Maruwaan // A Year Later

In contrast to the grinding cycle of set-backs that seemed to epitomize Cru62 life, mid-2016, was the emerging story of Maruwaan. By now he had been clean from heroin for 15 months, had become a full-time Cru62 staff member and was headed to Johannesburg with Jonathan to raise awareness for a project they were starting to address the failing education system in Manenberg. They planned to do this by walking the 1592kms back home over 60 days, assisted by Jaryd their support driver, stopping off in communities and churches along the way and advocating for Manenberg’s high school students. It was the most high-profile initiative we had ever attempted to pull off and, midst the questions – will they make it? Will they raise the money they need? What might go wrong? Where will they sleep? – there was much excitement and strong support. Maruwaan and Jonathan had got to Johannesburg two weeks before the walk began to share their backstory with churches around the city. They had appeared on radio shows, spoken to newspaper reporters, launched a website and crowdfunding page, and received an impressive amount of donated equipment they would need along the way. The weekend before they set off was Maruwaan’s 21st birthday. He had never been so far from home in his life and was understandably upset not to be able to celebrate with friends and family back in Cape Town. So Jonathan organized a party, Sarah flew up and surprised him, and our church community gave money towards his first smartphone enabling him to stay in touch throughout the walk.

From time to time, Jonathan sent through videos of Maruwaan preaching, the two of them training together, and even a few prophetic words people had given them as they prepared to embark. One of the words Maruwaan received was that God had anointed his feet for the walk and would look after his family whilst he was gone – and that he needn’t worry about them as they were in God’s hands. This was apt, as Maruwaan’s mother was in hospital, two of his siblings had pretty serious mental health issues stemming from substance abuse, and there was a daily struggle to put food on the table.

The day of the walk came, and they set off from Hillbrow at 4.30am, anxious to make the minimum of 38 kilometres a day to reach Cape Town as planned sixty days later. Beyond the inevitable blisters and aching limbs, there were no significant complications. Jaryd had driven ahead and prepared meals and rest stops at various intervals. By early evening they arrived at Emthonjeni, a community with whom they were to stay the night, near Sebokeng in the South West of Johannesburg, and got an early night.

The next day, accompanied by some of the community members, they started walking again bright and early. Mid-morning I received a what’s app message from Maruwaan.
‘Can I ask you a favour?’
‘Sure – what?’
‘Could you send me a bible passage every morning so I can lead devotions with whoever is walking with us?’
He was adamant that this walk would change lives – not just in Manenberg, but along the road. He was determined that all he encountered should hear about the phenomenal story of how he had met Jesus and been transformed. I sent him Isaiah 35, having prayed it over him and Jonno the day before. I was especially drawn to verses 8 to 10:

And a highway will be there;
It will be called the Way of Holiness.
The unclean will not journey on it;
It will be for those who walk in that way;
Wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
Nor will any ferocious beast get up on it;
They will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
And the ransomed of the Lord will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
Everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
And sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Having sent him his bible passage and said a few words of prayer for him and Jonno, I got on with my day – building a wooden fence in the boys’ house front garden with Waydin and Preswin.

At that point I was blissfully unaware it was about to become the worst day of my life.

About an hour later Sarah called me.

She was sitting in the car in the driveway looking white as a sheet.
“Hi love, what’s wrong?” She was obviously agitated and was breathing heavily.
“There’s been an accident.”
“An accident where? What do you mean?”
“With the walk.”
“What?” My heart started to race and my mind immediately started imagining various hypothetical scenarios.
“I just got a call from one of the friends they’re with. A car ran into the group as they were walking. I don’t know the exact details – but…”
“But what?”

Sarah paused. Silence.

Then, in a whisper,
“…they said there’s a body.”

We both sat there, panicking and trembling. None of the scenarios I’d imagined had involved a body. I began to think of all the different people I knew were walking with Jonathan and Maruwaan that day. Friends from Hillbrow, community members from Enthonjeni – many of whom I didn’t know.

The phone rang again. A deafening hush filled the car. Sarah picked up, and put the phone on loudspeaker so I could hear.
“Sarah? Are you there?”
“Yes, I’m here with Pete. What’s going on?”
“Guys, I’m so sorry…” the voiced trailed off.
“What? Sorry about what?”
“I’m so sorry. The body is Maruwaan.”

Sarah screamed.

A long, piercing scream of a mother who had lost a child. I sat in silence, stunned, unable to speak or let out a sound. The friend at the other end of the phone repeated over and over ‘I’m just so sorry.’ Sitting in our car parked in our driveway, neither of us could comprehend the news. In desperation we demanded a doctor officially declare Maruwaan dead. But for our friends at the accident scene it was obvious. He had taken the full force of a car hurtling into him at 120kmph whilst standing on the hard shoulder. Killed instantly. A bright light snuffed out on the spot. One of the most promising lives we’d ever encountered, gone. Just like that. Finished. Over. Dead. Not only that, but Jonathan and Jaryd were both in critical condition – the crash had catapulted the parked car into them and sent them flying. Jaryd had severe head trauma and Jonathan had sustained multiple internal injuries. It was touch and go as to whether they would survive.

That day it felt like my hope died. No words of comfort, no theological explanations (and boy there were many – well meant, but entirely misguided), no meditating on scripture or time of prayer, made any dent in the the total and utter hopelessness I felt. And the guilt.

Guilt fuelled from never having lost anyone before their time, and not knowing how to deal with it. Guilt from holding to warped subconscious theological assumptions that anything other than external optimism and inner joy was prohibited. Ultimately, a naïve refusal to acknowledge the feelings of nihilism and numbness that can surround, swamp and slowly suffocate you in a time of trauma and grief. An accusing voice repeatedly condemned me for my despair. You say Jesus is hope in all circumstances – what about now then? How can God honestly be good if he allowed this? Where’s your faith you spineless fraud – the one time your faith is meant to make a difference, you fall to pieces. What would people think if they knew what you’re really like?

The next day I found myself on a ‘plane to Johannesburg. Officially, we were going to identify Maruwaan’s body and make arrangements to bring it home. But really we were going to pray for him to rise from the dead. We weren’t sure how to do it, but were convinced that it is as theologically orthodox to raise the dead as it is to love your neighbor. After all, at least nine people are clearly raised from the dead in the Bible. In the New Testament alone, Jesus raised a widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17), a religious leader’s daughter (Mark 5:35-43), and his friend Lazarus (John 11: 38-44), and then empowered us to do even greater works than he had done (John 14:12). Accordingly, Peter and Paul each raised a dead person (Acts 9:36-42 and 20:9-12), and Jesus himself rose after being crucified. In direct contradiction to those who counselled me that it was ‘obviously Maruwaan’s time to go home’, we had pages of prophecies over his life that he was only just beginning to step into. Promises from the mouth of the Father wrapped up in embodied, earthly adventures for his son to discover. Maruwaan carried so much of the light, love and power of Jesus that Satan took him out, pure and simple. It was a robbery. Manenberg, South Africa and the world were robbed of the hope he exuded.

So Sarah and I, Leon, Maruwaan’s mum and cousin, Jonathan’s sister, and two of Jaryd’s sisters got into the huge rental car and drove to Emthonjeni, the community where Maruwaan had stayed for his final night before the accident. I was on my phone nonstop, making arrangements in a city I didn’t know, booking cars, thanking people I’d never met for letting us max out their credit card on flights – I felt like a traumatized tour manager arranging a holiday from hell, full of distraught, weeping people. It was the absolute worst experience I’ve ever been through.

And then, late in the evening, we got to Emthonjeni. We were hours late as I had botched the arrival arrangements but Trevor Nthlola, the inimitable leader of the community, had arranged a most tenderhearted welcome for us. We were each met at the door by a personal hugger, mamas with their arms wide open, and were enveloped and held as we each wept like babies. Singing began, accompanied by djembe and piano and we joined in with our brothers and sisters whom we had never met, but whose embrace was helping soak up our grief, in the most spine-tinglingly beautiful time of worship of which I’d ever been part.

As if the evening couldn’t get both sadder and more epic, people began to share stories of Maruwaan’s effect on their community in the short time they had known him. Each shared testimony of the ways in which Maruwaan had touched their heart. “He was such a gentle spirit.” “He had a father’s heart.” “When I heard his past, I couldn’t believe the man standing in front of me.” “He was a walking miracle.” And so the stories went on. His last words were a joyful affirmation of the word he’d been given before the walk began – ‘My feet are anointed!’ I turned to look at Shanaaz, Maruwaan’s mother. She was sitting in the corner of the room, deeply affected and crying silently.

We prayed for resurrection for five days straight. Tree of Life met in Manenberg for hours on end, worshipping and speaking life into Maruwaan, whilst declaring the prophetic words spoken over his life. It just seemed like the most reasonable thing to do. Yes we were desperate, but we figured it was humanly impossible one way or the other to raise Maruwaan – and it didn’t become less likely the more time wore on. But by the fifth day we needed to let go. Sarah anointed his feet with oil, and we left, distraught and finally coming to terms with the fact we’d never see him again.

Back in Cape Town, there was a funeral to organize. Newspapers had picked up on the accident and were writing up the story with various degrees of inaccuracy. We decided to allow news cameras at the funeral, as ever since Maruwaan was a young boy he had wanted to be famous. Now he would be – and for all the right reasons. A significant issue arose that some of his family wanted to bury him in accordance with Muslim rites. An aunt was offering to cover the entire funeral costs as long as his mother agreed to bury him a Muslim. This would have been a travesty, and completely against Maruwaan’s own wishes. And having heard so many testimonies whilst we were in Johannesburg of Maruwaan’s transformation, Shanaaz recognized that, however embarrassing Maruwaan’s conversion may have been to some in the family, his new found faith in Jesus was both profound and authentic.

Common sense prevailed, and arrangements for a Christian service began. Never before had I seen so many Muslims and gangsters in a church. The place was jam-packed, with not even standing room left. The press behaved badly and thrust cameras in mourners’ faces. At the graveside, four of Maruwaan’s Cru62 brothers lowered his coffin into the ground as the rest of us sang his song through distraught tears. ‘From my mother’s womb you have chosen me, love has called my name. I’ve been born again into a family, your blood flows through my veins. I’m no longer a slave to fear, I am a child of God.’

The day Maruwaan was killed I prayed ‘Lord, I demand souls and more souls for this man’s life.’ Tertullian’s famous adage that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church was front and centre in my mind. A few short months after that, members of his family asked to receive this same Jesus that Maruwaan had come to love into their own lives. We baptized his mother and two younger siblings in the ocean at Muizenberg. A proportion of the money given towards the healing journey of the families affected by the accident was put towards the same two siblings’ school fees, and his family are now part of Tree of Life – all in line with the prophetic word Maruwaan had been given days before the accident, that God would look after his family whilst he was gone.

On Being Mentored by Those Society Hates

“Stories have been used to dispossess and malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

It’s easy to become obsessed with ‘issues’ – from war in the middle east and the ensuing refugee crisis, to the negative gastrointestinal effects of gluten on our gut, there is no shortage of issues to address and causes to fight. If I’m honest, I’ve begun to become just a little skeptical about some of the fads of what causes churches adopt. (I’m aware the notion of there even being ‘fashionable’ causes for which to advocate is pretty grotesque, but it’s all around us.) These issues and causes can easily become all-encompassing and all-consuming. Shane Claiborne, a well-known Christian activist, suggests a different starting point. He urges us, “don’t choose issues, choose people. Then the issues will choose themselves.” It never ceases to amaze me how polarized our advocacy can become. Couldn’t we be pro-life AND pro-choice? What about choosing to love the good in both Israel AND Palestine? What if, sometimes, we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater? What if we carefully held the baby and loved it as best we could? And, if we poured the bathwater onto a flower bed or vegetable patch, we could even find generative ways to redemptively use something we’d previously written off as waste.

I didn’t expect one of the most upsetting aspects in being friends with young people in gangs and on drugs to be the misunderstanding and judgmentalism of others. Namely, the ear-bashing that more polished, less-obviously-addicted people, enjoying the trappings and conveniences of living in the centre of inequality-exacerbating systems, give me about the moral nihilism of my marginalized friends, whom they have never met. And from that skewed logic, the question is asked ‘how can you work with those people, aren’t you scared?’ or, even worse is the naïve notion that society’s problems would all be solved by locking all of them up in prison.

[As an aside – some thoughts on prison, why it’s a self-defeating idea, and will never solve the problem of gangsterism:

  •  Institutions don’t change people; people change people. (This shouldn’t surprise those of us who profess to following Jesus, because he tells us the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.)
  • Pro-social change comes about when inner core beliefs are altered in a person. Punishment, or fear of punishment, will never change someone’s core beliefs. At best, it might bring about behavioural change – but when all those around you are dragging you down, your polished behavior won’t last long. Have a look at the re-offending rates for those who leave prison. – Retributive justice never gets to the root issue behind a crime. Want to reduce crime levels? Then have a go at addressing poverty, sexual abuse, hopelessness, trauma, absent or neglectful parents etc. (The epitome of hopelessly misguided retribution is, of course, the death penalty – ‘we are killing you in order to show that killing people is wrong’.)
  • Because prison gangs run the prisons, to be incarcerated in South Africa is often synonymous with becoming more deeply embroiled in gang activity. ie, not only does prison rarely help, but it can actually criminalise you more.]


Please Don’t Feed the Trolls

A couple of months ago I came across a deeply distressing and violent story on a certain ‘Gangwatch’ Facebook page. It was a post notifying people of what had recently taken place in a Cape Flats community nearby. There were four photos of an unconscious young man lying on the street at night, with blood on the ground around his head and hands. In one of the photos, someone had taken the young man’s trousers off. The ominous title was, ‘Meet his match’, and the description to the update was as follows: “This is the after-math when u break in , he was caught this morning at 3,45am in… [a certain road], breaking in for the numerous time,, and he got a hiding of his life. [His name and address were then given]…he says that he steals anything of value and exhange it for heroin at a merchant in the Vlei.”

The young man in the photos was reported to have been addicted to heroin to such an extent that he had resorted to house-breaking in order to fund his habit. He had been caught and beaten to death by local community members. It was a brutally violent end to what had presumably been a troubled life. It disturbs me that, whether on a local or national level, people think that killing others is ever a legitimate way of showing the righteousness of one’s own cause. Yet what was equally disturbing was the barrage of hate-filled diatribe in the comments section. It seemed that the majority of those commenting genuinely approved of the killing of a drug addict. Such was the anger towards him that when one young female posted a comment condemning the violence, she was met with numerous personal attacks.

She wrote: “I don’t care what this guy done! This is inhuman and indignifying. I’m not justifying his actions but his crime does not make it okay to expose him like this. He is still a human. He needs to be dealt with accordingly but not like this. Whoever done this to him and still had the audacity to take pictures and expose him is no better than the drug addict who tried to break in.”

Responses were as follows (I have just edited out people’s names – the rest is copy and pasted):

“[You] live in an imaginary world where drug addicts just need a hug. In the real world this is what is needed a lot more of it and seriously with more brutality.”… “If you defending these criminals you part of the problem”… “This man got what was coming to him. If the law fails us, we do it ourselves… WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE! People like you help these scoundrels get away with murder! Or maybe you’re just from another planet. If so, welcome to Cape Town!”… “it rips ur heart out knowing you worked so hard for what you want paid so much money for your stuff and along comes mr druggie not only steals your stuff but to ad insult to injury he sells it for next to nothing. not trying to be rude or anything but stick a memory card up your behind and save that bs for someone who cares”… “he can be glad we’re not in a Muslim country…because then he’ll have no hands!!😯 so he should consider himself lucky ;)”… “he deserved it. Why does he not sell his fancy clothes and shoes to satisfy his disgusting habit. The problem is the justice system does no justice, he would be out on the street doing the same thing again. People are fed up and will not tolerate this type of behavior. Peace.”… “Moer die vark”… “He deserves its becoz all the pple sweat nd hard work just fell on him….pple must stop covering for drug addicts becoz that’s y they never cum right! Y must u work hard nd the next person just takes they had to chop of his hands then he won’t steal better of won’t do drugs too lol….”… “One less many more to go!”… “He got what he deserved! !! Let this be a lesson to the rest of the slime!!!!”… “he’s lucky i wasn’t there i would of burn plastic bags on him.”

This callous insensitivity towards those who struggle with drug addiction is fairly common place in Cape Town. It is another one of the things I find saddest – that those who have no clue about another person’s story make a moral judgment about them. There’s a line that says ‘your enemy is just someone who’s story you haven’t heard.’ I sometimes act judgmentally unthinkingly, almost instinctively, and I hate that I do. Ultimately, we will probably never know the amount of pain those even closest to us carry – let alone someone we meet in a fleeting encounter. Therefore, as each person we meet is most likely more broken than we would imagine, we should always aim to be kinder than others think is reasonable. Besides, if it boils down to choosing one over the other, I’d much rather be unreasonably kind, than just reasonably kind.


Beauty in Brokenness

One of my heroes is an Canadian Catholic theologian called Jean Vanier. Here, he writes about living life with the physically and mentally disabled. He is gloriously honest about his flaws, his propensity to anger, and his longing for plaudits. “They have been teaching me that behind the need for me to win, there are my own fears and anguish, the fear of being devalued or pushed aside, the fear of opening up my heart and of being vulnerable, or of feeling helpless in front of others in pain; there is the pain and brokenness of my own heart. I discovered something which I had never confronted before, that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred within my own heart. At particular moments of fatigue or stress, I saw forces of hate rising up inside me, and the capacity to hurt someone who was weak and was provoking me. That, I think, was what caused me the most pain: to discover who I really am, and to realize that maybe I did not want to know who I really was! I did not want to admit all the garbage inside me. And then I had to decide whether I would just continue to pretend that I was okay and throw myself into hyperactivity, projects where I could forget all the garbage and prove to others how good I was.” (From Brokenness to Community, p.19)

This is something Manenberg teaches me better than anywhere else I’ve lived. High Risk Youth (who are in some ways marginalized by mainstream society in parallel ways to the physically or mentally disabled, in that many don’t seem to know ‘what to do with them’) are often dirty, always angry, masters of manipulation, violent to the extreme, and yet often they cry themselves to sleep at night. You can smell, see and touch their brokenness and pain – there’s no hiding it. And as one intentionally seeks friendship with these conspicuously broken people, one’s own less conspicuous brokenness rises to the surface. As this happens, you realize how we are all in the same boat, you see how much pain you’ve hidden from others your whole life, and how much grace others show you day by day. And so your heart becomes more thankful for forgiveness and friends, and you grow in humility and gratitude. This was a journey I hadn’t ever learnt living anywhere else. Growing up in the privileged mainstream, I’d always been taught that to be transparent about brokenness or pain is perceived as awkward at best or, at worst, shamefully weak. Friends and community in Manenberg have shown me that there is more than one story about each one us, and that there truly is ‘beauty in my brokenness’.

Gangs and Drugs – a Very Cape Town Problem

To what extent could society at large be held responsible for issues of gangsterism, drugs and crime in Manenberg and similar communities?

The Academic and the Elephant in the Room
One evening last week, Sarah and I, some friends visiting from the USA, and the Cru62 boys all went to a talk by a well-known journalist, academic and researcher of all things gang-related. He has just released a book about the nature of Cape Town’s gang pandemic and some of the contributive factors causing it. He was articulate and insightful as he expounded his ideas based upon four decades of research. But whilst his theories relating epigenetics to a chemical predisposition towards addiction, and his stinging critique of Patricia De Lille’s (Mayor of Cape Town) shameless neo-liberal agenda, were fascinating, by the time he finished his presentation and invited questions from the floor, I found myself bothered by something much simpler and more obvious. The entire audience, except a group of us from Manenberg in one corner, was white and middle class. The irony of this – a room full of white people listening to a white man talk about the gang problem – was not once mentioned. And whilst the questions that this demographic posed to Dr. Pinnock were worded eloquently and opinionated in tone, they betrayed an ignorance about or reticence towards two of the most undealt-with issues in Cape Town – race and inequality.
One lady with a plump face and frizzy blonde hair asked (somewhat rhetorically) whether the speaker agreed that the gang problem could be solved by imposing a year of military service. He gave a nuanced and rather gracious reply, suggesting this could be a small part of an answer. Another lady, bespectacled and demure, aired her views that better town planning would sort everything out.

There were a few elephants in the room that evening. Yet the biggest elephant was also least acknowledged. The majority of opinions given by the middle aged, white audience, aired in the form of questions, were all centred around a single narrative. In their eyes, coloured youth that join gangs are a problem to be solved, a threat to their suburban security, and an embarrassment to an otherwise world class city. There was no mention of the fact that 95% of people in that room were still, 22 years into non-racial democracy, surfing the wave of wealth, entitlement and privilege left to whites as an inheritance from apartheid – and that this might just be a significant factor in perpetuating violent crime, anger and hopelessness amongst vast swathes of young coloured men.

Saul Alinksy, the father of community organizing, wrote that “to unslum the slum… [means] battling all of those forces in the city and the nation which converge to create the human junkyard.” In other words, there is “a dynamic interrelationship between a community and the general social scene.” (Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, p.59,61). These words were written in Chicago in 1946 by a Jewish American of Russian descent, and yet they encapsulate the grand narrative that desperately needs addressing in Cape Town today. Manenberg’s gang problem is dynamically interrelated to the rampant racism and economic inequality in Cape Town today. Every time a gangster is shot dead, it’s a reflection of the state of Cape Town as a whole. Very little, if anything, will change until the violence and drugs and crime in Manenberg affects those in wider Cape Town beyond just motivating people to build higher walls, and install more armed response panic buttons. And until the ‘haves’ stop pointing blame-assigning fingers at the ‘have nots’, no amount of expert research and eloquent opinions will count for much.

Let me tell a couple of stories in an attempt to illustrate my point. In a period of three months during the first year of running Cru62, whilst driving with the boys around various parts of Cape Town, Sarah and I were stopped and search by police seven times. Neither of us had ever been stopped and searched previously, except for an occasional police roadblock. One evening when Dowayne was driving the boys to Narcotics Anonymous in Observatory, they were stopped and searched and made to lie face down on the road as the police stood on them, interrogated them and checked that the car wasn’t stolen. What was it about the sight of five young men driving a citi golf in Observatory that sounded alarms for the police? What was it about that totally normal scenario that led them to suspect criminal activity? Another time, five of the boys were prohibited by security guards from entering a shopping mall, with no reason given. They had saved up money they’d earnt working at Jou Ma Se Kombuis (our community’s coffee shop in Manenberg) in order to take a trip to the mall to play video games. Their planned trip was ruined, just because security didn’t like the look of them. Recently, at a cinema, a group of white people got up and left when Sarah walked into a movie with the boys with her, and she is regularly followed by shop attendants when food shopping with one of the boys.

You’re Sitting on My Dinner
One Saturday evening, I went out with the boys to buy gatsbys (footlong sub rolls filled with meat, chips and salad – a firm local favourite). We decided we would like to go to a viewing spot about 20 minutes drive away to watch the sunset over the city. We arrived at the car park to see that the gate was closed, prohibiting cars from entering. So I turned the car around, and we decided to head home. As we were turning out of the road, a police van pulled up alongside us and two black poliemen told us to get out of the car. We complied, though slightly confused as to what we had done wrong. We were made to put our hands on the vehicle as police searched us and then the inside of the car. As they searched, they asked us what we were doing there.
“We’ve come to watch the sunset and have dinner.”
“Where’s your dinner then?”
“You’re sitting on it.”
“Don’t be cheeky.”
“I’m not – you are literally sitting on our dinner.”
“Where are you from?”
“We all live in Manenberg.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“We just explained – we’ve…”
“But if you’re from Manenberg you shouldn’t be here. You need to come to the police station with me so I can take your finger prints.”
Of course, we put up a fuss – why ‘shouldn’t’ we have been there? Especially galling was that the policemen made all four of the boys sit in the back of the police van on the way to the station – as if they were criminals who had been caught breaking the law. Once at the station, finger prints were taken (though I had to make them take my finger prints too – I was equally (un)guilty), questions were asked and when, to the police man’s utter disbelief (he was convinced we were dealing drugs), a more thorough search of the car yielded no illicit substances, they had to let us go. One of the policemen picked up a semi-automatic rifle and marched us to the door, with the words, “now get out of my area.” The single story rearing its ugly head through figures of authority.

You Know they are Planning to Mug You, Right?
Three friends from Kansas City were visiting our community in Manenberg for a couple of weeks. On their bucket list was a climb up Lion’s Head – which is also one of the boys’ favourite things to do. So they went together. As they reached the top, a concerned-looking young white South African approached Jordan.
“Hey broe, those coloured guys who were chatting to you and followed you up here – you do know they’re planning to mug you don’t you? You’re welcome to walk down with us if you want – it would be much safer.”
Jordan replied that ‘those coloured guys’ were actually his friends and they walked up together. He called out the young white South African’s racism, and said “I appreciate you trying to be kind, but you’re actually being a jerk.”

Multiple unrelated occasions. Different parts of Cape Town. Police and public, white and black alike. A single story circulated and recirculated. Fear, distrust, condemnation.

How would you view yourself if everyone else in your city saw you as an urban menace, good for nothing, inherently bad, a social ill to be contained?

You Stink
Think about it this way – if you told someone you knew, every time you saw them, that they stink, they might begin to wash more, though simultaneously start resenting you. If you continued to tell them they stink, despite them washing multiple times a day and wearing deodorant and clean clothes, they might begin to believe that they really do smell and that there’s nothing that can be done about it. And they would probably hold some level of anger towards you for so rudely telling them they smell but not doing anything to help them with what you perceive to be a problem they have. It seems to me that this isn’t dissimilar to the problem faced by young coloured men trying to leave gangs and drugs behind. Systems, authority structures and individuals are all against them, continually telling them they stink (despite the fact that they don’t), doing nothing to help them, and refusing to examine prevailing judgmental presuppositions, all the while compounding the lie that ‘people like that will never change’. Cape Town, we have a problem. It’s not the gangs, the drugs or the crime. It’s us.

Facts vs Truth: The Most Important Battle Christians face?

I live and work in a community called Manenberg on the outskirts of Cape Town. It’s fair to say that Manenberg is quite well known – potentially for all the wrong reasons. The prevailing view amongst most Capetonians about Manenberg is that it is a hopeless hellhole populated entirely by gangsters and drug addicts. In short, people are asking ‘can anything good ever come out of Manenberg’? (that should ring a bell…) Sure, I’m generalizing, but this generalization is based on six years of repeatedly attempting to justify the hope I have for Manenberg, to countless locals who obviously know better than this clueless Brit. You’ll just have to trust my ever-so-slightly-generalised assertions. I do know there are some gloriously hope-filled Capetonians around, too!

Fusion, the organisation I’m part of, working with young gang members and drug addicts, holds quarterly 24/7 Prayer Weeks. [Jargon alert. A 24/7 Prayer Week is simply non-stop prayer, night and day, for a week.] You sign up for hourly slots, and come to pray in our little prayer room in a dark corner of a tired community centre in the middle of contested gang turf. Sounds idyllic, right? Well, in this inauspicious setting, we’ve seen friends receive the gift of tongues whilst de-toxing off heroin, we’ve heard of Muslims encountering Jesus, we’ve witness people break down weeping the moment they entered the room, we’ve shared communion as bullets flew through our office window, and sometimes late at night we’ve fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion (don’t tell anyone).

Each prayer week has a theme. The most recent one was “Truth vs Facts”. In other words, acknowledging that whilst there are some fairly grisly facts out there, eternal truth trumps temporal fact. Every time. So, for example, it is a sad fact that drug related crime has risen in Manenberg by 600% in the last decade. Yet the truth is that drugs can only offer a dull counterfeit to Holy Spirit-fuelled community, and God is stirring Christians in collaboration with police and government to work towards sustainable solutions to addiction and its negative spill over.

Another fact is that fatherlessness and unemployment are two significant factors in young men joining gangs. There is a greater truth that trumps this – that God is father to the fatherless. Having opened a house for such young men just two months ago, we have seen God work in each of their hearts to especially affirm his love for them as father. These young men, whom we are ‘re-parenting’ as part of the discipleship process, have chosen to leave gang pasts behind and are now working two days a week in our coffee shop to learn how to become employable in the long-term. Sure, it’s very small scale at the moment, and there’s a marathon to run, but I’m learning to not write off the ‘day of small beginnings’.

We are told that God “calls into being things that [are] not” (Rom 4:17). This isn’t a call to gloss over the facts, nor is it a call to naïve ignorance. It is a reminder that followers of Jesus are privileged/entitled/empowered (whichever word you prefer, I think they’re all true) to live lives of generative hope, through the practice of feasting on truth (even – especially – that which is not yet visible).

When I, in my weaker moments, allow temporal facts too much airtime in my mind, I attribute to them a ‘truth’ status they do not deserve. I recently heard it suggested that ‘faith for the future generates power for the present’ – and here in our little corner of Manenberg, I’m learning the daily discipline of believing the best over fearing the worst.

And you? Where is your fact vs truth battleground today?