September 29, 2008

“Um, I’m kind of a big deal.”

As my time in the U.S. comes to an end, I’ve learned something new about what it’s like to be a missionary, particularly in social situations. Oddly, it’s the converse of something I wrote about earlier. I said in a previous post that I often feel like I am not worthy of some of the praise people direct at me for deciding to be a missionary, that they must have the wrong person. In many ways, I’ve continued to feel that way on this trip. Lots of people praise me in many ways that I find wholly unjustifiable.

But sometimes… and only sometimes I’ve thought to myself that perhaps I am deserving of a little bit more respect than I get. This hasn’t cropped up very often but occasionally I’ve spoken to individuals who just don’t show any interest in my work. That’s fine - if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip it is that global mission is not everyone’s passion - but I find myself thinking in these situations that these people are missing out on a great opportunity to learn about another part of the world. In a similar way, I found myself a little stung when a church decided to give me less money this year for my personal support than they did last year. Now, clearly, I don’t have any special insight into this church’s finances and there are lots of worthy causes and people to support each year so I could see how they arrived at their decision, but part of me was left thinking that I deserved a bit more.

I won’t press this thought much further because really that is as far as it has gone. Overwhelmingly, still, I am in that I-am-not-worthy frame of mind I discussed in that earlier post. But sometimes…

The epistle I preached on this morning (Phillippians 2) contains that great piece of advice, “In humility, regard others as better than yourself.”

Winding Down

My meanderings through the U.S. are coming to a close - I’ll be on a plane to South Africa a week from tomorrow - and thank goodness for that. I’ve enjoyed the travels and made lots of new friends and seen lots of old ones. Nothing, however, has changed my mind or made me question the wisdom of my decision to stay in Mthatha a second year. At some points, I’ve thought it would be nice to extend my stay in the U.S. a few days or weeks longer but it’s always been clear I must go back. I miss the people in Itipini. (And I also miss my own bed and the ability to sleep in the same bed for more than a night or two.)

I’ll have more to say about my travels once I get back to South Africa and have had a chance to reflect on things but I wanted to note I crossed a major threshold today. I sold the last of the Itipini choir CDs I had brought with me. I never counted how many I had but I think I must have sold or given away to various gracious hosts at least 125 of them. If you bought one, thank you! (If not, you’ll have to catch me the next time I’m back. Hopefully by then, we’ll have a new CD as well and I can sell them as a set.) The CDs were secreted in various corners of my suitcase, wrapped in various items of clothing to prevent them from cracking, and it is so lovely now not to grab a pair of pants have 20 CDs come tumbling out.

I had hoped that once the CDs were gone, my suitcase would be much lighter but I have acquired several more books on this trip than I ever anticipated and a new pair of shoes, which means I’ve had to add an extra piece of carry-on luggage and even still I think my suitcase will exceed the weight limit on my flight back.

(I should also add I am woefully behind on replying to e-mail. I've been too busy talking to people in person for once to stay on top of everything. So if you've written me recently, you might have to wait until I get back to South Africa for a response. Sorry.)

September 26, 2008

New blog

Two of my friends in Mthatha have started a new blog. Joe and Anna are Mennonite missionaries in the midst of a six-year commitment to Mthatha. If you're interested in another perspective on life in the Transkei, I encourage you to add their blog to your reading list.

September 24, 2008

September 25

Some of you might have noticed the badge in the right-hand column of this blog over the last several weeks. In New York today, world leaders are meeting, ostensibly to check progress on the Millennium Development Goals and recommit themselves to these “eight commandments” that are aimed at eliminating poverty. Mostly, I imagine, they’ll just end up talking a lot, making promises they don’t keep, and wondering if they’ll get a chance to meet with Sarah Palin. But I digress…

Before I moved to South Africa, I vaguely knew what the MDGs were and vaguely thought they were important. Now that I’ve spent a year working with some of the very people the MDGs were designed to assist, I think I have a clearer picture of how we might move towards the more just world embodied by the MDG commitments. There’s lots I could write here but I want to limit myself to two points I’ve come to believe over the last year.

The first is that money alone will not allow us to achieve the MDGs. I wrote about this extensively in an earlier post, which I suggest you read now. Basically, my thought was that in Itipini, where I work, money is not an obstacle to education so school fees should not prevent anyone from going to school. But I still see children not in school during the middle of the day for a variety of social issues (they have a child, they need to look after their sister while their mother is in town, there are too many chores to be done) that can not necessarily be addressed by cash. So if we want to achieve the MDGs, not only must we devote more financial resources to the effort, we must also devote a significant chunk of personal resources as well.

The second point is that achieving the MDGs will take time. I am convinced that the first step in getting a handle on the HIV epidemic is for everyone to know their status but too many people are still too afraid of the knowing the result and not aware of the treatments that are available to help them. I told a story in my last monthly e-mail about how it took me three months of off-and-on conversation before a friend of mine agreed to be tested for HIV. This friend speaks English fairly well and, I think, trusts me and IT STILL TOOK THREE MONTHS. And that was ONE PERSON. There are MILLIONS in South Africa like her.

One thing I’ve realized while working in Itipini is that for poor people, their time horizon - how far they plan in the future - is short, as in tomorrow. They ask, “How can I survive until tomorrow?” In contrast, I take life a year or two at a time and make plans on that basis. God’s timeline, however, I think must be beyond our conception. And if we believe that God has a plan for all of us, we sometimes must acknowledge that our timelines (I wanted my friend to have a test right now!) are not necessarily the right ones.

So we need more than just financial resources to be thrown at the problems of the world and we need to acknowledge the ways in which our efforts are part of a larger effort, the full extent of which we might not be able to recognize.

(And, yes, I realize I am a day early but I wasn't sure I would be able to get online tomorrow.)

For more on the Anglican/Episcopal response to this day of action, check out


Last Thursday, before I began speaking in Hendersonville, North Carolina, I had an opening act. (They weren't just for me but I can act like they were.) They played some neat African music (most of which I missed as I was preparing for my own spiel) so after the event was over and they were playing in the lobby, I borrowed one of their guitars and played a few songs in Xhosa. I quickly ran out of those songs but not of energy so we transitioned to a few other favourites, from "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" to "Hey Good Looking." It made me realize how much I miss a good jam session... in English!

September 22, 2008

My other biggest fan

They miss me! They really miss me! The sign this child is holding translates as "I miss you, Jesse" and was sent to me today by a friend in Mthatha. You'll recognize this child from numerous other posts on this blog.

It all makes me want to go back. I return two weeks from today.

September 19, 2008

My Biggest Fans

I’m more than halfway through my tour of the U.S. and things continue to go well - the odd lost bag and some confusion over one or two meeting places the only exceptions. But I’ve been a bit puzzled about how (or if) to write about my travels in this space because I’m not sure everyone is interested in the intimate details of my travel and because I’m not sure everyone I meet wants their pictures splashed across this blog.

But there is one day I definitely want to mention and that is my visit on Tuesday to a third-grade class at Pinewood Preparatory School in Summerville, South Carolina. Regular readers of this blog will know that these students last year were pen-pals with me and then started writing letters to my high-school English students. They also read this blog every Friday last year.

I was able to spend a full school day with them, my first day in third-grade since 1990 or so. I couldn’t believe how unrelenting it was to be a teacher (of sorts) in an elementary school classroom. There was just never a break, it seemed, except for recess and I had to play kickball then.

At the end of the day, all the third-grade classes gathered together and I spent about 45-minutes showing some pictures, primarily from Itipini but also a lot of shots of some of the animals I’ve seen. I even got to explain how ocean currents move counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere, which explains why there are penguins in South Africa because the water comes right up from Antarctica.

I also got to spend a day touring the Charleston area and have two observations. First, the ocean water was bathtub warm but still lovely to swim in. Second, I couldn’t believe people there could use expressions like “The War of Northern Aggression” without a hint of irony in their voice. Having finally overcome the culture shock of re-entering the U.S. from South Africa, I found myself dealing with culture shock of a whole other kind.

Our indoor picnic lunch.

Not every moment of class was this boring.

Some rapt third-graders.

Look at my blog - it's practically life-size! Imagine it being read off this screen every Friday.

September 18, 2008


By the way, nothing in the previous post should be interpreted to mean that I'm not enjoying myself. Quite the contrary. I just love talking about Itipini to anyone who wants to listen and I love hearing what people have to say about their own experiences with mission and with Itipini. Today is the half-way day of my month-long trip and I am having a great time so far.

September 14, 2008

Stealing my news cycle

I have no right to complain as I have no one to blame for this but myself, but Sarah Palin is crowding in on my life. Everywhere I go, it seems, I want to talk about Itipini and the only questions I ever get asked are about Palin. I’ve dropped any mention of Alaska from anything I say but people still seem to find out.

On that note, I find myself - in some very tangential ways - feeling a bit like a politician on this trip. I have the same set of facts, stories, and observations I seem to communicate each time I met someone. It’s like my own little stump speech, complete with a set of talking points. (I’d like to think there’s more meat in my comments than in what you might hear on the trail - I haven’t, for instance, started referring to lipstick on pigs or anything, though I do talk about the very real pigs that live in Itipini.) I’m happy to feel this way, of course, because it is so much better to talk about Itipini and mission face-to-face than over e-mail or this blog. My personal motto for this trip has become, “I’m happy to talk about about Itipini as long as you’re willing to listen - and probably longer.” While I’m acting like a politician, I’d also like an advance team to arrange all my appointments, a convoy of SUVs to get me from place to place, and private jets to whisk me around. It’s hard to enjoy one encounter when you’re thinking ahead to the next.

While scrolling through my iPod the other day on the plane, I came across an interview I did with then-candidate Palin in October 2006. (For the record, I don’t listen to myself often if at all; it’s only on my computer in case I ever apply for another radio job and need to submit some samples.) It was fascinating listening, particularly the parts where she decries - repeatedly and at great length - “politics as usual” and how we need to move beyond personal attacks and come together and “unite all Alaskans.” She also talks about the importance of “generational change” in leadership. Odd that she’d be running with the 72-year old then.

I seem to remember once asking her about Iraq and getting an answer that was not nearly as strident as what you hear on the trail today. In fact, she may have even expressed some doubt about the whole affair. But that interview is not on my iPod and the audio may have long since vanished.

I’ve got to stop writing about her! I’m only making my life more difficult!

September 11, 2008

New Visitors

I've realized recently that in my travels around the U.S. I've been directing a lot of people to this blog. But if you're a new visitor, all you're going to see is a very long sermon and some thoughts on my tangential connection to Sarah Palin, which doesn't really do justice to my year in Itipini. At some point, when I have a free moment and an Internet connection, I'm going to post links to some representative posts from this past year for new readers. But in the meantime, I encourage you to scroll through old posts, which you can access by clicking on the archive links in the right-hand column.

It's not ideal but for now it'll have to work.

September 8, 2008


I managed to preach the same sermon two Sundays in a row, last week at Christ Church in North Bay, Ontario and today at St. John's in Northampton, Massachusetts. The text is below.

Despite the usual last minute hesitations and regrets - "the whole thing is garbage!" - I was overall pleased with how it turned out. Regular readers of this blog will note it is basically a summation of some of my greatest hits.

In a neat new development in the addition of multi-media to this blog, Christ Church recorded me and posted the audio on their web site. So you can listen and follow along with the text below, if you so choose. Click this link and choose the August 31 sermon.

Here's the text.

7 September 2008
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Northampton, MA
Jesse Zink

Let us pray.
God of love and truth, grant us the grace and courage to faithfully and honestly fulfill your mission in this world. Amen.

I should begin by saying thank you for your welcome in again letting me into this pulpit to share with you some of my experience. But I should also add a warning: for much of the last year, I have been attending a Xhosa-language church in South Africa where the average service length is three hours and the sermon a minimum forty-five minutes. It has taught me a thing or two about patience... and about preaching. So if in a little while, you find yourself looking at your watch and thinking, “Gee, he’s passed several good stopping points but he’s still talking,” let me just say in preemptive defense, long sermons are all I now know.

A year ago, I spoke to you about my decision to become a missionary, through the national church’s Young Adult Service Corps program. I told you about how before I could make the decision I had to come to peace with the “m-word” and the mixed history of overseas Christian mission. But what I learned and what allowed me to take on this new role in my life is the idea that as a missionary, it is not my job to convert the masses or thump the Bible. What I needed to realize was that as a missionary, my primary job is to acknowledge God’s mission in this world and figure out how I am able to be a part of it. God’s mission is one of reconciliation, of bringing people together and to God. Seen this way, we are all missionaries, all of us called in our own specific contexts in life to take part in this mission of reconciliation and do our bit to heal our broken world. And the mission of all the baptized happens not just on the other side of the world but equally in our own local communities.

For the last year, my context has been a South African one. I’ve been working at a community center in a shantytown outside of Mthatha, South Africa. Mthatha is the economic center of one of South Africa’s poorest regions. The demographic indicators of people in the region are among the worst in the country - higher unemployment, lower income levels, higher infant mortality, lower educational levels, higher crime rates, and, of course, a higher HIV prevalence rate in a country that already has more infected people than any other in the world. South Africa has 11 official languages and the one that is dominant in Mthatha is Xhosa, an African language distinguished by its clicks.

Just outside Mthatha, about a mile walk from the edge of town, is a shantytown known as Itipini. In Xhosa, Itipini means “at the dump” and it’s an accurate name for a community that initially began as a community of people who scavenged off the old municipal dump. That landfill has since been closed but the community has persisted, about 2500 people living in shacks made of corrugated tin, old car parts, pieces of canvas, and whatever else can be found to provide some protection from the elements. All of them are leaky and are drafty, none of them have electricity or running water, and the area is full of old trash that people still sometimes illegally add to.

For about the last 15 years, a woman named Jenny McConnachie, who is an Episcopal missionary from the Diocese of Western North Carolina, has been running a community center right in the middle of Itipini, funded entirely by a non-government organization she created called African Medical Mission. It began simply as a primary-care clinic and that is still a major focus. Jenny and another nurse see an average of 30 to 40 patients a day, with a variety of ailments, ranging from colds and headaches to complications caused by tuberculosis and HIV. Over time, new services have been added and there is now a pre-school, after-school program, and feeding program for single mothers and people with HIV. In addition, we try to help families pay school fees and buy school uniforms every year, expenses that are often out of reach when you live on a few dollars a day.

My role in Itipini is an ever-evolving one. Some days I find myself in the clinic, helping who I can and trying to keep a handle on some of the crowds we get. This is a particular challenge, given the immense language barrier that stands between me and our clients. Sometimes I find myself driving patients to the hospital for advanced care and trying to advocate for them. When you’re weak and dying from HIV, getting yourself to the hospital can be an insurmountable challenge. And when the health-care system is overwhelmed with patients, sometimes having someone along who can speak for you ensures you get seen. Other days, my work is simpler. I play my guitar with the pre-school or after-school children. Or I work with the high-school students and try to teach them English. Or I sit around in the kitchen with the women who cook and distribute the food and work on my Xhosa and catch up on the latest gossip.

These various tasks have, over time, helped me overcome my initial cluelessness about what I could actually do and have drawn me into the community, welcomed by the people who live there, trusted by those who are suffering, and become so enmeshed in life there, I’ve felt compelled to extend my one-year commitment. So while I’m back here now, it is not the permanent sort of return I envisioned last year at this time. I’ll be returning to Mthatha and Itipini in a few weeks to carry on.

I should say, however, that this was not an easy decision for me. While I’ve just described some of the things I am able to do in Itipini, I hope you do not get the impression that I feel, say, effective or useful there. In fact, on most days, it is just the opposite. The language and culture barriers are so huge that every little thing takes so much more effort and energy than I think it should. Coming in contact with so many people who are so poor and so sick and have fallen so far below the standards and quality of life we should expect as a minimum for our brothers and sisters in Christ can be overwhelming and exhausting. The problems seem so insurmountable and inter-related as to be insoluble, certainly not by whatever little effort I am able to contribute. It is an incredibly humbling feeling to show up in a place, full of enthusiasm and a desire to “do good” and realize that it sometimes takes a little more than that to produce anything tangible and tangible results, of course, are what my Western-educated mind demands. And because it takes so much energy to figure anything out, once you realize what needs to be done, you’re too exhausted to actually do it.

Turning away for a moment from my experience, let’s consider for a moment this morning’s Gospel passage. The passage is the hallmark instance of Jesus’ explicit teachings about reconciliation. Jesus tells his followers what to do when confronted with the sort of conflict and division that will surely occur in any group of his followers, namely, sit down and talk with the offending person in private and seek resolution. If that fails, return in a small group and again seek resolution. Jesus doesn’t make this explicit but it’s clear, I think, from the passage, that the people involved in this effort must, as Paul will later write, “speak the truth in love” to one another, that is, approach the situation with a genuine desire to understand where the other person is coming from but also honestly relate one’s own grievances and issues.

Though the teaching in this passage directly concerns life in the small communities that followed Jesus around the Holy Land during his life, I think this passage still speaks to us in this era as we seek to understand our own role in God’s mission.

To begin - and this is obvious but worth saying anyway - reconciliation presupposes conflict. In God’s mission, that conflict is initially Adam and Eve’s original sin that caused humankind to fall away from God’s perfect creation. But not only are the first people separated from God, they begin to separate themselves from each other - Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and on and on. The separation from the Divine and from each other continues throughout the history of Israel. In the Incarnation, God sends his only son to heal those divisions.

But we didn’t quite get that message and now today - when it is common to speak of a worldwide body of Christ - we still find ourselves beset by divisions and conflicts. We see these conflicts in any number of particular ways but I want to suggest to you there is one overriding conflict that currently divides the members of God’s creation from one another. That is the conflict between those of us who have so much, who know that when we wake up tomorrow morning there will be something to eat, who are confident in our access to life’s necessities - in short, those of us who are secure in our existence - and on the other hand, those of our brothers and sisters who have none of this security, who fear if they get sick or injured, there will be no cure, there will be no work, there will be no food, who feel they have no power over the course of their own lives. I know there has been uncertainty about the future of the rich-world economy lately but even still, when we compare our relative positions here to that of people in, say, Mthatha, there are not adjectives sufficient to describe the size of the yawning chasm between us and them. And I am sure you can think of ways in which this secure-insecure divide is present even in this community. It is this conflict more than any other, I think, that divides the members of our worldwide body of Christ against each other, impeding our relationships not only with one another but in our effort to come closer to Christ. We see the implications of this conflict all over - in the worldwide food shortage that affects the poorest among us the most, in the effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change, and even, I think, in the struggles over power and authority within our own Anglican Communion. From our position of security here, what do we need to do to achieve the unity Jesus prayed for among his followers?

In answering that question, we should acknowledge that first of all, we’re not going to achieve that unity in our lifetime and reconciliation will never fully come about. But it is still the goal we need to strive for, to do our part and trust God to do the rest. And in doing so, I think there is a pretty clear process we can follow to work towards the goal of reconciliation and it is a process similar to the one Jesus lays out in this morning’s Gospel. I’ve come to call it the three Rs of mission.

The first R is a fancy word I learned in my ivory tower days. It is reification, a word that means to make real. Ideas and concepts, when reified, lose their abstraction and become concrete. Jesus doesn’t use this word in the Gospel but when he commands us to go to the source of the problem directly - and not rely on secondhand reports or our own perception of the issue - he is telling us we must address the problem as it really is and not as we want it to be. For me, this past year has reified in broad scope the lifestyle and challenges facing people in Itipini. For instance, before I left for Mthatha, I knew a lot of the horrific statistics of how HIV and AIDS are endemic in sub-Saharan Africa. I had seen pictures of people emaciated and dying from the disease. I had read stories about how the deaths of care-givers had led to child-headed households and a rapidly growing number of orphans throughout the region. Now that I’ve worked there for a year, those statistics and that book knowledge has become real in a very vivid and disturbing way. I can - and later this morning, I will - tell you the stories of particular individuals, particular children of God, who suffered and died from HIV before my eyes. The HIV epidemic is now indelibly imprinted in my mind not as a story of statistics and pictures but as the names and faces of particular individuals, some of whom I considered my friends before they died and whose death I still mourn. If we are to work towards effective reconciliation within our worldwide body of Christ, it is this sort of knowledge, this reification of how they live, of how they suffer, and of the challenges facing them, that is a crucial first step. To use a less fancy word, we could also call this “realize.” We need to acknowledge the reality of the lives of those who are different to us. And again, this can happen here and overseas. If you wind me up, I’ll talk about Itipini for as long as you are willing to listen - and probably longer. And there are other missionaries like me all over the world. But there are also missionaries right here in Northampton and we can learn from them and learn from the people with whom they work.

The second R proceeds from the first. Once we have reified and learned about the reality of these lives, we can begin to build relationships with these people, equally our brothers and sisters in Christ as the person sitting next to you this morning. In our own day and age, the trend is towards a continued separation into smaller and smaller groups. But I don’t think that is what Jesus wants. For one thing, his was a life devoted towards reaching out towards those who had traditionally been cast out - the fishermen and the tax collectors, for instance - and then, when those Apostles became comfortable in their new status, Jesus reached father, to the lepers and the beggars with whom at first even the Apostles did not want to associate. When Jesus says we must go to the offending member of the community and speak with him, Jesus is calling us into relationship with that person. We begin to work towards reconciliation when we reach out to the people who are outside of our immediate groups and resist the impulse to turn further into a smaller community.

In this past year, I have formed some deep and, I pray, enduring relationships with people in Mthatha and particularly in Itipini. On the surface, my new friends are nothing like me - many don’t speak a word of English, those who are my age often have two or three children, they don’t have the kind of education I have, and so on. And yet more than any other single factor, it is these relationships that are keeping me in Itipini for another year. The reason I got out of bed in the morning and looked forward to going to Itipini this past year is that I wanted to continue to learn from my new friends and build these relationships deeper. And again, you don’t have to go halfway across the world to find people who are different to us. That can happen right in this congregation.

There’s something important that both reification and relationship-building share: they don’t require us to do much; rather our success depends on who we are. We are called human beings and not human doings for a reason. In Itipini, I first realized this in my first week when I was working with some pre-school children and understood that given the language and culture barriers at that point, I wouldn’t be able to teach them anything specific or concrete. But by choosing to be present with them and be a smiling and hopefully gracious presence, I could on some level continue to be an effective missionary. Reification takes nothing more than a willingness to truly and honestly see and recognize what is right before our eyes. Relationship-building does not require specific actions so much as an open and welcoming attitude towards those we meet.

After acknowledging the conflict, the first steps in effective mission, then, are to pick up and go to the people with whom the conflict exists. This is exactly what Jesus tells his followers to do in the Gospel passage this morning. It is also a message God’s followers hear again and again throughout the Bible, from Abraham told to “get up and go” to Isaiah who hears God ask, “who will go for us?” to the Apostles who hear first from Jesus, “come, follow me.” We hear much these days about the Millennium Development Goals and how the national church has committed itself to them as a framework for mission. The MDGs are an excellent tool to improving the living standards of billions of people around the world and I hope more and more people continue to take them seriously. But let’s also be serious about the strategies we use to achieve them. When we think about how to respond to the MDGs, is our question, “what organization can we write a check to?” or is it “how can we reify the situations facing these people and begin to build relationships with them?” Certainly, we need lots more checks to be written if we’re going to get anywhere, but I encourage you to ask yourself as you write the check, “In what way does this check proceed from a relationship and in what way does it further a relationship?” We will begin to move towards a more just future when people begin to commit to people.

I think even if we never get beyond these first two Rs, we have still done something effective. God is at work in that messy, complicated, and difficult business of breaking down language and cultural barriers. Indeed, mission, I believe, is as much in the the breaking down of the barriers as it is what happens when/if the barriers are broken down.

The final R is, naturally, reconciliation, God’s mission throughout history and the mission we are to find our role in. It’s hard to provide a simple and compelling explanation of what reconciliation is other than to say that we should know it when we see it. It’s not just a relationship with someone else; rather I think it has to do with what we pledge ourselves to in the Baptismal covenant, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Reconciliation happens when God’s children are allowed to be the people God has created them to be and not the people they have been turned into by the crushing and unmitigated circumstances of their existence.

I have a friend named Vuyelwa, who has an irrepressible joy and enthusiasm that bubbles over in her interactions with others. She is 21, has three children, and is HIV-positive. She is one of many people whom I have come to know as a result of my time in Itipini and one of the people I look forward to returning to in a few weeks. In my first probably 10 months in Mthatha, what I did for her was almost nothing. But what I learned from her - about how her father had abandoned her family, about how she had unwillingly and unexpectedly become pregnant, about how despite her best efforts, there was simply no work to be found - helped me understand more about how she lived and the overwhelming challenges she faced. Over time, a relationship between the two of us developed and between me and her children. Again, I think Vuyelwa was not responding to anything I’ve ever done for her but who I was to her and to her children. About three months ago, in conversation, Vuyelwa told me about how she had seen other people selling clothes in town and that it was something she could do as well. Together, we learned more about how this would work - the idea of making a living by selling clothes second-hand was something that had to be reified for me - and how much it would cost to begin. I was eventually able to loan her about $200 that we had decided was necessary to make a serious go of it. Since then, she has begun to travel to a nearby city, buy clothes in bulk, and re-sell them in Mthatha. And in a move that shocked me even though I should have expected it, she has even begun to repay me some of the initial loan out of her profits. Vuyelwa has a long way to go before she can even aspire to the secure lifestyle we have but I think she is at least moving in the right direction. Reconciliation takes time. Vuyelwa’s and my limited steps toward it so far would not have been possible had we not taken the time to understand each other first and realize what each could offer the other.

This morning’s Gospel passage concludes “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” This is one of the most frequently-quoted of Jesus’ sayings yet it is as frequently divorced from its context. Jesus reminds us of his presence among us particularly when we are working towards reconciliation with our fellow members of the body of Christ. It is that effort towards reconciliation - beginning with an attempt to understand the position of our brothers and sisters in Christ and work towards relationship with them - that Christ honours and blesses and it is that mission - in Northampton, in Itipini, and everywhere in between - to which we must dedicate ourselves fully and completely.


September 7, 2008

Culture Shock?

I note from my hit counter that my few posts about Sarah Palin have drawn more attention and more readership than anything I’ve ever previously posted about anything, well, you know, important, like HIV or neglected children or the mission of God or the importance of the ministry of presence. But sigh… the campaign is exciting.

For those of you’ve who just come across this blog, you might be surprised to find out that before the Palin explosion, before John McCain plucked her from obscurity and had his political operatives cloister her in a room and teach her to spew untruths before a national audience, I spent a lot of time on this blog writing about my time as an Episcopal missionary in South Africa. But right now, I’m in the U.S., talking to anyone who will listen about the Itipini Community Project. I’ll share more about my travels in another post but I want to write now about my experience of the U.S. after a year overseas.

Happily - and somewhat oddly, I suppose, given some of my doubts about how this return would do - I’ve felt very little overt culture shock. In fact, in some ways everything feels very normal. Sure, the number of overweight people stand out and the size of the cars and trucks is shocking but more or less I find myself kind of sliding back into the set of assumptions and prejudices I had before I left. In some ways, maybe this isn’t so good but it makes for a lot less mental angst.

There are a lot of other little ways I realize I’m not in South Africa. While browsing in a store the other day, I found myself getting distracted by a conversation between two other shoppers. Normally, I manage to tune that sort of thing out but in this case I found myself compulsively listening because I could understand what they were saying. Such fluent English is so rare in Mthatha that whenever I hear it, I want to listen. So… if you see me this trip, watch what you say! I’ll be listening, even if you’re not talking to me.

I've been to a few cafes with friends and have once said, "You paid HOW much for that coffee!" So that's a step in the right direction.

September 3, 2008

I should stop writing about this but...

As expected, Sarah Palin's life and record is being picked over by the national media, with some expected and unexpected results. The question I've been asking myself is what other issues in her background could flare up between now and the convention.

Here's what I've come up with:

  • Aside from "Troopergate," there's potential other personnel questions. It seems to me that a case could be made that Palin has been through a lot of staff members in her time in office, in the press office, chiefs-of-staff, legislative liaisons, in the Washington D.C. office, and so forth. I'm not privy to all the gossip about those staffing changes and there may be perfectly good reasons to explain them but it's another question to ask. How (if at all) will it influence how she fulfills her new role?
  • The role of Todd Palin in the administration. His blue collar job and union card have already been mentioned in his favour but all the reporting on the Wooten case show him intimately involved in his wife's job. What other decisions has he been involved in?
  • Her role in the legislature. This has already come out here and there but I think lots of legislators have complained at some point or another that she has not been as fully involved in the process as they wish she was, not used her position to influence legislation she seems to want to pass but doesn't go all the way in making sure it does. I'm sure there's arguments for and against this approach but maybe they'll get talked about in the next two months.
  • Cindy McCain has already touted Alaska's proximity to Russia as part of Palin's foreign affairs bona fides. I can shed some light on this. Palin supporter, former governor, and Alaska icon Walter Hickel went to a meeting in Moscow in the spring of 2007 about the possibility of building a tunnel between the Bering Strait and the Russian Far East. As Hickel was a big supporter of Palin's in the campaign, I asked Palin at a press conference what she thought of the idea. My main goal at the time was to get her to say in public the word "Runnel," a neologism I had created and wanted to have someone "famous" say in public so it would enter the discourse. I cleverly fed it to her beforehand and she used it but attributed it to me, which defeated the purpose and the word never caught on. (OK, so it's not a great effort at labeling the project I admit.) But in response to the idea of the "Runnel" - surely the project with the greatest potential to deepen Russian-Alaskan relations - Palin dodged the question and only said something like she was looking forward to hearing more from Hickel. I never followed up to see what he told her. OK, so it's a crackpot idea that has no chance of success and her opinion on it changes nothing but I think it indicates the meaningless of the Alaska-Russian connection to Palin's foreign policy experience. Just stop making that argument! Also, when the Guard is deployed (as it has been in Alaska), it is federalized and not under the command of the governor. Republicans mocked Howard Dean in 2003 and 2004 for making this exact same argument about his experience as commander of the Vermont National Guard.
  • The sale of the hated Murkowski jet on eBay. Surely this can only work in Palin's favour. There's the potential for a great soft story about how she "sacrificed" so much to fly around on a KingAir. I flew in that KingAir once. Fun fact: the map of the U.S. in the cabin doesn't have Alaska on it. Scandal!
  • Another one that should play in her favour is all her capital budget vetoes. Don't fiscal conservatives want to hear about that?
  • There's potential for someone to pick over her debate performances in the 2006 campaign. There were 8-gazillion or so (a rough guess) candidate forums and such (all in southcentral Alaska, of course) and surely someone will want to see how she performed as a preview for how she'll do against Biden. My scattershot memories of those events (only a few were televised) are that she acquitted herself quite well against some people (Binkley, Murkowski, Knowles, and Halcro) who all had a lot more experience in that sort of forum than she did. I distinctly remember a moment when her Republican primary opponents Murkowski and Binkley were squabbling about something and she said something like, "Guys, Alaskan deserve better than this" and just about won the debate with that line. Biden is in another class, of course, but she definitely has the potential to hold her own.
  • I haven't seen yet if Palin has got an answer to the question she asked in June or July that "before she took the job, someone would have to explain to me just what does the vice-president do?" It strikes me that Obama made his pick with governing in mind - he wants Biden as a partner so he can draw on the latter's foreign policy experience. It seems that so far the discourse about the Palin pick has been entirely about her role as an electoral asset to McCain. (And, OK, Biden is from "Scranton, PA" as I'm sure we'll get tired of hearing before November.) After the vice-presidencies of Gore and Cheney, I think it's a requirement now for tickets to explain how they'll work together and what role the VP will have. If Palin has an answer to her question, she hasn't shared it yet.
  • The biggest question of all - how long will it be until Tina Fey plays Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live? In the `06 campaign, Palin said (I think I remember this correctly) that she sometimes dressed up as Tina Fey for Halloween.
Anyway, that's what's come to my mind. Maybe we'll hear more about them once/if the current issues blow over.