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June 2010


The Fitzroy Festival is on this week at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church on University Avenue. Here 's the line up! 6.30 to 8.30!

Fitz 1

WED 23rd: David Thompson’s Monopoly at the Castlewellan weekend showed a performer of wit and tasty turn of phrase leads us off. Gary Bradley’s brings years of musical experience to new songs and the headliners are Fairfield County, our own Peter Greer on guitar and his comrade in song Jacqui Lewis whose voice is wonderful. In between we will have a couple fo poetry slots. Keith Lockhart will read some of his late father’s work. Brian Lockhart had a real gifted mind and seemed to give sacred transcendence to ordinary moments. Yours truly will also drop a couple poems in!

THURS: Tonight is split by two great acts. Livingstone and Guthrie bring classical and jazz and so much ability that any genre might get a nod; heavy skill with a lightness of touch! Caroline Orr lit up our Johnny Cash night and Easter service with a voice that stops the chatter. Backing singer on the local scene for some years she has made her own album on sale! Jonee Hicks adds the spoken word with provocative poetry that cuts deep.

FRI: On Friday we have two communities coming together. Frank Ferguson has been writing Morrisonesque Belfast folk songs for years touching on Shaftsbury Square, Ballymacarrett, Queens Island and Taize Glen. Fr Clem McMannis from Clonard sings Gaelic seanós songs. We will be talking to them about how their different communities have influenced their music. Philip Orr with the help of Nigel Henderson’s visuals will look at some of the great poets and Mudsun Fish will rock us into the evening with their youthful attitude and tight sound!


Bloody Sunday 
It was one of those sentences that you know as it finishes you will never forget. It was a sentence that prophetically cut through the way things were with the key to unlocking how things could instead be. As it ended I felt that I was standing on sacred ground. We were in JL Zwane Church in Guguletu, a familiar place now to those who read my blog, and Spiwo Xapile the minister was talking to my students about the anti-apartheid movement and the process of reconciliation. Spiwo said, “Every day I waken up and I thank God that I am a Christian, South African and black... because that means that every day I get a chance to forgive my enemies.” Wow! To a group of Northern Ireland students this was almost mind blowing.

Let me set the phrase in the Northern Ireland context of the past week. After years of investigation, almost forty years after the event, the British Prime Minister finally apologised to the people of Derry/Londonderry for the British army killing 14 civilians and wounding 13 on what has become known as Bloody Sunday in January 1972. The disappointing aspect of the story is the response of many Unionist politicians who are questioning the report and trying to avoid the pro British community taking responsibility for any blame. In days when there is a real dearth of good Unionist leadership it reveals the vastness of the void. That many of those leaders profess a Christian faith exasperates the sadness of their response.

At the core of such a response lies serious errors in Biblical and theological issues. When I stated how disappointed I was that Unionist politicians were shunning the truth someone asked me what I thought truth was. My response was to quote Paul’s letter to the Romans where he makes it clear that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and to suggest that we had to realise our misdemeanours in the Troubles and confess our part. In John’s first letter in the New Testament he said that “if we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves.” In The Old Testament book of Second Chronicles the people of God are told that if they “humble themselves and pray, seek my face and turn from their wicked ways I will hear from heaven and will heal their land.” The Prime Minister’s confession encouraged me that “my” side of the community could play their Biblical part.

Some Unionist leaders however, who claim the same Bible as their living code, were not keen to admit any error on their side of the political divide. One of the hindrances to a Biblical response seemed to be that their counterparts on the other side have not admitted their own culpability. This however is not an reasonable excuse to refrain from admission of guilt. In the Scriptures we are not encouraged to compare our own sorting out with how our neighbour is sorting himself or herself out. It is our responsibility to be involved with the sanctification of our own souls and when it comes to our neighbour loving them and not judging them is Jesus constant encouragement.

This is where Spiwo Xapile’s sentence turns the whole thing upside down. He is delighted to able to forgive where the Northern Irish Protestant seems to want to be able to ask their enemies to repent. Spiwo isn’t worried about what his enemy does. He is driven by what he should do as a follower of Jesus. Apartheid was a horrible oppression politically and mentally. Horrendous things were done to Dr. Xapile’s people. Yet, he is thrilled to forgive and love those who persecuted him as Jesus calls us to do in Luke chapter 6. Xapile and many black South Africans like him are showing Northern Ireland Protestants a more dignified, statesman-like and Biblical way to respond to a historical moment like the Saville Inquiry Findings. Oh for such leadership!  

These Numbers Have Faces

JL Zwane



(10th day into the World Cup and a 10th blog of soul spinning thoughts from the land of the vuvuzela... It is Sunday... so let us go to Church and learn...)

When you walk into the JL Zwane Church their culture of following Jesus is immediately apparent. The building is new, having developed in various ways over the past decade. Now their sanctuary is a like a work of art. Let me correct that; it is a work of art. On the colourful walls, that are vibrant, warm and welcoming, there is a plethora of artistic images and quotations and verses. There is nowhere you can look that your mind and soul are not sparked to think or rethink.

The drawings, quotes and verses are a visual representation of all that happens in worship. And my goodness… the worship! I have visited many churches on many continents and if I had the choice of hearing the music of just one, it would be JL Zwane. I simply love bringing people here to hear this sound, to feel this sound, to be enveloped in the spirit of this sound. I have never heard a black person who can’t sing and very few who can’t sing every well. Gather them in the right community with the songs and my goodness it is a heavenly experience on earth. There is no accompaniment, just a mama with a little cushion-like percussion kind of thing. At every conceivable breathing space in the service she hits that cushion and off we go on another song. It is joyous experience, always emotional, like your heart is being manipulated by the best kind of holy message. It moves you.

And they move. They say that a Northern Ireland man can’t dance, but this space and sound has even me swaying in that wonderfully African duck and dive. I have attended various Churches in Cape Town and this is the most authentic worship I have encountered. Many others who are trying to integrate white and black cultures end up with dreadlocked youngsters blasting out south coast of England worship songs and it is an anaemic offence to the depth of African culture. If I lived in Cape Town this is where I would worship even though most of it is in Xhosa.

There are songs that they sing in English. There are three that I hear regularly and each of them has a profound effect on me. Most Sundays they sing The Lord’s Prayer. How familiar are those words? There is not a time that I can remember that I didn’t know them. I cannot remember learning them. They have always been there. Yet, when you hear them in this setting, how much they change, how profound, poignant and pragmatic they become. When you are the stand out colour of white, where white until very recently has meant the most inhumane oppression, and you sense the warmth and love of these people then “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” takes on a more palpable power.”

HIV/AIDS is such an issue on the townships that every week there is a ten minute section of the service dedicated to education or testimony around HIV/AIDS. And every week this section closes with a song called Never Give Up. It is a song that strengthens your soul. The vigorous hope that this congregations conjures is as tangible as the way those old Negro Spirituals were used as the rallying cry and energizer of the Civil Rights Movement in America during the sixties. Of course, as the movie Amandla so wonderfully told, these black South Africans also used music as an engine to move their own struggle against apartheid. Then they fought human evil. Now, it is the health pandemic that has struck them just when one freedom was victoriously gained. Never Give Up is a lesson on the power of song, the place of hope and lament in the Psalms of the Judeo Christian tradition. Songs at home don’t ever seem to have the same conviction.

The last song to mention is Be Bright Where You Are. It was the one they always sang when I came up to bring greetings on behalf of my students. It spelled out the challenge that they were giving me. As I sat every Sunday asking how I can take the lessons of this place home, they would sing it out at me as an invitation to join them in bringing light to the darkness where I am from as they do into the menacing shadows of Guguletu.




(in the 9th soul spinning South Africa blog to celebrate 2010 World Cup we visit Cindy who will tell people God visited... but we find that somehow we might have visited God... the blog features an amazing photograph from my friend Gordon Ashbridge in Cindy's house.)


photo: Gordon Ashbridge

It was a very strange, near mysterious experience. Six weeks in Cape Town, working fourteen hour days to transport students around in mini buses with something significant to experience at the end of each journey, had me at the point of exhaustion. A Sunday night text home was sharing the excitement that it would soon be over. On Monday morning everything changed.

We were at JL Zwane Memorial Church to learn more about their HIV/AIDS ministry. There was a new challenge. We were to visit women suffering from AIDS in their own homes. We needed convinced that this was not a voyeuristic exercise. We were assured that culturally the Xhosa people saw visiting their homes in situations like these was an honour. So off we went. I decided to go with our second group to visit Cindy. The first group had appeared tearful and emotional but part of that had been to do with the sense of hope they had been able to share particularly when one of our students, Ashling, had sung to their patient.

Cindy was a very different case. It was a pretty hopeless scenario. She had been suffering from the virus for six years and had developed to a late stage of the disease. Her mind was not always able to focus and she was at time incoherent but a recurring theme was how bored she was with the drugs. What needs to be understood is that anti-retroviral drugs need to be taken on a particular schedule with a particular diet. When, like Cindy, you had been on this regime for a lengthy time and didn’t feel much of the benefit, frustration can is understandable. We left her home, nodding to her mother in some kind of speechless way that dared to give out whatever hope we could muster along with an abundance of deeply felt love. Yet, we felt useless, unable to help, in a place where death seemed to be loitering with grave intent.

The mystery for me was that on leaving Cindy I felt invigorated again. I didn’t want to go home anymore. I wanted to keep driving that bus. I got a new sense of energy to keep on keeping on. As I looked back over the visit I was a little confused as to where this change of perspective could have been birthed. Could it be that as I reached out to touch Cindy’s fingers, too weak to grip mine there was something mystical that happened.

The next day as I sat in the office of Dr. Spiwo Xapile the pastor at JL Zwane, he thanked me for what our team had done the day before. He told me not to underestimate the gesture we had made. He then made a staggering statement, “You know when they tell their neighbours they will not say that white people came to their house, they will say that God visited them.” We felt nothing like God and such a view would seem way overestimated to us but it made me think again about my own mystical experience in Cindy’s room.

Could it be that I met God in the eyes of the least of one of these as Jesus told me I would when I visit the sick. And could it be that as that Matthew 25 parable of Jesus is worked out we find that God lives particularly in that place where the one who serves touches the one who is served. That as Cindy experienced God in me, I experienced God in her. That this is what Jesus was encouraging us to in that parable.

After I got home someone told me that they had been reading the Christian psychologist Larry Crabb who said we didn’t fix ourselves when we concentrated on making ourselves better. That seemed a contradiction to my friend but in the light of my moments with Cindy it made perfect sense. In attempting even in vain to help someone else I had found God meeting with me, to help me. The selflessness of the Gospel of Christ is going to redeem our fallen beings far more than all the egocentric self helps of our selfish world.

These Numbers Have Faces



Yvonne 1

“The last time I saw Jesus
I was drinking bloody mary's in the South...”

These are the provocative opening lines of Jesus In New Orleans which is probably my favourite song by probably my favourite band, Over The Rhine, and it’s profundity became a song incarnate one morning on the Guguletu township on the Cape Flats underneath the shadow of Table Mountain. I wasn’t drinking any alcoholic cocktail and I was a long way from a bar room in New Orleans but it was Jesus that I glimpsed in a blinding way. It was my Saviour’s face alright, in the lives of three women and it was disconcerting in that you knew, to quote a song written by another friend Juliet Turner, that you were “too close for comfort.” In the everyday ordinary living of Yvonne, Pricilla and Nancy my western Christian complacency took a beating and left me wondering if it was possible to be this Jesus-like in a world where our own pampered hearts were the sole ambition.

Yvonne is Director of Ministries at JL Zwane Church but when you spend time with her it doesn’t take long to realise that where job and life meet is a blur. When she leaves the JL Zwane Centre in the evening she finds herself sleeping with AIDS orphans who she tells us need the psychological care of a mother figure as much as they need the hamper of food that we have brought for them. Yvonne has an overwhelming compassion for the vast array of very young children looking after their brothers and sisters having lost their parents to AIDS. So, she becomes their psychological mother on her only hours off. On Saturday afternoon there she will be at the park with these adult-to-soon children giving them a tiny window of child normality under the gaze of a mother figure. Living such a sacrificial life in a township has one implication – 24/7 discipleship... and I see Jesus...

Then there is Pricilla, living in a tiny block house among the shacks of Guguletu as it becomes the more shacked up KTC township. Walk through Priscilla’s door and you are met with a wall to wall bundle of children. It is not long before you catch on that they are all physically and mentally challenged. And they are crammed in; cots, beds and lying on the floor. Some just lie staring up, others are more able to wrap themselves around you. It is an astonishing sight. Priscilla with whatever help she gets looks after these children all day long. She tells me that when her daughter was born with chronic spina bifida that she went looking for help and could not find anyone so she decided that she would be the help for other parents in the same situation. It is overwhelming in so many ways including challenge and inspiration. In the midst of debilitating poverty here are the riches of decadent love... and I meet Jesus again.

Just a few doors up the street from Pricilla we find Nancy. Another tiny house has children overflowing through the doors onto the street and back off the street. Nancy is mother to fourteen children in a one bedroom block house. Her reason is that they have a need. She was asked to look after an orphan and twins arrived. She felt she could never manage her own children, the oldest of which was in her twenties, lying on the sofa looking frail maybe suffering from HIV/AIDS. She took them and within days she had another emergency child. Eventually the crowd here today, living in a tiny two bedroom block box. Nancy is the mother of the street and there is little money coming in. Our small hamper might do a few days but then we are gone. JL Zwane will go on helping as much as they can but their funds are limited too. I’ve never met a Nancy at home. You are in the presence of something other... you don’t have to look too close to recognise the face.

In the end as you drive away from the intensity of this kind of self sacrificial love, you become more and more aware of the unlikelihood of meeting Jesus in the carers at home in the wealthy west. Care of the magnitude of Yvonne, Pricilla and Nancy would be well funded and waged in Belfast. We do care, and many do it well, but most go home at the end of the day to their own leisure time, holidays and materialist gain. To go back to the chorus of Jesus In New Orleans:

“But when I least expect it
Here and there I see my Saviour's face
He's still my favourite loser
Falling for the entire human race.”

And I didn’t expect it; I was there to be Jesus to them! But then the Saviour’s face in these women showed me that it is all about losing; our arrogance, our comfort, our lives. It is all about love, for whoever we are asked to give all of our lives to. It was the last time I saw Jesus and it’ll take me a while to work it through my spoiled, self indulgent western soul.



(7th daily soul spinning South African blog to celebrate the 2010 World Cup features an article on the mission of JL Zwane Memorial Church in Guguletu... they taught me all I know!)

Between World Cup 2010’s Cape Town Stadium and Cape Town International Airport sits a little Church which has become my mentor as I attempt to make the Church a potent and relevant witness to Jesus in my own situation at Fitzroy Presbyterian Belfast. So many times I remember a phrase or something I saw there that ignites my imagination and helps me resolve dilemmas or create new visions. JL Zwane Memorial, a little bit off the N2 in the Guguletu township is a Church modeling a Biblical outworking of how the Body Of Christ should become flesh and move into the neighbourhood. Being there inspires, encourages, rebukes and corrects. It is a prophetic vision that preaches to any Church trying to be salt and light. For JL Zwane the people crammed into narrow streets around their building are the focus of their worship and compassion.

The vision behind this entire challenge is Rev. Dr. Spiwo Xapile. He is the spiritual Chief of this tribe in every way. He walks in with a respect that is palpable, always the head but somehow always one of them. This is not a false place of leadership that he has taken upon himself where he rules over his parish. No, Dr. Xapile is not the Chief for his own selfish ends. He is Chief to serve the people and the needs of a people that he deeply loves and they him.

He is a strategist and a visionary. He is a prophet and a pastor. When he speaks he is gifted with powerful oratory. He is poetic, profound with succinct clarity. He is very quotable, shaping little refrains that can be carried around the rest of the week, depth charges dropped into souls that continue to ripple on for days, weeks, months and years as some of the future blogs will demonstrate. He speaks in Xhosa but will drop in a few English phrases for our benefit, drifting between languages with ease and giving us as much to think about in the snippets of English that most entire sermons in English could never dream of.

What becomes apparent when you have spent time around JL Zwane is that the words of Sunday’s sermon are merely the dressing for a week where the Word of God lives in flesh. Indeed, that is a mantra of Xapiles that Jesus is God “flesh on” and that we need to be God “flesh on” to our neighbours. It is a mission statement whether the leadership of the Church have intended it or not. This is a Church that is seen in the neighbourhood. The Church itself is a Community Centre to meet a plethora of community needs as much as it is a sanctuary for worship. The Sunday service is merely the heart pumping out the blood that invigorates real live “flesh on” outreach.

So in the midst of huge unemployment with a number of very talented youngsters around the streets JL Zwane employed a musical director to give an opportunity to the gifted musicians and dancers. Siyaya have now toured America, recorded a Christmas album and are busier and busier around music venues and schools across South Africa. Their “fusion of traditional African songs, opera, jazz and pop” is being used to do far more than entertain as it educates about HIV/AIDS issues. A similar sports ministry exists where former soccer player Eric “Ace” Kombela draws young men into the Church and the nurture of wise role models through the JL Zwane soccer team who are winning league titles and respect across the Western Cape.

You do not have to be around townships too long before the devastating impact of AIDS is evident. Dr. Xapile speaks about living in the midst of death. His congregation is dying. There are many funerals and many orphans. There are many children of six and upwards who are looking after sick mothers, becoming bread winners, carers and parents to younger siblings. Many children go to school one day and care for parents the next. Many children are left on their own when parents are off getting treatment in hospital. Xapile and his amazing team respond. A visit is not just about bringing greetings from the Church and a prayer. It is about listening and responding. While we were there, there was a sense of need for a 24 call out service where if a mother was called into hospital she could phone the Church who would supply someone in the congregation to go and look after the children. It is practical love. It is God “flesh on”.

When you get the opportunity to spend time in this sacred place, not only on Sundays but through the week, you would find it hard not to be affected by its’ ministry and infected by the hope and love and passion to bring Christ to the doorsteps of the neighbourhood. They certainly made him alive to me as I had the blessing of brushing into this real live Body Of Christ.

(check out the charity that brings soccer and social transformation together...


(the Church featured here...)




With the World Cup under way and the vuvuzelas blowing up a storm, let us celebrate the ability that soccer has to change lives. It seemed appropriate that it was June 16th, South African Youth Day 2006 and the thirtieth anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, when my friend Eric Kombela and I introduced my Californian intern Justin Zoradi to Eric’s soccer star Anda Sozawe. We were in the Mugg & Bean in Cape Town’s Victorian and Alfred Waterfront and as Justin and Anda introduced themselves to each other none of us could tell it would change both of their lives.

Four years earlier I had met Eric, or Ace as he is known, through his minister at JL Zwane Church in Guguletu, Rev Dr Spiwo Xapile. As in many other parts of the world, Spiwo had been struggling to get young men to Church and into a place where they could be taught Biblical values, what a family should look like and health issues that could avoid them contracting AIDS that was ripping the community apart. So, as Ace a former professional soccer player was around the Church, they started a soccer team connected to the Church with rewards for attending Church for the players. It was a no brainer that I took my students to play Ace’s boys in 2002 and a relationship developed. Justin was heading up one of our 2006 teams that had an emphasis on playing against and building relationships with the JL Zwane soccer team.

The next few weeks would see Justin and Anda connect more and more. By the time we left South Africa, six weeks later, Justin would have come up with an idea to sponsor guys like Anda. When he left us to return to America and take up a Masters Degree in Peace Studies in Portland Oregon, Justin set up These Numbers Have Faces (TNHF), a charity that would aim to fund South Africa’s youth through College which gives them the chance to change their lives with a drip down positive effect on their families and communities.

Anda indeed became the first student to benefit from the very modern, media clever approach that TNHF took. TNHF have used the internet, quality videos and taken a rock band approach to spreading the word that includes badges, posters, stickers and t-shirts. It has caught on in Portland and Belfast, N. Ireland with very ordinary twenty-somethings seeing the impact they can make quickly and effectively without a big corporate charity behind them. 

Anda became the first person in his family to attend and graduate from College. He starred on and off the field at Northlink College. TNHF are a small grassroots charity who are attempting a “love your neighbour” alternative way to live. They connect not with statistics but with faces and always develop friendships with those they raise money for. This brings respect, dignity as well as education to township youth. Not content with this TNHF have a Community Impact Model where the students they invest in become investors themselves in terms of community service, student mentoring and financial reinvestment.

TNHF is a passionate movement attempting to make its impression on poverty reduction, education equality and ultimately the empowerment of South African youth. And all because of a game of football and a breakfast at the Mugg & Bean!

These Numbers Have Faces


Sun City


The very first time I heard Bono’s Silver and Gold I sensed the claustrophobic feel of a dark wet night on the South African townships. Dark and wet add menace to the poverty of townships. The shacks close in. Silver and Gold as an attempt by Bono to bring the tradition of the blues into his work for the first time does a great job in mood and feel. What was more amazing is that I wouldn’t walk onto my first township for fifteen years after I got to sense that feel.

U2 had become a political band by the time Bono wrote Silver and Gold in 1985 but they were not on their own. Jackson Browne,  Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn are three prime examples of songwriters who moved from songs of personal introspection to songs of political provocation in the 80’s. Bruce Springsteen’s side kick Little Steven Van Zandt got in on the act too with some political songs and then, having heard Peter Gabriel’s Biko, took some interest in South Africa and put together a star studded protest song to encourage artists to stop playing South Africa’s Sun City, the most appealing venue for concerts, as a support of the economic sanctions many were encouraging against the white government.

Bono’s first attempt at a real song, prompted by not being able to share one in the company of some Rolling Stones, was written in a New York hotel room during that Sun City project. Bono recorded it quickly with Keith Richard and Ron Wood as his band and it appeared on the Sun City album before U2 used it first as a b-side for Where The Streets Have No Name and later as a powerful live song on Rattle and Hum.

As well as the mood he conjures Bono deals with something very powerful in the South African apartheid context. Bob Marley put it well from his sense of slavery on Jamaican townships when on his much covered Spiritual Redemption Song he sings, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds.” There is a sinister twist to the slavery in Bono’s opening lines – “praying hands hold me down.” One of the many foibles of apartheid was that it had been theologized. The theologians at Dutch Reformed Stellenbosch University had given a Biblical mandate for the institutionalised apartheid of the Africaaner government. Evidence of the belief that blacks were less than human can be found on a visit to Robben Island where prisoners who were black got no meat in their diet, compared the coloured who did, because they were seen as less than human!

There is indeed a mental slavery when you are constantly told you are less than human. This is not just political oppression. It is psychological oppression and Bono, having a faith himself, is disturbed that “praying hands” played their part in this horrendous injustice. For the answer he turns to another black voice, Jesse Jackson, who apparently used the phrase “I am someone” in his own civil rights campaigning in the USA. Jesus turns up, as he often does in U2 songs, and don’t think that his name is a throwaway taking-in-vain; Bono is too meticulous for that. In a second verse that could describe the violent end of Steve Biko’s life there is a defiant cry to free the mind; black people are someones!

This battle for psychological liberation continues today across South Africa. Being put down for generations takes its toll. Bono finishes Silver and Gold with two secrets to the freedom from mental slavery. First that the poor might actually be blessed as Jesus says and have more wealth in their humanity than the Racist oppressors. The second secret to breaking the chains is belief that freedom is inside not in the outward circumstances. If ever there was a place that showed the strength of feeling free in spite of being in prison then it is Robben Island, if ever a man then it Nelson Mandela its most famous prisoner. Somehow against all the odds, as the apartheid regime attempted daily to demoralise them, the prisoners on Robben Island never lost hope and somehow deep within believed that they were free and would one day be free in a democratic South Africa. That dream was a long way off when Bono wrote Silver and Gold and no one should underestimate the contribution that songs like this made to making its last few lines a reality.   




Blessed kids 

What did Jesus mean when he called the poor blessed? Your initial thoughts as you find yourself in a place of the kind of poverty that is scattered across South Africa is not how blessed people are to be living in shacks. In one of our long stints in Cape Town I decided to simply live in those words of Jesus, turn them upside down, pull them inside out and seek the ultimate potency of their wisdom.

So, as I meditated on “Blessed are the poor” among the poor I couldn’t help but notice some things that sat awkwardly in my own life. One day we gave Thulani and Lucas, our favourite builders, sleeping bags. The next day we asked Thulani what he had done the night before. He waxed lyrical about that sleeping bag and wrapping up with his children on the settee. It was extravagant luxury for him. And I thought of the difference for Thulani as a father and me as a father. For him there is little to do but spend time with his kids. For me, my life is filled with so many options, as are my children’s. I can go to the internet, do my emails, watch a soccer match, listen to my Ipod etc etc. They are all the vestiges of wealth that keep me away from quality time with my children. Blessed are the poor!

You see very quickly on the township the lack of desire for privacy or independence. You also find the need for dependence upon neighbour. I remember while building a house with my students and Coldplay came on the radio from the shack next door. In Belfast we would have been asking for the noise to be turned down or phoning the council’s noise control. In townships it is more likely they will ask their neighbour to turn it up, especially if it’s Bob Marley! There are no stupid behavioural manners that fill life with false airs and graces. Who you see is what you see. There are no slaves to fake here. This is community. It is honest. It is relational. It is dynamic. Blessed are the poor.

Mark, our old Resident volunteer, said to me one evening, “As the man said, ‘It is not their poverty that makes them happy. It is their lack of wealth’” “Who said that?” I asked him. “You” he replied! Wow! Cool! Wealth is a dangerous thing. In its purity of course it has many advantages but it is tainted and I believe I watch it eat up our souls of more and more every year. I watched my students for fifteen years gaining more and more possibility for instant gratification. We can’t deal with a text that is not immediately responded to. We can carry around 15,000 songs or a library of movies in our pockets. We have most of the knowledge in the world on our phones. If we want therapy we have the Church of the shopping mall where the right purchase will sooth our souls. The impact of that is terrifying. It is dreadfully difficult decision as one of the the wealthiest and most spoiled generation in history to deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow Jesus.

Where it goes wrong is that it causes us to drift, blandly away from the real meaning of life. The soul gets starved with what the body can do. The soul becomes marginalized. It is about material and physical attainment that we are focused. And when we find ourselves in relationships – and I mean with God as well as friendships, families and particularly marriage – that don’t cash in the cheques of our desires immediately, like we are used to, then problems set in. Wealth has consequences. I lived one spring and summer in the west end of Vancouver where people were so materially satisfied that God was not a necessity. Indeed he would have been a hindrance. When the rich hear God’s call they ask “How much will it cost?” When the poor hear it they shout, “Look what He is giving me.”

Of course I am not saying – let us all be poor. Whatever Jesus meant when he asked us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he didn’t mean what Gordon and I saw on a Nyanga cemetery (see Blessed are the Poor Pt 1 on this blog). There was wisdom when the writer of Proverbs (30:8-9) asked,

give me neither poverty nor riches,
   but give me only my daily bread.

 9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
   and say, 'Who is the LORD ?'
   Or I may become poor and steal,
   and so dishonour the name of my God.”

As we deal with poverty let us also deal with wealth. Jesus was not kidding when he said that we cannot service both God and money. He wasn’t kidding when he said that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to have a healthy spiritual journey to heaven. If we are to follow Jesus and be part of his revolution to rid the world of poverty one of the greatest danger to achieving it is the wealth that is too easily available. It will ensnare, bland out, dull down and suck our souls dry. When you are caught between the poverty that the Old Testament prophets raged against and the poverty Jesus called blessed you need to learn the blessedness of not being wealthy and also see the cursedness of an unjust world that leaves some in terrifying danger of poverty and death.


NOT WHAT JESUS MEANT... - Blessed Are The Poor Pt 1

Cape Flats 

There was no blessing in the poverty of the cemetery in KTC, the name given to the edge of Cape Town’s Nyanga township, where we were building houses for a few weeks in June and July. For those weeks this cemetery was a constant land mark keeping me from getting lost in the vast shack infested sprawl of the Cape Flats. At that time, my photographer friend Gordon Ashbridge had an artistic fetish for the images of graveyards and I always said, “When Gordon comes we must go in there.”

When we finally came the weather had turned and there were dark ominous judgemental clouds nestling over Table Mountain. The Cape Flats, where the old apartheid government had dumped millions of black people between the 60s and the 80s, is bleak enough in its sandy flatness. On this particular day the barrenness was added to by the wind and the blustering sheets of showers that it carried. Gordon pointed out that graveyards are notoriously desolate and boy desolate had never been more desolate than on this particular winter’s afternoon.

There were scatterings of decent head stones and one or two that in the context looked more than decadent. One of the most luxurious marked the grace of someone whose epitaph read “PEACEMAKER”. Ironically it was protected behind bars and barbed wire; the freedom to rest in peace was unavailable in a land of such seismic division. I also wondered about how there were some who could afford such extravagance in deaths contextualised in the make shift shacks that surrounded the burial ground. I remember someone telling me in Khayelitsha that life membership of the Kaiser Chiefs’ supporters club gave life insurance policies that paid for your funeral etc.

It was the majority of graves that raised our sorrow and anger. It was the little frail graves, just little mounds of sand with a few rocks sitting haphazardly and little homemade markers, mostly wooden crosses, with felt tip pens scrawling names and ages and dates of birth and death. Little bits of rusted corrugated iron with rough scratchings of paint were all that some could afford. There were few flowers and little grass; just scenes from some old cowboy movie.

Then it got worse. We found ourselves in a sea of children’s graves…stillborns everywhere…a five month old here…a day old there. I took a photograph of four graves in a line and all four souls that lay just a few feet below the frail crosses totalled just over five months of living. Tears and anger fill the ether. This is naked poverty. This is the harvest of the seeds of apartheid but the injustices that caused it are not unique to South Africa’s inequalities. If you are white of skin, European of history and First World of comfort and convenience then there are questions to ask, confessions to face and evils to stand up to.

My friend Christian who was building houses with me a matter of a few hundred yards from these graves had told me he had read somewhere that Cape Town was a microcosm of the world. Here the poverty and the wealth that is built upon it sit side by side. For me in Belfast or Christian in Toronto our townships are hidden away. We don’t drive past them to go to the airport for our luxurious holidays like Capetonians do. Ours are thousands of miles away in Thailand, Malaysia or Mexico. Too easily we point fingers at our South African cousins asking how they can allow such poverty when we are unaware of our own culpability.

We stopped with Barrington, a local shack dweller, who was digging graves. He was telling us that they bury the children at weekends and what depth the children’s were compared to the adults. When we asked why so many children he avoided the AIDS word; it was poverty and disease. He said that sadly even the little crosses were sometimes stolen for fire wood for the nearby shacks in the winter chill and then people couldn’t find their loved ones.

Whatever Jesus meant by “Blessed are the poor…” it had nothing to do with this. This was the poverty of Amos’s prophetic rage. In a world where it seems religion was pietistically strong with the faithful committed to their places of worship, religious festivals and praise songs Amos had a message from God that was sobering to say the least – “away with the noise of your songs I want justice and righteousness. The accusations of injustice are clearly the oppression of the poor.” Jesus of course took up the theme of the prophets that takes us to the heart of God. The poor were his first priority whether it was the poor spiritually, physically or materially. Indeed a way to judge where we’ll be in the end, he told us in an apocalyptic vision of the separation of the saved and the damned at judgement, was what we did for the poor (Matthew 25). It was a long history of places and moments like this specific square of history in this particular plot of land in Western Province, South Africa that has fired God’s anger and his compassion for the poor.

No, this is not what Jesus meant when he said “Blessed are the poor…” This is what he meant when he said, “But woe to you rich for you have already received your comfort.”