November 24, 2009
Chapter: Why I’m Here and What I Bring
Izwa imithandazo yethu
Nkosi sikelela thina usapholwayo
I remember watching you, you would have been all of five and a half or so, and Thembi was over to play for the afternoon. There you were, a backpack with the snack you’d requested (juice and crackers) on your back, your best friend beside you, the steep hill ahead. I couldn’t imagine you being gone for more than half an hour. Maybe an hour. If the two of you felt particularly ambitious and your legs didn’t tire out, you might make it to the Khuzwayo’s house, about a mile away. Thinking back on this now illicits a smile, and I think I must have smiled then too, watching you and Thembi knowing that the two of you would probably talk and sing the whole way. This thought on my mind, I turned my back to the road and re-entered our house.
I cannot recall now what I went back to, but as you know, I tend to get pretty focused and what I can remember now is having this moment when I looked outside and dusk was beginning to fall. Time had passed without my awareness of it, and suddenly the evening was upon me. And that’s when I thought of you. You and Thembi. Where WERE you two? You had left, I looked at a clock, about three hours earlier. My face gets warm even now as I think about it, that moment of fear, the thought of, where is my child? I walked out to the veranda out front. Darkness had begun to creep up from the eastern horizon, but it was still plenty light out. There were a few people on the road, mostly heading downhill, back home after a day at work in Melmoth. As I watched them pass by, receiving a wave from one or two, “Sabona Mfundisi!” my heart slowed, my face cooled, my shoulders relaxed. Funny how physical emotions are. In that moment, I realized that I had nothing to worry about. You and Thembi would be home when you got home. I couldn’t imagine a safer place for my daughter to be out walking about than here, Mfanefile, where we were known by all and cared for by so many.
And sure enough you were home soon thereafter. I think Tod might have finished cooking dinner by the time you got home. I remember the look of you as you came to the table to eat, your feet had the outlines of your sandals etched onto them in red dust, and your eyes had the look of a little girl who had spent the better part of her afternoon walking in the South African sun. I asked you, “Thandiwe, how was your walk with Thembi? Where did you go?” “We went to the Khuzwayo’s house. And we shared the snack you gave us. I said communion, and we ate it.”
I’m not sure what I said to you. I was picturing you, a five and a half year old, repeating the familiar words of communion before sharing your crackers and juice with Thembi. I wonder how much of this you remember yourself. But these things, these rituals, they have been a part of you, a part of how you engage with the world for a long time. It’s exciting now to see you at DDH. It’s changed so much since I moved in in the fall of 1975! As has the Divinity School. I can’t tell you how proud I am of you. How excited I am that you are embarking on this journey. And how special it is to feel connected to this part of your life.
Why am I here? In some ways, judging by my mother’s story about me as a little child, it seems obvious, that I’ve always been meant to come here. The language and rituals of a Christian faith were the macaroni and cheese of my childhood, the story of Esther read alongside “Make Way for Ducklings,” family prayers (my standard was God, thank you for Ana and Tod and me and Mandla and all the other people in the world, amen) before bedtime lullabies. I knew that I was shaped by church, and as a high-schooler I would have told you that I had lived everywhere I had lived up until that point in my life because of the church. So it seems obvious that I would be here now, in divinity school, studying the Bible, the history of Christianity, theology, ethics, and preparing for a life of service.
And somehow the obviousness of this eluded me. Despite my play at communion as a small child, I did not dream of growing up to be a minister or a church worker. I dreamt of being a doctor, writing children’s literature, being a fourth grade teacher, working as a guidance counselor. Or becoming the next Florence Nightingale or Mother Theresa. I had a sense that I could save the world. And I believed that as a Christian, that’s what I was supposed to do – to be willing to lay down my life for another, to serve the poor and oppressed, to speak out against injustice, to love my neighbor. But I never really imagined that I would do it through the church.
So what changed? What has led me to think that I belong in a divinity school? That perhaps God’s call to me is not just one to serve others, but perhaps to serve others from within the church? Or at least an invitation to deepen my understanding of God and of Christianity that all of my work and service may be done with a sense of it coming from my faith and being service to God and not just society in general?
To be frank, I had an experience. A moment of call. Fast forward 17 years to a 22 ½ year old Thandiwe.
Urutay tetrevadepo, enesay tetrevad
Urutay tetrevadepo, enesay tetrevad
My eyelids hang heavy as the car slows to a crawl, inching its way through throngs of people, many wrapped in shawls to ward off the chill of the still-dark morning. Stalls stacked high with gleaming stainless steel kitchenware, sparkling glass bangles and plastic earrings, piles of roasted nuts, dried dates and fried snacks line the road we traverse. Carnival-like excitement buzzes in the air. Thousands of people gather for the annual harvest festival at the Ponai chapel in Tamil Nadu, India.
A young man in black slacks and a flowing white shirt ushers me into the parsonage where I receive a warm cup of tea that consists mostly of water and sugar. I await the Bishop of the local diocese who has invited me to the 5:30 a.m. communion service over which he will preside. With only four hours of sleep, I struggle to keep my eyes open.
The Bishop arrives and beckons me to follow him into the chapel. Moving in the wake of his white-robed figure, I gaze at the masses, a sea of figures parting for our procession. Some people have just roused themselves from their sleeping places on the ground while others arrive in lorries, buses and bullock carts from their homes in surrounding villages. Despite the awnings built of woven palm branches, people spill out all sides of the structure to stand beneath the still-starry skies.As a guest of the Bishop, I sit beside him on the raised dais, overlooking everything. This means I have a seat, and gratefully, I lower myself into a chair, close my eyes and ask God to grant me energy for the morning. I force my eyes open as the service begins: a reading from the gospel, a message, prayers.
Standing, the Bishop speaks the words of sacrament over wafers and grape juice; the familiarity of the ritual comforts me. Although the Tamil words ring unfamiliar in my ears, their meaning resounds in my mind: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Then the time comes to share the meal: “The body of Christ broken for you.” The wafer melts on my tongue. “The blood of Christ shed for you.” The grape juice runs sweetly over my lips.
I sit, close my eyes and pray. I feel strength filling my body, washing the fatigue from my weary limbs. When I open my eyes again, the dais pulses with people who have come forward to partake in this ritual. A young father brings his son for a blessing from the Bishop. After he receives the blessing, he turns the child to me. Without thought or hesitation, I extend a hand of blessing, a word of prayer. I draw my hand back. What have I done? I am not ordained. What right or authority do I have to sit on a dais and pray for someone? But then an older woman reaches out to me and places my hand upon her head. She, too, wants a prayer. Then another woman approaches me and another and another. People surround me, asking that I pray for them. I rise; my mind clears as I place my hands on people, lifting them to God in prayer. A tap on my shoulder interrupts me. One of the pastors has come to call me to join the Bishop for breakfast. I look at the people surrounding me. I close my eyes and ask God to be with each of them, then I follow the pastor.
I feel warm, flushed even, though the cool of the morning still lingers in the air. What will the bishop say to me? Will he chide me for staying behind to pray for people? Will he ask me about my theological education? Or my baptism? Or perhaps when I turned my life over to Jesus? What can I tell him? That although I am a Christian, my theology tends to be much more Unitarian? That I have never accepted Jesus as my personal savior because I believe Jesus was human, like you and I are? That I believe that the mystery of God may be explored as much through science as through theology? That I believe that the Muslims and Hindus who live in our community also have access to truth and the divine?
Who am I to have authority to pray over people in this place? And yet, it had been the most natural thing I had ever done. The most natural thing. We enter the room where the bishop and other ordained clergy (all men) sit having their breakfast. I am invited to sit beside the bishop, and I do. As I share a meal of idli and chutney with him and the other pastors, the Father overseeing Ponai Church brings me a plaque with a stylized photo of the chapel, a white dove flying overhead. Below the image is a verse in Tamil. Seeing me studying the verse, the Bishop explains, “It means: ‘Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place’” (2 Chronicles 7:15).
Call it strange, call it coincidence. Call it providence, call it God. I don’t know what it was. But I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t ignore the surge of energy I had experienced as I took communion, or the sense of grounding that I had when I laid my hands on people to pray for them as if I were a conduit for something far greater than myself. I couldn’t ignore this simple verse that spoke directly to my fears and doubts. How could I ever have known? There is no way that it would have occurred to me to stand up and pray for folks! Yet something had happened, I had been drawn out of myself to extend a hand and a word in prayer. And my response had been doubt. And my doubt had been answered. Perhaps, I remember wondering to myself, this is what I’m supposed to be doing?
I still don’t know exactly what happened or what it is I’m supposed to be doing in response. At the time it meant I needed to apply to seminary and divinity school. I believed, and this belief has been affirmed by so many of you, that I am in the right place to explore this call and what it means, I am here to discern all of this. And I am so very blessed to be in this room discerning it with all of you. I don’t have it all figured out. I struggle with questions about being what God calls me to be. I believe strongly that I am called to work to uplift the oppressed, to work against injustice. And yet, I sit in this classroom, “too busy” or too frightened to step outside of my door and really stand for what I believe. Sometimes, when I really engage deeply with what I believe Jesus taught, I am faced with the theological dilemma of whether a person of privilege such as me can enter into God’s kingdom. Yes, I still have a lot to figure out. I have so many questions, questions about where I fit in the church, questions about what God calls me to do, questions about how I am supposed to live in a world of pain and injustice such that I spread not just comfort but delight, not simply hope but true justice for all.
This chapter leaves out much about the experiences that have taught me just how much I don’t have figured out, and this is an omission it’s important to recognize. In attending Kevin’s ordination service a couple of Sundays ago, I heard a commissioning that I found very powerful. It was to: be present (and for me this means very much to be present to the moment that I may recognize the divine all around, that I may witness beauty, that I may speak to suffering, that I may claim as my own all that I ever have which is right now). The second thing was to love all of creation (what a challenge this is beginning with the call to love myself in all of my messiness, whole only in as much as I am willing to recognize and love those parts of myself that really I would rather put in a close dark place with a heavy padlock on it, and from there to love all the people around me, everyone, to treat them with love and not fear, and finally to love the creation all of it and this is such a challenge, because loving the creation must at least mean for me making conscious efforts to live a less consumerist lifestyle). And finally, the third thing to be open to change and transformation. This openness is essential. It is why I am here. It enables me to learn. It challenges me to grow. It opens up the possibility that things may not be as I think they are or as I think they should be. It’s an openness to the divine and my connection to all that is through the divine.
And what a blessing to be able to look around this room and know that in the current and coming chapters of this journey, you are all beside me.
The following is a poem that accompanies a different chapter of my story, but it’s so beautiful and has spoken to me so many times that I want to share it with you.
~ Mary Oliver ~
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.