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i crawled into bed sometime after 2 this morning… Exhausted, challenged, frustrated, reflective, inspired, hopeful. It had been a long, packed day.

The night before had seen 11 of us sharing a meal and then sitting outside in our tiny courtyard, wrestling with the idea of what it means to Live Simply. Realising that even just the concept, idea and definition of ‘Living Simply’ was hugely up for debate. For one person it meant spending less; while for another a chase after living ethically meant that living simply was not an option as they saw it because it was more complicated and expensive to ‘do the right thing’ in certain areas; yet another person felt trapped into some excessive choices or habits because of the worthwhile work she was doing and what that required of her in certain areas.

We took some lead and inspiration from a book called ‘Free’ by Mark and Lisa Scandrette, where the tag line is simply, ‘Spending your Time and Money on What Matters Most’ – stories were shared, questions asked, tears at one time, light bulb moments and overall just a really good time of a small group of diverse South Africans coming together trying to figure out an important understanding in the midst of a complicated country.

SOUTH AFRICA NEEDS MORE CONVERSATIONS LIKE THESE

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Yesterday morning eight of us gathered together and had some coffee and then drove to Manenberg to meet with Jonathan, the leader of the Fusion team who work with gangsters, ex-prisoners and former prostitutes to try and give them a first chance.

No, you heard me right, one of the things Jonathan spoke into was the assumption that everyone has choice and gets to decide how their lives are lived and while there is some small element of that, we got to see how in an area like Manenberg, in the contexts they find themselves in from the beginning, that many peoples’ first choices can be really limited and that many of them really didn’t have much of a first chance to speak of at all. So they don’t use the language of ‘Let’s give them a second chance’ but rather, ‘Let’s give them a chance, and if they mess up, then we will give them a second chance.’

He wore a t-shirt that said ‘Love is Just’ on the front and asked us what it meant and people hazarded guesses to what seemed like a ridiculously obvious question – well of course you’re talking about Justice and how love is…?

Until he stood up and turned around and the back of his shirt read, “A Waste of Time.”

Stopped in our tracks.

Love is a waste of time. What do you mean?

Jonathan started to explain how the time they spend simply loving people and building relationship with them and pouring into their lives and looking for opportunities to give them a first chance will seem to most people in the world like a waste of time. We measure success on quick results and change and numbers and and and seeing the kind of transformation they hope to see in people takes a crazy huge investment of time in people most of society has given up on.

WHAT IS GOD SAYING TO YOU?

We took a walk around Manenberg for maybe ten to fifteen minutes [cos it was crazy baking hot] and the main rule was that you were not allowed to speak to anyone else in the group. Just look and listen and if any of the locals want to engage then by all means don’t be rude, but be silently asking the question as you walk, “What is God saying to you about this place?” “What is He busy doing here”

When we closed off back at the cars and Jonathan asked what we had heard, i spoke about the tendency and the ease of seeing the kind of obvious things of despair and hopelessness and unemployment and how i felt that was too negative so i had asked God, “Where is the hope?” and then started to see smaller things – the pride with which a number of the women who passed us carried themselves in terms of how they had dressed themselves up to look good and how someone had gone to the trouble of paining the big stones around a garden that itself was struggling in the heat to grow and a few other things like that – people determined to make the most of what for many felt like a bad situation.

Jonathan reminded us of the ease of seeing the negative but the importance of looking beyond that to the positive things that are there and looking to break out.

As a side note of interest i learned yesterday that one of the biggest gangs in Cape Town and possibly the country, the Hard Livings Gang, started out as a group of youngsters rallying together to protect people who were walking to and from the local station and regularly being robbed of their wages.

Somewhere along the way it completely lost or compromised that original intention, but so interesting to see the roots of something that has always felt like a negative to me when i’ve heard of it

One thing Jonathan said which i really enjoyed was kind of an inversion of the whole idea of ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ that so many people seem to have so much trouble with today [i don’t see it – i personally feel like it’s appropriate when people are looking at my life and so am happy to use it when looking at others]. But he shared their philosophy as “We believe in the person – we don’t condone the mess, but sometimes focusing on the mess can really stop you from seeing the person.” I like that way of looking at it.

AND THEN WE DIVED…

One thing i think South Africans do pretty badly is to be uncomfortable. [This is probably a post in itself].

When i am in a situation or a conversation that gets UNCOMFORTABLE or DIFFICULT or AWKWARD or PAINFUL then i need to stop it immediately. Change the topic or run away or get quiet and withdraw. But i don’t think we do uncomfortable well.

Part of my dream for last night’s meal conversation which i shared with everyone before hand was that i was hoping it would get uncomfortable, and all of those other things. i didn’t share so much that one of my biggest fears for last night was that it would get uncomfortable and all of those other things, because i too do not enjoy uncomfortable… but i think i appreciate a lot more, how important and helpful and necessary it can be.

i was not disappointed.

Anger. Tears. Physical shaking of a person’s body while they spoke. Disillusionment. Pain. Uncomfortability. Awkward. Really Difficult. Deeply personal.

And yet, so, so beautiful and important and helpful and transformative.

And from the sounds of things, all the conversations that happened afterwards, while people were cleaning up, or being driven home, or processing once they got home, were even better than everything we came up with in the evening.

DEEP DIVE CONVERSATION AROUND RACE

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Our friend Rene helped navigate and gently lead the time from a stance of i don’t know what we’re doing here but let’s try this [although i suspect she actually did] and with an opening line of, “We cannot talk about Race in this country without talking about Economics.”

We got into pairs with the person we knew least in the room and were asked to share one story where we felt proud of South Africa [or for our two visitors from Americaland, substituting their country]. Then we joined up with another pair and shared the story of the person we had been paired up with. [Focuses us and helps us to really listen to the story we heard].

When we came back to the big group we were invited to say what we had brought to the table in terms of the story we shared. What part did you play in that story? So for some it was Hope, for others it was Social Media presence and being able to invite others into the story, for another it was simply pitching up and being present… someone didn’t have a time when they felt proud of being South African, not twenty years ago, not today.

We listened and we held each others stories. And we reflected.

The rest of the evening was kind of a free for all with people asking questions and sharing stories and pushing back on what others had said and challenging other people on the words they used or the labels they placed on others or even themselves.

We discovered that that there are nine official different descriptions or labels for ‘coloured’. For Americans we know the term ‘coloured’ is offensive with ‘people of colour’ the preferred term. We had someone who was fine with being called ‘coloured’ but whose parents would be offended by the term and didn’t have a specific term they identified with. We had someone who was fine with ‘coloured’ or ‘black’ but don’t call me ‘non-white’ because of the notion of being defined as something you’re not or perhaps the idea that white is meant to be the standard that everything else is defined by. So in the same room of 14 people, just seeing the differences and complexities behind a  label.

i do feel very protective over the conversation we had last night and some things were just incredibly personal and painful and were for that time – sharing this post is simply about trying to give an idea of the power and necessity of conversations like this.

But two things made it on to the Notes app on my phone:

[1] “We are struggling with you and it’s not because of the demon in you, but it’s the demon that is in people who are like you.”

We saw how sometimes something a person said could be completely legit and honest and real and fine for them, but when it is a line that countless [white] people have used as an excuse or justification, then it can cause anger or a strong response, that can’t necessarily be justified in terms of that person but can hopefully be understood in the bigger picture of all of those other people.

[2] White people want to have the conversation [about restitution] but they don’t want to let go of the chair [the chair being a nearby prop that was held on to signifying our stuff, our comfort, our lifestyles, our choices] 

WHAT DID I TAKE AWAY?

Each person got a chance to share a final thought or reflection and then share a question that they walk away from the evening with.

For me it was the idea of the tension that exists between using broad brush strokes [which i do all the time] when speaking about race and privilege – with the understanding that a generalisation is a generalisation because it is something that is generally true… but that doesn’t cover every single person and case and scenario – which i believe is necessary in a country where it feels like SO MANY WHITE PEOPLE in particular still need to face up to their comfort and privilege and get their feet wet in these waters… BUT the absolute necessity of one on one relationship that will show you where for this person it is an issue and for that person it is not. We absolutely need the big conversations to continue to happen, but beyond that we need to be meeting face to face and breaking bread together and scratching past the surface to what lies beneath and genuinely walking a longer road.

The question i was left with was along the lines of, ‘What good things [within this greater conversation] do i continue to pursue and give time and energy to, and what good things do i recognise are not my good things to do?’ We can’t do everything and sometimes when we put all our energy towards a number of what might be really good things, we can be less effective than if we did a few less things but did them better.

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That famed philosopher, Jack Handey, once wrote that, “Before you criticise a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way you’ll be a mile away. And you’ll have his shoes.”

What i want to suggest [AND BEG YOU TO DO] is that South Africa as a whole needs more created spaces for the kinds of conversation that we saw happen the last two nights. They will not happen by accident. If you made it down this far, then YOU need to be making it happen. While we don’t have all of the answers, i feel like we have discovered some ways to host healthy conversations and we would love to throw out some ideas to anyone who is up to giving this a go.

Anger. Tears. Physical shaking of a person’s body while they spoke. Disillusionment. Pain. Uncomfortability. Awkward. Really Difficult. Deeply personal.

All of those happened. And we didn’t panic and close shop. We need to be creating spaces where other people feel free and safe to be able to be real about their pain and hurt and struggle and stories. We don’t need to fix them. We don’t need to silence them or explain it away or anything like that. We need to listen. We need to really hear. We need to step towards.

Aaron and i drove my friend Nkosi back to his home in Khayelitsha and then sat in the car and chatted for another hour and a bit. We shared some more stories. We heard some more pain. We asked some questions. We understood some things a lot better. We all ended up speaking about how confusing and complicated and difficult it all seemed. We committed to continuing to put ourselves in those spaces, and inviting others in as well. For me, that was the most powerful time of the evening, and part of it required an apology from me for something i had said or assumed that was not true [and that’s never easy or fun].

We arrived home to surprisingly find tbV still up and speaking to Aaron’s wife Sarah [i mean we’re talking 2am now, i’m not sure that time exists on tbV’s watch and so it was obvious that good conversation had been happening there as well]. i have no doubt other conversations continued in cars and homes and will do so today and beyond.

This does not feel like a luxury for me. It is a necessity. And it can’t end with conversation at all. But for SO MANY PEOPLE out there it has to at least get to this place.

May 2016 be a time of intentionally breaking bread together with those who do not look or sound [or have similar shared stories] like us, may we commit to diving deep in conversations that matter, may we choose to be significant, may we be open to being exposed to anger, hurt, fear, misunderstanding, judgement, challenge, uncomfortability, awkward, pain and then commit to moving through it to discover together what might be waiting for us on the other side. We absolutely can’t afford not to.

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