I like the “s”

I’ve been in a place called Lutheran Theological Institute (LTI) in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. It’s about 60 kilometers North of Durban. It is pretty much on the opposite side of the country from Cape Town. It’s a different state with a different dominant culture and language, Zulu.  But here on campus the students come from all over Africa. My roommate is from Zimbabwe, and other friends are from Botswana, Rwanda, Zambia and, of course, South Africa. There is also a large Indian population.

It’s a stew of nationalities, ethnicities and ideologies.

LTI is connected with and right across the street from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). LTI is a Lutheran college and UKZN is a secular university with a Department of Theology. LTI is steeped in traditional liturgy and church structures. UKZN’s Department of Theology is a school of liberation with a history of fighting apartheid through liberation theology and a progressive stance.

I have been attending a few classes and lectures mostly at UKZN. One of the classes I really enjoy is an African Worldviews theology course. The class proves over and over again that the most significant letter in African Worldviews, is the letter “s.” Just like the class, this place is varied, colorful and challenging. It has plenty of mind blowing contradictions and discrepancies. It has thoughtful conversations and mutual interest. I like the “s.”

I might be in class at UKZN but I live, eat and attend daily chapel at LTI. Some pictures of LTI…

District 6

District 6 is a museum in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a museum to tell a particular story of an area once inhabited by people of a mostly “non-European” background who were slowly, systemically and for the most part forcibly removed from their homes and their land. It’s a museum that in its particularity shows a face of apartheid; its horror and disrespect, its insanity and its reality.

District 6 was the sixth district of Cape Town. The museum’s website explains:

“In 1966 it was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950, and by 1982, the life of the community was over. 60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were flattened by bulldozers.”[1]

Here is a headline of one then-current day paper. You might not be able to make out the first line of the article, it reads, “The bulldozers eat like a cancer into the life of District Six. Everyday new patches of raw earth appear like open wounds. People watch in silent groups as the tangible links with their memories disappear before their eyes.”[2]

One street pre-1966, notice the church at the end of the street for a point of reference…Same street post 1982It was a large area of town…

Yes, that’s a Langston Hughes quote on the map, “Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

The museum does a great job of giving dignity and showing life. The government of apartheid must have been able to shield itself from the humanity that was alive and well in District 6. It was not a romantic perfect place, the museum points that out too, but it was a place. A place of real humans that live, breath, love and bleed every day… What is it that grows in the collective mind that gets us to believe that another group of people are less than us? Or do not even think of the other? What is happening in our hearts when we can turn away from the cries of babies, of families and of the generations? What is this? Hate, fear, ignorance, greed, faith…? What is it?

This didn’t and doesn’t just happen in South Africa. It happens over and over again, in so many states, nations and times. Maybe the systems and the methods aren’t exactly the same but the separation, disrespect and insanity are.


[2] Display at the District 6 Museum in Cape Town, SA.

Hello South Africa…

… well hello Cape Town anyway…

Compared to living in India, I feel like I am back home in the states again. Many things feel familiar to me, more “western” … yet I am not at home, I am in South Africa, the province of the Western Cape and even more specifically the city of Cape Town. And things are not the same. Life here is owned by its people, its rhythms, its flavors, its sights, its history and its politics.

I’m just starting to soak some of it in…

Goodbye India…

India you loved me, you hated me, you fed me, you starved me, you clothed me, you stripped me of my expectations, you shocked me, you gave me a gentle peace, you shared your stories with me, you gossiped behind my back, you kept me separate from you and you took me in as one of your own…

India you clarified, confused, challenged and helped me to better understand me, my hopes, my prejudices, my way of seeing the world … You gave me many opportunities to think twice, notice the subtleties and consider a different way to react and to be…

I see you differently than before I arrived … not better, not worse just more truly, more humanly, less naively.

Goodbye India … don’t forget me, I will never be able to forget you …you are now a part of who I am.

I’ll see you again … some day …but for now, I will carry you in my heart …

(And no I’m not back in the states … my next post – South Africa…)

One affects another

I can’t even tell you how many things I couldn’t see when I first got here in India. Then over time my eyes began to adjust to the environment, I began to see new things. Similar to taking a different route home from work or walking somewhere instead of driving, the view changes and details begin to emerge; you begin to see what has been staring you in the face all along.

I needed it pointed out, but now I see it everywhere, the ugly rather unsettling face…

And once you see it you see it everywhere. In construction lots,

In front of the Dealership

This face is to ward off the evil eye. It looks evil and ugly; and I guess that is sort of the point, it disrupts the evil, envious or overly doting gaze that causes bad things to happen… or so it is thought.

Some will call it superstition, but I think that there is some truth lurking in the evil eye at least within the widely held Indian understanding…

And that truth being that we do often look at things and people with envy, jealousy and even malice.  With that envy, jealousy and malice; love, hope and peace don’t come easily. My envy and jealousy can easily disrupt my own peace. The evil eye, it is believed, sends that negative energy to the object of envy resulting in misfortune and illness for the object. So many people do many things to protect themselves from the affects of the evil eye.

Some use a more artistic rendering of an eye looking back at you…

And others use a simple black dot on the forehead or cheek of a child

Whatever the mode of dealing with the evil eye, it all points to a real acknowledgement that we can be jealous and that when we operate out of that mindset, people can be affected.

I’m not a fan of the evil eye but I love the willingness to acknowledge that we are human and our lives affect one another.

The Star of Christmas

To be a Christian in India means many things. But most distinctly at Christmas time it means to hang a star. All Christian homes hang a star and often a lit star in front of or over their homes. You see stars often large and bright, and some with the greeting, “Happy Christmas!” at churches, Christian schools and even some businesses. It’s a subtle yet quite visible reminder that … “at this house we are Christian.” A simple star that points the way to the center of Christmas, a simple star that says its Christmas time and we remember the coming of God in Jesus.

We remember that God came into the world in human flesh, in the form of a baby, innocent and weak, beautiful and full of love to dwell amongst us in this world to feel the things we feel; joy and pain, love and hatred, friendship and betrayal.  Remember Jesus as the center, the reason and the star of Christmas!

Happy Christmas!

Christmas comes quietly…

I guess that makes sense in a land where only about 2.3% of the population understands themselves to be Christian… Christmas doesn’t hit you over the head like it does in the states with the radio playing Christmas music everywhere, every shopping mall and individual store decked out with sparkly excess, individuals with inflatable lawn ornaments and an intense debate and challenge for many churches trying to claim Advent against a Christmas backdrop that seeks to dull your senses and lull you into a shopping frenzy only “befitting of a Christmas season.”

Of course other holidays and festivals garner much attention at different times. October celebrated the Hindu festival of Diwali, the festival of lights which to American eyes felt like Christmas in the shopping malls in the days leading up to this big festival. And the night of which felt like the 4th of July (American Independence Day) on steroids. From the roof top that I was able to be on that night, I could look in any direction to see amazing displays of fireworks. I can’t imagine the cost in Indian Rupees, though the cost in air pollution was a little more obvious…

But Christmas seems quiet in the days before it comes. I like the preparation time that feels maybe more like Advent but I have to admit missing a little of the buzz.

Still I was able to find Mary and the baby Jesus under the tree…

The colors of red and green…

The comingling of the sacred and the secular…

Kindness and Love

A couple weeks ago I would have told you that I am exhausted. Exhausted physically. Exhausted mentally. Even exhausted emotionally. Traveling is awesome and it can be exhausting and overwhelming too.

And I got overwhelmed. I was sick, I was alone and I found my tipping point.

Or was I alone?…

I called a friend and before I could say a word, the tears began to flow… the next thing I knew I was at my friend’s grandmother’s home being nursed back to health. Her English was sparse but complete enough for us to communicate on the bare essentials. She feed me my favorite south Indian foods, monitored my liquids, let me sit with her, let me sleep in her room so that I would not be alone, held my hand …

She just let me rest, recover and come back to me.

While I was with her in the country, I rested, read and watched the animals, even they slept a little siesta in the middle of the day.

I don’t think I even realized how much she had done for me until the last day I was with her. I went in to her room to say thank you and goodbye and once again before I could even speak, the tears began to flow. She reached out her hand to mine and looked at me with knowing eyes… I reminded her that when I came to her I was so sick and so homesick … and that she brought me back to health. She told me that it was good for her Mother’s heart to be able to care for me. I hugged her with more tears.

What kindness, what selfless love! Look at this beautiful woman’s eyes and smile, it’s written all over her!

Monkeys love Orange Soda

Who knew???

I made it to Agra, home of the world’s most beautiful building, the Taj Mahal. It was everything I was told it would be, awe-inspiring, worn, and packed with tourists and touts… But I was there, SEEING THE TAJ MAHAL!!!! Doing what absolutely everyone else does when they come to visit, taking a ridiculous number of pictures … the whole palace, part of the palace, me with the whole palace, me with part of the palace, with this light, with lots of people,  oh look the haze is starting to clear up … no less than 100 pictures later, I share with you this one.

But believe it or not there is more to see in Agra than the famed testament to love… there’s the Itimad-ud-Daulah which is referred to as the Baby Taj. Obviously it is much smaller but it is also easier to see. It’s a quiet respite after the noise and the crowds of the Taj and the city of Agra.

There’s also the Agra Fort, which is somewhat a kin to the more well-known Red Fort in Delhi and gorgeous all the same.

But even with all the beauty, the scary monkeys still stole the show. Shamelessly putting their personalities on full display for all us tourists to see …

The mother instinct seems present in all species … but so does a feisty spirited nature…

We were walking into the Agra Fort, there was one of those subtle disturbances … an audible gasp was heard and the crowd parted ,,, out through the opening came sprinting none other than a monkey clinching the freshly stolen orange soda bottle from an unsuspecting tourist …

He found an open area of cement planted himself down and instantly became the tour’s highlight as we turned our back to the fort and put all eyes on him…

Joy, sorrow and the basics of everyday…

Welcome to the Ganges! The holy river of Northern India where one trip thru the city of Varanasi on a boat will reveal a whole spectrum of human realities and ritual both religious and benign…

The holy city of Varanasi is all at once picturesque and haunting, powerful and intimate… All the sights, sounds and smells to someone like me create a real clash or dare I say, cacophony, but to the faithful believer the rhythmic harmony of life is played out at the Ghats of the Ganges. There is a never ending stream of bather’s lathering up, what seems like the entire cities laundry being washed, cows coming to cool themselves, bodies being burned for Hindu cremation, garlands of flowers placed in the river for hopes and dreams, children playing, people working, and a ton of wide-eyed tourists not sure of what to make of it all.

It’s a microcosm of the India I am learning to love, where everything that we neatly characterize and separate in the west collides expectantly as a natural rhythm of life here. Now I don’t want to sound overly romantic, because believe me some of the aromatic qualities of this rhythm are definitely not romantic, in fact they can be just plane foul. But there is something real and raw about life here; in so many ways it’s right in front of you. And you get to decide what you’ll do with it…

Will you concentrate on the stacks of timber used at funerals?

Will you get caught up in the architecture or the landscape?

Will you notice the religious bathers and the women who want their photo taken?

Will you see the faces of these happy kids who found some things that most of us would throw away and made it into the best toy a young boy could hope for?

What will you see?