Posted by: howvoicebegan | 18/06/2013

Of Signs and Conversations

On Highway 99 I came to an intersection, held up at the red light.  I was the first car in line so I was privy to see the street corner activity.  And on each corner at that intersection, people were holding up signs.  The one next to me said, “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.”

Each of the signs on the corners had positive messages, mostly direct verses from the Bible.  The people holding the signs were friendly, waving to cars as they passed by.  Of course, they couldn’t engage much with people moving past them at roughly 40 mph, so I turned my attention to the pedestrians who were on the crosswalks and sidewalks.  Would they pay attention, or would they walk right past the signs, pretending not to notice the sign holders?

Everyone walked right past them.  But as I was people-watching, I noticed that one of the pedestrians continued just 15 feet past the man at my corner of the intersection, and stopped.  There was a bus stop right there, at which a few of the pedestrians had already gathered.

So imagine this: a man holds a sign to preach the gospel.  Yet instead of putting down the sign and talking to the people at the bus stop 15 feet away, he turns his back to them to continue to wave at the cars driving past too quickly to ever have a meaningful connection.  Irrelevant, much?

He was too busy being another billboard for people out of reach to turn around and see the people right in his vicinity.  It made me wonder if perhaps he would go home and pray, “Well Lord, I tried again today, but nobody wanted to stop and talk to me.  But at least I know I did your will.  Amen.”

How often do I do that? How frequently do I try to catch the people who are well out of reach, and in doing so, I have to ignore the people who are right behind me?  And how often do I congratulate myself on those efforts, without realizing that my efforts were entirely misguided and ill-motivated?  Do I intentionally seek out the hard-to-reach crowd because it’s easier to stand with a sign than to turn around and speak?

We can’t afford to be irrelevant, nor can we afford to fool ourselves into thinking our approach is working when there is something that is even better if we’d just take a time for a panoramic of our lives so we can see beyond our intersection corner.  It’s time to have some honesty about our intentions and motivations.  Otherwise we might be forever relegated to being a silenced sign holder.

Posted by: howvoicebegan | 17/07/2012

To Succeed

Each morning I open my planner to see what is on my schedule and to draw up my daily to-do list. I read the quote, from Tony Dorsett, at the bottom of the page for today. It said, “To succeed… You need to find something to hold onto, something to motivate you, something to inspire you.”

Success has been on my mind lately. I’ve been home from South Africa for 6 weeks and I have been using this time to get geared up for a commitment to success over the course of my master’s program and other aspects of life. And since Tony so easily spelled out the steps to success, all I have to do is fill in the blanks. And that’s what I did, given that the answer was clear to me.

Something to hold onto. Well, that’s an easy one: God. To succeed, I can’t hold onto myself. When I give everything to God, who is the source of all that I have and am, I give him the opportunity to succeed through me. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10, NIV).

Something to motivate you.  Daily I am motivated by the Holy Spirit who lives inside me and witnesses to me. It’s the Holy Spirit who calls to mind key verses or nudges at insight and direction. Without the Spirit’s direction, I can’t find the path I need to take to succeed.

Something to inspire you. By now the pattern is clear: it’s Jesus, the third person in the triune God. Right now I am reading through the Gospels, and every day I have new inspiration from Christ’s actions and words while he was on this earth. If you’re looking for inspiration for how to treat others or for some introspection, a read through the Gospels will have you inspired to live a new life and have a new love for God and others.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that God is the key ingredient to any success we can have. He is the answer to success- not us.

On my last day in South Africa, I am reflecting on all of the things that have happened around here-  all the things I knew would happen, and those that I couldn’t know would happen. One thing I didn’t know would happen was that racial relations would be an important part of my role in the orphanage. Working to break down these barriers is a long-term process, and I started right away.

I quickly realized that I could serve another purpose in the orphanage beyond what I originally came here for. It was something I didn’t expect, given that I’m not South African and couldn’t foresee this kind of issue coming up. It was apparent that, even though every child in our home was born after apartheid, the thoughts of black inferiority still linger, even in the minds of children who otherwise shouldn’t even be capable of drawing that conclusion themself.

I’m not trying to say that they are actively taught that they are inferior, but there is something still there in the lives of children who never even witnessed a world of apartheid.

For two years I have heard the children say hurtful things about their own kind, accepting it as though it is fact. When one child asked me how old you must be in the States to get a driver’s license, I told him it is 16, unlike South Africa’s age 18 restriction. It’s like a lightbulb went off in his head, except it was the wrong kind: “Oh, that’s because white people are smarter than black people so they learn how to drive easier.” Even though I said that isn’t true, he insisted to me, now considering himself in the position of the teacher. “Yes, I’m telling you, that’s the truth.”

I have heard all kinds of self-hatred and negativity from the children, so I found that I had another mission: help get the children into a different mindset that they are equally valuable as white children. It’s a difficult challenge in post-apartheid South Africa, but on top of that, these are the neglected, rejected, and orphaned children, who already feel they have so little value because they don’t have a family. Getting the children to believe they are not inferior? Mission: Impossible.

For two years I have sat in the sunshine daily, initially because I love the heat, but also to make a point to the children. The first time I was questioned about it, it was Refilwe: “Why are you sitting in the sun? Don’t you know that your skin will be black?”
I smiled. “Yes, I know. And that’s what I want.”
“But why? White is so beautiful.”
“No, I like black skin. I want to look like you.”
“I’m telling you, the sun will make you black, and then you will cry. But when that happens, don’t come crying to me about it!”

My lesson is simple: We want what we don’t have. White people are trying to be darker, and black people are trying to be lighter. But beyond that, I wanted them to repeatedly hear that their skin colour is still very beautiful– you don’t have to be white to have beauty.

Between beauty and brains I felt like I was getting nowhere with the children. Their belief was simple; white people have both, and black people have neither.
“That’s rubbish,” I said, in response one day to hearing once again about white people being smarter. “How many languages do you speak?”
The child counted. “Four,” she said.
I asked other children, ranging from 2-5 languages spoken per child.
“And how many do I speak? Only one,” I said. “You can’t tell me that anyone who speaks as many languages as you isn’t smart enough!” But they always walked away, remaining unconvinced of the power of a mind that is multilingual.

They got used to my arguments to the point where they could say it before I could. “You are sitting in the sun because you want to be black like us,” they would say.

Now, two years later, I finally heard it. I finally heard about brains and beauty again.

The child was sitting in the sun, so I sat next to her.
“You are sitting in the sun because you want to be black,” she said.
“Well, actually, this time I’m sitting in the sun because you are, for some reason,” I responded.
Ignoring my response, she continued. “Yes, you are sitting in the sun because it is nice to be black. Black is beautiful.”

Did she really just say that? Then she continued.

“Do you know why else it is nice to be black?”
“No, I don’t. Why is it nice?”
“Because you can speak so many languages when you are black. So you see, it’s very nice to be black.”
I smiled. “That’s right,” I said. “It’s always nice to be exactly who God made you to be.

Mission: Accomplished.

Posted by: howvoicebegan | 26/05/2012

Being Normal in an Abnormal World

Even after two years, the question remains.

It started when our youngest in the orphanage made a demand that she makes anytime I am standing and have a spare arm: “Leslie, nkuke!

I tease her by exaggerating her tone in a baby voice, “Nkuuuuke!”  as I pick her up. Next to me is Lerato, looking over the situation. I draw her in to the conversation as she watches me hold our little girl by saying, “Ke ngwana wa ka.” She’s my child.

Later, while showing me how to polish school shoes, Lerato asked me the question that has been brought up several times over the years I have been here. “Leslie, where is your ngwana? She is in America?” Every now and then one of them asks me where my child is. You know, the one I gave birth to.

“I don’t have a ngwana,” I said.
“Aowa, Leslie wena, you do!” she retorted.
“I do? And how old is she?”
“She’s six!”
Six! My goodness; she is as old as you!”
“No, she’s seven!”
Seven! Now she’s older than you.”
“Eight! Nine! Ten!” Lerato kept guessing.
“I’m pretty sure I do not have a child who is that old,” I say, counting the years backward.
“Aowa, Leslie, you have the ngwana.”

I was not going to win this argument, not only because it’s impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist, but also because she finished polishing her shoes, ending the conversation.

For two years I have wondered why they continue to “accuse” me of having a child back in the States. I think, who does this child live with? Where did she come from? And why on earth would I take off to South Africa without her? To me it is a slight insult that the children think I would leave a child in America to, ironically, work with other left-behind children.
But I no longer wonder at this point. If it is normal to a child that parents and children live separately for the entire duration of childhood, then it makes sense that I would leave my child behind in the States in the arms of whoever is available to take care of them. Maybe my child is in an American orphanage, wishing she wasn’t left behind every holiday while all of the others go home. One of these days, if it ever becomes convenient for me, I’ll come and pick up my child.

The children use pieces of brick as people, like they would with dolls. What kinds of relationships are they acting out?

Children can’t help but to think in the terms of the little world that they know. In the world of the children at the orphanage, I am an adult; therefore, I have a child. It makes no difference if the child is absent from my life, because it is normal for an adult to have a child but leave them behind somewhere. Why would Leslie be any different? Is there even reason to believe that there could be something different?

This is where we have a tremendous opportunity to break into lifestyles and lifecycles that are harmful and abnormal but exist because it has become normal. Whether it is children or any other dysfunction in life, we have a calling to lead by demonstration. Sometimes I wonder if anything I have done has warped their little world view enough to realize there is a different standard of normal, but it’s not up to me to make the change- they must open up to it.

Therefore, I keep trying to show them that I am a different adult than what they are used to. Maybe they’ll get it. Maybe they won’t. But at least I didn’t keep silent.

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