Monday, December 9, 2013

Remembering Madiba

          I created this video yesterday, December 8th, as a remembrance to Nelson Mandela on the day designated as a national day of prayer and meditation in South Africa. Tomorrow there will be a memorial service being held at the 2010 World Cup FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. Many world leaders, including President Barack Obama, will be in attendance. Then, on December 15, a funeral and burial service will take place on the grounds of Madiba's home in Qunu. Your continued prayers during this time will be greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Entitled to What?

          For the past couple of months, my church family back home has been doing weekly book studies on 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. I found the topic and concept very interesting, so I downloaded the book to my kindle and read along. Basically the book is about the author, Jen Hatmaker, and her family as they try and reduce the “things” in their life that seem to take life away. The reductions were in the areas of food, clothes, possessions, media, waste, spending, and stress. They did this experiment for 7 months and Jen discusses some of the realizations that came out of it for her and the people around her. I was impacted by several of the ideas presented throughout this book, but most especially by the chapter on spending. It managed to put words to and describe many things that I have been experiencing here in South Africa.

          In this chapter, Jen only shopped at 7 different locations. This month led to her and her family denying themselves of some of their “wants”, like going out to eat with friends and Oreos. ;) She discussed how rare it is for middle to upper class Americans to ever deny themselves or their children of something that they want. A report from the United Nations states, “Inequalities in consumption are stark. Globally, the 20 percent of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86 percent of total private consumption expenditures- the poorest 20 percent a miniscule 1.3 percent.” She also brought forward the thought that “just because I can have it doesn’t mean I should.” Hmm… What an interesting idea.

          According to the American Psychological Association:

  • Increasing evidence supports the link between lower SES (socio-economic status) and negative psychological health outcomes, while more positive psychological outcomes such as optimism, self-esteem, and perceived control have been linked to higher levels of SES for youth.
  • Research continues to link lower SES to a variety of negative health outcomes at birth and throughout the life span.
  • While national high school dropout rates have steadily declined, dropout rates for children living in poverty have steadily increased. Between 60 and 70% of students in low-income school districts fail to graduate from high school.

          Statistically speaking, someone born into poverty is less likely to earn a degree or get a high paying job later in life. What did that person do to earn his/her family’s economical situation? Nothing. They were born into poverty. How was I able to earn a college degree? Yes, I worked hard in school to get where I am, but my starting point was also much higher than that of others. I was read to as a young child, attended pre-school classes, was enrolled in advanced public schools, grew up with loving parents, a supportive and encouraging community, and my family helped to pay my university fees. I never went to bed at night with an empty stomach, wondering where my next meal would come from. My learning was never inhibited by a lack of school supplies or textbooks. Do I really deserve everything that I have? No. Definitely not. I entered life with a large advantage.

          2 weeks ago, I was working in inner-city Joburg at an apartment building, where a petrol bomb had been activated the week before. 10 people died in the explosion. No one in the building had been paying rent for the past few months because it had been “hijacked”. I didn’t know buildings could be hijacked, but apparently they can be. People were going around and collecting rent money as landlords, except they didn’t actually own the building. Technically, no one actually owned the building anymore and it was government property. After the explosion, there was no water or electricity in the building. All the garbage was being dumped behind the building (as I think it had been for some time) and people were dumping their toilet contents out the windows. The staircase had windows in it that had been broken out. It was a straight drop to the ground and there were children wandering around, seemingly unsupervised. I was in a meeting with mothers from the building and talking about what was needed in order to continue the previously operating daycare in the building. During this conversation one mother said, “Water is life.” They all want what is best for their children. They want their children to be happy and healthy and to prosper. However, they are struggling to meet the basic needs of their children and families. They are also still traumatized from the event and worried about safety. While struggling to maintain everything that is necessary to sustain life, some things like playing with your child to promote early childhood development might fall into the realms of trivial.

          Fast forward approximately 8 hours. I went with a friend to meet other friends in Sandton, a suburb of Johannesburg. It is known as “Africa’s richest square mile”. There were fancy restaurants, hotels and night life. What a contrast. It was showy and posh and excessive. Would I have had those thoughts if I hadn’t been where I was that day or would I have seen it as normal? Maybe up market, but normal? Probably. The discrepancies in South Africa between the “haves” and “have-nots” is extreme. You will see massive homes next to shanty towns. If a child is born in one of those massive homes and one is born in the shanty town, will they have the same opportunities to prosper? Will they receive the same level of schooling? Will they receive the same job opportunities? Doubtful. (Just to make sure I’m being understood, I’m not saying that life is worse in the shanty town. Sometimes the happiness of people living in poverty is astronomically higher than that of people from wealthy backgrounds. I am specifically talking about justice within the standards of living.)

          The gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is ever widening all over the world. It is one thing to say that life is not fair. That’s a very commonly used phrase, but what is our responsibility as God’s children to make life fairer for everyone? How can I make an impact? Jen Hatmaker has offered 3 suggestions.
1)      Non-consumption.  Only buy things that you need, not because everyone else has it.

2)      Redirect the saved money. We could live on less of our income and share with those who have received fewer opportunities than us. One way is through global micro lending.

3)      Become wiser consumers. Don’t support corrupt chains that employ slave labor.

          These are big ideas that I am still wrestling with. “Just because I can have it doesn’t mean I should.” What do I feel entitled to, that I shouldn’t really have? How many people are entitled to things that they never even dream of acquiring? How can we be a part of the change? I invite you all to search with me.

Prayer Request:
          Rebekah (the mission intern serving alongside me in South Africa) has decided to go back home. She is thankful for her experiences here and the many ways that God has been working around her in this community and through her. It is also time for the next part of her journey. I would like to ask for all of your prayers as we both enter into a time of transition and change with our communities here and back home.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

It's Complicated

          Last week, I was blessed with the opportunity to meet with the mission team from FUMC Richardson. A group of 4 teachers from FUMCR came to South Africa and worked with a rural school, located in the province where I live. They spent a week teaching the children and working with the other teachers. Isn’t it great when churches partner with others? The church didn’t only send money, the church also sent people multiple times to walk alongside the teachers and develop relationships. I met with the team when they returned to Pretoria, the nation’s capital, and shared stories over a nice meal. I really loved spending some time with people from home. It was nice to hear some Texas accents again! ;)

          After dinner, I drove on to Bedfordview (a suburb of Johannesburg), where I stayed for the next week. The mission unit at the Methodist Church had arranged meetings for me with different organizations that work with refugee children. The majority of my time was spent at the Central Methodist Church in central Johannesburg. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the CMC and it remains to be a very complex situation.

          The church continued on its mission of serving the poor and the marginalized by opening its doors when Zimbabweans started to flee from political persecution and settle in South Africa. By 2008, Zimbabweans were fleeing in mass numbers across the Limpopo River, the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, and facing treacherous conditions. With Open Hearts, Open Minds, and (literally) Open Doors, the church began to house 1,500-2,000 Zimbabwean refugees every night. (I saw a report state that it got up to 4,000.) The church was never set up to be a shelter, so the living conditions became dire. People would be sleeping on every piece of floor, the pews, the stairs, and even reaching outside of the building. Health concerns developed along with safety and sanitation concerns. With that many people packed in so closely, there were also reports of violence and theft with talks of rape. 2008 also marked the beginning of violent xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Foreigners went to the church as a place of refuge, fearing for their lives. Other non-profit and government-operated shelters existed, however they were also at capacity. There were no alternative locations for people to go, other than the streets. In 2009, the South African government sued the church, in order to remove unaccompanied minors from its premises and put them into shelters. The children, with no family present, had become a family of their own, including adults from the CMC, and they didn’t want to be separated. The church moved many of the children to the Soweto Community Centre. There, they had a building of their own, with designated care takers. The church also opened Albert Street School to especially reach children who did not have the necessary documents to enroll in South African public schools. Brag time. In 2012, the school had a 97% pass rate on their Cambridge International exams! Those kids are amazing! I met with a very proud principal.

          Today, the church houses about 700-800 people every night. There are classes being held to teach people marketable job skills, such as computer skills, sewing, embroidery, etc. An advocacy group, called Peace Action, works out of the church and addresses human rights violations (frequently concerning housing issues). The CMC building itself is very worn and only has one working toilet. As I walked through the hallways and stairs, there was an ever present smell of urine; yet I passed an older gentleman who was donating his time to mop the floors. While in the sick room, a cockroach landed on my coworker during a conversation with a woman who was happily caring for all of the people in the building who were feeling ill. I asked a young man if he felt safe at the CMC and he stated that he did, however he wouldn’t leave his backpack sitting around. Another person said that the CMC is still safer than sleeping on the streets. I left Johannesburg with an incredible sense of “It’s Complicated”.
May the love of God shine brightly onto all those who sometimes feel forgotten and overlooked.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Easter Reflections

This year, I am finding a new meaning in Easter. Growing up, I had been taught stories in the form of substitutionary atonement. Jesus died, so that we may be forgiven. I would listen to the crucifixion story with guilt and shame over my sinful nature and rejoice that I believed in a God wonderful enough to sacrifice the Son of God, so that I may enter into eternal life. There were no personal connections for me, besides sadness for what Christ had to endure in his last days and thankfulness for a mighty God. I don’t think the story ever truly connected for me because it didn’t make sense that a loving God would need blood to extend forgiveness. That disconnection also didn’t seem like something you could really question as a professing Christian. It seemed like a major bullet point on the list of things you needed to believe, in order to fall within the Christian faith.

This past year, I was first introduced to the idea that maybe God didn’t actually need spilt blood to appease the wrathful nature of God. This new (for me) idea proclaimed that Jesus was the full manifestation of God’s love for us. Jesus lived his life in love and taught us all how to live in love for one another. The people of the world chose to deny that love and new way of living, which culminated with the crucifixion. The cross is a symbol that we use to remember how far Jesus went to show God’s love to the world. Fortunately that’s not the end of the story. God triumphs and raises Jesus from the dead. God’s perfect love can overpower anything evil or broken amongst us.  

This new way of thinking has allowed me to connect with the Easter story on a more personal level. Instead of just becoming a time for remembering the death of Christ and power of God, it also becomes a call to live as Christ lived. Christ devoted his entire life to proclaiming God’s love. Isn’t that what we are all charged with? This is something that I have really been trying to do with my life: to act fully within Missio Dei, God’s Mission. I fall short all the time, but it remains the forefront goal in my life. That is really a scary goal to have and it is what led me to serving in South Africa.

This year, I am connecting with the Easter story where I am: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I have realized that many people, myself included, have been hurt by a broken world, just as Christ was also hurt by the world. While trying to serve God and proclaim love, I have seen unjust systems, discrimination, and exploitation at play. This Easter, I’m hearing the good news with a different mindset. Just as God raised Jesus from the dead, God can raise up and heal each of our wounded spirits. With God, there is true healing for all who search.  Usually at Easter time, I focus on what part of me needs to die with Christ, so that I may be made new. This year, because of where I am, I need to focus on a different aspect of the story. I need to know that the world is broken and people from the world make bad decisions, but just as God did for Jesus, God will be with us and love will triumph in the end. I pray that the grace and presence of God surrounds us all this Easter season. May we rejoice in knowing that Christ is risen! Shalom.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Sacredness of Every Moment

          Rebekah and I have been attending a cell group, or small group, with people from our community. With that group, we are studying and discussing the book, “Learning to Belong: Be at Home in God’s World.” One quote really stuck out to me a couple weeks ago and helped me to change some of my thought patterns. It says, “The call to be at home in God’s presence is not just about facing the great crises of our world. It is just as much about learning to discover the sacredness of every moment and every place. When our lives are flooded with a sense of God, wherever we are becomes holy ground, pregnant with the potential for a true encounter with God’s spirit.” Since I’ve been here, I’ve found myself getting frustrated when I don’t feel like I’m doing enough. I came here with this great sense of call to do something and on slower days I can become discouraged that I’m somehow falling short of the proverbial measuring stick. What this quote reminded me of was that God can use me in any situation, regardless of what’s happening around me. It doesn’t matter, if I’m at a conference and partaking in a breakthrough moment or whether I’m having tea time with a friend. God can use me to cultivate love. God’s spirit can surround me and guide me throughout my day. I am learning to be content where I am. I fail… a lot, but I’m learning. I want to be present where I am, to push for change towards a world closer to the one that God envisions for us all, but to not miss out on the life-giving moments happening around me.
Like when I got to ride in my friend's bother's microlight, which was awesome!

I participated in a conference for religious leaders. The discussions surrounded how religious leaders could become mediators in their communities to alleviate cultural tensions.

I watched my baba boeti (baby brother) play field hockey. He’s in yellow. Go Merensky! :)

I was invited to attend worship at one of the circuit churches.
I was also incredibly spoiled and taken to Kruger National Park, where I saw a rhino.

          These were all moments of true joy along my journey. So, while I’m here, my job will be to do research for the Methodist Church of Southern Africa concerning children in transition or “children on the move.”

          “Children on the move is an umbrella definition for persons under the age of 18 who have left their place of habitual residence and are either on the way towards a new destination, or have already reached such destination. Children on the Move may be:
  • across State borders or within countries;
  • movement can be of a seasonal or more permanent nature;
  • movement can be voluntary or forced;
  • they can be accompanied by parents, peers or others, or not;
  • and children who are, for instance: internally displaced persons, asylum seekers and refugees, migrants, trafficked persons or child soldiers.
-Global Movement for Children
          I have been tasked to survey the issue in my area (and up towards Zimbabwe and Mozambique), by networking with local non-profits, talking with community members, and researching already prepared materials. Then, I will be determining how Methodist Churches in South Africa can be more present with children on the move. This is a big issue and a lot of work. There will be many ups and downs along the ways. However, I can begin to “discover the sacredness of every moment and every place” and let God guide me through this. So, when I’m working full force or when I can’t see where to turn next (and abscond from work to have lunch with a friend), God is present and that moment is sacred.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Arrival in South Africa!

          I have officially been in South Africa for one week! The flight over was very long, but I was blessed with a wonderful woman sitting next to me. We had to go through separate gates at customs, but Elisa met up with Rebekah and me on the other side to make sure we had someone waiting on us. What a godsend!

          John is the VIM coordinator for the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA), so he met us at the airport and drove us to the B+B we were staying at. The first night was a little rough, due to jet lag. Then, at 4:30am a bird started making this horrific noise. Rebekah said it sounded like someone was trying to steal a baby. So, of course, we refer to them as the baby-snatcher birds, although we later discovered that they’re called hawdeedaws. In the morning, John took us to the main office, introduced us to everyone, and took us on a tour of the offices. They are all very nice and it was great to finally meet everyone!

          The next morning, Bronwen took us to a mall were we got SIM cards, power adapters and went to convert money. Note to self: only one person can walk through bank doors at once. Rebekah and I both walked through the door to see a red light on the next door. We turned around to see a red light on the door behind us. So there we stood. Trapped in a glass box. A woman finally let us outI wonder how many international people get trapped in the South African Bank box of shame? :) Once we had everything, we started out our journey with John driving a car and KK (the director of the mission unit) driving our car.

Once in Tzaneen, we saw our new home and it’s wonderful. We each have our own room and then we share a living room, kitchen, and bathroom. There’s an avocado and mango tree right behind our cottage. There’s lots of green everywhere and there are a lot of hills. There are moments when it’s hard to believe that something so beautiful really exists.

Our supervisor in Tzaneen is Pierre, who is the circuit’s superintendent. We have been taken in by his family and made to feel very welcome. He showed us around town and his wife told us that the city’s roads were modeled after a bowl of spaghetti. Accurate statement. Now about our car. It’s a disaster zone. The car pumps hot air into it and it randomly honks due to some anti-theft device. Pierre took us on driving lessons and had to drive us out of town to find a flat road without people. That also means it was dirt with a bunch of potholes, yet with a breath-taking view! We both eventually got a hang of the clutch and started to drive back into town. We both managed to get stopped by traffic police (due to random car checks). It was terrifying, but we were ok and now we know for sure that our licenses are ok. This morning was our first time driving alone and we killed the clutch. Our car just died, but will hopefully be fixed soon. 

Right now, we’re getting settled and getting a better, more concrete, idea of what we’ll be doing. I’ll share more specifics on that later. If you want to send me mail my address is:

Michelle Wood
P.O. Box 1550
South Africa


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Come Fly With Me!

It’s finally here! The day many of us have been waiting for. The day I fly to South Africa! I’m all packed and ready to go, yet with mixed emotions. I’m very excited about this opportunity and I’m also in mourning of change. A death to the familiar is currently transpiring and it hurts. Yet, the really cool thing about change is that it brings forth new life and growth, when guided by the Divine. Over the past few days the concept of Ubuntu has been sticking with me. Ubuntu is a Zulu word/concept meaning, “I am human because you human.” It’s a beautiful word describing how we are all in a community and shaping one another. I am who I am because of all the people who have influenced and impacted my life. Today I am extremely thankful for those people and I’m taking them with me in my spirit, mannerisms, in my utter essence of self. No distance breaks those deep roots of community and love. Today I rejoice for all I have been given and look out onto the next step of my journey.

I will arrive in South Africa at 6pm South African time on the 9th, along with Rebekah, who will be embarking on this journey with me. (South Africa is 8 hrs ahead of the Central time zone). I’ll spend the night in Johannesburg and then ride in a car to Tzaneen, where I’ll be living. Please be in prayer with me during this transition and I’ll give an update as soon as I can! God bless!