Sunday, September 25, 2011

Things I noticed upon return... Part II

4) It’s easy to acquire a bunch of stuff you don’t need, all the while thinking that you can’t do without it.

Last year I lived out of 3 small suitcases. For the entire year, although I did acquire new possessions I also gave away old ones, leaving me at the end of year with simply the same 3 small suitcases. Which leads me to question- how many possessions do we accumulate each year? How many do we give away? If you had to fit all of your things at the end of each year back into the same amount of bags that you started with at the beginning, what things would go?

5) Proof that God exists.

Oftentimes after a break-up we hear people say that they are heartbroken. They say that someone in their life took a part of their heart, and ripped it from them, leaving them broken and incapable of the same type of full, pure love as they had previously. By contrast we know that God loves all unconditionally, and no matter how many times we sin or hurt him, he still loves us all the same. His love is unconditional, ours is not. This is how we separate the divine from us. But after this past year I see this a little different.

I left my family and friends in America and was stationed in the small village of Masealama, South Africa where I knew absolutely no one. Throughout this amazing year, I came to love the people of Masealama as family and close friends. Even though it was only a year, I feel like I have loved them my whole life, and I love them equally as my family and friends in the States. And as I had to leave them I realized just how much my heart was able to grow this year- it seems as if we do indeed have an unconditional ability to love as God does. Loving my family and friends in South Africa didn’t mean that I loved those in America any less, nor did it mean that when I left them I was left with half a heart. My heart is full and forever expanding as I meet new people and proceed to love them as well. God has formed us in his image- giving us the ability to love unconditionally. Our hearts will never be full or broken, just as God’s heart will never be.

6) Whenever I see water wasted on TV I cringe.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Friday, August 12, 2011

Things I noticed upon returning to the USofA

1) The expectation of communication. As soon as I landed in the US and turned on my USA cellphone that had been collecting dust in the corner of my closet all year, my phone exploded in my hands. I got text message after text message telling me welcome home and they can't wait to hear from me--- i didn't know how I could possibly respond to so many people. I was unaccustomed to frequent communication in SA, and it was common that I would send a text message (which costs a rand) and wouldn't receive a response for days. That was typical. Now I had all these people who wanted to hear from me and EXPECTED to hear from me like now now, and I was in shock.

2)Hair products. My first morning back in my old room I open the cabinet in the bathroom in search of a toothbrush, and all I find is hair products, so many hair products. I couldn't remember why I had all of these hair products, or even what I had ever needed them for in the first place. So maybe my hair hasn't been the greatest this year, but honestly, the products don't really do all that much anyway…

3)Coca-Cola Freestyle. So one of my first days back I go to pick up Moe's (something that I had been craving tremendously in SA) and meet my sister for lunch. This is the first time I have really had to order in a fast food restaurant for quite a while, so I was rather nervous to begin with. Thankfully I managed completing both orders correctly, answering the questions appropriately to ensure the desired results. White or Wheat? Beans? Salsa- mild, medium, spicy? Lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, many more toppings that I can't think of right now? Just when I thought I was in the clear, I head to fill up the drinks,,, but instead I wind up with some Back to the Future inspired machine. After gawking for a solid minute at this contraption fully equipped with a touch screen, a large red button which says PUSH, and one spigot for the drinks and ice,,, I read the instructions on the left and proceed with caution. Simple enough- touch the touch screen, choose a soda, and press the red button. However, once you choose a soda, it then breaks out into 11 thousand different flavors which you have never heard of in the soda category you chose. Want a simple Diet Coke? Impossible, Press the Diet Coke button and up pops Diet Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke with Lime, Raspberry Diet Coke, Diet Cherry Coke, Orange Diet Coke, Diet Cherry Vanilla Coke, etc…. I thought I had problems making decisions before I left the States, but now this so called amazing invention called Coca-Cola Freestyle comes along giving me the "ultimate beverage experience" with 100+ choices and I am really stuck. I can't make a decision because I am given too many options.


~Heather Anne Nelson

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Birds on a Plane

For your enjoyment, I would like to take this time to offer you a story of the amazing return journey from South Africa of Ms. Amanda Tompkins and Ms. Heather Nelson...

Our flight was leaving Frankfurt a little past nine o'clock on Tuesday morning, heading for Washington. Everything was on-time, we loaded the plane, and by some random seat confusion that resulted in the mother of a row of screaming children being placed in business class instead of near her very young and out of control children and flustered father, Amanda ended up in the only empty seat in the airplane- beside me and my helicopter flying row sharer who was returning to the USA from 6 months in Afghanistan. All of that previous information is rather pointless, but it sets up the story.

SO, as we are pulling out from the gate and about to taxi down the runway, there are suddenly some strange dancing shadows around the cabin that catch Amanda and a few other passengers attention... Then all of the sudden, a bird appears whizzing down the aisle to our left, resulting in a chorus of shrieks erupting from those on board. The Captain (who somehow magically kept switching between male and female voices) came over the speaker, and after a slew of German words and some laughter,, he translated to us that Yes, there is a bird on board, but we are not certain of what the airline protocol is to deal with a bird on a plane,,, since it has never happened before. They take us to "remote holding" with other dejected planes, and then the Captain announces our plan of attack. Genius idea number 1- we are going to catch the bird. He pleaded with the passengers to please remain seated unless you have an "extreme physical need" so that the crew can better locate the bird. After a few unsuccessful minutes, it appears that the bird has been "lost", but the general assumption is that it is hiding out in first class. So, starting at the back of the cabin the crew steps on boxes and bangs on the top of the overhead compartments with coat hangers to insure that the bird is not hiding out there, and makes their way to the front. When they still can not locate the bird, the air conditioning is turned off so that we can better hear it. So now we are strapped to our seats, without air, straining to hear the small flapping wings of the cleverly hidden bird.

The Captain comes over the intercom again, announcing that unless the bird can be located shortly, they will have to move to Plan B, because they contacted the US, and no, you are not allowed to fly a plane into the USA with a bird on board. Plan B is the exact same plane located right beside us out the right window, which would require all the luggage to be moved, the plane to be prepped by the flight attendants, all the security measures to be restarted, and then the passengers reloaded-- but since we are not allowed to walk out onto the ground there, a bus has to come pick us up, drive us back to the airport, and then bring us back to the plane that is almost within reach. Genius. So since that would take forever, apparently some flight attendant claimed that he/she saw the bird exit the plane through the front door (or whatever you call that thing- a hatch or something), so we could proceed with take off. As we begin to taxi again,,, the bird reappears. Although the Captain claimed that it was a "second bird", none of us were fooled. This time the bird was a bit more rambunctious, I am guessing he was flustered from being attacked with coat hangers... Anyway, he flys down the left aisle, swerves around the back, and comes shooting forward on the right aisle... Amanda and I have our heads turned back checking out the action, when all of the sudden the bird decides to dive bomb straight at us! As I try to avoid the attack, the bird proceeds to ricochet off my face, resulting in one of my god-forsaken screams, and proceeds to fly forward. Dramatic, yes. But the tension is still building. So now the bird swerves back to the back again, but the flight attendants are ready,,, they quickly slide the curtains closed and stuff pillows above to provide no means of escape, and then we just hear the chaos of 6 flight attendants armed with blankets attempting to capture this now psychotic bird. Finally, a flight attendant emerges running with a blanket in her hand and a freshly squashed bird (we think she was too excited, we heard bones crack), and she pumps her fist in the air as we cheer her on... The bird is disposed of, and we proceed on with our flight, 2 hours delayed. Being on African time, Amanda and I were merely enjoying ourselves, and laughing at the ridiculousness of our own lives,, but the other Americans around us were not so pleased or amused by the delay.

If only we had Samuel L. Jackson aboard and a microwave made specially for birds,, then we could have a had a theatre worthy flick. Or maybe not.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Left Behind

I have a theory that goes like this: it is easier to leave than to be left behind.

11 months ago when I left my friends and family in the USA, I was leaving for an exciting and unknown adventure. I didn’t know what was to come, but the unexpected was alluring, and even though I was anxious and a little frightened at times, I was overwhelmingly excited. However, as I flew across the world to be greeted a different people and culture; I left my friends and family back at home. They remained behind, usually leading the same routine lives as they had been when I was present, but the only difference was I had created a void, an absence, in their lives.

Now it has come time for me to return to the USA, and refill that void which I left. However, throughout this year Masealama has become home to me, and the people surrounding me have become family. So when I leave, I am leaving for another adventure, to return home and then attend grad school, but my friends and family here in Masealama will be left behind. Although they did not know me a year ago, when I arrived they opened up their hearts and homes to let me inside, and when I leave I am going to be leaving the same void which I left when I came to South Africa in the first place.

When you have a visitor in your home, your house is suddenly enlivened- you eat special meals, you stay up late conversing, and you busy yourself to make sure everything is clean and orderly. As you watch them leave, they have a trip ahead of them of some sort- whether it is going home, going to the mall, or visiting other family, they have something on the horizon- a destination in view. However, you are left in the same house, only now you are left with a small void where that visitor was. You house is a little quieter, and you have to return to your normal day-to-day routine. It’s hard to be left behind.

When that visitor stays with you for over a year, their departure is even more of a struggle. Although it is EXTREMELY challenging for me to leave my friends and family here in Masealama, I know that when I return I will be reunited with the friends and family which I left behind. I will be leaving with another adventure ahead of me. But I think that it will be even more challenging for my friends and family here in Masealama. I want to be conscious of this fact, and leave with as much grace as possible, to attempt to ease the transition. I feel almost selfish, being the one who LEFT my family and friends in the USA, and now am LEAVING my friends and family in South Africa. I have the easier end of the deal, while I am busy LEAVING BEHIND the people that I love to continue on with my adventures.

Being left behind doesn’t mean that you do not have adventures on the horizon, but they are simply less tangible than those who are leaving. Although I will be leaving again, and will once again leave a void, I think it is better to have left South Africa than to never have come at all.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to Survive Winter in Masealama

Two things will get you, the dark and the wind. Although indoors provides you with shelter from the wind, the thick stone walls and little sunlight penetration create conditions very similar to your freezer. There is no central heating and air as we are used to the USA, so,

1) Try to find a spot in the sun still protected from the wind. Watch out for lizards and other reptiles which tend to gather in such areas.

2) Wear knit tights under you pants. Layers do wonders.

3) Wear a towel or blanket. Especially if you are a gogo (grandma), you can get away with wrapping yourself up in a towel or blanket to stay warm in public, and it is perfectly acceptable

4) If indoors, old wood burning stoves work miracles at warming up a room. If no wood stove, baking also tends to warm things up, not to mention making things smell heavenly.

5) Drink warm water. You can only have so much tea in one day, but you can stay hydrated and warm at the same time without an overload of sugar. Warms you hands as you hold it and your body from the inside out as you drink it.

6) Invest in a heater to sit in front of. Bar heaters may not warm up a room, but they can burn the hair off you legs if you are close enough!

7) Tuck your PJs into thick socks, thus when you crawl into bed your pants don’t roll up and result in cold, bare skin.

8) And hour before bed, boil water and put in an empty 2 litre. Wrap in a towel and place between your sheets. This eliminates the inevitable cold sheets that you first crawl into at night. Beware- hot water put into a cold glass bottle can result in explosion!

9) 6 inches of blankets covering your entire body, head included, seems to do the trick. The famous fuzzy, heavy South African blankets work miracles.

10) Exercise and bathe often- these are the only two things that ensure warmth, if only temporary!

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Land of Milk and Honey

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the 2011 Rally for the Northern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). For those who are not aware of the church structure of ELCSA, my congregation is part of the Masealama Parish which is part of the Mphome Circuit, which is one of the six circuits in the Northern Diocese spread across Limpopo and parts of Mpumalanga. Our rally was held this year in Nelspruit, a rather distant location for most of the circuits. Travelling with Dean Sikhwari of the Mphome Circuit, we woke up at 2:00 am on a Sunday morning to make it to the service in time by 8:00 am. All in all that day we spent around 11 hours in a car travelling to and from church, and six hours in the actual service- now that is dedication!

The service was not the best attended due to its distant location, but we still filled a high school stadium with many highly energetic ELCSA members. Most of the service was conducted in Sepedi even though there were also Tswanas and Vendas in the audience, but I am used to that by now. However, during one of the two sermons of the day, the pastor would emphasize the main points by speaking extra loud and slow in English. Consequently, I received the Cliffs Notes version of the sermon without getting lost in the details and explanations placed amidst the sermon.

The theme of the rally was “ELCSA: My Responsibility,” and as the pastor started speaking, he used the famous words of JFK to set the tone- “Ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.” And what can we do for the church? What can we do for God? The speaker then went on to say that we should do our best to bring God’s people to the land of milk and honey. People so often preach and speak on the gospel that often times the Old Testament kind of gets sidelined as irrelevant to our current times. Consequently, when we read about Moses leading God’s chosen people to the land of milk and honey, we view it as a historical documentation of what happened in the past and rarely take it past surface value to figure out what this can mean to us in the present day.

So what dos the land of milk and honey mean to us? Why use milk and honey to represent the Promised Land? Let’s start with milk- milk provides us with necessary vitamins to help us grow strong. It is nourishing, life-sustaining, strengthening, and calming. As for honey- it provides us with a natural sweetness which can sweeten even the most bitter or bland things in life. Both milk and honey are given to us in this world as products of God’s creation. They are not from us, but rather from God. Let’s bring God’s people to a land where they will be strengthened, nourished, sustained, and sweetened by something which God has given us.

Jesus is the milk and honey of life, given to us and for us by God. Coming to the “land” of Jesus involves us living in Jesus Christ and letting him dwell in us. Once we enter the “land” of togetherness, we come to know and understand God who strengthens and sweetens us and gives us eternal life. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” John 17:3. When we enter into the land of milk and honey, we enter into the kingdom of God. So our speaker for the day said that it is our responsibility to help others find this kingdom of God.

But how can we bring others to the kingdom when we ourselves have not tasted it? During the sermon, the pastor pulled out a bottle of honey and jug of milk. He then proceeded to share it with the bishops, who then shared it with the deans, who then shared it with the pastors, who then shared it with their congregations. In order to share the kingdom with others, you must first receive it. You can not teach without first learning, you can not give without first receiving- which is potentially one of the hardest and most meaningful lessons I have learned this year, and is something that South Africans do very well.

When you enter into someone’s house in South Africa, you are immediately put into the position of receiver. You are given tea and biscuits, you are given a specially prepared meal, you are given food to take home with you, all whether you want it or not. At first it was hard for me just to sit and eat, especially when I was not allowed to help with the preparations or clean up or do any sort of giving at all. I realized how uncomfortable I am with receiving from others, and I was soon called out on it. When asked if I needed tea at the Dean’s, I would respond with “No thank you, I am fine” because I did not want her to go through the hassle of preparing tea (and biscuits) just for me when I was not really hungry in the first place. One day Dean said, “I know you. You will say you are fine because you do not want to burden others. You are very much independent; you need to let others help you.” She went on to explain how important it is to South Africans to be able to give to others, and how the reception of these gifts- food or help or whatever- is a sign of acceptance and respect toward the giver. From then on whenever I say “No thank you, I am fine,” Dean will proceed to give me whatever she is offering anyway. She is teaching me how to receive, and how to let others help me.

However, this South African culture of giving and receiving means much more than just food. This hospitality and welcoming is a portrayal of God’s love, and it’s contagious. The more you receive from others, the more you want to give- to both return the love and spread it to others. I think South Africa is doing a great job of bringing others into the “land of milk and honey” as they realize that first and foremost you must receive. By being immersed in this culture for almost a year now, I have come to know God and the abundance of his love so much deeper and with more understanding than ever before, because I have let the people here lead me into the “land of milk and honey.” As I return home, I look forward to giving back what I have received here, and more as I continue to open myself up to receiving God’s love.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Saturday, June 4, 2011

10 Suggestions for Helping your YAGM Return Home

Written by Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, the Mexico Country Coordinator

1. Don’t ask the question, “So how was it?” Your YAGM cannot function in one-word answers right now, especially ones intended to sum up their entire year’s experience, and being asked to do so may cause them to start laughing or crying uncontrollably. Ask more specific questions, like “Who was your closest friend?” or “What did you do in your free time?” or “What was the food like?” or “Tell me about your typical day.”

2. If you wish to spend time with your YAGM, let them take the lead on where to go and what to do. Recognize that seemingly mundane rituals, like grocery shopping or going to the movies, may be extremely difficult for someone who has just spent a year living without a wide array of material goods. One former YAGM, for example, faced with the daunting task of choosing a tube of toothpaste from the 70-odd kinds available, simply threw up in the middle of the drugstore.

3. Expect some feelings of jealousy and resentment, especially if your YAGM lived with a host family. Relationships that form during periods of uncertainty and vulnerability (the first few months in a foreign country, for example) form quickly and deeply. The fact that your YAGM talks non-stop about their friends and family from their country of service doesn’t mean that they don’t love you, too. It simply means that they’re mourning the loss (at least in part) of the deep, meaningful, important relationships that helped them to survive and to thrive during this last year. In this regard, treat them as you would anyone else mourning a loss.

4. You may be horrified by the way your YAGM dresses; both because their clothes are old and raggedy and because they insist on wearing the same outfit three days in a row. Upon encountering their closet at home, returning YAGMs tend to experience two different emotions: (1) jubilation at the fact that they can stop rotating the same 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts, and (2) dismay at the amount of clothing they own, and yet clearly lived without for an entire year. Some YAGMs may deal with this by giving away entire car loads of clothing and other items to people in need. Do not “save them from themselves” by offering to drive the items to the donation center, only to hide them away in your garage. Let your YAGM do what they need to do. Once they realize, after the fact, that you do indeed need more than 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts to function in professional American society, offer to take them shopping. Start with the Goodwill and the Salvation Army; your YAGM may never be able to handle Macys again.

5. Asking to see photos of your YAGM’s year in service is highly recommended, providing you have an entire day off from work. Multiply the number of photos you take during a week’s vacation, multiply that by 52, and you understand the predicament. If you have an entire day, fine. If not, take a cue from number 1 above, and ask to see specific things, like photos of your YAGM’s host family, or photos from holiday celebrations. Better yet, set up a number of “photo dates,” and delve into a different section each time. Given the high percentage of people whose eyes glaze over after the first page of someone else’s photos, and the frustration that can cause for someone bursting with stories to tell, this would be an incredible gift.

6. At least half the things that come out of your YAGM’s mouth for the first few months will begin with, “In Mexico/Slovakia/South Africa/etc…” This will undoubtedly begin to annoy the crap out of you after the first few weeks. Actually saying so, however, will prove far less effective than listening and asking interested questions. Besides, you can bet that someone else will let slip exactly what you’re thinking, letting you off the hook.

7. That said, speak up when you need to! Returning YAGMs commonly assume that almost nothing has changed in your lives since they left. (This happens, in part, because you let them, figuring that their experiences are so much more exciting than yours, and therefore not sharing your own.) Be assertive enough to create the space to share what has happened in your life during the last year.

8. Recognize that living in a very simple environment with very few material belongings changes people. Don’t take it personally if your YAGM seems horrified by certain aspects of the way you live – that you shower every day, for example, or that you buy a new radio instead of duct-taping the broken one back together. Recognize that there probably are certain things you could or should change (you don’t really need to leave the water running while you brush your teeth, do you?), but also that adjusting to what may now feel incredibly extravagant will simply take awhile. Most YAGMs make permanent changes toward a simpler lifestyle. Recognize this as a good thing.

9. Perhaps you had hopes, dreams, and aspirations for your YAGM that were interrupted by their year of service. If so, you may as well throw them out the window. A large percentage of returning YAGMs make significant changes to their long-term goals and plans. Some of them have spent a year doing something they never thought they’d enjoy, only to find themselves drawn to it as a career. Others have spent a year doing exactly what they envisioned doing for the rest of their lives, only to find that they hate it. Regardless of the direction your YAGM takes when they return…rejoice! This year hasn’t changed who they are; it has simply made them better at discerning God’s call on their lives. (Note: Some YAGMs spend their year of service teaching English, some are involved in human rights advocacy, others work with the elderly or disabled, and at least one spent his year teaching British youth to shoot with bows and arrows. The results of this phenomenon, therefore, can vary widely.)

10. Go easy on yourself, and go easy on your YAGM. Understand that reverse culture shock is not an exact science, and manifests itself differently in each person. Expect good days and bad days. Don’t be afraid to ask for help (including of the pharmaceutical variety) if necessary. Pray. Laugh. Cry. This too shall pass, and in the end, you’ll both be the richer for it.

An Unwelcomed Giant

At the end of May it was announced that Massmart, a local South African retailer, has approved a $2.4 billion (R16.5 billion) merger with Wal-Mart. For Wal-Mart this is obviously a great step into their further expansion and domination. Now that they have a foothold in South Africa, it can become a bounding point for expanding into the rest of the African continent. For some in South Africa, the arrival of Wal-Mart is thought to bring lower prices which will force healthy competition among other retailers, and even attract other foreign investors to expand their businesses into South Africa. All good news right?

Just to warn you, I am approaching this topic with a slight bias against Wal-Mart and everything that it stands for. My discussion about the topic of Wal-Mart taking over South Africa will therefore inevitably be swayed by said biased opinions, and I apologize in advance for my seemingly one-sided presentation of ideas.

In speaking of the upcoming merger, Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon promised to provide “previously underserved customers and communities with better prices and increased access to the products they want and need.” But I have one question for McMillon—how do you know that the customers and communities of South Africa are underserved? How can you know that people do not have what they want and need from the other side of the ocean? In my experience, the current shopping available in South Africa is plentiful- you can get what you need, even if you have to travel a fair distance to get there. From Masealama I may have to travel about an hour in a taxi to get to the shops in Turfloop, but once I am there I know that I will find local shops that provide the people with exactly what they need, at great prices. So the Shoprite that I go to may not have cinnamon or whole-wheat noodles, but the store stocks what is purchased, thus saving money and space. If Wal-Mart were to take over, I imagine the store would have to be tripled in size so that there could be more aisles providing more items of things that we do not really need in the first place. South Africa is NOT underserved.

The conditions with which the merger occurred are also of interest. Massmart only agreed to the merger if Wal-Mart would abide by certain regulations, like recognizing the SA Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu). Wal-Mart did agree, but only for three years after the merger. As soon as I arrived in South Africa I soon realized how important the unions are to workers in all sectors of business all over the country. I have experienced strikes from people involved with education, transportation, garbage disposal, mining, service delivery, political activity, and much more. If there is something that needs to be changed or reconsidered, people gather together and strike in protest so that their concerns are recognized and hopefully addressed. It is how things are done here, and I fear that if Wal-Mart does decided to refuse Saccawu then things will not end well. Wal-Mart would be denying their workers of what they see as their political rights- the right to free speech and protest- and in a way offending and denying the workings of the pre-established checks and balances system of South Africa.

And of course, I am also fearful of how the promised low prices of Wal-Mart will affect the current diversity and uniqueness of the local shops. Many small businesses will inevitably be unable to compete, and will thus be forced out of business. Losing the small tuck shops and local spazas will take a lot of the flavor and culture out of the streets of South Africa. It would not be the same to walk down the streets of Turfloop without passing through local shops blaring house music out onto the sidewalks.

I also hope that Wal-Mart revaluates the size of its parking lots for South Africa, if not I am fearful that we will wind up with acres of paved over land serving no purpose but to add to the issues of global warming and run-off. More people in South Africa walk, taxi, or carpool, so let’s not put an American sized parking lot out front.

And with that I will stop my rantings. The globalization of American companies is a multifaceted issue which has positives and negatives depending how you look at it. Yes, this is a great move for Wal-Mart which promises a lot of future success down the road, but at what expense? I for one am not in favor of this particular instance of globalization.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Born Again

It is a Sunday morning in Masealama, and you are putting on your finest clothes to go to the church down the hill. You hear the bell ring, 9:00 am, so you must hurry down to church. You know that ALL of your neighbors will be joining you, because if they do not, the missionaries will come and find them and ask them for one good reason why they are not in attendance. It was a necessity to be at church on Sunday morning, or find a good hiding spot.

In a town founded by Lutheran missionaries, I have frequently heard stories about the church of the past. Everyone was Lutheran because that is what the white people said they must be in order to be saved. And who doesn’t want to be saved? During colonization, this happened all across Africa, where white people stepped in with their “correct” religion and “saved” all of Africa. The missionaries of old flew in, cured all the people from their pagan beliefs, and then flew out. They must have felt like superheroes zooming in with their greater knowledge and the power to save the poor people of Africa in their hands.

Not all missionaries were like this, but unfortunately, the extreme evangelism of a few missionaries has made my life as a missionary in South Africa rather challenging. I have to stay away from the term “global mission” or “missionary” and prefer to stick with volunteer, because the term missionary has so many stigmas with which it is associated. As a “missionary” I am supposed to lead the church, preach to the people, show them the light, convert sinners into the church, and all these things which I am definitely not here to do. Some of the missions of old were one-sided- I am right, you are wrong. Follow the rules of MY church, and you will be saved. I even see how this has affected the terminology used currently by members of the Lutheran church- they speak of needing to be “born again” and to “win others into Christ”- terminology which you do not hear too often in a Lutheran church back in the USA.

So I started questioning- why are Lutherans here speaking about being “born again” and “saved”? What do these terms really mean? I have always kind of shied away from these terms in the US, because I thought they did not really apply to me or my beliefs, but now I have started delving into what is behind them. The term “born again” comes from the New Testament in John 3:3 “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” You must be born again of the Spirit instead of the flesh, and fully accept Christ in your life. The result is sudden- you are born again and instantly you are one with the Holy Spirit. You have done away with all sin and now you are saved, your work is over. POOF! It’s as simple as that. Seemingly, all you have to do is decide to be “born again” and then all your struggles on earth are over. The power is in YOUR hands.

I can see why it is easy to get pulled into the “born again” terminology. We humans love to be in power, so thinking that our ticket to salvation lies totally in our hands makes us feel in charge. We also love instant gratification- I want to be saved and NOW! No added work or fuss, just a quick change like Paul became Saul and all will be well. But it isn’t like that. Our sin and struggles don’t just go away. Even though I am trying to lead a Christian life, I am still drawn in by my ego-centric thinking and unable or unwilling to completely give up to the life God calls us all to lead. And I don’t see how to get out of it. No matter what I do, I sin. This is where the term “born again” throws me, because I expect it to be instantaneous. So I start to lose hope and think, well maybe I can never be a devout follower of Christ. I do not have enough faith. I have too many doubts, and will never be able to give up the things of this world. But we need to realize that being a Christian is a process, a life-long struggle with which we deal. No one has everything figured out and no one ever will. Instead of being born again, we must be perpetually reborn in Christ.

I am not saying that the “born again” and “saved” terminology is wrong, it just is not right for me. Some missionaries would use these terms because of their power to draw people into the church, and they have taken hold. As long as they do not begin to confuse our beliefs, then all is well. But these words in all their strength can begin to delude the importance of the atonement of Christ. As a Lutheran, I believe that Christ died so that we can all be saved. Through His love, God gave his only son, so that we may not perish but have eternal life. This has already been done for us. We are already saved. But if we then begin to save ourselves by being “born again”, are we not rejecting in a way the death and resurrection of Christ?

I am not your stereotypical missionary. I did not come to “save” people. Christ has already saved all of us. I came to do God’s work by spreading his love to fellow brothers and sisters around the world. To be in community with them, and most of all to learn from them what it means to be a Christian. Not just to be a North American Lutheran, but to be a Christian in this world. I am not saving people because that is neither necessary nor in my power. Martin Luther took the first step into transforming the Bible into the people’s vernacular. He believed that each person should be able to read the Word of God for themselves, so that they can determine their own beliefs instead of having someone else tell them what they believe. He did not say follow me, I have got this whole God thing figured out; he just gave people the ability to figure it out for themselves. No one knows the whole truth; no one church has it right. But through Christ’s death and resurrection, we do not have to be right, we do not have to be born again, we do not have to save ourselves or each other. We have already been granted salvation.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Celebrating Violence

On the morning of May 2nd, 2011, I awoke to my usual routine. It was a holiday here in South Africa- we were celebrating Worker’s Day so the schools were closed and consequently I had no where to go, but I woke up at 5 am as per usual to do my morning devotion and workout. After I had finished I flipped on the TV to SABC 2 to watch the Morning Live broadcast, and then proceeded to do other chores while remotely listening to the news in the background. And then I heard it- Osama bin Laden has been killed. I stopped everything and sat down, glued to the TV screen for almost the complete 2 hours of the broadcast, as the news of Osama bin Laden was the biggest story they had, although the information was still minimal. He was killed in a mansion outside of a major city in Pakistan by US Seals- shot in the head. That was it, but even in those few words, the news was still HUGE.

I went up to the Dean’s house to spend time with Muano and Divhani for the day since I had no other plans, and I told them the news. Bin Laden has been killed- he was the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks on the United States. They remembered, in fact they remember where they were when they heard the news about September 11th, just as I do and every US citizen that I know. They remember watching the towers crashing on the TV, over and over again, same as me. Since the Deanery has dish, they are able to pick up more than the four channels available on my TV, and one of them includes CNN. For about an hour we sat and watched CNN- it was still night time in the United States, but already the news was spreading like wildfire. We heard the same details over and over again- Osama bin Laden, dead, mansion, Pakistan, US Seals, head shot.

You would think that watching the US broadcast of the death of Osama bin Laden would make my chest puff up as I feel proud to be an American. But I didn’t feel pride, or happiness, or even relief at the news that I saw. People were celebrating his death in the streets of NYC and Washington- university students were yelling and rolling the quads on campuses all over the country. Yes, Osama bin Laden was the leader of Al-Qaeda and was responsible for the death of thousands of people, not only in the United States but across the world, but why are we celebrating like it’s the Fourth of July? I felt torn while watching these celebrations, because while I was still trying to soak in the news and figure out how I felt about it, I saw people my age happy and jumping down the streets of Washington.

I realize that was not the only reaction. There was also a man who brought a picture of his son, who had lost his life in the war against terrorism, to the White House not to celebrate but rather to be a part of the history that he had helped create. However, the majority of the broadcast that I saw spoke of the celebration for the great victory that the USA had achieved on this momentous day. And that sickened me.

Reverend Mark S. Hanson presented, in my opinion, one of the best reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death- which helped me to feel confident in my lack of celebration with seemingly the rest of the USA. In his address to the ELCA, found here, he said: “The death of Osama bin Laden is an occasion for solemn remembrance. We remember the lives of all whose deaths resulted from his choosing hatred and violence… We pray for our neighbors, even those who are our enemies… Most of all, in these 50 days of celebrating Christ’s resurrection, joy finds its fullest and deepest expression not over a human death but in God’s promise to unite all things in heaven and on earth, to reconcile the human family and to bring God’s reign of peace.”

The death of any human should not be celebrated, no matter how much pain he or she has caused us. Osama bin Laden unfortunately chose the path of hatred and violence, and with what did we return? Hatred and violence. How are we any better than him, and who are we to judge? As a country we spent these past 9 years hating this one man, and returning his violence with more violence- finally we have our sweet revenge. We thought it would feel good, but it has not and will not bring the peace which we seek. The only way we will find peace is through God- not war, not death, not hatred, and not violence. We killed the man who killed us, how much longer will this vicious cycle continue?

~Heather Anne Nelson

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Weapon of Mass Destruction

There is a young woman in the kitchen. She is gently rocking a baby on her back, whom she just finished feeding and is now starting to fall asleep. One down, three to go she thinks as she begins to cook the bogobe for dinner that evening. Maybe she has a husband who will soon return from work expecting a hot meal on the table, or maybe she is alone and must feed her three other children and help them prepare for school the next morning…

Either way, this is the life of many South African women, especially in rural areas. Their full-time job is to cook, clean, and care for all the children- and they do so with amazing strength and love. Women in South African culture typically carried a lot of weight on their shoulders when it comes to household affairs, and many continue to do so. But as times progress, and women enter more into the workforce, these cultural roles of women are coming into tension and beginning to be questioned. I encourage this questioning process to continue. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a woman cooking, cleaning, or caring for children, but I do believe that when they are forced or expected to do so at the expense of their education, career, or happiness there is a problem. Of course, South Africa is not the only country struggling slowly with the equal treatment of women, this is a global phenomenon which affects us all. Similar ideologies about the proper “place” of a woman exist in the United States, and entering into a career historically male dominated is not exactly easy, even if it is occurring more in the USA than here in South Africa.

The Bible is reputably the must influential book in our world, in both the past and present times. For centuries it has been used by many as a reference to how our lives should be lived, and is of course interpreted differently by each individual. This text has been used to justify the submission of women to men, and encourage the belief that women are the “weaker sex” (1 Peter 3:7) and because of the power of the Bible, this has translated heavily into the gender roles constructed in our society. Women in South Africa cover their heads in church to comply with 1 Corinthians 11:5, are prohibited from being pastors in some denominations because of 1 Corinthians 14:34, and are pushed into submission in the household because of 1 Corinthians 11:3.

But the Bible is dangerous. Because of its’ power, influence, and endless possibilities for interpretation, it can be used in harmful ways- especially if taken out of context. For a well-rounded interpretation, the context of when the Bible was written and by whom is extremely important. Firstly, the societal norms of the time placed women in submission to men, thus this was the only reality known by the writers. It’s hard to write about the equality of women if you have never been introduced to such a concept. Secondly, due to this suppression of women, the Bible was written by those who were capable of reading, writing, and “higher thought”- by MEN! So what does this mean? It means that the stories and rules for life laid out in the Bible are almost entirely male-dominated and thus portray women from a man’s perspective- as submissive, silent, motherly, and often evil in some way! This does not mean the words of the Bible should just be dismissed due to their one-sided short-sighted perspective, but rather we should be aware of this when we read and interpret the Bible in our own way. Also, when verses of the Bible are used to found the suppression of women, they are usually taken out of context of the rest of the chapter of the book.

A few weekends ago I attended an all-day youth workshop in Masealama. We were our own teachers and students, as each person brought a different topic to the table to present and discuss. No one claimed to be experts on the topics, but rather opened them up to debate and support from everyone so together we could learn. As I have experienced more gender roles and restrictions here than I am used to in my family and community back home, I decided to speak on the portrayal of women in the Bible, and how this affects our society.

Our conversation started by discussing the roles of women, as defined by the Sepedi culture, so we could determine how the Bible either upheld or contradicted these roles. According to the youth (mainly composed of young men) the roles and expectations of women in their culture are as follows: women must respect men, they should do all domestic work, they should not wear short skirts, they should not walk at night, they are not equal to men, they should submit to a man who is the head of the household, they must love children, they should not go to work, they should not wear trousers, and they should not touch or smell alcohol. While some of these are traditional cultural restrictions that are not still upheld by all, they certainly still play a role in the ideas of who a woman should be and how she should behave.

Next, we listed out Bible stories that we could remember involving women. Interestingly enough, almost all the stories named portrayed women in a negative or submissive way- Delilah, the women of Corinth, the woman who denied giving Jesus water, and Jezebel. Contrastingly, when asked to name stories involving men in the Bible, every single man listed was portrayed positively if not seen as a prophet or savior- King Solomon, Jesus, Adam, John the Baptist, Moses, Daniel, and Isaiah. What stories come to your mind first when you think about men vs. women in the Bible?

These Biblical stories correlate well with the roles expected of women in the Sepedi culture. While they are all negative, they show what women should NOT do. They should not disrespect the authority of their husbands, they should remain silent in church, they should dress modestly, they should provide for men, and the list goes on. The portrayal of these women as bad apples in the Bible further solidifies the overall message that women are lesser than men. But how many of us have actually looked far enough into the Bible to examine these topics from a well-rounded perspective? We may know one verse or two, but is that enough to dictate a lifestyle for centuries?

There are many assumptions made about women in our society that can be proven and disproven using the Bible. Thanks to Martin Luther, who began translating the Bible into the languages of the people, we can all read the text for ourselves and determine our own take on each subject, and I think this is our responsibility. That afternoon in the workshop we sat down and did just that for various topics dealing with women. We researched Biblical text proving that: women should cover their heads in church, Eve is responsible for sin in the world, women should not have authority over men, women were made to help men, men and women are not equal spiritually, a man is the head of the household, a woman can not be a pastor, women should be solely responsible for the care of children, it is okay for men to cheat, polygamy is acceptable, men are stronger than women, and that God is male. The verses which back these have been used for centuries to force the submission of women, and we still hear them used today, but what we don’t hear is the verses which speak out opposing these views of women. For each and every verse speaking against women, there is a counterpart which is usually stronger than the first, but is unfortunately often overlooked, or purposefully avoided.

I attended a wedding here at Christmas, and the preacher who came to speak wise words of advice to the happy couple chose to base his speech on 1 Corinthians 11:3. “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” He went on to speak that the man, now that he was a husband, needed to take full command of his household and ensure that they live lives devoted to Christ. He was the one who was responsible for this, because he was closer to Christ and he must teach his wife and children the proper way. My skin was crawling, but I said nothing. How, in this day and age, can this preacher still believe that a man is closer to Christ than women and that he should be solely in charge of a household? These words written by Paul to Corinth have been used to prove that a man must be the head of the household, and are still being used, but taking things into context, we must look at other words of wisdom given from Paul. In Galatians 3:28 he says: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Obviously, Paul himself was struggling with the proper place of women in his society. He grew up in a world where women were forced into submission by men, but what he knew of Jesus Christ was saying the opposite, that everyone is equal. Let us not forget that he was human- at times he reverted to the restrictions put on people by this world, and at times he was able to break free of worldly concerns and see the greater heavenly ways. He eventually arises at the conclusion that empowers us all. Male or female it does not matter. We are all ONE in the same in Jesus Christ.

We are all like Paul. We try to live our life according to Christ Jesus, but we are pulled back into the concerns of this world. We read our Bibles in hopes to determine how we should live, but we misinterpret. We do not see the whole picture; we can not see the whole picture. No matter how hard we try, we will never be able to fully understand God and Christ Jesus and how our lives should be lived on this earth. Once we realize that, maybe we can stop using the Bible as a weapon to suppress and destroy each other.

… and as her children all finally rest, she pulls out her Bible and finds strength in these words “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” No matter how she is treated, no one can take that truth away from her. She is not weak.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Don't Talk to Strangers

My mother is a Lutheran,

My father is a Lutheran,

That’s why I am a Lutheran,

I am Lutheran, I am!

This is a song that was introduced to me at a young adult conference here in South Africa, and since then I have been well exposed to it- in Masealama and elsewhere. Once I started to think about the lyrics, I realized the important question which is often raised to which this song responds... Why are you a Lutheran?

My answer is simple, and I am sure many would respond in the same way- I was raised Lutheran. I am Lutheran because my parents baptized me as such and have dragged me to church every Sunday since- willing or not. This song addresses how my Lutheran roots began, but not how I have chosen to continue being a Lutheran since then.

After 18, you are no longer under your parents’ control, at least not legally. You begin your independent life, and begin making choices for yourself instead of doing what is instructed of you. Whether you go off to university or find a job and enter into the “real world”, you will likely be exposed to a completely new environment full of diversity. In my experience, I ventured off to the University of Clemson to pursue my degree in architecture. While I did not travel that far from home, when I first set foot on campus I met people from all different walks of life- students and teachers who were rich, poor, white, black, Christian, Muslim, American, South African, doctors, engineers, and everything in between. In fact, about the only thing my roommate and I had in common was that we were both girls. As I interacted with this diversity and made friends, I was exposed to a wide variety of traditions, cultures, and religions that I did not find in my neighborhood school system or Sunday school classes. This sudden exposure to diversity often has a confusing effect on young adults.

It is not surprising then that, in a recent survey conducted by LifeWay Research, 7 in 10 previously active Protestants between the ages of 18 and 30 said that they had quit attending church regularly by the age of 23. This drop occurs over that crucial period where youth become independent from their parents and guardians and begin to make decisions for themselves. As our youth rapidly disappear from our churches, the question we should ask is, what are we doing or not doing that is causing this?

In a world which seems to be becoming ever more diverse, we find ourselves increasingly exposed to “strangers”- whether it is in university, in our workplace, on the internet, in the news, or even in the house next door. As immigration increases and people of varying cultures and religions disperse across the globe, as our international media coverage becomes more widespread, and as our international relations become more intertwined, the lives of others who used to be so far separated from us are suddenly thrust in our faces. And if the church does not respond well to this increasing diversity and practice pluralism instead of just preaching tolerance, no wonder our youth wind up confused and loose faith in their particular religious institution! They are constantly surrounded by diversity and taught to be tolerant of others, but they are not properly equipped to resolve this tolerance with their religious beliefs. For example, imagine you attend a university and you become close friends with a person who is Muslim. You know this person to be kind, trustworthy, faithful, loving, and maybe you even consider them to be a better than yourself. Then comes the question- because you are Christian and believe in God and Jesus Christ as your savior, does this mean that you have to believe that your new friend will not be going to heaven? Why would they be cast aside merely because of their Muslim beliefs when they seem to have more faith and spirituality than you do? The result of this internal conflict usually leaves the youth in confusion and doubt in their religion, and without knowing how to resolve it, they drop out and relate to each other on secular terms. Much easier to handle, and it seems to be a viable solution to moving toward a pluralistic society. Or maybe as you discuss beliefs with your Muslim friend, you find that some parts of their religion make a lot of sense. But how can you still be Christian if you find truths in other faiths?

You see the dilemma. 18 to 30 year old youths are constantly faced with these questions, and in the process of finding themselves in this new world, they often loose their connection to organized religion. So how can our churches begin to address this? As our society becomes increasingly diverse, ecumenical interactions are becoming more prevalent. Maybe your church interacts with other churches down the street as you gather for a dinner, or you all combine together to donate clothing to a homeless shelter. But during these interactions, how many of your youth and children are involved? Do you ever address the fundamental differences in beliefs that separate you, and how they are resolved so that you can promote interaction in events such as these? We spend so much time teaching our children and youth what it means to be Christian, or specifically, what it means to be Lutheran, that we forget to teach them what this means in their relation to others of varying beliefs.

After three years of confirmation classes and a lifetime of church attendance, I thought I had it all figured out. When I went to Clemson, I knew that I wanted to connect with the Lutheran church as soon as I got there- join the choir, be a member of the Lutheran Campus Ministry (LCM), and continue my life in the church where I knew I belonged. It was a simple choice that I made, unknowing of the diversity I would face and the questions which would be raised in my faith. If it had not been for Campus Ministry, I would probably be among those seven youth who drop out of protestant churches by the age of 23. But LCM provided me with the tools necessary to resolve these internal conflicts. On Wednesday night gatherings we would have speakers from other denominations and religions come and speak on their beliefs. We would ask questions, locate differences, but on top of everything, find communal beliefs that brought us together and learn how religions could fit into a pluralistic world. LCM taught me how to relate to people of different cultures and beliefs without loosing my own beliefs, and how the relation between us could actually strengthen both of us. Of course, this has just been further strengthened here in South Africa. I may be relating mainly to Lutherans, but our cultures are widely different. But, because of LCM, I do not try to change them, they do not try to change me, and together we learn from each other.

“To each of you God has prescribed a law and a way. If God would have willed, He would have made you a single people. But God’s purpose is to test you in what he has given each of you, so strive in the pursuit of virtue, and know that you will all return to God, and He will resolve the matters in which you disagree.”

Here is your quiz: where in the Bible does this inspirational excerpt appear? It sounds vaguely like it could be Paul’s words to the Galatians, but no, this text comes from the Qur’an 5:49. It speaks a message which is resonated in the Bible, and maybe even puts things more clearly than Paul does. We may all have different beliefs, but if we strive to be the best Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, whatever we believe- then we will all return to the one God who unites us. That is how I have currently resolved conflicting faiths in my life, and how I have maintained my Lutheran beliefs over the confusing years of my independent life. My hope is that churches will begin to respond to diversity early with the youth in their congregations, so maybe the staggering statistics of youth leaving protestant churches will begin to fall. That way, when they are asked “Why Lutheran” by someone with different beliefs somewhere down the road, they are able to answer them with the confidence that although their faiths may conflict, they do not divide.

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

CAUTION: Snakes on the Premises

This video speaks for itself.

My Recipe Competition

I have entered into a competition for recipes dealing with heritage, and how food is so integral to culture. As they have moved my recipe onto the next round, they have asked me to post a link to their website on my blog- Easy Recipes. My entry is as follows, for those who are interested.

As you drive down the road in my home town after dark, you will see hundreds of neon signs illuminating the parking lots of the local restaurants. Italian, Chinese buffet, pizza, burgers, BBQ, Japanese, Mexican, Greek, subs, and the typical American cuisine are just a few among many cuisines from which you can choose. These neon-signed restaurants are also reflected inside to the homes in my community. Growing up, we would have so much variety that it would make your head spin, and besides Taco Thursdays we would rarely repeat a meal in one month. So the term “staple food” meant nothing to me, until I arrived in South Africa six months ago…

In September of 2010 I joined a global mission program of the ELCA, and was placed in a small village in the Limpopo province of South Africa known as Masealama. The language, the landscape, the people, the songs, the lifestyle- many things have their differences with my life in North America, but one of the first things that came to my attention was the food.

Walking into work at the Drop-In Centre (which feeds orphans and vulnerable children) on the first day, I was greeted with friendly faces gathered around the stove. As I sat down and sipped tea with the ladies, one of them got up to begin preparing lunch for us. She walked over to a large bowl in the sink and started pulling out long rubbery strings and cleaning out the inside of the goop which was in them. “Do you know what these are?” she asked me. I had never seen anything like it really. “No” I replied. “These are chicken intestines, you will eat them.” So sure enough, my first meal in my new home for a year was chicken intestines, achaar (a spicy concoction made with mangos), and pap- the staple food of South Africa.

I knew I would be eating differently as I was immersed in this culture. I have certainly have had my fair share of interesting meals here- chicken intestines, cow intestines, cow heel, worms from Mopani trees, chicken heads and feet, and more. These things were more of what I was expecting- completely different food. But what I did not expect was the staple food which is eaten for every meal here. Pap, or porridge, is made from maize meal. In my region it is cooked soft (known as motepa) which is usually eaten for breakfast or hard (known as bogobe) which is usually eaten for lunch and dinner. It can be eaten with anything and everything- pap and eggs, pap and milk, pap and fish, pap and chicken, pap and mašotša (Mopani worms), pap and morogo (spinach), and of course, pap and tripe (intestines). Pap is well-loved, and even physically “needed” for life here in South Africa. Some people claim that they can not live without it, and when asked what kind of pap we have in the States, they are surprised to learn that we do not have pap- or even a staple food of any kind!

South Africa has taught me about the deeper meaning of food. Food expresses who you are; it is part of your culture and your heritage. Throughout South Africa pap is common, but in the various regions, the pap is cooked differently. The pap in my area is distinct in that it is cooked into a ball which hardens a little on the outside and thus gives allows it to maintain its shape.

No matter where you go in South Africa, you can tell where a person is from by their pap. They are all made from the same ingredients, but cooked differently enough to have many varieties. And this is true for our world. All of our food comes from the same place, the earth. We eat fruits, vegetables, meat, and grains, all of that is the same globally. How we prepare our meals is what varies. Recipes are personal and often do reflect the culture of the area (especially in South Africa) but ingredients and food are universal. No matter what you are eating, we are all the same.



120g maize meal

600ml water


1. Bring the water to boil in a pot

2. Add approximately 75 g of maize meal gradually and stir well with the wooden stirrer lefetlho until mixture thickens.

3. Cook for 10 minutes

4. Add the remaining meal, stirring well with a wooden spoon.

5. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

6. Form into ball and serve hot.