Friday, November 5, 2010

Paint With All The Colors Of The Wind

This was written as a monthly reflection to be posted in the ELCA-MUD Blog which includes updates from the other YAGM volunteer and our coordinators Brian & Kristen Konkol. It can be viewed at

I was reading the other night when I heard SA’s Got Talent come on the TV in the other room. I had some things to do and wasn’t going to be able to watch the semi-finals with some members of my host family (though the auditions had been pretty entertaining last week so I’m sure these were also wonderful). Before refocusing myself, I did briefly hear one of the contestants singing the chorus of “Colors of the Wind” from the classic Disney movie, Pocahontas.

I began to think about this concept of wind. When we try to explain the idea of wind to kids we are really only able to do this through its impact on the concrete things around us. You can “see” the wind as it blows through the trees shaking every leaf (or frond for those of us who have always seen more palm trees than big shady oaks.) It’s almost as if the wind causes the trees to dance a beautiful number in unison. But, growing up in the state of Florida (aka Hurricane Central), I also learned that wind wasn’t always so friendly and nice. I saw firsthand, on more than a few occasions, the wake of damage and destruction that can be left in a storm’s path as it comes ashore. Interesting, how this unseen thing can have such different attributes.

When I came to Kimberley I found that the same, strange, love-hate relationship with wind existed here as well. As we are moving into the summer season, temperatures are rising, especially in the semi-arid desert landscape where I find myself these days. A breeze is a beautiful gift from above as people move about our township and the greater city to get to and from work, visit the local clinic, or head off to school. The contrast comes, in that because of the climate, most people do not have grass since it takes so much water and effort to maintain it. This means that most yards, empty fields, parking lots, and shoulders next to the roads are nothing but sand. When the same breezes that are so nice to cool us in the heat of the day arrive, they simultaneously carry dust literally everywhere. My neighbors in this community do their best to control nature by actually raking and then watering their yards of sand with hoses daily to keep it from being swept up with the next gust. It is successful here and there, but how do you water an entire community? I can now “see” the bigger gusts of wind as they come down the road because they have a brownish hue to them; something I can say has never been an obvious attribute of wind based on my experiences in the States. But I am learning the wind is so much more than what we typically “see”.

As our Country Coordinator, Brian, explained in a post on this blog a few weeks ago, the M.U.D. program here in South Africa stands for and incorporates the idea of this program as a Ministry that is both Upstream and Downwind. This is a concept that is taking a much stronger hold in me the more time I spend with the wonderful people in this beautiful community of Kimberley. Although I am learning more and more about these aspects, the notion that this was ministry focused and upstream, were the easiest parts for me to find my fit in the program. Yes, I am here with the Church to build relationships where mutual growth and learning can be found in the love and grace of God. Yes, I am going against the current, as the majority of recent college grads in the States aren’t running off to be volunteers for a year instead of starting grad school or striving to land their dream job. Yes, we are against the current as we shift the ideas others have of what it is to be a “missionary”. Yes, I am even against the current when South Africans ask me what I am here to DO and my response is to BE with the people and to share life with them. There are already and will be many more examples of this program as a ministry that is upstream. Where I initially had more difficulty was in wrapping my mind about being downwind. I was a religion minor in college and so learned in one of my first classes years ago that the Hebrew word “ruach” means breath/spirit/wind. I struggled, not so much in understanding the intention of calling our attention to the breath/spirit/wind of God, but more in how I would daily find myself experiencing it. I just couldn’t foresee that piece, so I set it aside for a later time. Here, now, is that time where it all begins to click and fit together.

As I have walked the streets of the Roodepan Township and felt the wind blowing through my hair, I have started to “see” the effects of the breath/spirit/ wind of God on the concrete things around me. Those concrete things are more than just the trees or the sand, but are the hearts of the people I meet daily and even more the heart I find within myself. When locals ask me what I think of my time here and the people I have met so far, I can only answer that they are wonderful. I only wish there was a word to really sum up just how welcome they have made me feel and how open they have been with me about their lives. Instead there are stories. There is the story of a client at the home-based care group I serve with who has been living as an abused woman for the last 8 or so years. In a language I couldn’t understand, she explained the abuse she suffered and her continuing love for the man who treats her this way. What I did understand were her tears as she told the story. It was healing for her to tell her story and to cry – to sob – and breathe in deeply the love of God through three women that were placed there to simply listen and to pray with and for her. Another story. Two days a week, I get to spend the day with 6 orphan babies at the ChildWelfare Children’s Home. They are so spectacular in many ways. I love that they will both laugh and cry at, what to me, are the littlest things. They are the breath/spirit/wind of God that remind me without words how fragile and joyful life can be. A third experience. I have been blessed to be absorbed into an amazing group of friends that knew my name months before I would even meet them and know who they were. They welcomed me into their homes and families and even wedding and birthday celebrations from the day I arrived and once again showed me what the meaning of “family” really is. They are the ones that laugh at me as I try to pronounce things in Afrikaans, but are always striving to teach and encourage me with the kind of humility that can only be from the breath/spirit/wind of God. The stories that I have had the privilege to listen to and be a part of, have taught me more than I ever expected about the way that God’s life-giving breath/spirit/wind shapes and impacts each of us.

Footprints left in the morning hours here in Kimberley will be gone long before morning tea time as the wind sweeps across the community. And, just as the wind that we can “see” picks up every loose piece of sand, always changing the pictures we have drawn, the breath/spirit/wind of God is constantly in motion changing hearts, minds, and lives. There is another lyric in the song from Pocahontas that says “if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew.” I think that is incredibly relevant for where I am today as I begin to truly blend the pieces of the M.U.D. program together. I am learning the most about the program I am in, from those former “strangers” that I get to walk alongside this year. This is truly a Ministry that moves both Upstream and Downwind, even when we can’t “see” it right away. I encourage you all to find the breath/spirit/WIND in your life and have some fun and happy painting with ALL the colors you discover.

P.S. – I think the rest of the lyrics to “Colors of the Wind” are pretty awesome so find them all below and ponder them for a bit, from a new context. It’ll rock your world. Go Disney Classics!

You think I’m an ignorant savage and you’ve been so many places I guess it must be so.

But still I cannot see if the savage one is me.

How can there be so much that you don’t know?

You don’t know.

You think you own whatever land you land on.

The earth is just a dead thing you can claim.

But I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name.

You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you.

But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.

Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned? Can you sing with all the voices of the mountain?

Can you paint with all the colors of the wind? Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?

Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest.

Come taste the sun sweet berries of the earth.

Come roll in all the riches all around you and for once never wonder what they’re worth.

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers.

The heron and the otter are my friends and we are all connected to each other, in a circle, in a hoop that never ends.

How high does the sycamore grow? If you cut it down then you’ll never know.

And you’ll never hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon.

For whether we are white or copper skinned, we need to sing with all the voices of the mountain, need to paint with all the colors of the wind.

You can own the earth and still all you’ll own is earth until you can paint with all the colors of the wind.

An Authentic Self, Made in the Image of God.

This was written as a monthly reflection to be posted in the ELCA-MUD Blog which includes updates from the other YAGM volunteer and our coordinators Brian & Kristen Konkol. It can be viewed at

Earlier this month I had the privilege of leading the regular meeting of the Youth League at St. Luke Lutheran Church in the Roodepan Township of Kimberley. Life had been very busy in the days leading up to this particular evening and my talk was slowly coming together. I was pretty clueless when I first began outlining it as to what I should speak about. How would I, as an American that had just stepped into this place, relate to a group of mostly high school aged youth that I had met on one occasion prior to this night? And then as I was processing all that I’ve been experiencing in the 6 weeks here in South Africa before this particular day, I realized that in some ways, I had been reliving that same time period in my life. Those were the days of first impressions and trying to make friends that would last a lifetime. What image would you portray to someone you had just met? What view did you have of them and what formed those opinions? Funny, that my life has been an intense, non-stop series of first impression-making situations since arriving in South Africa and even more so since I settled here in Roodepan.

In thinking about the first-impressions I have been making, I can’t help but recall a wonderful conversation I was blessed to have with a fellow MUD3 volunteer in Pietermaritzburg after an ELCSA Young Adult League conference. We spent part of an evening discussing our personalities; the things that make each of us tick, what makes us who we are as individuals. We talked pretty openly about the traits that sometimes we wish we could shake because of the reputations that they have given us (both positively and negatively). Then came the big realization: even with a chance to be someone completely new coming into a situation like this where no one knows who we have been, we both found ourselves revealing the same core identity, these same traits, being viewed in the same ways by entirely new people. What was it about these core characteristics that we still couldn’t leave behind, even in coming to another hemisphere of the world?

While pondering these two ideas of first impressions and core identity, I found myself remembering the story of the creation of mankind, found in the first chapter of Genesis. There, as I had read so many times before, were the words “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” and “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them...” And suddenly, I found myself on this quest to define God’s “image” and “likeness”. What does it mean and how does it relate to my life where I am today? While we can dwell on the characteristics of an all-powerful, all-knowing God who is a Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace, etc, etc how does that translate to a mere human, who by nature is imperfect and will never hold all the power? I found myself reading some of those passages of the Bible that were written with the very intention of teaching us to live our lives in a way where we are striving to be a true image of God. We were created in the image of God, a reflection of those characteristics on earth, but not actually to be just like him.

The night of my discussion with the Youth, I gave them a long list of verses to look up and read out loud to the group (quite the challenge when I’m giving a book of the Bible in English and they have never heard of it because the books apparently translate differently in Afrikaans – we managed to navigate through with some mutual learning along the way.) In the end though, we could sum up all of what we were reading in Jesus’ answer to one of the Pharisees’ questions about which of the commandments was the greatest of them all. It is here in the Gospel of Matthew (22:34-40) that 10 commandments become just 2 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Still the question remained for me: How does this fit in with that core identity I can’t seem to escape?

These days I seem to find myself standing out in all sorts of ways. In all likelihood, I am the ONLY white person living in the Roodepan Township (which is a predominantly coloured community – during the apartheid era this was the term used for those who didn’t fit in the White, Black, or Indian categories because they were actually “mixed-race”.) I frequently find myself being watched as I walk the streets to my work sites each day, catch a taxi, or even ride in a vehicle through the community with a friend or host family member. But on the flip-side, the whites in town can’t seem to figure me out either. As I wander the mall with coloured friends of mine, carrying their 18-month old beautiful boy, it is easy to see the questions on their faces trying to figure out if he is light-skinned enough to be my child or what in the world I might actually be doing hanging out with “them”. Even if people are not hung up on the color of my skin and just speak to me, the moment I respond, either to say “sorry, I don’t speak Afrikaans, yet” or to actually carry the conversation they are then stopped in their tracks by my accent (even if they can’t place it as American initially.) It has not been easy trying to fit into the boxes that my “neighbors” have for me. But how often have I been guilty of this in some way too?

My definition of “neighbor” has been challenged most of my life, but in the last couple of months it has taken on a whole new meaning. While in my mind, my neighbor has always included the people of Africa, South Africa, Kimberley, Roodepan (and the rest of the world)– I have only now been able to begin to put faces with that concept and I find myself taking to heart those words of Jesus a little bit more. I have had the privilege of traversing part of this beautiful country by bus three times now between Pietermaritzburg and Bloemfontein and I’m reminded of a line from one of the many movies that have been shown for entertainment during those trips. The characters were having a conversation about race issues amongst their youth baseball team. The coach asked the team what race one of the players was and the boys responded based on the color of his skin. The coach told them they were wrong and went on to say that “his race is human because there is only one human race.” What an important reminder for us as we try to determine who our “neighbors” really are. We are one human race and our neighbors are our brothers and sisters that make up that one human race. We don’t get to decide who fits in that box, everyone is in, and everyone needs to be loved in the way that we love ourselves.

Coming back to these ideas of first impressions and core identity, I see that so often we can only create a first impression by what is obvious and usually based on what is on the outside. We rarely give one another more than a few seconds, before making a judgment about what that person’s core identity surely must be, based on things like the color of their skin or the accent with which they speak or the way they dress or how their hair is done (or un-done), etc. In this journey to understand those traits of my core identity that keep coming back, I find that they are the characteristics I was given when I was made in the image of God and are much deeper than just the outside surface of my person. I can only hope that my attempts to embody this image by loving my “neighbor”, translates into an authentic picture of myself. I hope that I’m not just carrying that notion in my head and in my heart but that it is also so very apparent through the smile on my face and in the way I greet a new person in the street. I want my core identity, that part of me that I can’t seem to shake even when I have a chance to reinvent myself, to continue to be a beautiful reflection of the image of God and I want it to be obvious to those around me. I hope that so far I have been the most authentic “version” of myself to the people that I have met in South Africa, but more so I hope that I can lose the other “versions” and just be the person I was created to be, without fear of what my neighbors might think. I hope, too, that I am learning to see that all of my neighbors were also made in the image of God and that their unique characteristics are what make them a beautiful part of the family of Christ. I think that I have definitely been placed in a community that will challenge me to this task day in and day out for the next 10 months and I am grateful for that. I pray that this is a contagious idea, worldwide – you don’t have to be in South Africa to challenge your notions of who your neighbors are or what the image of God looks like in you. I hope that all of us will truly seek to live out our lives as our authentic selves, made in the image of God. After all, first impressions can be hard to break.