Reflections on Charleston from 8,500 miles away

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As I type this, I am just about 8,500 miles away (straight line) from Charleston, South Carolina. I have not been able to keep up with all of the news of what took place and what is going on. My wifi isn’t fast enough for me to decently watch the Jon Stewart monologue that is filling up my Facebook feed (although I will definitely watch it when I get a chance). The picture I posted today is the one that kept coming to mind for me as I read some of the stories about the shooting in Charleston. This is my daughter two days ago teaching Z (not using her full name), our sponsored child through World Vision, how to play Rock, Paper, Scissors. We had a translator who told Z the basic rules but then she picked it up and she and my daughter had a great game of it, including several where Z won the rounds. It was beautiful.

It captured something that was shared the following night during the home group Bible study we participated with in a village in the rural Eastern Cape of South Africa. We were talking about the challenges that were present both here in South Africa as well as in the US and in several other places in the world and specifically got to talking about race relations. Ben asked the question, but how to get to a place where we can move beyond the divisions of skin color or nationality or background or language? As the group talked, we kept coming back to one word…relationship. Once we move into honest give-and-receive relationships with others who are different from us, I believe it is impossible for us to continue to hold the same perspectives and same prejudices that we once held before.

As I pray and grieve and lament what took place in South Carolina and as I hear the stories from people here about the distance still to go in reconciliation between black and white (and also between South Africans and others from different countries), I keep going back to that word…relationship. It has largely only been through letters and pictures and a short day’s visit, but my children have developed a relationship with Z. They cannot look at the world the same as a result of this relationship.

This is very much what we see in the examples of Christ in the Gospels – regardless of whether he agreed with another person, Jesus was in relationship with them. He shared meals with the Pharisees who the Gospels portray as ones trying to take Jesus down. He touched and spent time with those who were the “untouchables” of the day. Jesus was about the relationships that needed to be built.

One thing that has struck me in the two weeks we have had in South Africa is the long-reaching effects that apartheid has had upon this country. In nearly every city we have gone through, there are township areas of sheet metal shacks that are slowly being replaced by rows upon rows of small houses to replace the substandard housing. But the size of the effort is overwhelming to think about how many more homes are to be built. As we drove through Mossel Bay, we saw one of these areas only to go over the rise of the next hill to come to giant homes that overlook the ocean. I talked to a man named Neuwa at the District Six Museum in Cape Town who was a child in the area when he and his family and his neighbors and his community was moved against their will to a new part of Cape Town. He shared about the grief that he and his family and others felt as they were forced into this change and he spoke of the lasting effects that are still being felt decades later. I talked with two leaders of an initiative in the Mbashe region who are seeking to help young black men and women with job skills and self-image so that they know they can move beyond where they currently find themselves. And in the midst, I hear about what happened in Charleston and feel that we are taking steps backward in our country when we need to be walking forward together.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook today that we cannot just stick with forwarding other posts on Facebook or making declarations about how this can’t continue to happen. I have been praying about what to say or do about this most recent act of unjustifiable, unspeakable, and simply evil violence. There are a list of things I could put up about what others ought to do, steps to take, etc, but I am simply going to list one that I am going to focus upon when I get back to Cincinnati and invite others to participate as well.

Since last September, there has been a regular event on my calendar for a multi-ethnic group of churches, church leaders, and community leaders. Since attending a conference hosted by them last year, I have scheduled time to go and participate in this network.

How many times have I been there?

None.

This is going to change when I get home.

This will be a standing appointment that I will seek to keep because I want to be part of the solution to the problems that we have in our country. I can stand on the sideline and say how horrible this is and ask for God to have mercy on what we are doing to each other and to ourselves.

Or.

Or I can do something. I can work on building the relationships between people of different races and backgrounds and languages. I can help to build the bridges we must cross together and to tear down the walls that we have build to divide. If you are in the Cincinnati area, join me in this commitment. If you are outside the Cincinnati area, find ways that you can build relationships with others across these divides. I think its an old cliche, but its so true…if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. Let’s follow the model of Jesus and make a difference.

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