After moving into our new place, we had a couple of minor issues that needed the attention of an electrician and a handyman. Fortunately, our letting agency sent over a nice gentleman who is both. He sorted out a broken light socket in the kitchen, and the next week was sent over again to work on the issue that the doors onto our balcony might be blown in at any moment. The southeaster, she was a blowin’.

We discovered in conversation that this gentleman is not just a handyman of note, he is also a Christian. On top of that lovely discovery, he shared about the way the Lord radically changed his life when he repented and came to faith, and his excellent story includes starting a church in a township nearby. Bonus! He was planning to visit the church in the township the following Sunday and we asked if we could come along. Or we may have been invited, I can’t remember.

At any rate.

Photo by Randy OHC @ flickr

Photo by Randy OHC @ flickr

We thought we might be able to organise a shoe distribution with the help of this church, perhaps in the not-too-distant future. And hey, we’re looking for a church to call home, why not explore all the possibilities? This was obviously the beginning of a bit of adventure for a small town gal from Washington, North Carolina.

I am not sure I can accurately describe my experience of briefly passing through the township to attend church there. It is like life is just unceasingly happening — you never know what you’re going to see next, and you might be surprised to find that the people who live there are just surprised as you. As Mr. Potato Head grumbled along through the dusty streets, we saw sights we expected: Mamas with their babies strapped to their backs with bath towels or blankets, people carrying heavy things on their heads, lots of children everywhere. We also saw the unexpected: seven or eight men had picked an entire shack up over their heads, and were moving it casually down a hill to whoknowswhere. Things were so crowded I wondered where they would find a place to set it down. I also wondered if this was an everyday occurrence, but when I saw other people watching and pointing with bewildered laughs and stares, I decided I was fortunate enough to witness something very special. People were dressed up for church and heading in the opposite direction so I wondered if we’d chosen the right church to visit!  We kept following our handyman friend in the bakkie (truck) in front of us.

A few moments later, we found ourselves inside a small church building, cinder block, tin roof and plastic chairs. Most of the men sat on one side and women on the other, but we’d already been seated before we noticed. (Not that we would’ve moved.) The pastor was still sharing the Sunday School Teaching, about fasting, and in my ignorance for a moment I marveled at the encouragement that people who might not have a lot to eat should fast. We’d sat near the back where there were plenty of chairs, and we took up lots of space, four adults and the Bear. As the church filled up and filled up we gradually scooted together and were cozy and hot by the end of our time there.

The very enthusiastic worship was in a language I didn’t know. Most of the congregation are immigrants from Zimbabwe, so we’ve concluded it may have been Shona. (Unfortunately I didn’t have the words on a screen to try my best with this time!) These folks moved to South Africa in hopes of opportunities for a better life. I don’t know whether they feel like they’ve found what they’re looking for. They faced severe brutality recently during the xenophobia attacks that swept across SA. Our handyman friend provided refuge for dozens of people — they slept in his home and shed and garage during the crisis. Many of them now no longer stay in this township, since they left when things were dangerous, but they return for church week after week.

The enthusiasm the people showed for the things of God was inspiring. Sometimes people have different ways of doing things and it is hard for an outsider to look on without being critical. Pledges for the building fund were being shouted out, and people were clapping for those making their pledges. I found myself walking the tightrope of trying to stay above being critical during this bit…but I remembered some lessons from my international studies classes, and the conclusion I often came to, that it is really difficult for anyone who is not a part of a culture to accurately perceive it, because we are all wearing our own cultural lenses. And I suppose when churches back in the States have building fundraisers, those who give a lot often receive praise in one way or another.

The church had had an all-night prayer meeting the night before, and had gone home for an hour or two of sleep, to get something to eat, and then return for Sunday school. I wasn’t sure I could convince the Bear to behave long enough for us to stay through the service…and I admired the stamina of these folks, who didn’t look at all tired to me as they danced and sang and worshiped the Lord. I think I could learn a lot if I stuck around for a while.

Our handyman friend encouraged us to head out after we’d shared about our work with Samaritan’s Feet and Mark brought a word of encouragement to the church. I stood on stage beside him with the Bear and was embarrassed at how wiggly and wild he was being. If your kid’s used to a schedule… As we stood outside and said a few goodbyes before following our handyman friend out, one little girl came over for a hug. I picked her up and gave her a hug and a kiss, and my heart just pined with compassion that I am not sure how to channel.

As I reflect on the time I’ve spent with ‘the poor,’ in Zambia, in Mexico, and here in South Africa, I am constantly amazed at the joy and contentedness I see in so many faces. Obviously I am not speaking about those in abject poverty, or trying to ‘romanticise’ it — but those living in ways that ‘Westerners’ might consider ‘poor’ often have a remarkable joy. Perhaps it is because a lot of the ‘poor’ I’ve spent time with are Christians. It challenged me to remember something I heard recently: if you have more than 5 shirts in your closet, you are probably better off than 90% of the world’s population. (I can’t confirm this and am not sure I’m remembering it correctly!) But the point is — if you have clothes to wear, food to eat, and a place to live, you have a lot to be thankful for.

We drove out of the township and got some lunch at a nearby shopping mall, which kind of made my head spin. From poverty to wealth in 3 miles flat. There is so much more to say, that is difficult to put into words. Mother Teresa once said,

“In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”

The opportunities to do small things with great love are where I am, and where you are. Even if it’s just for one person, I look forward to making a difference.