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I’m not used to being a racial minority. I’ve never lived anywhere this has been the case.
Although I certainly noticed it during my first few days in South Africa, I didn’t think about it much. We were welcomed warmly by our Loving South Africa partner organizations, and I was more concerned with getting to know my new co-workers and their work.
But an interesting thing happened early in my stay. The church I attend with my friends here is a small church with a predominantly Zulu congregation. It was planted by a larger church with a predominantly white congregation in a neighboring town.
While the two churches are not far away from each other, as Barry earlier described, Kwazulu-Natal is a bit like oil and water. The members of the larger church live quite differently than the men and women who walk to the smaller church we attend on Wednesday evenings.
One night, we attended a joint prayer service between the congregations. The service was led by a white pastor and a Zulu pastor, with the Zulu pastor providing translations. They began addressing racism in the church, insisting it would have no place in their congregations.
And then I got really uncomfortable. The pastors asked us to separate, with the white people on one side of the room and the black people on the other. We were going to apologize to one another and ask for forgiveness.
Alarms were going off like crazy in my head as I sat among 10 of my Zulu friends. I thought I was going to start breaking out in hives with anxiety. Was it really productive to categorize ourselves based solely on our color? And did he really just say, “Black people on this side of the room, white people over there?”
I have never been more aware of my race.
Apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, but I’m starting to see the way it influenced everything, including contributing to the AIDS pandemic.
It is certainly true that poverty and unemployment continue to have a stronghold in black communities here because of the complete lack of resources committed to them by the white government during the time of Apartheid.
For many, this injustice is still fresh. The wounds are still open. And we know from our own history in America that when Jim Crowe laws were overruled, desegregation, development and reconciliation didn’t happen overnight.
It makes sense that in places where access to quality education and good healthcare are still scarce, HIV rates are high. I’m witnessing how deeply interconnected these issues of race relations, poverty and HIV really are.
As I made my way that night to what had been designated as the “white side of the room”, I marveled at the way the terms “white,” “black” and “colored” (those of mixed race) are used so casually here. They are simply descriptors and not considered in any way politically incorrect.
Despite my discomfort with the whole exercise, I repeated after the white pastor words of apology and love to the black people on the other side of the room. And I listened as they reciprocated.
Afterwards we got in a circle and held hands, alternating black and white, and prayed for unity and healing.
It was awkward, but it was also beautiful.
I’ve been thinking a lot since then about the implications of this experience in justice and reconciliation issues around the world.
Race relations or AIDS or immigration or otherwise, when we get involved in the frontlines of broken places, we’re going to be uncomfortable. We’re going to experience a lot of awkward moments. We’re going to stumble and fall down so many times before we get it right.
Breaking Down Barriers
I’ve probably missed a lot of opportunities to be part of healing because I was so afraid of doing it wrong. I was afraid of putting my foot in my mouth or feeling uncomfortable or being out of place.
But my new friends are teaching me that I’m missing out by letting the fear of discomfort paralyze me.
Those white South Africans could have stayed comfortably in their suburb and never ventured into the neighboring township to forge relationships. My friends could easily go to a predominantly Zulu church and not bother with the cultural clashes.
And yet, together, they are forming an orphanage for children in the area. They are breaking down barriers, saying no to the oil and water separation that currently exists.
Considering the lingering effects of Apartheid, the relationships happening in that church are revolutionary. And they are bringing about healing in more ways than one.
A Million Factors At Play
Maybe seeing black and white people worshiping together doesn’t seem related to the AIDS crisis. But I believe that here in Kwazulu-Natal, it’s a snapshot of one of many ways God is using the Church to tip the scale against this disease.
In the same way we cannot address HIV by focusing solely on orphan care or testing or treatment, I’m learning we also cannot address it by focusing solely on the disease itself.
There are a million factors at play in the AIDS pandemic. I’m thrilled to tell you that I’m witnessing the Church bring about healing here by addressing some of those other factors, too. Healing of race relations will inevitably contribute to healing of the AIDS pandemic, because healing has a domino effect.
As the prayer service ended that night, I rejoined my friends as we filed out of the church. I may have looked out of place again, but I was finally feeling at ease reunited with my friends. It was a memorable night, to be sure.
I’ve attended both churches several times since that night and continue to be intrigued by the dynamics unfolding there. I’ve been part of some very awkward conversations and watched, nervously at times, as different cultures interact.
But in between so many uncomfortable moments, I’ve also experienced a lot of beauty in those places. I continue to find myself strangely attracted to the clumsy interactions happening in our church. I love being a part of a people honestly grappling to figure out how to live in community together, convinced we were created for it.
Maybe more than anything, my new friends are teaching me that the discomfort of addressing brokenness is infinitely worth the cost. Eventually, we begin to see beautiful things.
About the Author: Jen Gunnels is a 2012 summer intern. She graduated in 2005 from Indiana University, where she studied journalism, political science and IU basketball. She loves sports, country music and the state fair and after feeling a stirring in her heart to leave her cubicle and go write, she is doing just that!