The Face of God in South Africa

Exodus 33:12-23

12 Moses said to the Lord, “Look, you’ve been telling me, ‘Lead these people forward.’ But you haven’t told me whom you will send with me. Yet you’ve assured me, ‘I know you by name and think highly of you.’ 13 Now if you do think highly of me, show me your ways so that I may know you and so that you may really approve of me. Remember too that this nation is your people.” 14 The Lord replied, “I’ll go myself, and I’ll help you.”

15 Moses replied, “If you won’t go yourself, don’t make us leave here. 16 Because how will anyone know that we have your special approval, both I and your people, unless you go with us? Only that distinguishes us, me and your people, from every other people on the earth.”

17 The Lord said to Moses, “I’ll do exactly what you’ve asked because you have my special approval, and I know you by name.”

18 Moses said, “Please show me your glorious presence.”

19 The Lord said, “I’ll make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I’ll proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord.’ I will be kind to whomever I wish to be kind, and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate. 20 But,” the Lord said, “you can’t see my face because no one can see me and live.” 21 The Lord said, “Here is a place near me where you will stand beside the rock. 22 As my glorious presence passes by, I’ll set you in a gap in the rock, and I’ll cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by.

23 Then I’ll take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face won’t be visible.”

South Africa as a country, just like the Israelites in the wilderness, is on its own journey through desert wanderings.  The 2 weeks I spent there with my colleagues of the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program was a journey through the wilderness of South Africa.  It was a journey of pain and hope where we experienced and met many people along the way who shared with us their stories of overcoming the oppression of the apartheid regime, and the ways in which they are still trying to overcome.  We ventured into places of brokenness.  We met people with unbelievable stories of the strength of the human spirit.  We heard from people who are saving lives and shaping the future despite the odds stacked against them.  We walked through streets where people did not have running water or clean toilets.  We walked through places where at night where we were told women could not walk to the toilet for fear of being raped or abducted.  We saw the faces of orphaned children, whose parents were lost to AIDS or other diseases.

And at the end of each day, we were asked to reflect on where we had seen pain and hope.  Some days it was easy to see the hope in the people we had met or in what we experienced.  Other days it seemed that pain was more prevalent, and we struggled to find any hope at all.  In my mind, I framed this exercise by reflecting on the question, “Where is the face of God in South Africa?” I was reminded that to “reflect” means to “bend back the light,” and that God gives us the ultimate light to follow and to reflect back on to others.  When Moses asks God in the midst of the desert wanderings to “show me your glorious presence,” he is asking God to let him know that God is really there.  Moses wants to know that God is willing to step in and be the God of the wilderness- to sit with his people as they are experiencing both the pain and hope of their journey and to lead them out into new life.  Moses wants to have a more profound experience and knowledge of God’s glorious presence in the midst of the desert wanderings.  I, too, found myself pleading with God: “show me your glorious presence” as I reflected upon my experiences each day in South Africa.  Like Moses, I, too wanted to see the face of God in each situation and each person.  I would like to think that God fulfilled my request, even though, as with Moses, it was hard at times to see God’s presence completely.  I guess that’s part of the mystery of God- that his presence is only revealed little by little, and it is partially hidden from us until we are ready to see with eyes wide open.

My journey to see the face of God in South Africa was one where I was reminded first and foremost that our God is a God who sits and is present with those who are suffering.  I saw glimpses of Jesus everywhere I went: the townships overrun with poverty, violence, and disease, the AIDS hospice with the sick and dying, and in the faces of displaced children and families.  The evidence of the apartheid is rampant throughout the country.  While we saw many hopeful situations of people integrating and working together, we also noticed that people are overall still separated based on the color of their skin and the systems are very much still in place to keep people of color from rising out of the depravity in which they were placed.

Apartheid is the Afrikaans or Dutch word for “apart.”  The apartheid regime rose to power shortly after World War II in 1948 and continued until 1994.  The apartheid was a government system put in place that separated people into classifications based on the color of their skin: black, white, colored, or Indian.  As this system was put into place, families were separated, people were forced from their homes into segregated neighborhoods and townships, blacks were deprived of their citizenship.  The government segregated education, medical care, other public services, and provided black people with inferior services to that of white people.  Education was limited only to the 8th grade for black children.  Townships were created for blacks to live in where basic human needs were often not met.  People suffered from lack of basic human rights, lack of education, and the violence that resulted in such an oppressive system.  We also learned that apartheid had really been in place for hundreds of years going back to the colonial period when people of Dutch East India and then the British occupied South Africa.  Apartheid was put into law in 1948 and came to an end in 1994.  While 1994 was a year of celebration and hope as democracy had a future and the apartheid government came to an end, South Africa still had much work to do.  People know this beautiful place as the “rainbow nation,” yet we still witnessed a nation that has much to overcome.  We experienced this “rainbow nation” as still not as colorful as we may have hoped.  It seems to me that the entire world came together to help South Africa overcome the apartheid and shared in this victory, but then left South Africa to help rebuild itself.  The world seems to have forgotten the people in the townships that are still there.  We seem to have forgotten that people affected by the oppression of the apartheid are still without education, are still without access to safe homes, running water, and the basic needs of human life.  We seem to have forgotten that the people who were stripped of their rights and human dignity are still trying to fight their way back up as they live in a world of uncertainty.  A world where people still see them as second class citizens.  A world that seems to have forgotten that we still have a lot of work to do in overcoming our fear of those who are different from us.  So where is the face of God to be found in all of this?  I was fortunate enough to find it in many ways, places, and faces, and usually the most surprising.

Our group had the privilege of touring Robben Island with Eddie Daniels on our first full day in South Africa.  Mr. Daniels was a political prisoner on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.  He was a political activist who stood up against the apartheid government after being forcefully removed from his home and denied the same rights as whites.  He served 15 years on Robben Island and faced a possible death penalty.  Shortly after his release in 1979, he married his wife, Eleanor, in defiance of the Immorality and Mixed Marriages Acts.  As we toured the island with Mr. Daniels, it was clear that here was an example of the strength, courage, and perseverance of the human spirit in the face of injustice and suffering.  As we listened to his stories, it became clear that those on Robben Island had to re-discover their human dignity, and they did this together by sharing in community.  They saw one another and walked tall together.

eddie daniels

At one point in our tour, we stood before a pile of rocks near one of the quarries where prisoners worked.  We were told that Nelson Mandela’s rock was the foundation of the pile, and then others followed, piling the rocks on top of the others until this memorial was formed and it remains there today as a remembrance of  those who fought to end apartheid.  The rocks were of different colors to represent those of all colors and walks of life coming together to create a stronger, more beautiful South Africa.  The stones were placed by choice rather than the forced work of those in the quarries during imprisonment.  They stand tall today as a reminder of strength and encouragement that there is still much work to be done.  Just as Nelson Mandela, a hero celebrated around the world, was the foundation of the rock pile, so is Jesus Christ our solid rock and foundation of our lives as we press onward in search of hope and justice.  The face of God was found in Mr. Daniels, Mr. Mandela, and buried within this pile of rocks as a tribute to both pain and hope.

rock pile robben island

I also discovered the face of God in the most unlikely of places, which is of course where God tends to show up.  God’s face was to be found in the townships where we walked through extreme poverty, sewage, trash, and homes that were literally falling apart.  Yet there we discovered those who were working in the trenches to save lives and give some human dignity to those who have yet to receive it.  In the township of Guguletu outside of Cape Town, we met with the JL Zwane Presbyterian Church and community center, whose ministries permeate deep into the community to work for positive change.  The pastor there described the congregation as a community who embraces different and celebrates it.  The leadership of the congregation is spread out throughout the township where people and teams oversee the needs of parts of the community where they are assigned.

The congregation is also known as the first church in South Africa to talk about HIV/AIDS and embrace those who have the disease.  They were the frontrunners of the community and the nation in forming a ministry that focuses on education, prevention and treatment.  The organization was formed in response to an incident where a young woman with HIV was stoned to death in the community so that she would not spread the disease.  The church decided to do something about it and after years of hardship and people not wanting to associate with the congregation, it is now seen as the birthplace of facing HIV/AIDS head on and ministering to the community in talking about it, preventing it, and caring for those with it.  Many in the community believed that the HIV/AIDS ministry was “God incarnate” among them, and gave all persons a place to be accepted, cared for, and loved rather than excluded and exiled.

The JL Zwane church also continues to overcome racial divides and brokenness within its community.  The pastor told us while talking about the end of apartheid, “We keep telling the same story instead of telling a new story.  It will take hundreds of years to overcome racial divides.  There is no joy in doing things amongst your own.  We need to cross the boundaries.  God smiles when we cross the boundaries.”  He also gave us some hard truths about the church in general- that we are good at talking about people, not with them.  The church should speak for people rather than thinking we know everything and to talk about them.  This hit home for many of us as pastors who continue to struggle with how our congregations can bridge divides and be the church who speaks for people, who meets people where they are in the midst of brokenness and pain rather than sitting high and mighty and not reaching those who need us the most.

We then toured one of the poorest areas of Guguletu.  We walked through piles of trash, sewage, and crowds of small children who were happy to greet us with hugs, smiles, and waves.  This picture was taken by one of my colleagues, Father Eric Augenstein, as he shared a moment with this orphaned child in Guguletu.  To me, she was a reminder of the face of God.

Photo: Father Eric Augenstein

Photo: Father Eric Augenstein

That even in the midst of this painful place, God is there with them as a comfort and pillar of strength.  She is a reminder that God is there in the most broken of places among the suffering and heartache of humanity. This is exactly the kind of place where Jesus walks. Later in the week, we toured the township of Khayelitsha, which was in similar condition to Guguletu.  We walked the streets of Khayelitsha with members of the Social Justice Coalition, who were heading up the Safe Toilets Campaign.  This was a vibrant group made up of mostly young people who are fighting for the government to provide safe and clean toilets for the township residents.  As we walked through the township, we saw children playing in disease and rat infested water.  We saw toilets that were ridden with disease, some that were not useable at all, and all were without any lighting nearby.  We walked huddled closely in our group as we heard countless stories of women who are raped and beaten regularly at night as they walk to the toilets, some of whom had to walk more than 15 minutes just to use the bathroom.  The Social Justice Coalition is fighting for safer and cleaner toilets for the people of the townships.  They are fighting for basic human needs, rights, and dignity.  I saw the face of God in their faces as they told us there compassionate stories and hope for the day that the people of the township would at least have access to clean and sanitary toilets to use.  I also once again saw the face of God walking amongst the people of the township as we walked by and witnessed their suffering.  The face of God was in the front of my mind as I was reminded of how broken our world can be, and how much we need to be challenged to do something about it in our own neighborhoods.

We also witnessed the face of God in Bishop Kevin Dowling who helped to establish an AIDS hospice, the Tapologo Centre, located about 2 hours from Johannesburg.  Bishop Dowling also equips nurses and caregivers who go into the rural townships to care for those with HIV/AIDS.  He is also a frontrunner in the fight against apartheid and an advocate for human rights, especially those of women and children. We stood in awe of this holy man who has saved thousands of lives and who provides a place for those who are dying with a place to die with dignity and peace, surrounded by compassion.  We visited with the hospice patients and the men in our group witnessed Bishop Dowling at work as he prayed with a dying young man.  We were all so moved at his stories and passion for his work and his courage in ministering to those who many would not acknowledge or touch.  His face was the face of God.  And of course, I can’t leave out that we got to worship with and receive communion from Archbishop Desmund Tutu, which was definitely an experience of seeing the face of God!

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There are many more instances of God being revealed to us in South Africa that I could share, and will share with you in the future.  But for now, I will close with one of my main reflections from the trip, and it is this question: What is it in human nature that causes us to want to separate from what is different?  What are we so afraid of?  And how are we to overcome the fear of difference?  The apartheid government was instituted in 1948, just three years after WW II and the liberation of Auschwitz.

As I was in South Africa learning about the apartheid and witnessing its effects firsthand, I couldn’t help but recall my experiences at Auschwitz with survivor Eva Kor.  I was literally watching history repeat itself.  Throughout our human history, these atrocities almost always begin with the fear and intolerance of who or what is different.  It almost always begins with a group of people feeling that they are superior to another group.  Why do we let this cycle continue?  How do we let history repeat itself?  These are questions for each and every one of us.  There comes a moment when we each have to look deep into our souls and ask why are we afraid of what is different from ourselves?  I asked myself this question repeatedly every day that I was in South Africa as I wrestled with my own fear of who or what is different.  We all have it in some form or another, but the choice of admitting it or ignoring it is in our hands, and what we choose to do with our fear.  Will we hide it away and keep being afraid to the point of separating ourselves or God forbid, seeing ourselves as superior to someone of another race, gender, sexuality, or religion?  Or will we face our fear head on, educate ourselves, and get to know someone as a fellow human being, equal in the eyes of God?  South Africa continues to face these questions and struggles each day, but it’s not just this country and its people that wrestle with these questions.  It is all of us in our struggle to love and accept one another.

As the apartheid legally came to an end, people began to return to the land that they call home after being set apart, separated, and forgotten about.  When we visited with Pastor Alan Storey in Cape Town, he told us that people began to return to the land, but the question remained: how to also return people to their souls?  We are still in a dark time as a people who struggle to see human dignity in each person and who stumble in the dark to reach across racial lines and the barriers we create for ourselves whether out of fear, ignorance, complacency, or the lack of caring about it at all from our places of comfort and smugness.  I saw the face of God in all of these struggles, questions, and experiences as I was forced to come to grips with my own sense of comfort at the expense of those who are uncomfortable, those who are suffering, and those live with labels placed on them by society based on the color of their skin or for being who they were born to be in many forms.  My prayer for myself, as was with Moses, “Please show me your glorious presence” that I may continue to reflect your light to those who need us most.  Please show me your glorious presence that I may have the courage and strength that was shown to us by these people and places who are working for positive change and putting the broken pieces back together again.  Please show me your glorious presence in the midst of both pain and hope, that I may be an agent for a hopeful future in my own corner of the world.  Will you join me in this prayer?  Amen.

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