On Wednesday morning I was introduced to a new group of participants attending the second semester at The Carpenters Shop. Over the next 10 weeks they hope to learn new skills that will help them find a job. A job is the Holy Grail all of them are seeking. A job and the money that comes with it so that: “I don’t have to steal”; “I don’t have to be part of a gang”; “I can support my family”; ”I can be a man”; “I won’t ever go back to living on the street”; “I can start over”.
I have never really understood St. Paul’s phrase: “hoping against hope” but if it means what I think it may mean then it resonates with this situation. The longing to have a future that is different from the past – “I want a new life” – was said with blunt clarity.
I felt their longing but I also felt the underlying doubt upon which their longing rested. I confess I shared this doubt of whether change was at all likely – after all, where are these jobs going to come from? I felt a despair for our future. To use Melanie Judge’s words that I quoted in last week’s sermon, there are just too many people who have been “actively locked out of livelihoods of dignity”. Locked out by things like a failing education system. This is the primary violence within society that is seldom ever recognised as violence. It results in rage. Suppressed rage. Expressed rage. And ultimately rage that will probably end up being jailed and beaten into submission … resulting in ever more rage.
During the session I had with the group I was peppered with questions: “Where was God when I was stabbed in my face?” “If God loves me then why doesn’t God protect me?” “If God cares for me then why is my life such a mess?” “God may love me but God is up there somewhere – and I am down here”. Each question revealing how locked out they feel. Even locked out from God’s goodness and mercy.
The Easter narratives tell of Jesus coming and standing among his disciples who were locked behind closed doors. With this we are invited to trust that Jesus will always find a way to break into our lives no matter what we are locked behind or locked out of.
He comes, breathing peace and not judgement. He comes focused more on our future than our failed past. He en-courage-s us to start over again believing that we can change.
Payment for receiving this gift is to make it our task. To do to others what Jesus has done for us. To stand among those locked out of livelihoods of dignity. To stand among them breathing peace while hoping against hope that change is possible.
I believe Lord. Help my unbelief,
Conversation at the Book Lounge:
Sanctuary: How an Inner-City Church spilled out onto a Sidewalk by Christa Kuljian
Thursday 25 April, at 6 p.m.
After years of sporadic media attention and posturing by politicians, Kuljian has made it her business to find out exactly what has been going on at the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, where the Church acts as a gateway to the city – an Ellis Island for South Africa, the place where many migrants first go to get their bearings. How did a place of worship turn into a shelter for thousands of refugees? Where did they come from? Why are they still there? Seeking to answer such questions, Kuljian fluently combines many elements: interviews with members of the refugee community and residents of the Church, and key figures like Bishop Paul Verryn, who has often been at the centre of the storm; historical material on the church and its role in the city since the early years; and an understanding of urban dynamics, migrancy, and South African and southern African politics.
The result is a complex, open-eyed book that grapples with some of South Africa’s most urgent social problems as they are refracted through one appalling, frustrating, inspiring place.
Christa will be in conversation with Alan Storey at the Book Lounge.