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A First Act of Life Was Learning To Walk | Why Have We Forgotten How?

I was Born To Run. At five years of age I was The Flash. Like the gingerbread man who ran away from the farmer’s wife, I recall breaking free from the confinement of a nurse’s home office in Nyeri, Kenya, this, despite people’s restricting grip, and bolting panic-stricken across the lawn, like a young Thompson gazelle pursued turn-for-turn by a cheetah, toward what I perceived to be a sanctuary–a distant dairy shed. Despite playing dead (hiding), as a gazelle might do, eventually I was caught and carried kicking and squirming back to the nurse’s inoculation needle.

Come third grade I ran to impress, showing off my calloused feet and speed by sprinting barefoot round-and-round our family’s crushed quarry stoned driveway in Kisumu (“kiss-a-moo” as my grandmother called it).

From then until high school graduation I ran like the wind of Forrest Gump, obeying his Jenny’s instructions, “If you’re ever in trouble, don’t be brave. You just run, OK? Just run away.” Run I could. Run I did. Despite my young age it seemed I always was the Lone Survivor in the tag/tackle game of American Eagles, and my running athleticism earned me the rugby nickname “shadow dancer.”

Teenage sprints morphed into young adulthood jogs, where I ran non-competitively in mid-to-long distance races.

In young middle age I now occasionally run, but more often walk. If pressed for why I blame my wife (her ailing knees prevent us from jogging together), but truth be told I prefer walking.

Why, you ask?

Partly blame it on life having more problems than I can reasonably manage, accommodate and resolve.

FIRST, walking, unlike running, helps you think on your feet.

As Willard Spiegelman notes in Seven Pleasures: Essays on Happiness, for those of us whose profession has more to do with words and ideas, than motorized giant Caterpillars, sledge hammers, or physical exertion, walking involves and unites “mind, body, and breath (spirit) in a harmonious process that at once releases and excites different kinds of energy.”

Walking, therefore, is an effective prod or facilitator of self-knowledge, meditation and contemplation. In a real sense, walking enables, even encourages self-change, self-revision, self-remake, self-reinvention, and self-modification. In this, Spiegelman is spot on.

Søren Kierkegaard reputedly wrote his niece, “When I have a problem I walk, and walking makes it better. Do not lose your desire to walk; every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

If Kierkegaard felt compelled to instruct his niece on the importance of walking in the early 1800’s, how much more we, who live in so-called developed twenty-first century countries need to be reminded!

During a 2001 academic conference in Geneva, a Scottish colleague’s first, and apparently lasting impression of a recent visit to the West Coast of the United States was how shoppers park in front of one shopping mall entrance, enter, purchase, exit, then drive to others points of the mall versus walk its relatively short length.

Accustomed to motorized transport, we forget that walking used to be our primary means of transportation.

A SECOND reason I now prefer walking over running is that walking offers a combination experience of ordinary plus the unexpected.

Each time I walk in the neighborhood across from my home, which unlike my own adjoins a nearby eco greenbelt, there’s a constancy that combines allure, monotony, and the unexpected.

To date, I’ve discovered about $20, found myself suddenly parallel and within five feet of a skunk on the prowl, come upon a house that was lit up like a bonfire replete with emergency personnel and an entire neighborhood present for what seemed a giant s’mores or weenie cookout, informed a home owner of a large yet harmless snake that crossed the road in front of me and slithered up alongside their house, pitied a young screech-owl that evidently was hit by a passing motorist, seen near collisions of car and deer and witnessed newborn fawns with their mothers, documented neighborhood political rivalry, and seen first-hand the aging and changing demographics of a neighborhood, which mirrors that of our nation.

If I’m able to document these few or more type experiences–from mere one-hour walks, several times per week–how much more of the ebb and flow of life am I, or you, or we, missing out on because we’re speeding past in a motorized “two-ton piece of metal” or entombed within the protective yet insular walls of our own home castles?

The FINAL, perhaps most important reason to become a more frequent, intentional walker, is that “like dancing, walking becomes an exercise in civility.” It results in an increased “inner awareness and an imaginative sympathy with, and for, other people.”

I’m a new participant in Richmond’s Community Trustbuilding Fellowship, a training initiative begun by Initiatives of Change. It’s a five weekend program that develops “community trustbuilders.” A trustbuilder is an individual, like myself, who has a passion for, and receives methodology training in facilitating community dialogue. The objective, as I understand it, is the transformation of communities polarized by race, culture, politics, economics, education and social inequities, into communities of trust, which, then, of course, it is hoped will become more effective in addressing and acting upon symptom and systemic inequities and injustices.

Week Two is entitled “Healing History,” where we’ll take a walk around Richmond. We will retrace the many “slave steps,” in an effort to better understand and develop a sensitive understanding of what life was like for so many enslaved people. But–in the spirit of understanding opposing positions, and facilitating dialogue between polarized communities, we’ll also gain a more appreciative understanding of the “white experience,” often synonymous with “white privilege.”

US Panel 3 HIC (KEG)_0

My doctoral method of study and training in history of religions is phenomenology. Basically, it’s a method of learning that prioritizes awareness, understanding and knowledge acquisition from the underside of history, the ordinary, or “common” person’s perspective versus history’s “victors’ perspective,” which is the narrative of most history textbooks.

In other words, phenomenology requires experiential, personal engagement with the object of one’s study (people of different culture, socioeconomic, political or religious faith) versus mere textbook knowledge, or that acquired from media sources or so-called “experts.”

It’s a transformative method of learning or unlearning, depending upon one’s perspective, because the resulting “relationships of trust” you experience with “different others” not only are informative in terms of knowledge, but also destructive of pre-existing stereotypes, plus, they are self- and other-transformative, in that your/their own life will likely be positively changed simply by experiencing and participating in the life of “the different other.”

SO . . . whatever your profession or life situation, do yourself a favor and become more frequent and intentional in taking walks. Start small. Walk the block. But while you’re walking keep your eyes, ears, mind and heart open. Who knows what or who you might unexpectedly encounter, which might not only change your own life, but contribute collectively to the transformation of your community, and ultimately, one person by one person, the entire world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Grasping An Elephant’s Hand | Navigating Life’s Journey

This blog is dedicated to “Bum Bum,” “Teddy Beddy Bear,” “Fooey,” “Tusky or Tutty,” “Puuddy” and “Wuwoof”–my five children’s stuffed animals, whose inanimate lives like Winnie the Pooh and Pals, took on life and needed companionship in the imagination of my children’s lives.

Tusky and Puuddy

Tusky and Puuddy

Tusky & Moose

Tusky & Moose

 

Transitioning through life’s early developmental stages of infancy, childhood and adolescence is difficult enough without having to fearfully obsess or freak out about dying by random acts of violence, infectious diseases, or colossal acts of nature, such as tsunamis. Unfortunately, merely Google “children’s exposure to violence” or “death” and you’ll obtain more than 10M hits.

For two years I taught South African Department of Education life orientation teachers a curriculum developed by Community Information for Empowerment and Transparency (CIET), that corroborated the link between sexual violence and AIDS. As facilitator I often illustrated violence with reference to South Africa’s endemic “culture of violence.”

I illustrated it this way:

Imagine you’re driving to work at 8AM on X-Highway, when you turn on the radio and hear motorists excitedly calling in to John Robbie, local Radio 702’s Talk Show host, informing him and other commuters that an armed hijacking of a cash/coin truck is occurring as you speak. Twelve to 16 men wearing balaclavas and holding AK-47s are hacking into the overturned armored truck with axes to grab the money bags before fleeing in several getaway cars (I recall one November that 31 cash in-transit heists occurred in Gauteng Province alone).

A culture of violence is not the violent act itself, but rather, the day-to-day life reality and expectation that violent acts are commonplace, part of life’s “normal” existence in South Africa.

So, with respect to the cash heist, commuters who are not bottlenecked on the highway because of the armed robbery in progress, express little thought or mention for the safety of the security guards or other commuters, and instead, think, “So glad I’m not caught up in that traffic jam?” or “Whew! I should still make my 8:30AM meeting if I hurry.”

Adults everywhere struggle with this daily physiologically and emotionally tense white elephant–this walking on death’s black ice and knowing you’re going to fall yourself one day, but hoping against all hopes it’s not “your time” to break your neck, but merely get “a good” bruising.

Seldom do adults still possess or have reason to rely on stuffed childhood animals to mediate fearful and anxious tension. Many people have no-one to accompany them through difficult life passages. It’s notable that Seton Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, began an initiative in 2009 to help indigents.  It’s called No One Dies Alone or NODA.

Doctor Bongani Thembela didn’t know it at the time, but his recall of the last hours spent with an HIV/AIDS patient, effectively qualified him to be a NODA volunteer–“I could see he might die any minute. So I sat with him, held his hand. We sat there an hour, two hours, three hours, four hours, five hours. Eventually he died at 4:30 in the morning.”

Children being the little human sponges they are, absorb overt and latent fear from whomever and wherever it might originate, and yet, unlike adults, they are less capable of managing early-life stress and violence, which adversely affects their developing brains.

For an oddly engaging and informative glimpse into childhood trauma and development, read The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook–What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing.

The political cartoon satirist, David Zapiro made light of South African children’s daily fearful experiences in a drawing of a teacher asking her class what they wanted to be when they grew up, while immediately outside the classroom window stood two muggers, one armed with a large knife and the other with a pistol. One young girl raises her hand and shouts her response, “ALIVE!”

My children aren’t perfect but they’re as near perfect as I or my wife could have ever hoped for. We’re grateful for their polyester stuffed companions, who not only accompanied our children on their perilous developmental journeys, but who likely were all made or assembled in China, and who were loved literally to death and shreds by one American family.

 

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The Unknown and Unimagined Life of Being a (Black) Problem

IMAGINE for a moment that you were black, brown, yellow, whatever color, really–even white–as long as it’s not the reigning color of hegemony in a given place (hegemony=the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group).

The important point of imagining is that you belong to a segment of society that for what seems forever has been bereft of sociopolitical and economic power, resulting in a troubled state of life, being, even self-identification.

Imagine that you personally, or members of your family or community have recent and past memory of being routinely profiled, unjustly or disproportionately incarcerated, disenfranchised, subjugated, enslaved (forced marital and family separation, rape), derided, stereotypically blamed for high crime rates and indulgent abuse of welfare subsidies, a member of “the native problem,” and most shameful of late, given racially charged incidents such as occurred in Ferguson, MO, publicly ridiculed on prime time by “news” hucksters, the likes of whom resemble a wily red fox.

One North American, who not only successfully imagines, but also in a two-part Op-Ed risks exposing and challenging “smug white delusion,” and who knows first-hand a smidgen, at least, of what it’s like to be non-privileged in a democracy that often evidences a one-step forward, two-steps backward reality in matters of economic inequity and race relationships is The New York Times Op-Ed columnist, twice Nobel Peace winner, and “honorary African” (according to Desmond Tutu), Nicholas Kristof.

Similarly, Nadine Gordimer, former South African writer, anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace laureate, in a chapter story, “Ah, Woe Is Me,” (from Selected Stories), shares a white, apartheid-era, self-awareness moment, through the narrative of a white woman and her former obese and physically debilitated black “servant” Sarah.

In the short story, one of Sarah’s three children, a daughter arrives unexpectedly at Ma’am’s doorstep after years absence. Once the apple of her mother Sarah’s eyes, in terms of potential as scholar and aspiring teacher, the girl is now disheveled and anguished in appearance–the result of forced withdrawal from school due to lack of school fees, as well as her unyielding duty to care for her bedridden mother.

Ma’am nervously and immediately bombards the young “location” (black township=where black people were consigned to live under apartheid) girl with questions about her mom’s health, the girl’s schooling, her siblings, her father’s loss of job, the hardships of life in the location, et cetera.

Abruptly, almost, she becomes self-conscious of the incessant and personally detached nature of her questioning, and shares with the Reader this bit of inner self-discourse:

“I always had the curious feeling that they (Sarah’s children) were embarrassed, not by me, but for me, as if their faces knew that I could not help asking these same questions, because the real state of their lives was unknown and unimagined by me, and therefore beyond my questioning.”

This representative apartheid-era white woman, who lived in a white’s-only suburb, and who not only had the economic means to hire household servants, but also belonged to the ruling political power–one capable of dictating and enforcing upon everyone different to themselves not only where they would live, but what and how they should think of themselvesin a narrative flash realized she knew absolutely nothing about, and could imagine even less, what day-to-day life was really like for a non-white in apartheid South Africa.

Uncanny in similarity are W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 words in The Souls of Black Folk–

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ they say, ‘I know an excellent colored man in my town,’ or, ‘Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?’

At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ I answer seldom a word.

To not personally know what it’s like to be “a problem,” profiled, incarcerated or a systematically disenfranchised person or people is understandable, particularly if your life has been one of disproportional privilege than struggle and hardship.

An unwillingness, however, to attempt vicariously imagining what another’s life must in reality be like, is inexcusable, and reflective not of power, but of fear–a fear of what your conscience, like Ma’am’s, might instruct and compel you to act upon, given your new awareness.

 

Note: One example of one city’s bipartisan, interracial, and intentional effort to understand “the other’s” life experience and narrative of pain, is Richmond, Virginia’s Initiatives of Change and Hope In The Cities. They promote trust building through honest and courageous communities of dialogue.

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Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation – Part 2

For those of you a-religious, or nominally so, this blog’s content might seem like a world “far, far away, in a distant galaxy.” If not relevant to you, it might at least be entertaining.

In “Part 1” I reminisced about my 5th grade small-time smoking, and of my dad’s respectful manner of handling my “experiments with tobacco.”

In Part-2 I reflect upon the religious culture that, despite my wish at times to extricate myself from, is part-and-parcel of my identity as U.S. citizen and Texas resident.

I note the culture’s entrenched belief in mankind’s sinful nature, an ever-present, yet at times subdued consciousness of an End Time (return of Christ and punishment of the wicked), and a corresponding need to enlist fear and fire as proselytizing motivation when “love” alone fails to change a “sinner’s” heart.

My early developmental years are a narrative of exposure to overt and subliminal Christian messages of “Jesus loves me and the little children of the world, this I know for the Bible tells me so,” and “Amazing grace, that saved a wretch like me, Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”

Love and Fear, then, were, and continue to be frequently juxtaposed themes. And in my experience, Fear (and Fire) has dominated North American evangelical consciousness, and regrettably has been one of our chief exports to the world.

Regrettable, that is, in terms of how fear and a perceived imminence of the End Time or Last Days has influenced our treatment of people and cultures different – i.e., as a means to an end.

Former Anglican bishop to southeast Africa, John Colenso, corroborated the presence of American religious fear mongers in his Ten Weeks in Natal journal –

“The profession of Christianity had been very much hindered by persons saying that the world will be burnt up—perhaps, very soon—and they will all be destroyed.  They [Zulus] are frightened, and would rather not hear about it, if that is the case.”

If you discount Colenso’s journal as a mere snapshot of 19th Century colonial and missionary history, then read When Time Shall Be No More, which details Americans’ obsessive preoccupation and speculation about prophecy and End Time.

boyer

So . . .

Many of us grew up, and continue to live in a social, political and religious culture that has been heavily influenced by a Puritan / Protestant-evangelical tradition.

quote

A culture still analogous in many ways to a much earlier time in history, depicted by a story of an American missionary, Mr. Kirby, to Native Americans –

“Some wicked traders heard the Christian Indians singing a hymn, and they said to them, ‘What do poor creatures like you know about Jesus Christ?’ One of the Indians took up a worm, made a circle of dry moss round it, and set fire to the moss. The worm soon tried to escape, but could not, then the Indian lifted it out to a place of safety, and turning to the gazing traders, said, ‘that is what Jesus has done for me.’”

The Southern United States, in particular, the so-called Bible Belt, still evidences this overt evangelical consciousness.

Visit select Starbucks, particularly in a town such as Waco, Texas, for example, and regularly see people individually reading or in groups discussing the Bible, praying, and as I did on one occasion, see a young child of maybe 10 to 12 years, standing in the order queue, soliciting a middle-age adult behind him with, “Mr, If you died today, do you know where you would go?”

If You Died Today

Generally speaking, this culture views human nature as first and foremost sinful, deprived, void of any individual good, alienated from God, and destined for eternal separation from God (hell) unless repentance and atonement is sought after and found. (*See documentaries Virgin Tales and Jesus Camp.)

It seems that humanity is so void of good inclination, so morally deprived, that inciting fear (and shaming) are the singularly effective provocateurs to soliciting confessions of remorse/guilt, thereby paving the way for divine forgiveness.

As a so-called “born again Christian,” myself, I don’t agree with this lopsided view of human nature, since the Bible, in my opinion, speaks equally if not more to humanity’s creation “in the image of God,” and therefore humanity’s immense created potential for good as evidenced in socially transforming, larger-than-life personages.

Yes, this includes Jesus, a carpenter’s son, but also Muhammad, a merchant and trader (we could list any number of religious founders, from Sikhism to Baha’i), Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi, lawyers, and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr or Desmond Tutu as clergymen, Rosa Parks, NAACP secretary, Mother Teresa (of course), Anne Frank, and scores of other notable women and men.

Such a negative assessment of human nature also doesn’t substantiate my personal life of faith, which experientially benefited from a decidedly more feminine and maternal metaphor of God (see my blog Two Words); one that depicts an Ultimate Reality’s patience, kind-heartedness, and all-encompassing love, rather than the millennial’s old patriarchal, judicial and capricious view of God

Despite my unwillingness to embrace, or at least, fixate on mankind’s sinful nature, I do understand the mindset and appeal of conservative/fundamentalist faith (Christianity shares similarities with Islam at this point), particularly given the everywhere evidence of “the evil that men do” against fellow humanity, and the desire for a sense of inner security that a belief in absolutes falsely promises.

What good news and hope there is in the gospel message, then, is often overshadowed and contingent upon whether you’re fearfully contrite enough to say “I’m a sinner,” or “my bad” as Adam Sandler humorously expressed his own missteps.

A new, “born-again” life is said to occur when you . . .

-Hear through some means (usually through preaching/proselytizing) the gospel message offering forgiveness and a new life . . .

-Feel enough remorse (guilt) about your sinful nature and sinful deeds . . .

-That you acknowledge and confess your wretchedness . . .

-Plus, have faith to believe that Jesus is God’s only Son, who died in order to ransom you from the clutches of the evil one, who, incidentally, is the prime instigator behind all your bad thoughts, actions, and life’s misfortunes . . .

-Because God’s redemption can only be experienced singularly in and through Jesus . . .

-After all, “narrow is the gate” into heaven.

-If heaven’s gate is enlarged to include any different-from-Christian people, say, mere “lovers and doers of truth and goodness” (*the many kinds of individuals Jesus, himself, and the Bible commend for their faith and righteousness), then how will Christians know for absolute certain that they, themselves, have met the conditions for heaven?

-Therefore, Christians need “different” faith and cultural antagonists to mirror what is allegedly “non-biblical” in order to assure them by negation that Christianity is the only and true way . . .

-Furthermore, by obeying and following so-called prescribed and biblically mandated “salvation steps”  . . .

-Then, and only then, will a person have assurance that God’s righteous anger has been mitigated, and that eternity is a certainty.

Any notion of “biblical truth” (a favorite phrase for absolute truth among Bible Belt Christians) incidentally, is a misnomer, because all truth is interpretive, reflecting more one’s social, economic, educational, political and life experience, than so-called objective/absolute truth.

Like the apostle Paul acknowledged, himself, there is truth that is provisional, personal, and truthful, as in seeing in a mirror dimly, but you cannot legitimately claim it as singularly absolute because you are not God, nor can you even make that claim for the Bible because then you would be guilty yourself of bibliolatry – the worship of the Bible. Truth must play out in the market place of life, where you’re free, even encouraged to advocate for your understanding of truth, demonstrate through your life and actions its authenticity, and make emotional appeal from your personal experience.

In Part-3 I’ll attempt explaining how my understanding of “salvation” has changed from my 3rd grade pie-in-the-sky understanding. My current spirituality and sense of being “saved” is indebted to the many valued perspectives and life experiences I’ve shared over the past 15 years with the religious and cultural “different Others.” I’m grateful to have been forced through graduate studies to journey beyond my single Baptist perspective and tradition (single color rug) to a symphony of different perspectives and testimonials, each one, yet collectively, trying to express in language and symbol the ultimate meaning we’ve discovered about the inexplicable realities and meanings of life (mosaic colored rug).

mosaic3

 

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Insularity of Life and Faith Equates to Insecurity | The Example of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod

Last week, a side-margin story in The New York Times caught my eye.  Perhaps you’re aware of it. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/nyregion/lutheran-pastor-explains-role-in-sandy-hook-interfaith-service.html?_r=0.

A Lutheran pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, who lost a parishioner in the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, was first reprimanded, then forgiven (only after writing a letter of apology).

His wrong doing?  Participating in an interfaith service for victims and their families where Muslims and Baha’is were also represented, and thereby, it was reasoned by Synod leadership, that the pastor, Bob Morris, in effect endorsed the false teaching of those religions, as well as communicated to the LCMS’s 2.3 million members that religious differences are unimportant.

Thank God for another LCMS pastor, David H. Benke, who unlike Morris refused to apologize for participating in a similar post-9/11 interfaith service. He said of the Synod’s demand for Morris to apologize, “I am on the side of giving Christian witness in the public square and not vacating it.  If we don’t show up, who can receive our witness?”

If you read my “concluding thoughts” in Calling A Spade A Spade, you’ll know that I perceive Americans are largely unconscious of how much “power,” and its corollary “control,” are aspects of our cultural heritage, worldview and faith.

I see our propensity to power and control as largely to-be-expected results of a century and a half of global political, economic and military predominance (aka, super power status).

Our “might,” as it were, is in many respects a by-product and development from a much prior historical moment, more than a millennium and a half ago, when in the 4th century, emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the Roman imperial religion.

Overnight almost Christianity went from a status of being a small and persecuted sect within Judaism, to one wedded to and wielding immense political, economic and military power. The entanglement of faith and power were no where more vividly depicted, I’ve read, than on a Roman centurion’s weaponry, where the insignia of the cross was displayed.

The seeds of this faith-political entanglement were exported to the Americas by the first shipload of Puritans on The Mayflower in 1620, and in my opinion, are evident in LCMS’s (and other U.S. conservative denominations, such as Southern Baptist) effort to control what Benke rightly refers to as the “public square” of religious discourse.

Concluding Thoughts:

Growing up I remember a neighbor lady taking me to a movie cinema along with her kids.  The movie didn’t leave an impression on me, but how this lady tried to shield us from the “evils” of secular society, did.  That is – she refused us early entrance to the cinema, so as to prevent us from viewing the movie trailers and advertisements.  I can’t fault her motives and intentions, but I can her reasoning.

One has to wonder how the LCMS censors its ministers when it comes to preaching from the New Testament, and the many sacrosanct life stories of “their Jesus.” After all, there are many scripture passages in which Jesus associates with and alongside the equivalent of a pervasive, even dominant religious and cultural plurality, false teachers, and social and moral pariahs (prostitutes, tax collectors, murderers and criminals).

In my opinion the LCMS’s logic and decision to disengage from the so-called false teachings and corrupting influence of religious diversity, particularly for such a hallowed event as an interfaith prayer service for victims of a massacre, convey at least two realities.

One, the reality of an accustomed life of societal privilege, whereby the LCMS leadership, in particular, and perhaps many of its 2-million members have little or no social and material need, and no compelling circumstances whereby they have to associate with anyone different from themselves.

And secondly, in contrast to what the LCMS are attempting to convey – a uncompromising allegiance to Jesus Christ and his message of eternal life – they are, in effect, communicating its opposite: an insular and insecure faith.  A faith that is so frail and unsure of its own relationship to God, that it requires the separation from and the damnation of billions of people so as to false-assure themselves that they are among “the final elect.”

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Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend

Let me tell you about my former friend Peter Khosa.

Peter was a refugee from Mozambique, who I first met in 1990 in the small town of Malamulele, in what is now Limpopo Province, South Africa.  Peter was managing a non-profit food relief project for thousands of people fleeing Mozambique’s civil war.

Peter distributing food to two refugee children.

Peter Khosa distributing food to two children.

Peter’s English was imperfect, yet eloquent.  He was the hardest worker I have known.  In order to support his immediate family of six, plus, family in Mozambique, including parents, Peter bought an old 4×4 bakkie (pick-up truck), and made weekly trips of 900+ kilometers to purchase bulk fresh produce, including cabbage, onions, potatoes and citrus.  His wife, Rosa, then sold the produce for minimal profit in two local open-air markets.

Peter & Rosa's "bakkie" (truck) and vegetable stall.

Peter & Rosa’s “bakkie” (truck) and vegetable stall.

 

Peter's family

Peter’s family

Peter died in 2007 of brain cancer – a disease he fought for five years.

Peter Khoza

Peter

I take this opportunity to share how Peter affected and shaped my life.  I am a bi-cultural person, who was born in the United States, yet grew up in Africa.

In addition to his ethos of hard work, Peter was extremely truthful and candid.  He didn’t put on airs of niceness merely to please (or deceive). Two cases in point:

One day in Thohoyandou, Venda, my wife and I had several unexpected visitors.  Offering hot tea or coffee, plus something to eat, was a Venda cultural expression of respect to visitors, and my wife did this with our three Venda male visitors.  Not long into their visit, Peter also unexpectedly showed up.  After greetings were exchanged my wife brought Peter something to drink and eat without asking, but upon offer, Peter politely declined.

tea

His “cheeky candor” became a topic of light-hearted discussion among our Venda guests. “Oh, but you have to accept it, Peter!  We have just ‘trained’ Mme a Daniel (mother of Daniel) in the ways of our culture and now you’ve gone and sown confusion in her mind.”  Peter responded, “But I’m not hungry!  Why should I accept and waste food and drink when I have no need?”  Discussion continued over cultural differences between such close neighbors as the Venda and Shangaan people.

A final example of Peter’s candor.  One late afternoon he, along with his wife and a friend of hers, arrived unannounced at our house.  I had spent the afternoon making what I believed to be an excellent potjiekos (=small pot food), an Afrikaaner “stew” cooked in a three-legged, cast iron, Dutch rounded potjie (cooking pot), which is slow-cooked on an open fire.  A hint of what is to come . . . I had been taught the “art” of potjiekos cooking from a fellow American, although in fairness to him, my culinary skills should not be blamed on anyone but myself.

On this occasion I recall making a potjiekos of chunks of fresh beef, white onions, potatoes, slices of mango, and a generous dash of red wine.  A secret of good potjiekos – so I’m told – is in choosing the right ingredients, on correctly layering the ingredients, and on slow and precise cooking.

A potjie on an open fire.

A potjie on an open fire.

We invited our guests in, and despite their insistence that they were not in great need of food, I served them my “delicious” potjiekos, anyway.  My wife and I then sat across from them at the dining table.  We engaged in conversation, all the while I kept expecting them to comment on how delicious my potjiekos was.  Affirmation never came. Food consumed, they excused themselves.

We walked them to the front gate and their bakkie.  As they were driving off and we were waving, Peter suddenly did a 360-degree turn.  He drove up alongside us, stopped, rolled down his window, placed his hand on my arm, and smilingly stated, “My friend, when you come to my house I will teach you how to cook!”  With that he rolled the window up and drove off into the darkening night, leaving a cloud of fine red Venda dust in his wake.  He was true to his word.  Another day, another time, he made me Portuguese style food, including a large steak, topped with two or three medium fried eggs, served with a generous portion of “chips” (french fries), a side salad, and a large glass of Coke.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

In addition to Peter’s candor, what some might mistake for impoliteness, he also frequently demonstrated affection and vulnerability.

One time I spent several nights at Peter and Rosa’s house. One evening, just prior to dinner, he suggested we take a walk in the neighborhood.  As to its relevance, you decide, but know that Malamulele is mostly, if not entirely, a “black town.”  Its city center consisted of a few small shops and cafes. Neighborhoods included a mixture of face-brick homes with tiled roofs, to rural looking thatched rondavels. Needless to say, a white man walking in the community, while not unheard of, was not common.

"Three Rondavels" in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

“Three Rondavels” in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

At some point during our stroll, and as Peter pointed out different features of his community to me, several fingers of one hand softly held my own.  It was then him leading me around the neighborhood.

Black,+white+handshake+hands

I’m as “American male” as the next person, and it took a few seconds or minutes, I can’t say exactly which, before I was able to come to terms with this newfound, and highly cultural “holding hands experience.”  After my inner macho man-ness was convinced that the experience did not awaken any latent gay feelings of pleasure, and that no bystanders were aghast, I actually appreciated the feeling that came from knowing Peter took my hand because he felt a close kinship with me – that I had become to him like a brother and family.  Holding hands then became to me something of a badge of honor.

Concluding thought:

All of this is to say . . . I miss close friendships and “connectedness” like what I shared with Peter.  A friend who is kind yet candid, who offers you his best hospitality and troubles himself to walk the neighborhood with you, taking your hand, and showing you what you might not otherwise have seen or experienced.

I’m almost three years into Austin residency and I have yet to feel much connection to this city and its people.  I’m sure the fault is shared by me.

Initially, and as a newcomer, I sought some measure of connection through the tradition I grew up in, that is, church and the Christian community.  In those faith communities my family and I frequented, I did find “nice” people, yet my family’s experience suggests one becomes an “insider” by coming to them, reaching out to them, and it helps significantly if you have disposable and leisure income, which can enable you to participate fully in all social and “ministry” events.

I find it somewhat ironic that in what many people call “Christian America,” my family have had as many if not more invitations to dinners, parties, house dedications, and even offers of job networking from Hindu and Muslim neighbors and friends, including our girls’ school friends’ families, than from full-time pastoral staff of my own faith tradition or members. Obviously, there are a few exceptions to this generalization.

 

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Birth-dates | Memories of Celebration & Loss

In case the world doesn’t know yet, please ring the bells.  It’s my birthday!

Birthdays symbolize and celebrate the fact that individuals have a history.

One of my eldest daughter's birthday.

Our eldest daughter’s 17th birthday.

In this blog I share a few memories from my own life history, plus an exercise that demonstrates the importance of memories.  I hope the exercise “I Remember” helps you re-experience happy occasions, or alternatively emotionally process through and beyond painful memories of loss.

Life celebratory dates are met with a mix of emotions by people.  For instance, I have learned over the years that December 31st is not a good day, to put it mildly, for my mother-in-law.  Although it marks a traditionally celebratory day (wedding anniversary), it’s also a painful 24-hour period, in which she’s acutely conscious of memories of lost love (husband’s death from leukemia) and of shared life and opportunities missed.

I remember my 7th grade and thirteenth year of life in, Texas.  My parents had returned there from Kenya for sabbatical. It must have been an emotionally laden and formative one, given the number of memories associated with it, but then again, middle school itself is the onset of a burgeoning adolescence for most teens.  

Memories include: walking to school with wet, long hair and then having to comb out icicles; learning CB radio lingo and having my own CB handle; having a much older high school girl catching me off-guard outside a church youth event, telling me she has this “thing for kids from Africa, do I know what she means?,” me naively replying “yes,” and then before I know what is what experiencing the sensation of a warm, wet and all-engulfing mouth; hanging out with an “exemplary adult” who not only introduced me to the world of adult magazines, but who wore his character on a T-shirt declaring “If all else fails, I still have my personality”; and drawing circles on a Texas map of the route I intended to take when I ran away from home, because I was adamantly opposed to my family’s return to Africa, given my happy acclimation to U.S. culture and life.

What about you?

Are traditionally celebratory dates mostly joyous occasions? Or do they evoke disproportional anguish and pain of memories past, such as a loved one’s death? A marriage dissolved? A child’s estrangement? The onset of a debilitating illness or addiction? A loss of a way of life and/or vocation?

Some Sinomlando staff and I (3rd from right).

Some Sinomlando staff and I (3rd from right).

Over the past decade my life has benefited from working with people, who comprise and relate to a South African research and community development non-profit called The Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa, http://sinomlando.ukzn.ac.za/.  Sinomlando is a non-profit psychosocial memory work and human rights initiative begun in 1994 by a Belgian professor of History of Christianity at the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, Philippe Denis, and a colleague, Nokhaya Makiwane.

Political satirist Zapiro using photo of June 16th massacre of school children as theme for a new South Africa tragedy - HIV/AIDS

Political satirist Zapiro using photo of June 16th massacre of school children as theme for a new South Africa tragedy – HIV/AIDS

Sinomlando seeks to redress the damaging effect of violence and HIV/AIDS on African children and their families through memory work and oral history. Sinomlando, an isiZulu word for “we have a history,” utilizes a slim memory manual in book form for its training of memory workers, entitled Never Too Small To Remember, the title of which is intentional in that we advocate for traditionally “silenced voices” – aka, children, but also women – to contribute their voices and stories.

Should you have interest to know how you can either contribute financially or become a partner member of Sinomlando’s work, contact them directly at “contact us”: http://sinomlando.ukzn.ac.za/index.php/en/contact-us-mainmenu-36.

June 16 (Soweto Uprising), 1976, massacre of 176+ South African students for protesting Afrikaans as medium of instruction.

June 16 (Soweto Uprising), 1976, massacre of 176+ South African students for protesting Afrikaans as medium of instruction.

Memory work utilizes many different exercises in enabling individuals to share their history and process life trauma. “Memories of Loss” and “I Remember” are two. Given that birthdays are hopefully more celebratory than remorseful, I share how to do “I Remember” because it can be used for painful and joyful remembrances.  With your spouse, partner, close friend, immediate and extended family, church or any other small group that constitutes a “safe place” for you, share with each other answers to the following four questions.

NeverTooSmall

The final question is particularly important, in that, it’s where participants express feelings associated with specific memories.  The start to healing or coming to terms with a specific loss and struggle in life, is most often  preceded by a verbalization or sharing with someone, as in, for example, the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, where the first step is simply having the courage to acknowledge one’s addiction/problem and need for help.

I REMEMBER

 Share a remembrance, a memory.

(Examples: a wedding, the birth of a child, the death of a family member, etc.)

Share on what occasions you most often remember these events.

(Example: for my mother-in-law it’s December 31st)

Share what you typically do or think when you remember these events.

(Examples: I sing songs, I look at photo albums, I get in a “sour mood”, I cry inconsolably)

Share what emotions these memories provoke in you.

(Examples: I feel relief, pain, sadness, distress, etc.)

Thank you for sharing in my birthday by allowing me to share something of my own history and life story, as well as that of The Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa!

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Filed under Africa, Life, Loss, Memories, Perspective, Relationships, Uncategorized