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I get to sit on a chair

As a young woman in my 20’s, during the dark days of Apartheid in South Africa, I visited a remote village with my husband, who was invited to speak at a church of a pastor we had befriended. Before the service started, we were led into his house for refreshments. It was a humble home with a few kitchen chairs and a small two-seater sofa. I was invited to take a seat.  I chose one of the kitchen chairs and then my husband, the pastor and two of his church elders sat down. At this point, the women of the house entered. The pastor’s wife, who brought in a tray of refreshments, walked in with bended knees, almost on her haunches. She placed the tray on a small table and sat on the floor. Next, the pastor’s daughters came in, walking low with eyes downcast, and sat on the floor. Then, an elderly woman, face filled with wrinkles, eyes small and clouded, bones thin as only the very elderly’s are, came in on her hands and knees, her face almost scraping the floor as she crawled and made her way across the room. She sat at my feet. I was appalled. I stood immediately and tried to help her up to take my seat. She shook her head vehemently. I looked over at the pastor who, too, had jumped up from his seat. Instead of assisting me with his elderly grandmother, he was asking me, no appealing to me, to take my seat. “Please,” he said to me. “Please, I ask that you sit back down on the chair.” I looked at him, then to the old woman who reminded me of my own great-grandmother, then back at him with total confusion. He saw my distress and explained. In his culture, he told me, the head of those who are subservient must be below the head of those with authority. That is why his wife walked into the room with her legs bowed – so that her head was below his and the other men in the room. Grandmother was scraping along on the floor because there were two white people (me and my husband) in the room and we were the ultimate authority. I remind you, I was in my twenties, a very young woman. This old, old woman who I am certain was at least in her nineties, thought of herself as my lesser. She would not allow me to sit on the floor while she sat on the chair. Never. And never in all her many, many years had a white person entered their home. She felt privileged.

On that day I came face to face with the complexity of culture, male dominance, female servitude, racial inequality and God alone knows what other issues that were swirling around that room on a sunny Sunday in 1984. In a small mud house built under the shade of an African thorn tree, I knew I was on a journey with justice. It is a journey that I still travel – some days with joy and other days quite wearily.

The very DNA of Orchard: Africa is justice. Justice stems from Christ’s mandate to love one another as he has loved us. Justice is an act of love. If justice is a part of Orchard: Africa’s DNA, as a leader of this organization I surely cannot stay silent at a time like this. I ask you, our partners and our friends, to hear me out with love, covering my inadequacies and my stumbling with patient grace. 

Whenever one person lords it over another, there is suffering and there is sin. Whenever a system is created that allows one group of humans to lord it over others, whether it be gender, race, culture, creed or made-up fairy dust, there is sin. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. It must not be like that among you.” I have walked this journey of justice long enough to know that domination takes many forms and likes to mutate within those forms:

- I have lived through the atrocities of Apartheid and, even though I saw the injustice and responded, I lived through it as a white person who got to sit on a chair.

- I have lived through the terrible sufferings of AIDS in Africa and have responded, but as a white woman never, not once, fearing that my own children would be orphaned and left destitute.

- I bear witness to the long-term, deep and dreadful social ills of fatherless societies in African townships and have responded, but as a white woman who had a father growing up and whose children have a father who is present in their lives.

- I bear witness to the terrible scourge of blatant and unfettered corruption of government in my home country, but as a white person who is not dependent on this very government for social grants to stay alive.

- I cannot even find adequate words for the horror of the brutal attacks and murders of white farmers that take place in South Africa. I, after all, live safely in my suburban home.

- And then, in the USA, my now-second-home, I hear the voice of black Americans who tell us, over and over again that they cannot breathe, and I respond, as I am today, but I do so as a white woman without a knee to my neck.

So, knowing full well that this list is not complete and that nothing on this list directly affects me, I ask … no, I call … no, I beg for justice because Jesus will not allow me to idly sit on my chair of privilege while some on this journey suffer because of overlords. Not so with us, his disciples!

South African Archbishop, Desmond Tutu said, “Peace comes when you talk to the guy you most hate.” Let us be makers of peace who have the courage to cross the road to talk to those who we do not yet understand. May God help us understand. This same Bishop Tutu said, “God's love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict.” May we accept that our point of view is not the only one and may we listen. Then, within our sphere of influence, let us act with justice and let us work to change any system around us that is unjust – even if that system benefits us. Perhaps, especially if we benefit from an unjust system. The ancient philosopher, Seneca, observed that “he has committed the crime who profits by it.”  

I have spent a lifetime on this journey with justice. I have stumbled, I have taken wrong turns, I have been broken and I have been healed. There is still a long road ahead and, borrowing two phrases from the bible, I gird my loins and I fix my eyes, and I journey on. I hope to find you on the road.

“He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8

May we think on these things!

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