South Africa is in trouble. When we have to call in the Army to ensure order is maintained at Parliament there can be no doubt that we’re heading down the wrong path. I believe the reason we’re in the state we’re in is simple. We’re not talking to each other – we are becoming more and more polarized as we struggle to find solutions to the challenges we face. Race is a hot divisive favourite with land brewing in the background. Desperate politicians use these popular issues to separate us – fast turning it into a game of who can kick the racial ball the hardest to win cheap political points.
For those sceptical that “just talking” can do it, let me share a personal story. Last week I had the privilege of accompanying a group of 34 senior church leaders from all the mainline and large independent churches within the Bay to spend three days at Carmel Retreat Centre unpacking racism, privilege and prejudice. The “What’s your Story” workshop was conducted by facilitators from the non-profit organization Heartlines, and its objective was to build understanding, trust and reconciliation through a sharing of our stories.
Much happened over these three days, but I want to relate one experience that spoke to me simply through its (physical) imagery. At a point the facilitators had us stand in the middle of a field in a straight line. Then they instructed us to take two steps forward if for instance we had books in our homes when growing up, two steps backwards if we had none. Two steps forward if our family went on annual holidays, two steps backwards if you stayed at home. When the exercise stopped my black Christian brothers were standing on one side of the field and myself and my white Christian brethren on the other. There was simply no denying the divide between us. Thereafter we were invited to tell our stories, with the field in mind there was no waffle, we couldn’t stay within our comfort zones, we spoke, we spoke to our truth and we started a journey of joint discovery. Each of us had a story to tell, but we had to open ourselves to listening to the stories of others before we could get anywhere.
As a consequence of the workshop, I’m very happy to report that the church leadership of Nelson Mandela Bay has decided to partner with Heartlines in launching a “Storytelling Revolution” in NMB. You’ll hear more about that over the coming months. The ultimate objective is to have three million South Africans sharing their stories with each other. White and black South Africans don’t appear to know how to talk to each other. The “What’s your Story” approach is designed to get people talking – you may know my name but do you know my story?
Many know that the issue of race has been on my heart for some years now and I try to initiate discussions on it wherever I go. Generally, I’m met with one of four responses, I don’t want to talk about it, I’m happy to wax lyrical but do nothing, we should just bring everyone to the Lord and then all will be well or how can I be part of the solution. It weighs heavily on my heart that so many responses are defensive and those good people are unwilling to question their own practices. I certainly am no saint – much of my own personal challenge has been in seeing my own prejudice. Carmel again was an opportunity to question my own bias just through listening to the stories of others and then being able to tell my own. In doing so I’ve been better able to see the other person, to see sides to people I never knew existed, even after knowing them for years. No matter how uncomfortable it is me for me personally, I want to be part of the solution, my faith is central to me, but as a guide and challenge not as a defence. I am certainly not one who is about just talking, there must be action, but I can confirm from personal experience that the change we need only starts when we open ourselves when we leave our comfort zones. Deciding to talk is where it starts.
I’m also certain we cannot leave this solely in the hands of the politicians. I think the church has and must play a leading role to play in bringing about the healing we so desperately need. I really believe we need a revolution in this country of ours, but the revolution is in how we see one another, how we talk to one another and how willing we are to open ourselves to the stories of others. If we can do this, then maybe we can walk side-by-side in tackling the pain of the past and the present. Then perhaps we can jointly overcome the challenges of inequality, unemployment and poverty. I think we will be surprised to find that we share the same goals, that we have the same hopes for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. I really hope I can convince you to join me on this journey.