Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Under a Large White Tent

It is a muggy Sunday afternoon in Phalaborwa and we are gathered around two twin babies in celebration. We celebrated their baptisms earlier that morning, and as we hold the two small children in our arms, we give thanks that they will be raised to know and love the Lord. As they grow, we have hope that their faith will grow with them. We sing, we dance, we feast, we celebrate…

You can find us under a large white tent.

It is a scorching Sunday afternoon in Alexandra and we are gathered around a young man dressed in his best black and white. He has just completed his testing with the pastor, and has become a confirmed member of the church. We celebrate all of his hard work and his confirmation of his faith which now lies in his hands instead of in the hands of his parents. We sing, we dance, we feast, we celebrate…

You can find us under a large white tent.

It is Christmas morning near Tzaneen and we are gathered around a bride and groom as they exchange wedding vows. With the support of all their family, friends, and neighbors they commit themselves to each other, and we hope that their relationship will help strengthen both of them in the Lord. We sing, we dance, we feast, we celebrate…

You can find us under a large white tent.

It is a sweltering Saturday afternoon in Bochum and we are gathered around a woman celebrating her 80th birthday. With all her family, friends, pastors, neighbors, and other acquaintances giving moving speeches about her exquisite character, we celebrate how she has lived out her full and fruitful life to date- founded in the Lord. We sing, we dance, we feast, we celebrate…

You can find us under a large white tent.

It is the early morning of Christmas Eve’s Eve in Ga-Kama and we are gathered around a hole six feet in the ground. As our dear friend and youth member is lowered in her beautiful casket into the grave, we remember her short but happy life with glistening eyes. We sing, we dance, we feast, we celebrate…

You can find us under a large white tent.

When you do not understand a language, it can be quite challenging to determine what is happening around you. I often find myself in situations which I do not entirely understand, and due to my relatively slow uptake of Sepedi, I find that what people say helps me very little in my comprehension. But there are a few things which are universal- singing, dancing, feasting, and celebration. These things I understand- from the tambour of the music I can tell the mood of the occasion, from the intensity of the dancing I can determine the passion which people are feeling, from the food I can tell the thoughtfulness and hard work that was put into it, and all of these combined give off an air of celebration. To a passerby walking past one of these occasions, this is what they see. They see the extravagant food which took hours to prepare on the tables, they see the people dancing enthusiastically to the upbeat songs, and they hear the celebratory remarks exclaimed in the choruses which are sung. To an outsider, the events which occur under a large white tent are all the same.

But under that tent, so many different events are occurring. Yes, you are guaranteed to find people singing, dancing, feasting, and celebrating, but the root cause behind these festivities differs vastly. So far I have experienced a baptism, a confirmation party, a few weddings, a birthday party, and a funeral. Had I been in the States for each of these occurrences, I would find that their celebrations do not even closely resemble each other, if there is even a celebration to begin with. I am pretty sure I have never heard of a confirmation party in the United States to which the entire village is invited- and I most certainly haven’t been to one where they slaughter a cow for the affair! But here in South Africa it has surprised me at just how similar all of these occasions appear- especially when I can not understand what is being said most of the time, so all I have to go by is appearances. These similarities made me think, is there something which ties all these events together that I had previously overlooked?

I have come to realize that yes, there is an underlying connection which ties together all of the events which occur under a large white tent. At each event we sing, we dance, we feast, we celebrate LIFE. We celebrate new lives starting their journey, young lives choosing their spiritual path, two lives uniting as one, the many blessings of a long life, and the memory of a life that once was. Instead of focusing on the differences, if we focus on the similarities of all these events we realize that LIFE is the true cause for celebration.

The funeral which I attended is what helped me to stumble upon this realization. Up until that point all the partying made complete sense, but a funeral in my mind is a solemn affair reserved for teary eyed people clad in black to mourn a death, and this funeral was the exact opposite. A huge crowd gathered wearing their Sunday best and we processed from the house of the family to the church singing choruses the whole way. When we arrived to the church we came into a lovely setup with flowers and candles and the entire youth standing up front singing and dancing to a lively tune. I could not help but join in the celebration, and let out a little smile as they sang my favorite song. Then my eyes landed upon the coffin hidden amidst the flowers and the dancing, and I felt a sudden shift happen with in me. Instead of mourning a death, we were celebrating a life.

It is amazing what a simple change in perspective can do to a situation. All too often we approach things with our one-sided views and we miss out on the bigger picture. We hear funeral and expect dirges, we think of Christmas and wish for snow, we see worms and think of fish food not people food- but here in South Africa I have been blessed to see things from another side. While a hot Christmas and a happy funeral may seem like contradictions at first, we must remember that there are always other perspectives. Although they may seem to contradict, our lives are full of contradicting truths.

In a recent interview (check it out at on youtube), Bishop Hanson was asked to answer the question “Why Lutheran”. Part of his answer focused on the contradictions which we as Christians must learn to embrace. We must be both saint and sinner, believe in a God who is both vengeful and merciful, and those are just a few of many present in our beliefs. While these things appear contradictory to us, they all make sense from an outsider’s perspective, from an omniscient viewpoint, to the one who created and fully understands everything that we see as confusing and contradictory. While we will never fully understand LIFE, if we keep our eyes open we can see the one thing that remains consistent through all life, our Lord, and for him we can sing, we can dance, we can feast, we can celebrate…

You can find us under a large white tent.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Rooftop of Africa

With a show of hands, how many of you are familiar with a country called Lesotho? Where is it located? How big is it? What are the biggest challenges that it is currently facing?

Before this year I would have to admit that the most I knew about Lesotho was that I had a shirt that was made there- and the only reason I knew that was because I wanted to know if I could put it in the dryer and while looking at the tag I thought to myself- where is that country? Probably somewhere by Russia, I can never keep that part of the world straight.

Lesotho (pronounced luh-sue-too) is a landlocked country inside of South Africa. It has the highest average elevation of any other country in the world and is therefore properly deemed “the rooftop of Africa.” This year eight other YAGM’S and I chose to spend our New Years in this small but beautiful country, and thus we came to know a little more about it’s culture, people, politics, and struggles.

Upon entering Lesotho through Maseru, I was shocked to see a U.S. embassy sitting right there, with a full-fledged golf course! I wondered, how many other countries does the US have an embassy in that I have never even heard of? Does my lack of knowledge show that I am an uninformed citizen or that my country has not properly informed me? Is it a little of both?

As we drove from Maseru further into the country to Roma, where we would spend the evening, we gazed out the window and listened intently as our taxi driver chatted away about everything we were seeing. I saw stone houses and rondolvos with thatched roofs, I saw people returning from a long day at work on a taxi, I saw cows herded in for the evening by men draped in traditional Lesotho blankets- all of this seemed familiar to the sights I have seen in South Africa, though with a slightly different flare. But then we came across huge factories amidst these villages which dominated the landscape and people around them. We were told these factories were owned by the US, China, and Germany and although the laborers were from Lesotho, the customers were far far away. Some made clothes (that explains my t-shirt), some made light bulbs- can you imagine working in a factory that makes light bulbs when you don’t even have electricity in your own home? I am not out to condemn these countries for their factories in Lesotho, I know absolutely nothing about working conditions or profits in any of these factories. I do know that these factories provide jobs which sustain many families in Lesotho. I am just observing the blatant contrast which I found in Lesotho between the traditional Lesotho life and the westernized culture which is infiltrating it. Our globalization is bitter sweet- it may create jobs and opportunities, but the cost is often a loss of unique culture in the country we affect.

In Lesotho I see a country which is still holding onto its tradition with all its might. I see the struggle of each Lesotho being confronted with a push for modernization, and being conflicted with how that changes their traditional lifestyles. I want them to hold on to tradition, but if the spread of modernization benefits their livelihoods and eases some of their struggles, especially with HIV/AIDS, I want that too. It’s hard to hold onto the past and move forward at the same time- but I hope Lesotho can do just that.

~Heather Anne Nelson