The Death of Apartheid in the Church

I wrote earlier about the birth of Apartheid and how the theologians of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) were the genesis of the form practiced in South Africa, and I wanted to share the rest of the story as I heard it a couple of days later. After I got to talk to Prof. Nell of the DRC, I shared with former Methodist pastor and bishop Peter Storey the outline of Prof. Nell’s brief explanation of how it happened, and asked Peter to expand on it for us.

During the Apartheid era, the DRC was the ‘parliament in prayer’––a total marriage of church and state. All the members of parliament were DRC members. Meanwhile, there were two other families of churches responding differently to Apartheid. The mainline churches and Catholics joined together to form the South African Council of Churches (SACC), named Apartheid as sin, and looked for ways to work against the government’s sinful policies. The more pietistic/conservative denominations (Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.)––who focus religious life on saving souls––ignored the issue, often declaring it simply a sign that biblical predictions about end times were coming true. Peter would say to his evangelical friends: “You are the only people who can bury your heads in the sand and wave your hands in the air at the same time.” One group of denominations caught in a difficult place was the so-called ‘daughter’ churches of the DRC. Formed because racial separation was essential to the leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church, there were three separate sub-denominations for mixed-race people (‘colored’), Indian people (‘asiatics’), and African people (‘blacks’). There came a time when the daughter churches began to struggle against this situation (“Who are you to call yourself our ‘mother’?”)––this is Peter’s version of what Prof. Nell described as a witness to the DRC’s theological error coming from a fellow Reformed denomination.

Eventually, the World Alliance of Churches (WAC) spoke out against apartheid theology, calling it heresy and expelling the DRC from the WAC. The DRC began to feel a little pain despite enjoying the perks and privileges of being the state church. About that same time, the daughter churches joined the SACC, signaling that they were leaving behind their ‘mother’ denomination and joining the opposition to Apartheid. The wind was changing.

As Apartheid began to crumble, unity among blacks began to crumble and the different black groups began to fight each other over the best strategies for next steps. The leadership of the SACC sensed that it was an important time to come together as the church, thinking, “We cannot heal these fights unless we can be together as the Body of Christ.” They set up a conference and decided they would give reconciliation with the other two groups of churches one try: they invited the DRC and the church bodies that had remained neutral throughout, the charismatics ‘with their heads buried in the sand’. (And despite how mundane inviting the DRC to a conference sounds, this was a huge shift; during Apartheid, Methodist ministers were prohibited from having any contact with their DRC counterparts in their towns. The DRC had literally been shunned by the churches working against Apartheid––until the Rustenburg conference.)

As the conference convened, everyone was uncomfortable; each group had their judgments of the others, and the DRC and the SACC had been enemies for years. The delegates all stood around the room in separate groups, wary of the others.

Just after the meeting began, before the real business could get started, Prof. Junker from Stellenbosch University asked if he could come to the platform to make a statement. You can imagine how many were not all that interested in what those from Stellenbosch had to say. He was allowed to speak, and he told the group that he needed, both personally and on behalf of his church, to confess. He went into a long list of the ways his church and he had collaborated with evil and caused suffering. “We lay ourselves at your feet and ask for forgiveness.”

There was a stunned silence in the room. No one knew what to do at that moment. There was certainly no interest in letting the DRC off the hook just because one of them said they were sorry. Desmond Tutu broke the uncomfortable silence when he approached the microphone and said to the rest of the group, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but my theology says when someone confesses sin, I have to forgive him.” Folks were not happy to hear that, but there was a general recognition that this was the first step toward reconciliation among the churches in South Africa. There was repentance ahead, but confession was an essential as a starting place.

The Pentecostals and others confessed their neutrality in the face of evil (“sleeping through a revolution” in the words of Martin Luther King), and then it was the SACC members’ turn. Everyone there had to search their souls to acknowledge their sin in the face of evil. And then it was possible to move forward together. The central leaders gathered and worked through the night (still dealing with their suspicion of each other) to write a common statement of confession and repentance, which all the groups signed on to. The Rustenberg Declaration was an important step in the history of South Africa. And that proclamation of repentance was greeted with a great deal of anger in the DRC;  the head of the DRC was shot dead in his home within a few weeks, and 30,000 members left that denomination’s churches in the months that followed.

Peter confirmed the story I’d heard from Prof. Nell: the change from division over apartheid theology to unity in repentance was a quick shift among the churches. The wind changed, said Peter, referring to the sense of the momentum in South African society, but there was another wind that was blowing at that time, too, the pneuma of the Holy Spirit, which can change hearts and minds with astonishing swiftness, too.

I take a lot of encouragement from that story of transformation, because it’s a reminder that, by divine grace, it is possible for long-entrenched points of view to be transformed. It has happened to me in my life, and it’s happening every day around us. May it continue to happen in me and my congregation and my city and my nation and our world!


There’s More Than One Way…

I’ve been home for a little over 48 hours as I write this. The long trip home was joyful, even though it was physically pretty rough–it was 48 hours between getting out of bed Tuesday morning for a final safari and the next time I laid down to sleep in a bed (my own) on Wednesday night, and during that 48 hours, I spent 19+ hours on planes and 9+ hours in busses/vans/my car, and traveled well over 10,000 miles. My body is still somewhere in between Africa and here; I’m at my mental best at about 6am, and I can’t stay awake past 8 or 9pm.


But my heart is still in South Africa. I’ve been working through all my photos (in the end, about 1200 are left after editing) and listening to South African music. One of my colleagues on the trip had recommended the new documentary called Under African Skies, which tells the story of Paul Simon’s Graceland album; I wasn’t aware of it before the trip, so I’ve watched it over the past two mornings (one of the advantages of jet lag in the westerly direction: I’m up early––this morning I gave up on sleep at 4am).


When Graceland came out in 1986, I was an early teen; I loved that album. I had no idea what it was or how it came about or what the political realities of its creation were. I just knew I loved the music––what I now understand to be an amazing mix of Paul Simon folk/pop, South African pop, and traditional South African male a cappella. I internalized that music so thoroughly that I can still sing along and notice the differences between video of live performances and the nuances of the album recordings.After watching the documentary, I have a new appreciation for the creativity and beauty of the music’s fusion of western and African cultures, as well as its boundary-crossing genius and the political arguments about Simon going to South Africa to work with South African musicians at the height of a total boycott of the Apartheid regime.

At the climax of the anti-Apartheid movement’s resistance of the South African government, the African National Congress (ANC) had finally been able to enlist most of the rest of the world in boycotting the South African state at every level: military, financial, sports, diplomatic, even cultural. The goal of the ANC was to starve those who ruled South Africa under the brutal fist of Apartheid ideology, so getting the rest of the world to agree to cut them off in every way was a key part of ensuring the death of the regime. Alongside courageous passive and active resistance by blacks inside South Africa, it was working; in the mid 1980s, things were beginning to fall apart for the government.

It was during this boycott/divestment campaign that Paul Simon was coming off of a dud of a solo album and looking for a way to restart creatively. One of the most famous musicians in the world, Simon had already had a long and incredibly successful career by the mid-80s, with Simon & Garfunkel and then as a solo artist, when a friend sent him a cassette of a black South African band doing their thing. Simon was enthralled and decided he wanted to try to collaborate with them. From that seed came the project that became the album Graceland, ahead of its time and unique in its day. Simon, admitting that he was not really aware of the artists’ boycott or the theory behind it, naively went to South Africa to record with several black South African musicians as equals––a move that was both unheard of to the South African musicians (white people did not treat them as equals in their context!) and controversial to the ANC and other anti-Apartheid activists.

I had never heard this story and was fascinated to consider both sides of the controversy. The anti-Apartheid movement was upset because they were trying to starve the racist South African government with a boycott, which relies on everyone to abide by the common commitment to refuse to engage in commerce or cooperation with South Africa in any way. Just like a hunger strike only works if everyone refuses to eat at all (one meal every once in a while defeats the purpose), one major profile American musician ignoring the boycott to make a record with South African musicians risks letting the air out of the tires of the whole thing. Paul Simon making joyful music with black musicians could be a tool for the regime to point to those happy black people and say, “See? They’re fine. What’s all the fuss about?” For the activists, it was arrogant and naive (or perhaps even colonialistic) of Simon to ignore the boycott and use the South African musicians to make a new product for Simon to sell.

For Paul Simon, though, it was simply about his respect and love for these African musical styles and musicians and their brilliance as artists. He had stumbled onto the potential for a beautiful collaboration, and he had no interest in bowing to political leaders’ agendas in either direction. He hated Apartheid along with all other thinking, compassionate human beings, but he thought the wall put up around South Africa was unnecessarily restrictive when it wouldn’t allow musicians like his collaborators to make their music and receive the opportunity for audience and applause that they were due. In defiance of the voices of protest (which included serious threats of violence when they toured after the release of the album), they went ahead and created together. ImageImageThe result was groundbreaking: white and black musicians, combining American folk/pop and African folk/pop, creating a new beauty, sharing rhythm and chord and voice and soul––together. In the end, this collaboration became a profound demonstration of the evil of Apartheid, because it introduced millions of people around the world to the beauty and humanity of these black South African musicians who were being treated like animals in their own country.Simon and his collaborators (Ladysmith Black Mombazo, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and others) had managed to produce something that was truly integrated––a portrait of the way it should be: mutual respect and appreciation, coming together to share art across the divisions forced onto humanity by racism, creating beauty that communicates across language and cultural boundaries. In the face of the South African government claiming that separation was the way of God, this album became another important nail in the coffin of Apartheid. In recognition of that, Nelson Mandela invited Simon and his partners to perform at the concert celebrating his release from prison a few years later.

This story prompts me to reflect on the many different (and sometimes at odds with each other!) modes of resisting evil and oppression we saw at work through a few decades of struggle in South Africa. I resonate with both sides of the conflict over honoring the cultural boycott of the Apartheid state. A boycott is an important non-violent tool for resisting evil, and the broad, multi-tiered international boycott of South Africa was the best way the people of the world could speak with one voice in resistance of the South African government’s oppression of their own people. And Simon was right to join hands with his African brothers and sisters in making music together that crossed Apartheid’s boundary.

  1. Political. In challenging a political structure, there is, of course, the need for a political alternative, so in the South African context, the ANC was the organizing force of political resistance. Driven by the vision of the Freedom Charter, the political resistance was the essential alternative vision to the Apartheid ideology, at the same time that they spoke the same ‘language’ as those they were resisting. This has advantages and disadvantages.
  2. Church/Faith/Spiritual. On the trip we learned a good deal about the ways in which the spiritual communities of South Africa resisted the Apartheid government. There’s something incredibly powerful about diverse faith traditions coming together to resist injustice and oppression. It’s literally unbeatable. Desmond Tutu famously invited security police to “come over to the winning side” at a particularly dark moment for the anti-Apartheid movement, and it wasn’t just rhetoric. The long arc of history has proven over and over: injustice will be overcome by divine justice for all people.
  3. Artistic. Art can communicate in ways that regular speech can’t. Poetry, music, visual arts, and drama & other performance arts can capture the spirit in a way that political speech and religious speech can’t. Art connects directly with the soul, often bypassing the intellect in a way that frees our minds to perceive Truth that’s often buried under our idealisms and assumptions about the way the world is. That’s what Graceland tapped into: the profoundly beautiful common humanity of artists, black and white, African and American.

I find recognizing a variety of ways of resisting evil to be especially important in the face of the fact that military force––violence––is the default tool most of the time in our civic conversation. So often it is assumed that the only strategy available to stop oppression is send in troops. That rationale is used all the time and has become the accepted default (right now, it’s on the table as world leaders try to figure out how to respond to the brutally oppressive Syrian regime or to the threat of Iranian nuclear ambitions). After the unspeakable violence of 9/11, it was called ‘unpatriotic’ to suggest that there could be a non-violent way to respond and that more violence from our direction was only going to make the problem worse. And those are just a few examples of so many, at every level of society (e.g. the death penalty is a criminal justice version of the same theme on a national level, and humiliating punishments at school or spanking at home is the child-rearing version of the same theme).

I feel uplifted and filled with hope at the story of Graceland––it’s a reminder to me that there are many ways to resist evil and oppression, and the more humane and love-infused an approach, the more respect for the dignity of those who are oppressed is at the center of a strategy, the more a tactic brings people together to know and care about each other across oppressive boundaries, the more divine it is. And the more of God is in something, the more it leads to life abundant for all involved.

A Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope

On the way home, our flight from Johannesburg to Amsterdam left just before midnight and took all night and morning to cross Africa, the Mediterranean, and Europe. I woke up in time to watch the entire sunrise, from the thin line of color appearing at the black horizon to the sky slowly shifting from black to blue as the orange glow slowly expanded, making way for the sun.

It was truly magnificent–yet another highlight of a trip overflowing with moments of profound beauty and deep sorrow. As I look back over the whole trip, I’m reminded of a term that my mentor, Peter Storey, used for trips like this: pilgrimage of pain and hope. That is absolutely what this trip has been–seeking God’s presence in the midst of real suffering and injustice as well as in the midst of stunning natural and human beauty. One of our speakers said that South Africa is both a third world country and a first world country layered on top of each other, the best the developed world has to offer and poverty that ranks among the worst in the world just a few miles down the road. It’s also a place of amazing beauty: stunning natural landscapes, incredible wildlife, richly diverse people, and the best of African culture–warm, joyful people, exuberant music, art with roots that stretch back as far as human civilization does.

A pilgrimage of pain and hope is about following the incarnate God to the heart of the suffering in any context and experiencing both the suffering and the beauty in those places and people. When Jesus walked the earth as the king of all kings, he showed us who God is by how he lived and who he loved most directly. Who did he seek out? Who did he touch? Who did he make room for in his circle? Rev. Storey always said to us: “If you’re looking for Jesus, it’s no mystery where to find him. He’s among his friends.” And scripture makes it clear who his friends are: the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the lepers, the children, the friendless, the unpopular, those who have nothing to offer in return for my friendship other than their own love. And a pilgrimage of pain and hope is about stepping far enough out of my own insulated bubble to be reminded that God is present in a significant, powerful, real way among those who suffer at the margins.

We hear people acknowledge this truth when they return from ‘mission trips’ and say that they received more than they gave. Experiences that open our eyes in that way are pilgrimages, and the closer we get to the poor, the more they become pilgrimages of pain and hope.

It was tremendously painful to come face-to-face with those on the bottom of the modern hierarchy created by our global economic system, as I’ve tried to express in earlier postings. And it was painful to see the face of one of the consequences of the system that has made my life so comfortable and rich (in lots of ways). And it should be painful. Heartbreak is the cost of holy awareness, of taking a step closer to the heart and mind of Christ. Through experiences like this, I’m reminded that Christ’s redemptive suffering with humanity on the cross was also suffering at the hands of humanity. The Creator God is a child with no shoes and a parent with no hope of a decent life in the inhumane squalor of Khayelitsha township. God Incarnate is a pregnant woman with HIV who is alone in this world, having been rejected by her family, and without prospects for any way to sustain herself. Emmanuel is a person of color who continues to experience the dehumanization of suspicion and limitation simply because of the color of her skin.

As I enjoy the privilege of watching the sunrise as the world slides by 7 miles below (as so few human beings in history ever have), I realize one of the Words from God for me on this trip is the call to ongoing pilgrimage of pain and hope. This pilgrimage of pain and hope has been a beginning of a way of life. I live in a bubble of comfort and self-preoccupation; that’s the life handed to me according to my station. I did not choose the bubble or its costly effects on my spiritual life. But if I want to follow Jesus, I can’t remain in it once my eyes are open to it–God loves me too much to let my spirit rot in the bubble. Contentment with the apartheid of economics is not an option.

So I confess publicly that I hear a call to cross the barrier between rich and poor in my own city for my own sake. I hear the call to lead my people across that boundary for their own sake. Jesus is among our brothers and sisters in ‘those’ parts of town that our wealth allows us to avoid, and he’s inviting us to get to know him better. And in the process, I trust I can be useful to God in doing something about the injustice that causes suffering of all sorts.

The painful and hopeful key to this call I’m sensing: this isn’t about ‘mission trips’, it’s about relationship. The introvert in me is intimidated by this; the voice inside says, You already have more relationships than you can manage! There’s no room for more! I’m not sure how this will play itself out–is this a matter of prioritization, where some friendships atrophy as I make new ones, or is it an example of the loaves-and-fishes abundance of God, where I’ll be surprised at my own capacity? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that when I follow God’s lead, abundance beyond imagination is what I discover, however it happens.

As I tremble in the face of God’s call to growth in my own life and the life of my congregation, I am ever more grateful to God for the holy moments of everyday events like sunrise and the inexpressible sense of divine serenity that they create in me. Thanks be to God.


Ready to Bloom

At the Johannesburg hotel, breakfast was served in a restaurant that had outdoor seating on a courtyard planted with a beautiful variety of plants and flowers. It had rained on Sunday night, so Monday morning the flowers were especially beautiful.


As I admired the parts of the fern and the rose bushes that are just about to bloom, I couldn’t help but think of BRUMC. We are the rose bud, just about to open, the fern leaf taking shape, about to unfold. A blessing for the world, in the midst of miraculous development under the surface.20121023-065739.jpg


Heartbreak and Beauty

Yesterday we experienced an incredible breadth of emotion: we started the day with a two-hour meeting with a bishop who helped us to see the plight of desperately poor women and the depth of the AIDS crisis, then we traveled 4 hours north to a game preserve and spent the late afternoon drinking in the beauty of Creation, giddy like kids at camp. A friend remarked that it was quite a contrast in emotional experiences, and another friend commented that this is just like the Kingdom of God. It is; living aware of the realm of God brings both heartbreak and beauty at the very same time, layered on top of one another. Faithfulness is being attuned to both. Once I’m back home, I’ll share some of the images from the safari. For now, I invite you to join me in the heartbreak.

We met with Roman Catholic Bishop Kevin Dowling. Bishop Dowling serves in Rustenburg and has a deep passion for the poor and vulnerable in his area. We heard stories of the face of poverty he sees every day in the AIDS ministry he started and his reflections on the rise & fall of Apartheid and what will be required to move forward.

It is heartbreaking to hear stories of the desperately poor in our world. Stories of women whose husbands die of a heart attack or a mining accident or AIDS, who are then literally alone in the world with no means to support themselves and their babies. In many places in South Africa (as everywhere, to varying degrees), there is no prospect for work, so they move to the place where there is potential to find another man who might provide them shelter, food, and protection. In places where the men have been dehumanized by racism and near- or actual slavery for generations, there is an especially strong culture of sexual exploitation in which women are obliged to submit to the man’s wishes, and men have learned to use women as sexual objects and often take out their deep anger on the women in their life. This leads to a culture of multiple partners, a real moral shift redefining what faithfulness means to normalize what we would call ‘cheating’. Do you see the recipe for the AIDS pandemic, especially in Africa? The desperate mother with no options other than submitting to sex for shelter and provision is incredibly likely to be infected and become part of the spread of the disease.

At the same time hearing these stories is heartbreaking, it is painful to accept the fact that I am a part of the economic system that creates this poverty. Bishop Dowling serves the region that includes the world’s largest platinum mines–sources of great wealth for their owners and signs of wealth for those who buy jewelry. Yet those who work in the mines live in poverty, and the whole economic system exemplified by the platinum trade perpetuates extraordinary inequity throughout the entire society. The poorest 10% in South Africa live on less than $1 a day, while the richest 10% live on more than 90 times that. Bishop Dowling expressed better than any of the speakers we’ve heard this week how it is that the nation will heal from the deep wounds inflicted by the inequities that Apartheid insisted were God’s way:

Apartheid can only be righted by conceiving and implementing a just global economic system. We need a redistribution of wealth, and for that to happen a spiritual conversion is required in which the rich begin to recognize their responsibility for the poor.

When I hear that, I can’t help but hear the unthinking, knee-jerk horror in American political speech about ‘redistribution’. The fact that the Republicans ran old video of Obama saying he was in favor of redistribution as a negative scare-tactic ad is a demonstration of how this concept of redistribution of wealth is taboo in America. But it is a gospel perspective; this is the message Jesus proclaimed and lived, calling individuals and society toward economic (and therefore opportunity and dignity) equality. The reality is that the divine dream of human equality and dignity requires redistribution of the maldistributed wealth that we enjoy.

This is a hard truth to acknowledge. I cannot simultaneously say I want what God wants (that all will have enough, none be burdened with too much) and jealously guard my ‘right’ to what I ‘earn’. The fact that some earn huge multiples of what others do for an honest day’s work is the result not of some inherent difference in human value, but the result of a system that privileges some at the expense of others. And I am a beneficiary of that system. (All of us who are reading this blog are to some degree.)

The bishop’s words are spot on: a spiritual conversion of the rich is required. Here’s where I begin:

  1. I can accept that this is reality, and that one way or another, massive redistribution of wealth is necessary in our current economic system if one human being’s life is to be valued equally with another’s.
  2. I can refuse to be drawn in by the fear tactics of the apologists for the current system. Those tactics are used by every power structure that wants to keep a grip on their own power (e.g. we heard a number of stories of how the South African regime used threats of the black majority wreaking havoc if the white minority didn’t control them with the iron first of Apartheid).
  3. I can look for those who are thinking creatively about how to increase equality in our current global economic system and use the resources available to me to support them.
  4. I can make the choice daily to adopt the spiritual posture of trusting that God knows better than humanity what is best, and choose to be willing to follow where God leads, as demonstrated in the life of Jesus and the witness of scripture.

Lord give me courage to be faithful.

The Word in Zulu & Latin

This morning (Sunday) I was privileged to worship in Soweto at Regina Mundi Roman Catholic Church. There is no way I can describe the experience with words, but I’ll do my best to give you a snapshot of yet another moment that was so rich, so deep, so beautiful, such a gift from God that afterward I thought, The trip can end now. If we left right now to go home, it would be a complete pilgrimage.

(As a quick side note, this experience reminded me again what a gift it is to worship in unfamiliar circumstances. I think it would be a healthy spiritual exercise to intentionally seek out worship with a community different from our own at least twice a year.)

Soweto is the oldest township in South Africa, established in 1902 as migrants were moving to Johannesburg from around South Africa and neighboring countries looking for work. They settled unoccupied land outside the city, and a century later, Soweto is home to half of Jo-burg’s 8 million people (it’s a huge city just on its own terms!). It’s well-developed now: the roads are 100% paved, and trash service, water, sewers all work well. It’s a very different place from Khayelitsha (the photos I shared last week). Still plenty of racially-segregated poverty and all the deep-rooted issues connected to it, but beautiful in the way Harlem is.

I was grateful for the chance to worship this morning. As we arrived at the church and walked toward the door, this sign greets all who approach the doors:

I felt embraced by God before setting foot in the sanctuary. I don’t want to be too self-centered, but this felt like a message for me, as much as I’ve been focused on pilgrimage on this trip. We took our seats in the huge (probably seats 2000), relatively bare space. It felt like a Catholic sanctuary, but they clearly don’t have extra money. The worshipers were beautiful, dressed in their Sunday clothes. Nothing special or flamboyant, but it was clear they were dressed for church nevertheless. I think we were the only white folks there––the priest welcomed us in particular during the announcements. It was the only English I heard him speak; the service was being conducted in Zulu, with Latin appearing in the words of the Mass that appeared in songs. I couldn’t understand the words. Would I meet the Word?

There was no prelude music. But when it was time to start, someone in the processional group at the back started a song that everyone knew, and the congregation broke into song. Four-part, South African accapella song. It was so beautiful I immediately began to cry. We weren’t able to stay for the whole service (or we would have literally been there all morning), but in the 45 minutes we were there, the congregation was singing for 30 of those minutes, always in harmony, sometimes with drums, sometimes swaying in unison, never with instrumental accompaniment. The voices mixed and swirled around that cavernous space in a way that I can only describe as divine. I couldn’t get enough. I just stood there, stunned at the beauty, overwhelmed that I was worshiping God with the people of Soweto, the neighborhood of Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and so many other heroes. When the singing would wind down and talking would begin, the tears would stop. Then, within a few minutes, it would be time for another song, and the tears would begin again. The songs were repetitious––like African Taizé choruses––and I’d eventually start humming along with one of the harmony parts, reveling in the chance to join such musical perfection.

It wasn’t just an experience of aesthetic beauty. It was that same kind of soul-swelling connection to God that’s beyond words. I felt embraced by something global, something bigger than context or culture, something truly universal. I felt safe, deeply rooted, reassured. I was reminded that the challenges that lie ahead of me––of us––are wrapped in the strong arms of the same God who is bringing the noble people of Soweto through the worst that racism could manage.

It was a gift from God that felt like part 2 of the Friday-morning reconnection to my sense of pastoral vocation as prophetic community leader––a vocation that scares me. The call of the prophet comes with significant challenges and costs, so reconnecting to that core of who I am becoming means facing fears about those things. Worship this morning, and being greeted with the “Welcome Pilgrims” sign was God saying, It will be okay in response.

…Where have I heard that before?

The Still, Small, Overwhelming Voice

It’s a part of the mystery of following God that every disciple encounters––including pastors––in their own way: how to ‘hear’ God calling. How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know who God made me to be?

There is no single, clear answer to this question. I get a little frustrated with curricula that make this process a test to take and a score to receive. Sure, those can be a tiny part of the journey of discerning vocation, but there is something much, much deeper to be listened for over years. God blessed me with that …communication… Friday. It was one of those experiences that needed nearly 48 hours and a lot of conversation with my friends/colleagues/travel companions before it came into enough focus to try to write it down.

Peter Storey met with us at the church he attends, a little Methodist Church in Simon’s Town.

Friday we met with Peter Storey, retired pastor, former Methodist bishop, and seminary professor at Duke Divinity School for 7 years (including the 3 I was there) and interim leader of the Methodist seminary here in South Africa for the past several years. Dr. Storey was a prominent voice in the struggle against Apartheid, serving as chaplain at Robben Island during a portion of Mandela’s imprisonment, serving as pastor of the Methodist church in District 6 during the forced removal (see my earlier post “The Face of Evil”), leading Johannesburg’s largest Methodist Church to integrate (when it was illegal to do so), and working closely with Desmond Tutu in the height of the struggle. Peter is my hero in ministry and a friend.

In class at Duke with Peter and in worship when he preached, I was captivated in a way that remains unique in my experience. Something about Peter and his story connect with me at a deeper level than usual with other teachers, mentors, or heroes of mine. I left Duke having been formed most deeply by Peter’s teaching and witness. I didn’t see him again until 3 years later when I brought him to St. Luke’s to do a workshop for the church leadership. Hearing him then was a profound reconnection for me, (and he made a real impact on St. Luke’s––folks are still mentioning it to me when we cross paths today). And Friday was the first time I’d seen him since that visit in 2006.

I was, of course, glad to see my friend and mentor. But something bigger was happening for me. As Peter talked about his experiences, taught us about how Apartheid worked, and called us to be the kind of leaders he was as a pastor and bishop, the still small voice of God that had been whispering for years (and especially this week) became a roar. I didn’t hear anything; it wasn’t words that were appearing in my head, like sometimes happens. It was an emotional experience––my heart overflowing. (I have tears in my eyes remembering it now.) I sat there listening to Peter talk about what it looked like to be a biblical prophet in 1960s South Africa, weeping. I didn’t have specific thoughts, I didn’t have specific plans, my brain wasn’t buzzing. My soul was on fire. If there was a word in my mind, it was, “Yes.” Over and over I kept thinking ‘yes. That’s it. That’s who I am.’ Not that I am Peter Storey, but that my calling, my identity, overlaps significantly with the way Peter describes ministry. And, evidently, since it took a couple of days to manage to write even this much, the clarity of that moment doesn’t easily translate into clarity on the surface, or clarity about what to do next.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t come with a road map, I thank God for those moments when the whisper becomes a roar, when the wave deep inside crashes, when the Divine Presence fills me so full it flows out my eyes. In moments like that, I know in the deepest way possible that all will be well, at the very same time that I don’t know how that will come to be.