Sunday 29 October 2023

“Growing in Christ” - Address to the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia

“Growing in Christ”
Address to the Convention of
The Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town
Metropolitan of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa

October 27, 2023

Bishop Matthew,
Delegates and Office-holders of the Convention,
Your Excellency, the Mayor of Martinsburg
Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

    I bring you warm greetings from your sisters and brothers in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa where we're moving into summer after the coldest winter we have experienced in a very long time. On Lungi and my behalf, thank you, Bishop and Mrs Cowden, your staff and your teams for your great hospitality. Thank you Revd Tim, Karen and Nonhla for driving us, and Tim, especially for the time we spent together seeing some of the countryside. Thank you all so much for your ministry of welcome and inclusion. For me, the real keynote of my time with you has been your welcome and hospitality, the Bishop's sermons and homilies and the joy of being part of your Diocesan Convention.

    I've been asked to speak on growing the church and, by doing so, bringing hope and joy to the lives of people at a time when, across the world, and right now especially in the Holy Land, we face a mountain of adversities. Of course I speak from my experience as a South African, and we can't speak of evangelizing without looking to the context within which we seek to bring people to Christ. So allow me to introduce my remarks by sketching the context from which I come.
    In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy came to speak in South Africa at the invitation of students who were opposed to apartheid. Beginning his keynote speech in Cape Town, his opening words struck a chord with South Africans as a razor-sharp diagnosis of our history and its challenges. He said, and I quote:
“I come here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which was once the importer of slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage.” End of quote.
    Then came the surprise, when he continued: “I refer, of course, to the United States of America.”  Such are the parallels you can find in the histories of our two countries.
    Nearly sixty years later, both our nations are very different from the way they were then. Although we still have a way to go – a long way in some respects – in the areas of racial justice, the treatment of women and the rights of the LGBTQI community, we are nevertheless better countries than we were in the mid-1960s. But we also face significant challenges if we are to realise what Jesus promised us, as recorded in John 10, verse 10, when he said: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
    I cannot speak with any knowledge or expertise on your country or the State of West Virginia. But in South Africa our single biggest challenge is the yawning gap between rich and poor. The World Bank publishes data on something called the Gini Coefficient, named after an Italian statistician, which measures how income is distributed across the population of a country. The latest figures show that South Africa has the highest income inequality in the world. Even more worrying, it has increased rather than decreased since the end of apartheid, and while some black South Africans have improved their lives, the excessively rich are still mostly white and the debilitatingly poor are still mostly black. Of our population of sixty million, nearly 13 million earn less than $2.15 a day.
    One of our major challenges is in mining, an industry for which I have a particular passion and to which I will return a little later. Gold and diamonds were the main driving force in the growth of our economy into the biggest in Africa, and at its peak in the 1980s the mining industry employed 760,000 people and contributed one-fifth of our gross domestic product. But its role has since declined, now employing just under 450,000 people and contributing only eight percent of GDP. Within the mining sector, the picture is mixed – we are now only 11th in the world in gold production, but first in platinum, chromium and manganese. Our coal industry feels very uncertain about its future right now: employment has dropped from 135,000 at its peak in the 1980s to 90,000 now and while coal generates about 70 percent of our energy, the industry feels threatened by the growth of renewable energy sources.
    These challenges – the frightening gap between rich and poor, and the unemployment that arises from the decline of older industries – are among many which threaten to tear South Africa apart. We saw this two years ago when a former president of our country was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to appear before a commission of inquiry investigating corruption in his administration. In an orgy of violence and looting, more than 350 people died and five-and-a-half thousand were arrested before calm was restored.
    So that is the context in which we South Africans were – and still are – called, as we say in our part of the world, “to do church”. For us, the shining example of evangelization was provided during the apartheid years by our beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu, affectionately known throughout the country as “The Arch” after a priest gave him a T-shirt which said, “Just call me Arch”. He showed us that the way to draw people to Christ was to read and interpret our situation honestly and concretely, and then to preach a Gospel which spoke to the lives of those we sought to draw to Christ – a Gospel which addressed their lived experience and their needs. Scholars who have explored lessons to be learned from the legacy of Desmond Tutu speak of him as someone who filled vacuums in our witness in the public domain at a time when there was a credibility deficit in many areas, ranging from how we expressed and lived out our faith to the way in which we allowed old prejudices to play out in our political choices. It was this which made him a prophetic character.
    He also had a style of preaching and ministering which attracted all. In the words of his friend of 45 years, the now retired Bishop of Missouri, Hays Rockwell, “Just when you think you’re going to characterise him as this, that or the other, ideologically or in terms of churchmanship, he escapes such categories. He’s a deeply Catholic man in the sense that he’s inclusive, encompassing of the faith... but he never would make that his primary way of addressing the church. He is able to proclaim the Gospel with such energy because he believes in the evangelical mandate—not as an ideological thing but because that’s what his faith requires of him. He reaches into individual lives in a way that’s transformative.”
    At home in South Africa, he was widely recognized for his ability to speak truth to power, to point to where he believed God was leading his church, so becoming one of the church leaders who could stand on the biblical Mount Nebo and point the way to the Promised Land. At a time of suffering, as we struggled to liberate our country from institutionalised racism, and then as we began to build our democracy, Desmond Tutu's advocacy of a new society, a society of compassion and caring, enhanced the credibility of the Gospel.
    Returning to Robert Kennedy: the words of that 1966 speech which have lived on and inspired people ever since speak to the power of the individual in society. Kennedy said, and I quote again:
“Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation... Each time [someone] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, [they] send forth a tiny ripple of hope, and, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
    Desmond Tutu sent out his own ripples of hope with his emphasis on enhancing the agency of what he called “so-called ordinary people”, so-called, he used to say, because in his theology, nobody is ordinary, every individual is special because you and I, and every single person, are created in the image of God. He used to say:  “Do your little bit of good where you are. It's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” For him, it was the agency of the anonymous people of goodwill that is a key driver for change.
    For me, hope and the joy to which it gives rise – a joy to which Desmond Tutu gave voice in cackles of laughter, even in situations of tension and stress – is epitomised in one of his simplest and most direct assertions. Set aside all his thousands, probably millions of words preached and spoken over the half century of his active ministry; set aside all his exegesis and his best-known quotable quotes. His most fundamental assertion was expressed in just three words. Desmond Tutu used to tell us, over and over, that actually, at its root, he had only one sermon. That sermon was: “God loves you.” That was it: “God loves you.” Three little words. Sometimes he added a fourth: “God loves you. Full-stop.”
    Paul's letter to the Romans helps us take another step in understanding how God's love enables us to live in hope, when he writes that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5) And that is why Desmond Tutu could say, in one of his most extensively-quoted sayings that: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
    So for myself, when I speak of hope I am not speaking of a nebulous concept. I am not speaking of hope as an anaesthetic to distract us from the harsh realities of the world, or to kill the pain of its suffering. One of our finest theologians in South Africa, Denise Ackermann, expresses it beautifully. Hope, Denise says, “is not that blithe sense that all will end well... because human progress is guaranteed.” No, it means being determined to identify our problems and our differences, precisely in order to mobilize people to overcome them. As Denise adds: “To live out my hope is to try to make that which I hope for come about – sooner rather than later.” It is “never to surrender our power to imagine a better world”.
    For me, hope is the conviction that we are called or invited by God to participate in God's mission in the world, and that it is a call to which we respond because we believe in the love of God declared in Jesus Christ.
    As I speak here today, I hold images in my heart of some of the most devastating wars and violence, of the attack on Israel, of the violence on the Occupied West Bank of the Jordan, of the awful obliteration of the Gaza Strip, of Russia's assault on Ukraine, and of the more than 40 other places in the world where conflict and deep-seated violence is destroying any form of the common good and even levels of minimal decency. The injustices and aggression which characterize the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians tear me apart, forcing me into quiet contemplation of the horrors we are seeing, wanting to cry out for ceasefires and humanitarian corridors, but almost despairing of whether it will make the slightest difference.
     Against this, Desmond Tutu's words are a source of constant reassurance. He told us that in the end, people naturally incline towards goodness not evil, and  the differences between them are not intended to separate, to alienate. “We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another,” he said. This was at the heart of the anthropology that shaped his understanding of humanity, dignity and human potential.
     Quoting John 12 verse 32 – “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” – he would  appropriate them to powerful effect. “We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders,” he would say. “All are welcome; black or white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay or straight, all, all, all.” Repeating the phrase over and over again, he told us, “We belong to this family, this human family, God's family.” For him, this challenge, extending this sense of welcome and belonging, is at the heart of our evangelism and the very key to our public witness.
    He also understood that in a world dominated by ideology, by rigidity, we need a space to listen to the still quiet voice of God, to listen to each other, to create the lifegiving spaces without which we will flounder. He understood in his very bones the enlivening spirit and power of prayer. Extremely disciplined in his spiritual life, he was an early riser who observed hours of silent prayer, rigid observance of Morning and Evening Prayer, the daily celebration of the Eucharist, regular quiet days, his annual retreat, the ministry of a spiritual director, he knew deeply and categorically what it was to strengthen the relationship with God which was his favorite definition of prayer.
    Let me finish with a story which, for me, speaks of hope in action. You heard me say earlier that I have a particular interest in mining. It dates back to my youth, when my father was a salesman who travelled from gold mine to gold mine every month, selling clothing and other goods to migrant mineworkers living in the huge single-sex hostels on the mines. Later, as a psychologist and a priest, over a period of five years I counselled about 400 miners whose spines had been injured in underground rock bursts, many of them paraplegics on account of their spinal cords being crushed. So although I was on the edges of the industry, I felt an affinity with those mineworkers, and especially those whose jobs took them down the deepest mines in the world, up to two-and-a-half miles deep where temperatures can reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit unless ice is pumped in to cool the air.
    As a result it has been a source of great joy for me to have been part of an international initiative, called Courageous Conversations, which brings together mining bosses, unions, religious leaders, civil society and government agencies to work together on the challenges facing the industry. We looked issues such as: How can a mining company help develop its surrounding community during the life of a mine so that it remains sustainable when the minerals have all been extracted and the mine closes? When that day comes, who is responsible for rehabilitating the environment? Among the most satisfying experiences were bringing hope to the remote rural areas from which miners came by helping build ablution blocks for their schools, by building houses for the widows of men killed in violent strikes and by simply coming alongside people in a ministry of presence.
    It is such initiatives in the world which help me translate my Christian hope into action, and give me confidence in the future, knowing that victory has already been attained through the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
    God loves us all, Americans, South Africans, Palestinians, Israelis, Ukrainians, Russians. God loves the whole of humanity, as well as God's whole creation. May we fulfill God's desire that we preserve and protect all God's children, and all God's creation, for our children and grandchildren to come. God bless you, God bless South Africa, and God bless America. 

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