From South Africa - The Healing Power of Story
The gospels tell of Jesus' encounter with a woman who had been suffering for 12 years. Jesus was on his way to the home of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue whose daughter was ill, when out of the crowd this woman, whose name we do not even know, touched his cloak.
Immediately, she was healed. But then Jesus did something very strange; he asked who touched him. Why did Jesus ask this? The woman was healed. Wasn't Jesus' work done? Apparently not.
I think Jesus understood that while this woman may have been healed physically, she had not been healed emotionally. One does not just forget 12 years of trauma in an instant. She had a story to tell, and Jesus wanted to give her the opportunity to tell it.
Jesus knew that the crowd also needed to hear her story. The people assembled were concerned, and rightly so, about the health of Jairus' daughter, but few knew or cared about this woman. She was invisible.
In the same way, statistics about hunger, sickness and violence do not make the suffering poor visible to us; perhaps these statistics even numb us to their pain. But when we hear a story expressing painful emotion, our numbness is removed, our compassion restored. Jesus asked the woman to tell her story, a story that needed telling both for her sake and for the sake of those who would hear it.
Those of us who had the privilege of spending our summers working at various churches in South Africa want to share the stories of a few of the people we met there- and how we have processed those stories theologically.
Indeed, it was the stories of our sisters and brothers that had the biggest impact upon us. These are stories of people living and dying with AIDS, of people living in extreme poverty in informal settlements or sleeping in the bush, stories of people who have experienced incredible pain.
But these are also stories of people who find joy in God and in relationships with people in the midst of poverty, stories of people so convicted by the Gospel of Christ that some have indeed left "father, mother, husband, and wife" for its sake.
Matthew 25 teaches us that Jesus is still here in the world, that Jesus is found among the poor and hungry, among the sick and imprisoned, among those whom the world considers to be "the least." As a Church we need to hear the stories of "the least," because in doing so, we hear the story of Jesus.
The more we reflect upon these stories, the more we realize that they are indeed Jesus' story, a story filled with pain, suffering, and death, and yet a story of hope and ultimate victory. The stories of tremendous suffering convict us of our complicity in injustice, of our numbness and lack of compassion, and of our need to once again hear the story of Christ.
The stories of joy, hope and transformation remind us that even the worst of pain and suffering cannot overcome the hope and victory of God through Christ. Just as he did 2,000 years ago, Jesus invites us to participate in the hearing and telling of stories, stories that tell about pain and suffering, stories that tell about joy and hope, stories that ultimately tell about Jesus.
One of the programs at my church ministered to and with people who have suffered incredibly from AIDS and the ostracism and violence that often accompanies the disease.
I learned of a 5-year-old who had been orphaned by his mother, then father, then aunt, and finally grandmother, all of whom died of AIDS. He had cared for them, hauling water back and forth and scrounging for food during their last days.
The Educare teacher from Phakamisa (the name of the ministry at the church) went to look for him when he didn't show up at her class, and found him digging furiously at his grandmother's grave. When asked what he was doing, he replied, "My granny has to get up now. Who will take care of me?"
All I could think was, "What would it mean if Christ's Church were bold enough to answer his question?"
-Chris Furr D'05
When many inner-city churches left for the suburbs, Methodist City Mission in Pretoria made a commitment to alleviating the suffering of the city, which was in large part due to an influx of people seeking work after apartheid ended.
This diverse congregation offers services in English, Xhoso and Sotho. Mahube, which means "the dawn" is a non-profit facility located on the church grounds that offers support groups for HIV/AIDS patients, their caretakers, and other concerned and supportive people. In addition to Mahube and the clinic, the church has also built several affordable apartments on the grounds and provides a day care center that serves 40 young children.
I met Johnny in a support group for persons living and dying with HIV/AIDS. He was thin as a rail. He was cold. Winter had come and he was dressed in a thin shirt, with no undershirt, and a light coat. He trembled as he spoke. He was obviously not well. He was living in the shelter operating over capacity; he had no bed and was sleeping on the cold floor.
Johnny was scheduled to begin taking antiretroviral medication for AIDS because his immune system was so weakened. A "buddy" was required to make sure that he took his medications. Prior to coming to the church, Johnny ventured to his rural home seeking a buddy to assist with his medications. He was told that if he stayed, he would be taken out to the woods, tied to a tree and left to die. He slipped away during the night.
How could anyone be so cruel? I thought of Christ and the lepers, of his knowing the healing power of touch and acceptance. As a group, we were able to offer Johnny love and understanding, and the gift of touch.
Before I left South Africa, Johnny was admitted to the on-grounds 24-hour clinic, which means that he does have a partner. That's the good news. The bad news is that admission to the clinic is reserved for those with "full blown AIDS." I was told that when Johnny was admitted to the clinic, he was most excited about attending church services, and that he slept for days. At least he was in a warm clean bed.
-Lottie Sneed D'06
Alfina lives in Ivory Park, an informal settlement that is part of Thembisa township. Her home is a small oneroom shack made of tin and cardboard. She is dying with AIDS and has sores all over her body, and, in some places, the flesh has rotted away to the bone. Her only daughter tries to care for her.
Alfina cannot afford AIDS medication, and there are long waiting lists for free medicine from the government. She has no pain killers. Every moment for her is torture. After my visit, I was angry. There is medicine that can control AIDS, and there is medicine that could ease her pain. But she has no transportation, and she is too weak to walk to a clinic for help.
I began to ask why some people are denied access to the very necessities of life. I became angry with the policies of my own government that prohibits generic drugs being made available to the poor. I became angry at the incredible disparities between rich and poor in the world.
But then I remembered that I too am implicated, that I benefit from an economic system that separates us into "haves" and "have nots," into those who have access to medicine and those who do not. I realized that because I have more than I need, others have less. I felt rather like the prophet of Isaiah who cried out, "Woe is me. For I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips."
Each of our encounters with the suffering of our sisters and brothers convicted us both of our numbness to the pain of others and of our complicity in the injustices that cause suffering. Each of us was saddened when we reflected on how numb and complicit the Church in America, which we love so dearly, has been to this pain. But while these stories of suffering convict us of our ever-present need to encounter Christ, South Africa is also a place filled with stories of joy and hope, stories that remind us that God's grace is indeed sufficient.
Rose raised four sons as a single mother. Two years ago, when her oldest son died of AIDS, people from Calvary Methodist Church reached out to Rose, loved her, cared for her, and listened to her story of pain. As Rose experienced the love of Christ in these people, she found healing and transformation.
Rose is able to find work cleaning houses one or two days per week. During the rest of the week, though, she volunteers as an AIDS caregiver, providing the same ministry that she received when her son was dying.
"I feel so happy to show people the love that was shown me," said Rose. She is a living example that those who have deeply experienced the love of Christ are eager to share that same love.
South Africa is a place of incredible hospitality. People with very little offered all they had to us. I visited a group of elderly women for a Bible study in an informal settlement. The leader of the study introduced me as Umfundisi, which is Zulu for “minister, preacher.”
The ladies all made much fuss over me, and I was honored to bear the title. We asked the women to stand and share their needs. The host stood and welcomed us, and in part Zulu, part English began to speak about the significance of our visit. She recalled the story of Zaccheus, and how Jesus had told him to come down out of the tree so that they could meet. She thanked me for coming to her home.
She spoke of how Jesus had fellowship with Zaccheus in his home, and said, "If I was buried today, I could die happy because Umfundisi has visited."
I am not often speechless, but I have no words to respond to such amazing hospitality.
-Chris Furr D'06
We met people whose lives had been deeply transformed by the gospel and the church. Mary is a pastor at one of the churches and oversees the church's ministry to and with the homeless in the area. Her commitment to Christ and to the poor, however, was very costly.
Mary's husband believed that a wife's role was to stay home, cook dinner, and do whatever the husband asked. And Mary did this for many years. But after her children were grown, she felt called to begin working at the church, to care for people who were poor and hurting, to share Christ's compassion with the destitute.
Her husband gave her a choice, saying, "It's either me or the church."
Mary chose the church, and many of the homeless outside of Johannesburg call her "Mother Mary." Some even call her "God," as Mary is Jesus to them. The most amazing thing about Mary is that she is not bitter toward her husband. While I was there, he became quite ill, and Mary moved back into the home from which she was forced to leave to care for him.
When I remember Mary and her story, then I understand what costly discipleship really means.
In the midst of the pain and suffering, God's grace is ever-present. We found South Africa to be a place of life, a place where God is at work providing comfort and joy in the midst of poverty, and providing transformation for those willing to listen to Jesus' story among "the least of these." Singbogole, a woman with AIDS who came to Mahube for care, said: "When I leave, I am going to tell people about this place - Mahube. There is life at this place."
-Lottie Sneed D'06
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