When I first arrived with my new MUD3 Family in South Africa nearly 6 months ago for our year of service with the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program, we began our orientation by disorienting ourselves. We immediately found ourselves in a new land where some things we found were surprisingly familiar (like palm trees for the lone girl from Florida) and others were expectedly foreign (languages, foods, music, etc.) We were led in wonderful discussions by leaders of both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa and members of our own ELCA Global Mission department. One of the many topics we kept returning to was the notion of the tensions we would likely experience this year. These tensions included (but certainly weren’t limited to) patience vs. proactivity, settling in vs. getting going, the idea of being vs. doing, relationships vs. tasks, and what I think my gifts are vs. what my gifts could be.
I fully expected therefore to see and experience these but I think I less expected to see how some of these really connect to the tensions that exist in our everyday lives in the United States. I was forced to confront these drastically a couple of weeks ago while preparing to head back to Kimberley from a wonderful visit with some of the other volunteers and our coordinators in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province. At the end of an incredibly refreshing week of great conversation and experiencing the site of another volunteer located in a pretty rural area of South Africa, I re-encountered my love/hate relationship with technology. The 6 of us were busy waiting out yet another torrential downpour before heading back to the Kwazamokuhle Diaconic Centre, or the Kwaz as Josh’s site has affectionately become known, when I received a text and then phone call from my best friend. Stacy was letting me know that good friends of ours had successfully delivered their second daughter, Lily Raina, early that morning Eastern Standard Time. It was so great to hear my sweet friend’s voice and catch up for just a few minutes and hear all the great news. I loved technology in that moment for allowing us to rejoice together in this new life even though we are separated by thousands of miles. The rain eventually let up and we were able to make our way home, have dinner, and just enjoy the last hours of each other’s company. It was beautiful. I went to sleep late that night, exhausted but very happy, very reenergized, and ready to come home and get back to work in my community of Roodepan. The next morning I woke up to a text from another of my best friends. Kelly was letting me know that the father of another good friend of ours had died suddenly of a heart attack. It was still the same day in U.S. time and my heart broke. In that moment, it was easier to hate technology for carrying that news just as fast as it had carried the joy of Lily’s arrival.
But that 180 degree switch in my emotions, that desire just for the moment to be Stateside and share in the joy and sorrow and celebration of life with my dear friends, really made me think about the everyday tensions that I am seeing here in South Africa, those that I can recall from life in the States, and those that I imagine are experienced no matter the place you call home. Babies are born and people die every day, it’s a part of life, whether we are ready for it or not. That is just one of the tensions the Bible so blatantly outlines for us in the book of Ecclesiastes. Chapter 3 starts with the often quoted, “ For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” and then goes on to list all of these opposites like birth and death, weeping and laughing, love and hate, war and peace. How many times have I read this passage and not seen it as an outline of the “tensions” we feel caught between every day?
Since my arrival to South Africa, the tension of being vs. doing has probably been the most obvious that I have encountered on a day to day basis. I get up and go to “work” each day at one of my local sites and there are many times during each of those days that I am not actually “working” in our typical North American definition of what it means to work. Maybe it’s a day I’m at the orphanage in Galeshewe and the babies are thoroughly enjoying their nap time, maybe I’m working with the home-based care group and I’m listening to an Ouma (Grandma) tell her story in Afrikaans where I can pick up every 5th word if it’s a good day. These times don’t seem to be nearly as productive as when I’m helping one of the babies learn to walk as we toddle across the room or when I can use my strength to off-road with a wheelchair to take another Ouma to the local clinic for a checkup. And yet, these times when I get to just be in the moment and take a breather to take it all in, to realize that just my presence or whatever small seemingly insignificant attempt at a conversation in Afrikaans I try, does mean something to the people I encounter during these days of “work”.
I think that sometimes in the States we make ourselves busy so that we don’t have to be alone with ourselves, so that we don’t have to make time for what can sometimes be awkward conversation with someone we don’t know, so that we can always “see” the product of whatever we were working on. I have often been guilty of focusing more on tasks than relationships or doing instead of being. At times, this is ok, sometimes even necessary. But, I’ve realized that this isn’t how I want to spend every day of my life. I would rather take the time to just be in a moment and to really focus on the people around me and not look only for what value they might have to me or the task I need to accomplish. This year, these tensions, are teaching me to be ok with not always having a concrete product to show for my days here – most days that would be impossible. They are teaching me that in the end making time for people, a smile or conversation or donation to their cause (and not necessarily financially), is more important to uniting us as a human race than for me to spend my days avoiding those I don’t know and only speaking philosophically about ways to understand one another.
Tensions are a part of life. Even in our program so aptly named MUD. With all the rain we had that week in KZN, it would have been really easy to become fed up with being wet all the time. On the other hand, mixing rain with the dirt creates the very mud in which we all live our lives. Real life is muddy, messy, full of tension. How we choose to view those tensions, or to ignore them altogether, will shape the lessons we learn from life and those around us.
January 28, 2011. Welcome to the world, Lily. Thank you for all the lessons you are already teaching those around you, near and far. Rest in eternal peace, Mr. Baker. Thank you for all the lessons that you are continuing to teach us as we celebrate the life you lived.