Monday, January 10, 2011

Day of Reconciliation Interfaith 'Walk of Witness'

I was privileged to have attended one of the final meetings of the Committee for Justice and Reconciliation group of the Cathedral who had been instrumental in planning this event so it was particularly good to be a part of it. We gathered in the morning on the labyrinth in the courtyard of the Cathedral a varied crowd of Muslims, Christians and Jews. A group of young people from all these faiths joined us - they had been part of a week long camp called Face to Faith in which young people from some of the poorest communities spend a week together. This is organised by Reverend Natalie - she is also chaplain to the Anglican girls school St Cyprians - a hugely privileged place but one which is deeply involved in community outreach and is a ‘cross of nails’ school - as the Cathedral also has ‘cross of nails’ status. Their tee shirts said ‘If the sky’s the limit why are there footprints on the moon’.

The first speaker (after the Mayor has been polite) is a Muslim; Dr. Sa’diyya Shaik, Lecturer in Islamic studies and Feminist theory at UCT. She begins by translating three scriptures which she then chants for us. They are profound and beautiful but I hadn’t got my pen out and don’t sufficiently recall them! She speaks about mutual and self respect and for the second time in 24 hours I hear a person of faith lament the fact that Cape Town is a place where life is held so cheap that it is possible for a woman to be brought here to be murdered. Happening as it did immediately before our arrival here the ongoing revelations about the death of Anita Desawi has been a background concern and the subject of many conversations. Sa’diyya goes on to talk about Pilgrimage and its common meaning for us. She describes it as the core spiritual fascination I love that phrase) by journey to the sacred centre engendering a deeper level of faith that is not ordinarily available to us in everyday life. Pilgrimage enables us to cross a boundary beyond the everyday. So to set out on Pilgrimage is not to retreat but to throw down a challenge to everyday life by reminding ourselves that it is possible to cross boundaries and that there are many boundaries to be crossed in South Africa the biggest of which is the economic apartheid that bedevils community here. We are no longer nourished by a sacred centre even if the religious buildings are full.

We leave the Cathedral by a gate that I haven’t seen open. It opens onto the corridor of power running alongside the Company Gardens that it Parliament Street. As we leave, passing a door into the Cathedral buildings I remember the association of this place with power that Fr Terry spoke about. We walk the length of the company gardens to the Synagogue. Company Gardens runs in a diagonal block SE to NW. St George’s cathedral is at the northern corner of this block and the Synagogue at the southern end. At the synagogue we are offered a welcome and introduction to the building apparently the second most beautiful in the world. The sound isn’t brilliant and I miss a lot of the history.

The second speaker is Professor Jonathan Jansen - who has a string of academic roles and is the President of the South Africa Institute of Race Relations. He speaks of the scandal of grace - encourages us to tell our stories about the past in a way that inspire reconciliation and reminds us that reconciliation is a high risk occupation! Later we are told that a white woman sitting next to a black one heard of her misery at the cruelty of employers. “It happened years before I was born but I had to apologise.”

Then we leave the corridors of power and enter Long Street (possibly the corridors of debauchery) amongst the backpacker hostels, night clubs and trinket shops we find the Palm Tree Mosque. We remove our shoes and walk upstairs to a long hall shaped upper room. There is a lectern for today’s talk, some banners on the wall and a preaching/presiding carved wooden seat. But this is not a grand place. It is the oldest mosque here and was the gift of an Englishwoman. It retains the layout it had in its early days that allowed warning to be given if people were at worship and the authorities came to check up - all could be quite normal by the time they reached this upper room. Amongst this powerful introduction were dotted wonderful jokes about the possibility of sinning endlessly on Long Street but there was still somewhere to come for forgiveness.

Just as powerful as the introduction was the last of the three talks given by Judge Dennis Davis - a controversial figure (who apparently holds strong and not necessarily acceptable views about the Middle East). He begins by expressing his honour at being invited to speak in this place and talks a little of those whom he has admired. He tells an Archbishop Tutu joke! Three men die and approach St Peter- the first a Jew of good life and clean living - all is in order says Peter just one final test - please spell the word dog, D O G is the answer and he enters heaven. A Muslim of similar impeccable character approaches and the conversation is the same with one difference - he is to spell cat, C A T - he does so and all is well. Finally the Anglican arrives and the conversation is much the same until the spelling request - please spell chrysanthemum…!

He draws on our common knowledge of the story of Joseph and his brothers reminding us that at the point of reconciliation Judah has changed - he is now ready to face imprisonment himself to save his father’s favourite Benjamin but Joseph has also changed - he is able to acknowledge that God himself has done this - there is purpose to what has happened to him - not bitterness. Reconciliation demands serious change on all sides and change that means genuine equality.

The Pilgrimage is over but we are invited to make our way back to the Cathedral - to walk the Labyrinth - and to take part in a very special blessing.

A young man, Johannes Loubser, has decided to walk barefoot from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Johannes is a Capetonian - a young lawyer who turned his back on this country and went to Russia. On the steps of the Cathedral he told how God had spoken to him with great certainty (not a real voice just a certainty that was deep within) about this walk to draw attention to the need for peace and reconciliation in his country and within himself. You can read more about the purpose of the walk (which is also a fundraising exercise) and Johannes on Johannes was blessed and prayed for by friends and fellow pilgrims on the steps of the Cathedral before setting off on the walk.
The young people from the Face to Faith camp sang - I cried!

During the afternoon I read Archbishop Tutu’s short and hugely profound book 'God has a Dream' - I am profoundly struck by the influence I realise he has had on everything that I have been involved in and heard this morning. One, perhaps tangential, comment catches my attention - the gift that ordained women can be to the church and (in that context) the bumper sticker that Leah, his wife, loves: 'A woman who wants to be equal to a man has no ambition'! He writes of his longing that women who naturally do things differently should not settle for business as usual but seek to transform the world in ‘extraordinary and unimagined ways’. Now that is ambition! So many of the people I have met here men and women alike are ambitious for Africa, ambitious for the poor who suffer under the new apartheid of wealth and poverty that stretches far beyond the boundaries of this nation or this continent. It is an ambition we all need to own for our own nation and continent and we have a thing or two to learn.

(Blogged by Rev Sue Booys whilst on sabbatical in South Africa)

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