Glimpses Of The St Peter’s Story: Eating To Bridge Cape Town’s Divisions

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This is the first in a new series of posts giving non-chronological snapshots of the story of our church’s life.

His name was Peter, but most knew him as Green Eyes. He had been part of our regular Thursday Community Supper for most of the six and a half years that we have been meeting. This supper isn’t an act of food provision, and it’s not a project that aims to serve the marginalised. It exists to provide a space for people to eat good food together, to listen to each other, to get to know each other without the pressure of time or the divisions of one of the world’s most unequal cities getting in the way.

Over time we have found that many of those who attend regularly are poor or marginalised in some way; a good number of them sleep outside. Our policy is that we are not a soup kitchen; we serve food to people at their tables rather than expecting them to queue up. The university professors who attend sit and eat the same food as those with no job, sleeping on the street. Some of us who are more privileged come to cook or wash-up or serve food to tables; some attempt to shepherd the children in a room at the back of the church; some of us just sit and listen and talk. For all of us, the goal is the same – this is about community, about knowing each other. Sometimes, towards the end of the evening, we’ll have a very informal and short expression of the Communion Service around one of the tables.

Peter was well-known locally, and especially well known amongst us. He often came on a Thursday drunk; but we don’t turn away for being under the influence of drugs or drink – unless they’re very disruptive. After all, most among us who come are under the influence of caffeine; prone to greed; frequently found to be binge-watching; slaves to lust; prone to anger. But we don’t stop those people at the door; so to do so to others would seem to be a strange double-standard. It’s not as if the Jesus whom we claim as our model turned people away because of their addictions.

When we got to know Green Eyes, he would tell us why he came to Thursday Supper. “I don’t come for the food. I can get that anywhere.” (This is true – if you are desperate, food of some description can usually be sourced if you know where to look). “I come here for respect.” He understood the essence of what we are about; it’s not about the food.

Some so-called homeless ministries serve food past it’s sell-by date; some have their guests sit and listen to a talk. We don’t. We eat good, fresh food. And we listen. And we talk. And sometimes share Communion. Out of that has grown a partnership with an NGO run by one of our number which assists people into rehab programmes and night-shelters, and has seen success in doing so. Out of that has arisen a series of friendships which nourish us longer than a meal does.

A couple of months ago Green Eyes’ wife appeared at Thursday supper, distraught. He had died from complications associated with TB. He hadn’t had a funeral. So with her, we arranged one in the church. The family’s first language is Afrikaans – so I had little to do or say. Much of it was led by our friend and church member Craig, in Afrikaans. Memories were shared. Craig talked about us seeing and knowing each other across Cape Town’s divisions; and how Jesus saw and knew Zaccheus; and how Jesus sees and knows us, too. It was simple and profound; and I only understood what a few of the words meant.

Now on Saturday mornings a group of Thursday night regulars meet together, whoever wants, to read the Bible together and to talk about it means for them. In doing so, no one is teaching or leading, so much as all are reading together – trying to shed the layers that years of religion and systematization has enforced.

This is our church. Well, a large part of it. There’s also our 2 Sunday services. which look more like Sunday services are often expected to. But really we think of ourselves as having three services – 2 on Sunday, 1 on Thursday – all of which are in a process of evolution which we hope is God-guided. We are trying – sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding – to build with God a church in which power is equalised, division rejected and our common status as image-bearing children of God celebrated. It’s hard and messy, and there’s little in the way of strategy or structure. As one friend put it in his PhD research on the subject, this is mission as improvised jazz as opposed to finally structured song or symphony. We don’t know what this will lead to, but it seems to us and the Holy Spirit to be good.

 

 

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Leave No Trace: Rural Beauty And Trauma’s Silent Screams

One of the insidious traps of depression and trauma is that just when you most need connection with others who understand at the deepest levels what you are going through, you find yourself all the more desperate to isolate yourself. It’s a cruel trap to be caught in, and the only hope for exit is to either ask for help or to stumble across someone who’s in the same position as you.

This is the territory occupied by Leave No Trace, the latest film from director Debra Granik, who in 2010 gave us the remarkable Winter’s Bone, a slow-burn mystery set amidst the trauma of inexorable rural poverty – a film most famous for effectively launching the career of Jennifer Lawrence. The seeds of Lawrence’s success were evident in Winter’s Bone; Leave No Trace features another remarkable central performance from a young woman in the shape of Thomasin McKenzie, and it would be no surprise if her career followed a similar trajectory to Lawrence after this.

It’s another film more concerned with suggestion than statement, with relationship rather than plot at the forefront. That’s not to say nothing happens in the film – in fact the film’s events are world-shaping for the protagonists. A teenage girl and her father live, by choice, off-grid in an Oregon urban park; they suddenly find their world disturbed by outside forces, setting in motion a series of events and decisions which will forever alter their lives and their relationship. The reasons for their decision are never made fully clear; we know the mother of the family has died, but we don’t know the details of how or when. It gradually becomes apparent that the father, Will, is an army veteran harbouring deep pain from his service – but this isn’t ever fully explained. Even before life is disrupted, there are hints that they are always besieged by the possibility of disturbance; early on a pack of dogs surrounds their tent at night, attempting to claw at them through the canvass. They have to hide from police at work in the park; a trip to the city for supplies is presented as akin to a trip to an alien planet, the angular, surfaces displayed with the sheen of futurism.

BELOW ARE SPOILERS FOR LEAVE NO TRACE

Events force father and daughter from place to place, never settling – leaving places under cover of dark or taking advantage of moments of isolation to move on. Animals and their homes are important throughout this – a beehive, a rabbit briefly escaped, returned to its owner, a spider’s web – a hint of what the central characters are looking for but seemingly unable to achieve. Finally, they seem to do so – a small, isolated community within which the daughter at least seems to find a place of understanding. She assumes her father has too; but she’s wrong. Where she seems to have found what her trauma had caused her to lose, he hasn’t. He needs to keep going, keep looking, keep hoping. His buried trauma seems to compel him to a final act of isolation, wilful and chosen, potentially keeping at bay the very relationship that was keeping him intact. Is his final choice selfish, necessary, an act of self-harm, or all three of those? We’re invited to make our own decision.

The gentle but unmistakeable power of Leave No Trace lies in its long silences, which communicate much about what the characters are unable to express and into which we are invited to project our own decisions and suggestions. Are our own traumas and fears as self-isolating as those of the central characters? Whilst the off-grid life initially seems idyllic, the fact that it is effectively a life on the run from being disturbed is not presented as a romantic or idyllic choice. It’s rather the choice of people unable or unwilling to communicate their deepest needs – perhaps even unable to articulate them for themselves, let alone anyone else. Thus, for all its rural beauty  – and the cinematography and sound-design really do foreground this beauty – Leave No Trace presents us with an eloquent parable of the isolation that trauma and mental health forces its victims into; the film gives voice to the silent pain of those needing gently healing community yet unable to fully embrace it.

This is a beautiful, gentle film; but one that is no less significant for its understated nature. Will we allow the voiceless to speak, and be comfortable enough to allow their silence to speak interrupt our ham-fisted attempts to fill the void? And what are our trauma and fears, which push us into isolation at the very moment we most need relationship? It’s a film with more questions than answers, and all the better for it.

Losing Home, And Finding It

Bereavement is a journey for which there are no road maps. Many of us are familiar with the stages of grief that many researchers and therapists talk about – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance; DABDA. Many now accept that this isn’t a linear, one way journey; it’s more of a description of the various places we can pinball back and forth amongst, often with alarming suddenness and speed as we continue to live with the reality of the death of people we love.

My father died on the 9th August this year, leaving me without parents. His death wasn’t unexpected, but the final descent was somewhat abrupt. Even so, I was by and large prepared for his death. Living a hemisphere away from him and facing various challenges of my own that made it difficult to travel, I had reconciled to myself some time ago the possibility – even likelihood – that I may not see him again before he died. The funeral date took some organising; my sister also lives abroad from our birth-town of Edinburgh, so we had to co-ordinate around our various family commitments. Still, arrangements were made, and we eventually made it to our Air BnB a short drive from where we were lived as children.

It was a precious, sweet time – not without busyness and tears, of course; but there was less busyness than others at this stage of life have, thanks to my Dad’s lawyers being professional, personal and efficient (a pleasing combination of traits). There was a lot we didn’t have to do. The funeral came on a cool, crisp later-summer Edinburgh Saturday; the sort of day when the city shows off both its natural and architectural beauty with a kind of proud swagger that’s irresistible to tourist (this was the end of Edinburgh Festival season) and inhabitant alike. It was a lovely, moving, memorable day.

The day after, Sunday, my sister and I returned to the church where the funeral was held – the same one we had been bought up attending, and with which I still have links with. I spoke in the service about our work in Cape Town. We chatted to old friends; in the afternoon I relaxed and watched movies.

On the Monday morning we had an appointment with the lawyers to talk about Dad’s estate. It was straightforward, and there were no nasty surprises. I left my sister to her own devices in order to amble, via shops, to meet a friend for a film and lunch; I felt OK, but something unidentifiable nagged. It was only after I made my way back to the flat from meeting my friend that I realised – via a WhatsApp message from my wife – why I was beginning to struggle in unidentified ways. I was losing my sense of home. I suddenly realised that a place I had always come back to at some point was no longer a one where the familiarity of family, home and roots would exist. I didn’t know when I would be back. I walked slowly, the colours and sounds of the city amplified to remind me that I didn’t know when I’d see them again.

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A couple of days later and I was back in Cape Town, back with my wife and kids, and back into the swing of work and life. But an alarming sense of rootlessness remained. I realised I’d moved around so many times  – I calculated that at the age of 45 I’d moved house 15 times and countries once. My wife had moved rather less – until we moved to Cape Town, she’d never lived outside the M25 circular road that attempts to keep London in its place. I was beginning to question where my home was; not that I was unhappy in either my family life or my working-life (I’m not, to be clear). It was a sense, growing and laden with grief, that I didn’t belong anywhere. I’m reminded, for example, at least once a week, often in as many words, by a local that the reason I do/say/wear something is because I’m a foreigner. My foster children are fluent in languages I barely understand. And so on.

I expressed this on social media, and a friend both affirmed this as a real sense of loss (as my therapist had also done), and recommended a book called Home by Jo Swinney. The author is married to a minister, and has moved homes and countries more than me. If ever there was a book designed for me, in this moment, then this seemed to be it. I bought it and started almost instantaneously.

As I read, much resonated and rang true and appeared to be helpful. But something wasn’t quite hitting home. Something felt like it wasn’t working for me or providing the answers I sought. I didn’t think it was a fault in the book – though obviously there were places where differences in our contexts and experiences meant I couldn’t quite connect with the details of what she was saying. Maybe it was a fault in me? I didn’t think so. I was open to new thinking; it just wasn’t quite landing.

It was only in the last couple of chapters that it clicked. I had thought she was providing a series of different ways we find home – church, family, place … and so on, inviting us to find the one that works for us. I had done her a disservice. She was erecting a home, layer upon layer. It needed its final floor to be a complete home. The final floor, the part that finally made sense of it all, was the need to find home in what we do. That’s complex for a minister – everything can seem so temporary, at the whim of a Bishop or God. I have no plans to move anywhere, but Cape Town still seems foreign and I have always seemed to feel slightly out of place everywhere I go, even before moving countrie. The book helped me see that I needed to add, or emphasise more, activities in my life that are not work (in the sense that it’s what I’m paid to do), but that give me life and joy, and where I’m using what gifts God has placed in me in ways that are fulfilling. Writing – this blog – is that thing for me (in a similar way to how writing is for Jo Swinney as expressed at the end of her book).

I don’t know quite what that means or how it looks in reality. I process thoughts and feelings best by writing; having written, I find I can (if necessary) speak about it. This blog really serves a large part of that purpose for me, allowing me to work out what I think about various things in a way I enjoy; the enjoyment or help it may bring others really is secondary in that sense. But I find that in this new era of my life I need to give myself permission to do this – and that may well mean a few changes over the next while to how I use this platform.

I lost my father, my second parent. Clearly that’s sad, and there’s grief associated with that. But it’s the rootlessness that is leading me to a new, intangible place (not a move of location, but a move of mental roots). It’s often repeated that the world is smaller than it used to be, populations increasingly mobile; immigration may be the big political issue of the day. As that continues, we may find the experience I’m describing here reflected and refracted in many different ways and different contexts. We – especially those of us in the church, who seek to point people to an eternal home – need help to rethink what we mean by home and help those we encounter to do so with us. Jo Swinney’s book may be the first resource to help us do that.

In Which A White Man Pontificates On Black Anger, or Finding Words To Respond To BlacKkKlansman

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Urgency and reflection do not often sit together – and nor should they. Usually. When an ambulance receives an emergency call, the crew don’t sit around reflecting on what might be the best treatment; they don’t pour over maps together discerning the best route to the site of the emergency. It’s all done on the fly, usually with the support of others. Other times reflection is important, no matter the apparent urgency. I may feel it’s urgent to add my thoughts to a discussion, for instance – my perspective is burning in my heart with every passing syllable, but as an introvert I frustratingly find I can’t get a word in edgeways with which to dispense my pearls. But reflect a moment: is my voice really needed? Is what I have to say really that revolutionary or perceptive?
BlacKkKlansman, the new film from Spike Lee, has arrived on a wave of urgency and hot-takes and opinion pieces. I’m a white man, and film criticism has a superfluity of people from that demographic. In all honesty there are very few people waiting for my take on it. That’s all well and good, until one sees the film. It may be set in the past but the subject-matter, the film’s extraordinary epilogue and the way that epilogue is carefully but clearly foreshadowed throughout the film make clear that this is indeed an urgent film. The end result of seeing this film is so overwhelming and moving, so urgent and clearly of profound relevance to the world in which we live, that I stumbles out of the cinema desperate to talk to someone about it. But I couldn’t. I could barely form the words to talk to my wife about it (with whom I saw it); I managed a few whispered conversations along the lines of ‘It’s great. Those last 10 minutes; wow’. But it’s been hard to articulate what and how and why I think about it all.
Then along came Serena Williams, racket smash and foul-mouthed tirade and all, to complicate matters. I found the voice to comment on that, on what I feel was racially tinged, sexist treatment of her both on court and in the media. Somehow I found myself trying to link Serena and BlacKkKlansman and Donald Trump and a few other things besides. My magpie mind rarely moves in straight lines, but still I couldn’t quite articulate it.
Here I am, a week or so on from seeing BlacKkKlansman, still unable to fully articulate a response to it. The facts are quite simple. Based on a somewhat extraordinary true story that seems too bizarre to be real, it’s the story of Ron Stallwaorth, an African-American police officer in Colorado who uses his voice on the telephone to infiltrate the local branch of the KKK in the 1970s; in a bizarre echo of Cyrano De Bergerac, his white colleague Flip Zimmerman incarnates his telephone personality. Much of it is played for laughs – and the laughs are real, out-loud, clever ones. The performances are note-perfect, pitching the comedy with just the right undertones of impending suffering. It’s in the film’s final act that the story takes a fully dark, disturbing tone – personalities unravel and events spiral out of of everyone’s control; then, in the film’s coda, we find ourselves with documentary footage of Trump and emboldened white-supremacy on the streets of Charlottesville. A character’s earlier insistence that America would never elect someone who would appeal to the KKK’s base rings in our ears, exposing the lies of comfortable liberalism in the same way as the heightened reality of Get Out did.
This is no heightened reality, however (no criticism of Get Out’s take on things – it worked brilliantly); the last few minutes of footage I had studiously avoided from seeing in detail in news reports becomes inescapable; the reality of a white supremacist in the White House exposed as a sin to lay at the door of smug white liberalism as much as at the feet of those walking the streets of Charlottesville with flaming torches. The film is a cry of rage and a call to action made all the more audible by the film’s respect for its medium and its audience – it never forgets the importance of telling a good story, of being funny and exciting. We finish on a still image of a young white woman who died in the protests at Charlottesville, her dates underlined with the maxim ‘Rest In Power’.
In truth, I still don’t know what to think or say about all this. It’s clearly Spike Lee’s best film for a while; perhaps his masterpiece (which is quite something, given his back catalogue). It’s certainly important, as much as I hate the worthiness so often associated with the word as applied to art. What I can say, though, is that this film shows me abundantly and completely that the world doesn’t need the pontificating of over-privileged white men like me. It needs us to listen, and then not act. Listen to the times, listen to the voices of the marginalised and fearful, then to do what they ask us to do. Above all, it tells us never to rest in the comfortable lie of ‘It will never happen’. It will, it did, and it is. In America, and with growing confidence in many other countries.