Running in Soweto

Last week, my Nashville church, St. George’s, lost a beloved and faithful member. Across the miles, I feel the loss of Don, a dear friend and an instrumental role-player in my journey to become a missionary to South Africa.

2007 Team. (Don is on the far left.)
2007 Team. (Don is on the far left.)

I first started coming to South Africa with outreach teams from St. George’s, and Don was one of the organizers. I have many fond memories of him on these trips, but my favourite one is of his running in Soweto. In this township where so many white South Africans are too scared to venture in, Don, a short, white American man, would get up early in the morning to go running. I thought this was super cool but rather risky. Yet I enjoyed hearing his stories about the people with whom he met and talked along the way. I thought it would be cool to go running with Don one morning, but 1) I don’t run and 2) he got up really, really EARLY to go running; and I was always exhausted and ready for any extra minutes of sleep I could get on these jam-packed mission trips.

Now I wish I had gone running with Don, but I am grateful for this memory I have of him and for this lesson he taught me about perceptions of certain areas. Sometimes we just need to get out of our comfort zone and take a run—or a nice long walk.

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Perceptions

selfie with learners in Afrikaans class @ Heathfield High
selfie with learners in Afrikaans class @ Heathfield High

Earlier this week, I spoke at the Heathfield High School assembly, talking about the upcoming Youth Alpha we are going to run in the school. Last Friday, I spoke during chapel at Bishops Diocesan School, encouraging the boys to be open to God’s call on their lives as they make plans that will shape their future. They are two schools from very different worlds—one is in a coloured area, attracting co-ed learners from a primarily low-income background and attracting many African immigrants. The other school is probably the most elite boys’ school in the country; it would be similar to America’s Woodberry Forest School.

I love working with young people in South Africa. I have to admit that I often have an instant “in” with them as soon as I open my mouth. They are so fascinated about America and American culture and often ask me the most interesting and sometimes uncomfortable questions.

Although I have been living in Cape Town for more than two and half years, I am still somewhat dumbfounded over the prevalence of American culture in this country. If you turn on a pop radio station, 90% would be American singers. Reality shows, police dramas, Dr. Oz and the like, and sitcoms from the States dominate TV channels. What’s showing at the cinema? mainly American movies. But what is really sad is that a lot of the entertainment we export here doesn’t paint us Americans in a good light.

Young people often ask me, Is everybody wealthy in America? Do you have any homeless people? Is it really that violent there? Many are shocked to find out that we have homelessness, people addicted to the same drugs that are destroying lives here, and other issues. Many African youth are fascinated with African Americans and our culture. Have you met Jay Z?, a young man recently asked me. Do rappers really dress like that? I love how African Americans speak. I love your gospel music. I often smile. I can relate to some of those cultural questions; others, I cannot. It gets complex.

I think what grieves me the most are shows, such as My Sweet Sixteen and Pimp My Ride. Many youth think it’s not uncommon for Americans to spend $10,000 on a young person’s 16th birthday, and this insane excess is influencing them to pressure their parents to pay a lot of money (sometimes going into debt) for matric balls (similar to the American prom) and 21st birthday parties. I try to explain to young people that these reality shows aren’t real; that’s why these extremes are on TV. Ordinary Americans don’t live like that.

As we live as community, we begin to break down perceptions such as these; and that is one of the beauties and challenges of cross-cultural living.