (see economy, God's). I spent the 8-hour layover in London mostly biting my nails in anxiety over whether I'd be able to make my connection in Johannesburg the next morning. I had an hour and a half to clear customs, get my bags, switch terminals, check in to another flight, clear security, and get to the gate for Mthatha. I was even more anxious when I realized I was booked on the only flight into Mthatha all day so if I missed it I would be spending a night in Jo-burg.

I eventually realized a potentially more productive route than biting my nails would be praying a bit. But I didn't want to pray for anything as craven as "Please God, help me make my connection" so I said something like, "Dear Lord, I thank you for your guidance thus far and I pray you will watch over me as this journey continues." (It didn't sound that good when I said it.) I, of course, meant for this prayer to be interpreted as, "Get me on that plane to Mthatha!" but, as I would learn, it wasn't.

The plane to Jo-burg was delayed about 45 minutes but when I got on the plane to Jo-burg and squeezed into my tiny seat, a perceptive flight attendant said, "I notice you're rather tall, sir. Perhaps you'd like to be re-seated." I immediately agreed and he moved me up to a first-class exit row seat. I am not normally in the business of taking pictures of my feet but as I put such a premium on leg room on long-distance flights and was so immensely rewarded on this one, I had to remember the moment. I slept so well and could have done jumping jacks if I wanted to.

I had to rip myself from my comfy airplane confines in Jo-burg and start my sprint through the airport, a journey that was not helped by my misreading of a crucial sign that put me in the wrong customs line for 25 minutes and myriad other large and small details that all conspired to make me miss the connection by just minutes. It would have saved everyone (well, me) a lot of heartbreak if they had just let me on that plane, as it was still on the ground when I got there but they wouldn't.

As I was not particularly keen on spending a night in Jo-burg, I took the advice of my very friendly porter (my only friend in South Africa at the time) who said, "Fly to East London and take a bus from there to Mthatha." It sounded like as good a plan as any so I re-booked for East London and arrived soon after noon. The trouble with the plan, as I shortly learned, is that the next bus for Mthatha didn't depart until 10pm. So I had 10 hours to kill in East London, a pleasant place right on the Indian Ocean coast. It is the start of the "Wild Coast," an apparently gorgeous section of coastline (which I hope to be able to tell you more about soon.) I watched the surfers, saw a road race pass right by me, and generally tried to stay awake after two nights sleeping in the seat of a plane.

The trouble was the bus station closed at 5 so I had to go pick up my luggage by then and find a place to wait. When the ticket agent told me this, I assumed it meant the ticket window closed at 5 and I could wait inside on the chairs until 10. But when I arrived at 4:30, a nice woman also waiting for the same bus said matter-of-factly, "We will have to leave at 5 but this place [a drive-through fast food restaurant] is open 24 hours so we will not get robbed." Basic safety precautions like where to wait had not even occurred to me.

This woman, Lebo, soon became my first South African friend and we managed to convince the ticket agent to stay around until 6:15. Then I bought her dinner at the fast-food restaurant so we could have a place to sit while we waited. I'll write more about the conversation we had in another post as Lebo was an articulate and profound woman who had much to teach me (though she didn't know it) about her life as a black woman in South Africa.

The shoreline of the Indian Ocean is quite a cold place to wait in the spring, I learned, and Lebo was quite freezing the entire time. I had nothing she could fit into to offer her and I only rather late (and guiltily) put on my own jacket. But the astounding thing to me is that it is considered normal and every-day for people to wait for hours on end for a bus, outside, in a potentially dangerous place, without necessarily shelter. No other alternative - like a heated and well-lighted bus station - even seems to be in the realm of possibility. A friend of Lebo's in fact had given her a ride to East London from the town she was visiting because if she had stayed there the bus stop was in total darkness and would not have been safe.

The bus finally showed up. It was a traditional coach of the kind I am familiar with in the U.S. and Canada and I safely arrived in Mthatha. I slept in for so long on Sunday morning, even as the lawn was mowed right outside my window.

(Incidentally, I believe my prayer was answered.)

August 23, 2007


My next post will be from South Africa. Here's what I'm bringing, pushing every luggage limit to the max.

August 22, 2007


You might think I would have used the power of Google before now to learn more about where I am going and what I'll be doing. But I only just searched for "African Medical Mission" and the results made me wish I'd done it earlier.

Here's AMM's website.

And you can also read the reports of some former volunteers in Mthatha. There are more reports here.

There are some reflections from an Anglican priest's visit to the Diocese of Mthatha.

There's a newspaper story from 1999 about Bedford hospital.

This blog is also somehow the fourth link on a Google search for "Mthatha South Africa."

God's economy

A phrase that is often tossed around among the believing type is "God's economy." It's never been quite clear to me what exactly this is but it always seems to center on the word abundance and the idea that God will provide what we need (perhaps not what we want) if we are faithful.

I've been receiving a steady stream of examples of God's economy as I prepare to leave. A few months ago I identified several items I "needed" to be a missionary overseas - a better laptop computer and a functional digital camera to tell you what I am doing; various small items like a surge protector, power adapter, laptop lock, etc. to help me adapt electronically; new clothes as I moved from a sub-Arctic to a sub-tropical climate; an iPod (definitely not a "need") so I wouldn't have to cart scores of CDs across the Atlantic; and a handful of other items.

I was staring at this list in horror two months ago because I didn't see how I was ever going to be able to afford all these items. But then I started talking about mission and people started responding and I now have all of the items I needed and they didn't cost my bank account a penny. (As far as the laptop goes, I learned the same lesson Abraham did: "God will provide the RAM.") Not only that, I've got some extra money to see me through the days I'll be traveling and even enough money to pay the extra baggage charge for sending my guitar to South Africa. Thank you to everyone who has made this possible.

I have a number of friends who ask me what it's like not to make a lot of money and how I deal with it. And while it's true there are a couple of things I want (not need) I can't afford now (when I start earning a salary, I am going to buy the nicest and most expensive guitar ever), I am truly blessed in the extent of my possessions.

Sometimes it's helpful to remember that.

August 21, 2007


So I've been thinking a lot about my impending departure (Thursday night) for Mthatha and all that will come with it, the new challenges and experiences, the difficulties, and the loneliness that will assuredly accompany being so far away from home.

And I was going to share some of my thoughts on those issues but then I checked out what my fellow missionaries are saying and realized we're all dealing with similar issues all around the world. Kate is learning lots of new things in the D.R., Andy and Leigh are sorting out a number of linguistic and logistic difficulties in El Salvador, and Stephen is reflecting on the importance of God when facing feelings of loneliness and homesickness in South Africa.

So in lieu of reading what I think (plenty of opportunity for that later), check out what they have to say.

Isn't the Internet great?

August 15, 2007

Counting Down

I appreciated Andy and Leigh's recent post about preparations for their mission work in El Salvador and the importance of realizing that even the preparation work can be missionary in a sense. When I was in high school, I was on the search committee for a new rector at church and one candidate kept talking about how her goal was to "find the daily in the holy and the holy in the daily." Perhaps my job as an about-to-be missionary is to "find the mission in the preparation and the preparation in the mission."

Lately, I've been feeling like a traveling dog-and-pony mission show because I keep saying the same things about mission and Mthatha to everyone who asks, which is just about everyone I meet. I managed to get preaching invitations on three consecutive Sundays in three different churches and preached more or less the same text each time. Yes, I should win some kind of award for efficiency but it can be so exhausting being so repetitive.

But when I'm not mentally complaining about the repetition, I've been able to realize how this sort of pre-departure communication is actually a tremendous blessing and a way for me to expand my community of support and - more importantly - involve more people in my small bit of the mission of reconciliation. Maybe the greatest blessings take longer to recognize.

August 9, 2007

It takes all kinds

I am just now wrapping up a whirlwind trip to my nominally home diocese of Western Massachusetts, where I have been taking the time in person to thank people and congregations for their support and tell them about what I'm doing. I'll have more thoughts on that later but I was reflecting on the fundraising process in general and I think donors can be divided into two broad categories.

First, there's the "better you than me" folk who think they could never work overseas but believe in mission and are more than happy to support someone in their stead.

Second, there's the "I wish I were you" folk who want to be missionaries but can't for one reason or another. There's a sub-group here of "you remind me of me" folk who were once missionaries and now want to see others succeed.

The body of Christ is wonderfully diverse and it takes all kinds to serve the Lord. I'm thankful for the support of everyone, no matter where it comes from or what the motivation.

August 1, 2007

Mission Sermon

Here's the text of a sermon I am preaching this Sunday at St. John's Episcopal Church, Northampton, Massachusetts. I put a lot of thought into it and it's a good summary of what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.

Hosea 11:1-11
Luke 12:13-21
St. John’s Episcopal Church
Northampton, Massachusetts
5 August 2007

Let us pray.
Gracious God, grant that we might use your gifts to perform your mission of reconciliation in this broken world. Amen.

I want to begin with something I never thought I would say.

I am a missionary of the Episcopal Church.

“Missionary” is kind of a loaded word. Last fall, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible” about a missionary family in the Congo and if I needed any reminder about the mixed history of mission work in Africa, it certainly gave it to me. It tells the story of a righteous and unyielding minister who refuses to learn the local culture, insists on preaching the Gospel in English, and counts his success by the number of people baptized. Then, there’s the history of missionaries to consider and their role in perpetuating, in some instances, an unjust and discriminatory colonialism. Jesus’ command to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations” has wrought both much that is good but also much that is regrettable in our world. Even today, I have learned there is great disquiet about the idea of being a missionary in a world whose struggles can be traced to conflicting religious traditions. Bible-thumping and mass baptisms don’t exactly seem like a good use of my time, or, really, anyone’s time. And yet I say that I am missionary with whatever degree of pride I am allowed by the Bible and a measure of satisfaction, knowing that it is opening more doors to me than I ever could have imagined.

In February, I decided to join our national church’s Young Adult Service Corps, a program for Episcopalians in their 20s that matches willing and able Americans with Anglican dioceses and organizations overseas. It was established by General Convention in 2000 and the church pledges to find us housing and meaningful work if we will devote a year of our lives to the program and raise at least 10-thousand dollars in support.

I will be working at the Itipini Medical Clinic in Mthatha, South Africa. This is a clinic that was started by a husband-and-wife mission couple about 25 years ago and serves about 3000 people who live in a shanty-town on the site of Mthatha’s former dump. The husband is the only orthopedic surgeon in about a hundred thousand square miles and works at a local hospital. The wife is a nurse and runs the clinic and feeding program, pre-school, and after-school program that are also a part of the ministry. I will be working with her in all aspects of the ministry and can’t wait to have my eyes opened to the reality of HIV and AIDS in South Africa and the wonders God is working among our African brothers and sisters. I leave in two weeks and were it not for the small matter of seeing all of you, celebrating my birthday with my parents, and swapping out my Alaska wardrobe for a South African one, I would be there now.

I read the Bible as a whole, a complete piece of divinely-inspired literature that – while contradictory and confusing in many places – tells a couple consistent messages throughout. The message I hear most frequently is evident in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus says, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions” and warns those who “store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” We can summarize this message by paraphrasing what is often associated with a president: “Ask not what you can do for yourself; ask what you can do for God and God’s people.” God has created us, knows each one of us, and has blessed each of us with a unique set of gifts, not to enrich ourselves and store up treasures on earth but to enrich God’s fallen world and make it more like God’s perfect creation. That is no small task and not one that we accomplish in a day, a week, a month, a year, or even a lifetime. It is a task we shall never see the conclusion of. But it is a task to which we must devote our lives all the same.

Since we each have different gifts, we fulfill this godly duty in different ways, in a way that fully expresses the diversity of the Body of Christ metaphor Paul uses in his epistles. But we are united by one theme: service. I define service as the act of putting the needs of others ahead of the needs of oneself. We have our own desires and wishes, of course, and we shouldn’t deny them, but our orientation needs to be primarily outwards, towards our brothers and sisters in Christ, and not inwards, enriching only ourselves.

It is this attitude that has drawn me first to Nome, Alaska where for the past two years I have worked as a news reporter at a public-service radio station there, broadcasting to Alaska Natives in Western Alaska, who live in what are frequently termed “third-world conditions.” And it is an attitude that made me search for something like YASC. But when I found out that I would be a missionary of the church if I joined YASC, I paused. Why not stay in Nome or anywhere on this continent and continue to be a contributing member of society? Why not join some other secular service program, like the Peace Corps, which I seriously considered after college before opting for grad school? Why not run as far away from the dreaded m-word as possible? What theology of mission could I arrive at that would allow me to reconcile my belief in service with my hesitation at, say, the Great Commission?

The pivot point for me, when I finally became truly comfortable saying “I am a missionary,” was two weeks of mission training in New York City in early June. With a wonderful group of other prospective missionaries, I prayed, talked, and quizzed everyone I met about these very questions up to and including the Presiding Bishop. And I learned the Episcopal Church as a whole struggles with many of these same questions but has the outlines of an answer.

When Christian fervour for overseas mission work began to reach a critical mass in the early 19th century, the focus was on the “missions of the church,” that is, the hospitals, schools, and churches around the world that various parts of the church in the rich world supported. “Mission” is rooted in the Latin word that means “sent” so it made sense to focus on these discrete outposts of people who had been sent from their homes. While this is likely where the negative view of missionaries began, we should also recognize there were as many kinds of missionaries as there are kinds of Christians and many were kind and loving types who prayfully served their new communities.

Over time, however, this focus changed and people began speaking about the “Church’s mission.” The question became, What is the church doing all over the world and how can we all participate in that one mission? The Episcopal Church, for once in its life, was ahead of the game and in 1830 declared that every member of the church was a member of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, which remains our official title today and which means all of you are missionaries as well. Everyone participates in mission.

But focusing on the “Church’s mission” forgot an important element: God. So the focus in the last few decades has been on “God’s mission” and the question that is central to this is, What is the mission of God that the church and its members can participate in? The church is not the same all over the world, which is what the “Church’s mission” idea seemed to imply, but God’s mission is.

God’s mission is, and always has been, one of reconciliation, that is, bringing people to each other and bringing people to God. At Creation, God created Adam and Eve to be in relationship with each other and in relationship with their Creator. They, of course, fell away from that relationship, setting the model we continue to follow today. The reading for Hosea this morning is a reminder of the numerous times Israel fell away from God but also the equally numerous times God called those same sinful people into closer relationship with God, in the spirit of what Hosea calls God’s “warm and tender” compassion.

But God decided the work of reconciliation needed a human face and so took human form as Jesus Christ, who reached out to everyone but particularly the down-trodden, the outcast, and the forgotten and sought to bring them into loving relationship with their world and God. In the remainder of the New Testament, God’s message spreads beyond Israel as people are sent into the world to seek to reconcile our fallen world to God’s creation.

It is a testament to the challenge of this reconciling task that our mission is the same now as it was then: to do that work of reconciliation with the power of the Holy Spirit and the knowledge of Revelation and the Resurrection, that what is old can be made new again and that what is dead can be re-born. I’ll save my exegesis of the Great Commission for another time but it is this theology and this history that has made me comfortable with the idea that I am now a missionary. The point of performing this service mission in a religious context as opposed to a secular one is that it is rooted in and affirming of the faith that is the fundamental driving force behind the desire to serve.

But there is still one – at least – question left: why serve overseas and not at home where the work of reconciliation is most urgently needed in, say, the halls of Congress? There’s not a universal answer here but mine is this: the Body of Christ covers the globe and I want to know as many parts of it as possible, even if that means I sacrifice depth of understanding for breadth. Max Warren, a legendary head of the Church Missionary Society, is credited with saying, “It takes the whole world to know the whole Gospel.” I want to know as much of the world so I can know as much of the Gospel because the Holy Spirit works differently in different contexts and what I understand to be true here might be understood differently someplace else, as the ongoing struggle in the Anglican Communion demonstrates.

Let me conclude by briefly saying how I see that task of reconciliation playing out in my own context. First, a major reason we are required to raise 10-thousand dollars is that it requires us to form a community of support here, before we leave, a reconciling task of a sort. I am deeply grateful that you in this congregation – both individually and as a church community – have generously supported my mission work and put me well within reach of my goal. But your involvement doesn’t stop with writing a cheque. We were repeatedly told at training that at least half of our job is to educate people on this side of the ocean about our work on the other side. The tools of the trade of a 21st-century missionary, we were told, are a digital camera and a laptop so we can educate you about God’s mission overseas. You have a role to play in my small work of God’s reconciling mission and I intend to see that you fulfill it.

Second, I see this upcoming year as one step in my long process of “becoming,” that is, my development and realization of God’s gifts to me. It has been said that “when missionaries went abroad the first people converted were the missionaries themselves.” I deeply hope and pray this is true for me. For without that conversion, how can I move closer to God, aware of my fallen nature but in closer communion with my Creator? I think it requires a whole string of characteristics I don’t have nearly enough of – humility, patience, gratitude – and none of what I have too much of – obstinacy, stubbornness, and pride. But it is a process I look forward to because it is my personal experience of reconciliation.

As for the people of Itipini, whom I am sent to serve as best I can? I can only hope they think I am of some use and feel I have contributed something to them in exchange for all I am sure they will give me. I am a missionary and if I can in some small way bring the fallen people of this world – myself foremost among them – to better knowledge of each other and of God, I will have done my job.



The hurdles to my departure for Mthatha continue to fall. I have booked plane tickets and will be leaving North America August 23 - plenty of time to see some supporters, hang out with the family, and swap out my Alaska wardrobe for a South African one.