For All the Saints of South Africa
This year the gospel text for All Saints’ Day is the Beatitudes, and I’m looking at it a little differently than I have in the past.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, we read. Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted.
This time around I am thinking of the saints I met in South Africa.
We often think of the saints on All Saints’ Day as the great people of the past. But it’s important to remember that the great saints of the past are inspiring the saints of today, all around the world.
Let me tell you about a few I met on my trip, and where I find myself.
“Blessed are those who mourn.” There was a lot of mourning in South Africa for the wounds suffered by three hundred years of racial oppression.
In 1976 there was a peaceful protest led by schoolchildren against the government imposing Afrikaans and English, the languages of the oppressors, as the only languages allowed to be spoken in schools.
Most of the children did not speak either language, and so were effectively being deprived of their right to education.
Children from age five through age eighteen marched in the streets. Police came out to subdue the protest.
No one knows who gave the order to fire on the children, but shots started ringing out.
In the end, no one knows exactly how many children were killed, but it may be as many as seven hundred. Over a thousand children were wounded.
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Comfort has been slow to come in South Africa, but with each step toward making the vision of liberation from apartheid more real in concrete ways, the mourning is healed just a little.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” This verse reminded me of the theologians at Stellenbosch University we visited.
They are the inheritors of a dark legacy.
Stellenbosch was essentially the apartheid think tank, the center of the political and theological justifications for apartheid that supported the government’s unjust policies.
Some of the current theology faculty that we met with had clearly not come to terms with the legacy of that responsibility, but a couple of them were very meek, humble, and honest about their struggle to take pride in being a professor at a university while knowing the dark purposes that university had championed for so long.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Here I thought immediately of the Social Justice League.
In America, an organization called the Social Justice League would be working for things like gender rights and marriage equality, ending discrimination and unfair employment practices.
In South Africa, the Social Justice League in Kahyelitsha township was fighting to get working toilets in their town.
The townships have what are euphemistically called “informal settlements,” which are makeshift shacks with no plumbing, no heat, and no running water, houses that the people who live in them had to throw together out of whatever they could find after the apartheid government forced them out of their own homes and bulldozed their houses.
The post-apartheid government promised blocks of toilets for each one hundred families, but they haven’t come through.
There are a few toilets, but most of them don’t work, they’re filthy and broken down and unsafe, and sewage runs through the streets.
And so the entire focus of the Social Justice League is to get clean, working toilets for themselves and their community.
Sometimes the hunger and thirst for righteousness is as simple as demanding the means to ensure human health and dignity by having a place to use the restroom.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says. We met a remarkable peacemaker on our trip. His name was Imam Rashid Omar, the imam of the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town.
His work to unify South African youth, both Christian and Muslim, to make the reality of post-apartheid South Africa live up to the dream, is remarkable.
His hospitality to us, a group of Christian pastors, bumbling around his mosque and trying to observe proper etiquette, was so generous and loving.
It was truly a blessing to meet this peacemaker, and our afternoon together, Christian and Muslim clergy sharing fellowship, was a blow to every extremist trying to get his way via violence all around the world.
“Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says, and “blessed are the pure in heart.” Bishop Kevin Dowling, the Roman Catholic bishop who runs the AIDS hospice we visited, surely embodies both of these beatitudes.
Around 1500 people have died at Tapologo hospice, 19 of whom were children, and they died with proper medical care, with dignity, surrounded by love.
We saw the pictures of the children who had died of AIDS, and Bishop Dowling spoke of them with such love, because he had cared for them personally, not from an office behind a desk. He held them and comforted them and bathed them and fed them.
He showed us a picture of one little boy, about 2 years old, who never spoke the entire time he was at the hospice.
It is quite probable that he had suffered severe abuse.
He never spoke. He simply raised his arms up to be lifted and held any time any adult came into the room.
So that is exactly what Bishop Dowling and the other hospice ministers did. They held him and cuddled him and loved him until he died.
And he did die, of AIDS, before he turned three years old.
“They will see God,” Jesus promises for the pure in heart.
I am certain Bishop Dowling knows that he sees God as he cares for the people dying of AIDS to whom he has devoted his life.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you,” Jesus says.
The apartheid government in South Africa ended in 1994, but twenty years is a very short time to undo three hundred years of oppression.
The persecution still goes on in the appalling poverty that exists in many parts of South Africa, but that persecution is slowly being undermined by the dedicated and devoted saints who work for economic and social justice with every fiber of their hearts every day.
Where do I see myself in the Beatitudes after this experience, after seeing the great work being done by such brave people in a beautiful country wounded by racism and poverty?
I am the poor in spirit.
I came home feeling like my heart is small, my mind is small, my theology is small.
I came home feeling like I know a lot about how to be a competent and professional clergywoman, but I’m not really sure I am a disciple.
I came home knowing that I have ignored Jesus’ love for the poor as long as I possibly could, and the pain of turning away is finally greater than the pain of facing it.
I came home praying for God to knock down all my interior barriers and change me from the inside out.
So I feel very poor in spirit right now.
I feel weak and small and selfish and unequipped.
I feel helpless and I don’t know what to do, how to answer the call that is in my heart to change and be changed.
But the good news that Jesus gives me today is this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
If you feel poor in spirit like me, take heart, for the kingdom of heaven with all of its knowledge and faith and determination and grace, belongs to us.
Jesus told us he will not leave us alone and comfortless, and we remember that more than ever today as we celebrate the fellowship of all believers, the great cloud of witnesses, on All Saints’ Day.
I met some remarkable saints in South Africa with whom we also are in fellowship today, and they brought me to my own poverty of spirit and poverty of love, which Jesus promises me is a blessed state.
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