Friday, May 28, 2010

ask, search, knock

Yesterday we went to the bank with two members of the Bible School committee to open a savings account in the name of Bethany Bible School. This has followed upon our registration as an official Non-Profit Organization in South Africa, something we have been working on for several years now. All of this fits within our broader vision of Bethany Bible School empowered as a locally-owned and operated ministry. So yesterday was a big step along the way.

At our meeting last Saturday, the committee appointed two members, along with us, to be signatories on the account. The one man who was appointed seemed very reluctant; he kept reiterating that he lived "far" which would make it difficult for him to be a signatory, despite the fact that he lives no farther from Mthatha than most members of the committee. He eventually agreed.

Why was he so reluctant? It seems that he was simply scared. Most--if not all--of our students, drawn from among the least formally-educated, economically-poor section of society, have a distinct inferiority-complex in the face of the modern world. They are disadvantaged linguistically, in which English and in some areas, Afrikaans, is the language of government and the corporate world (e.g. the world of banks). This is not to say that they cannot get services in their home language; in fact it is government policy that people should be able to receive basic, government services in any of the nation's eleven official languages. And in Mthatha, Xhosa is too predominant not to be available to the general population. Still, when we presented the minutes from the meeting at which we had decided to open an account--one of the documents required of us--we were informed that it "must be in English"--not the Xhosa in which our deputy-secretary had recorded the meeting. Anna thus quickly rushed off to an internet cafe to type up the relevant points in an English document. All of this is simply to say that, although Anna and I usually find ourselves marginalized socially due to our lack of facility in Xhosa, there are other worlds, in this case the corporate, in which we are more resident than a vast majority of the country's citizens. In other words, the aliens have become the residents and the residents are the aliens.

That our students are, in some ways, aliens in their own country is not a matter of language as much as it is of education and status. Indeed, our committee members exchanged all the usual greetings with their fellow, though more-educated, Xhosa-speakers who were employed by the bank; they exchanged clan names and talked about their respective home areas with all the characteristic warmth and respect of such encounters. Still, when it came to the actual business of the account, the committee members deferred to us, even in certain situations when we were not the ones being called upon to supply information. The banker had to indicate for a second time that she wanted them this time and not us.

All of this is, I think, not simply a matter of our committee members appearing with their teachers and, out of respect for our role, deferring to us--there are other situations in which that is the prime motivator. But in this case it is more a matter of their unease in the modern world. In that world, education, status, and to some extent, language, is not their own. That world is still foreign--and not a little bit mysterious.

Mysterious? I say so because over the years I have received a number of puzzling questions from our Bible School students. One man, who used to come to our office to pick up modules for a correspondence course in church leadership, kept pressing me as to "what he would get" from completing the course. For example, in the module on music in the church, he asked whether completing it would not qualify him to start a singing group like the Lusanda Spiritual Group, a popular gospel outfit based in this area. Likewise he queried whether the completion of this diploma would qualify him to be a Methodist pastor, even though this man's particular church was Zionist. All of this added up for me that this man was desperately searching to solve the riddle of success--why do some people prosper and others not?; why do some benefit from modernity's riches while others do not?; and how do I get there? He was also hoping, it seemed, that there was a magic route to success, that, in his words, "the successes would come" immediately upon completion of the correspondence course, as if by simple virtue of grasping the diploma on the day of graduation. I thought it best to emphasize that what one "gets" is knowledge if one works hard. And even then "success" is not guaranteed.

Another man recently tried to get me to take what appeared to be two application forms for job opportunities in his own local municipality. He also insisted that I send his tests to the address of the correspondence course's headquarters, even though he already had the envelope ready to go and could access the post office as easily as I; thousands of people exactly like him do it every day.

Another person, a woman, came to our most recent Bible conference saying she "wants what Jesus had." She wants to be able to heal people. The Friday lesson was, in fact, on the topic of healing, in which one of the main points was that God heals, we listen and pray. Our particular ministry is to provide perspective from the Bible on the world. Some people are able to see how that knowledge is relevant to their aspirations. Others, this woman seemingly one of them, come hoping that we might be more directly, more immediately involved in bestowing upon them the power that is missing from their lives.

In all of these examples there is an element that we, as ostensibly successful people, might hold the key to a world now hidden from those in need; we are mediators making an invisible world visible. While it is true that we--indeed all people--are mediators of knowledge, the quest for knowledge, for that which is just beyond our reach, is fundamentally personal. Each person must search. Every child of God is free--dignified, confident, powerful, responsible.

I am searching. So too, I believe, are the people mentioned above. We take it as our calling to inspire that quest.

"Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you" (Mt. 7:7).


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