In our lives, which are all too often lived at a frenetic pace, there are times when we simply need to slow down and listen at the speed of a walk. Because if we don’t, if we continually move through life pushing the posted speed limits whenever possible, we’ll often miss the important things all around us that God wants us to see. And so there are times in my life when I put away the car keys and I go for a walk. I like to call it intentional wandering, because I go with a purpose—I go to listen, and I go to respond to what I see. I want to tell you about two walks I recently took, walks in two very different neighborhoods that are worlds apart, and yet share something in common.
On a warm Tuesday afternoon in September, Luc and I took a walk through the black township of Soshanguve in South Africa. It was great to be with Luc again, (Luc is the guy I mentored in Pretoria and who I helped buy a bride for six cows), and it was great to be back in Africa exploring another neighborhood where we are hoping to birth a new ministry. We had two objectives for our walk: 1) to get a feel for the neighborhood, and 2) to drop in at the mosque that had recently sprung up in the township and meet the imam.
First, it might be helpful to know that white people don’t walk through black townships in South Africa, and so as Luc and I walked, people unabashedly pointed at me and talked openly about the lekua (white person) on their street; quite likely the first white person they had ever seen on their street. As we walked, we prayed, eyes open, out loud, just Luc and I talking with God and each other about the things we were seeing. Sometimes we stopped to chat with people, but mostly we just prayed for these potential new neighbors of ours.
Two things really stood out to us as we walked and prayed: one was the sense of community the people in Block KK experienced in the midst of their poverty. Groups of children were everywhere…playing in schoolyards and kicking balls on the dirt roads. Teenagers were hanging out on street corners. Women clustered on porches to cook dinner together, and groups of men sat in tight circles on rickety chairs outside their corrugated tin shacks. They didn’t have much, but they had each other. I couldn’t help contrast that with our culture, which has so much stuff, and yet is so often alone and lacking the intangible asset of community.
The other thing we noticed was the need to create beauty even when you’re struggling to survive. Most of the shacks and block houses we walked past were painted…albeit in multiple colors as paint could be secured. Most yards were dirt, but the dirt was neatly racked. And even in those dirt yards there was almost always a prominently displayed flower or bush that had obviously been planted with pride and nurtured as if it were priceless. It struck both Luc and me how precious the simple things in life can become to us when we’re not feeding our insatiable appetites for more.
The last stop on our walk was the new mosque, where we wanted to meet the imam and introduce ourselves as fellow spiritual leaders who also want to be men of peace in this neighborhood. This neighborly, even diplomatic visit on our part turned out to be a bit more complicated than we had imagined.
Before we were able to meet the young imam, we had to get past the “grounds keeper,” a surly South African man about my age who saw himself as more of a bodyguard than a grounds keeper. He was deeply suspicious of our motives, and didn’t hesitate to let us know it. He did not want us anywhere near the mosque, and he had no intention of allowing us to meet the imam. Within a few minutes we were surrounded by several men from the mosque who continued to question us and challenge our intentions.
Eventually, the imam came out to the courtyard to see what was happening. He was a small, almost fragile looking young man who had recently come down from Somalia to lead this Islamic community. Without a word spoken between us, Luc and I decided that the best way for us to actually get to know the imam was for me to stay engaged with the bodyguard and the other men so that Luc could get off to the side and talk with him unimpeded. So that’s what we did.
Standing there in the courtyard with these Muslim men, I found myself experiencing their hostility—a kind of hostility I’d never felt before. As they outlined the perceived atrocities and injustices committed by our country throughout the world, I could actually feel their pain and their anger. This wasn’t a theoretical, philosophical discussion about politics and world events that most of us are accustomed to. This was personal. These men had actually suffered most of their lives, and in their eyes, I was complicit in the wrongs they had suffered. It didn’t feel fair, but fair wasn’t the point.
Even more disturbing to me was how they felt about my God and my faith, a faith that for them is epitomized by televangelists and prosperity gospel teachers who visit their township 24/7 via satellite TV. Do you know these men Robert? Are these your friends Robert? Why do people clap for them? Why do they accept applause as if they are God? Why do they wear fancy clothes and drive fancy cars? How can you believe in this Robert? As Luc was building a relational bridge with the young Somali imam, I was trying my best to explain to the South African men surrounding me that the Jesus they see represented on satellite TV is not the Jesus I see in scriptures, and that the churches most of us go to are nothing like the churches that meet in those studios and stadiums. This was an eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe moment of truth. I could see in their eyes and hear in their voices that they were struggling to believe that there actually could be a different kind of Christian faith in the world today than the one portrayed on the big screen, and that if there was such a thing, was I accurately representing what this different kind of Christian might be like?
I wish I could say they embraced what I shared and had a spiritual “aha” moment. They didn’t. But I do think I left them wondering about all they’ve seen and been told about Jesus and his followers. I think I left them wondering if there was another story out there that needed to be considered. And at a minimum, I hope they experienced a different kind of Christian…one they didn’t need to be angry at or fear.
As Luc and I walked back to the car, he said, “I’m sure glad nothing bad happened with those guys, especially on this day.” “What do you mean, on this day?” I asked. “Well, today is 9/11. Didn’t you know?” No, I actually didn’t. And I’m kind of glad I didn’t. I can just imagine what they must have thought when they saw this big white guy walking into their mosque on 9/11!
We would have never experienced what we did on this September 11th if we hadn’t carved out a couple of hours to listen at the speed of a walk. We met people who were kind and inviting, and people who were hurt and angry. We experienced some community assets and some liabilities that we may have missed if we were just driving by. I’d encourage you to give it a try in your neighborhood. Take some time to intentionally wander through your neighborhood with God and see what he wants to show you. You may be surprised.
A couple of months after that walk, I walked through another neighborhood on the other side of the world, a neighborhood just an hour or so away from our home. It’s a neighborhood we’re hoping to birth another new ministry team in. In a future post, I’ll tell you about that neighborhood and what we’re hearing as we listen at the speed of a walk.