Friday, January 17, 2014

unjani





There is a hall of meeting in the middle of the old town road in the busiest section of Diepsloot extension 1.  Its clean red bricks and neat mortar blossom into a green tin roof that is beautiful amidst the clutter of of the township.  It doesn’t belong in this poor section of this poor township.  Its glorious perfection bears the markings of pride that usually does not accompany a government project. 

Adam had worked as a guard there for three years, being paid peanuts – not at all what he was promised.  He didn’t mind it as much as he should have, for precisely the reason I stated here introducing the structure.  Adam was as proud of the hall as he could have been would he have built it himself.  On some nights he slept in the wendy house, nothing more than a tool shed, and knew it as well as his own shack in extension 7.

One sunny afternoon in February he was sitting in his folding chair watching, as always, the children playing soccer in the side street.  They were normal children of the township, dressed in after-school clothes and shabby shoes, their faces glowing and sweaty from play.  

While he watched them, Adam could not help thinking of Blessing, his own son who had slipped away to heaven only three months ago.  He had been carrying  a mysterious fever with him, something that the doctors called septicemia once he was in the hospital.  The name didn't matter, but the fever did.  The eight year old boy fell into a feverish sleep and his eyes rolled back into his head.  Adam watched, unbelieving that death could be so brave as to sneak up on their family and steal his only son.  

Adam’s wife, Therese, clawed at her face and screamed at the sky when the doctors could not revive him.  Later at home, she woke Adam up and insisted he take her to the hospital to make sure he was indeed dead. 

“My husband,” she pleaded with eyes still carrying hope.  “He was still warm.  Perhaps they can resuscitate him.”

Once her mother and sisters reassured her that he was dead, the grief came again and they carried Therese off to her mothers’ house in order for her to weep aloud without shame. 

Adam had to go back to sleep, he had work in the morning. 

Losing his son was a wound that remained infected.  Adam watched the children and remembered Blessing’s desire to play soccer each day after school.  Sometimes as he walked home he would watch the older ones play on the grassy field with their shoes and fancy shin-guards. He dreamed of the day he would join them , perhaps even play on a professional level.

There were so many children in Diepsloot who were like Blessing, but none that held his son’s place in his heart. 

“Adam!” He was startled by a greeting from the street and turned to see his own pastor walking up the old town road. 

“Umfundisi!” Adam was honored to be publicly acknowledged by his pastor and stood to bow in courtesy. 

“May I sit with you?”   Pastor shouted back, using his dark brown hand to cup his mouth so that the sound would carry further.  There was no need - Pastor’s voice was a waterfall. 

“Umfundisi, of course!”  

Adam ran to the gate to crack it enough to allow the passage of his tall and fit Pastor, dressed in khakis and a white shirt that had been freshly ironed.  The Pastor knew all the tricks to keep looking fresh in the township; he never had a spot or wrinkle on his person.  Adam was self-conscious in his own work attire, a dark blue jumpsuit with boots that were quite dusty. 

“Come in,” Adam smiled broadly and offered his hand.

“Unjani…”  The men greeted one another by shaking hands and smiling.

“Sikhona, Unjani,” Adam nodded.

“Thanks be to God I am well!” Pastor bellowed, then laughed. 

“Yes, yes!”

“Shall we sit down?” Pastor moved over to the shade where Adam’s chair was.

“Let me return with another,” Adam said over his shoulder as he ran into the hall.

“I will wait here!”

Pastor looked into the Wendy House while Adam was inside for any signs of alcohol or drugs, but the place was well-organized and clean,  It had a small heater and a paraffin stove for food preparation.  Tea and sugar were there on the table, one broken plastic spoon next to it.  Pastor could see no cups or dishes.  Perhaps Adam was accustomed to using the ones inside the hall.

Adam returned with a chair and happily set it in the shade next to the Pastor. 

They each exchanged pleasantries.  Adam asked about the church and the Pastor’s mother-in-law who just moved in with them.  Pastor answered with thanksgiving, making sure that Adam would not misunderstand the challenge of having a mother-in-law under your roof. 

“She is a blessing,” Pastor said.  “But she is also used to telling my wife what to do.  My wife is used to listening to her.”

Adam was chuckling softly and shaking his head.  Therese’s mother had already moved her bags to heaven and Adam was content with that living arrangement.

Finally, Pastor asked the question that he had come to ask.  “How are you, Adam?  How is Therese?”

“We are fine, Umfundisi, we are fine.”

“Yes.”

“Thank God we are fine.”

The children continued to play and the men watched them kick up dust and flail their arms competitively.  

Two women were fighting in the main street and a fruit stand owner was trying to quiet them.

Pastor nodded. 

“Of course there are still days where I wonder why he ever had to die.”

Pastor inhaled and air filled his lungs.  His exhale was forced and loud and he shook his head. 

“I must agree with you, my friend.”

A dog came in to the yard of the hall through the small gate opening.  Adam jumped up and took his stick to chase it, but the dog squeezed through the fence quickly with its tail between its legs. 

Adam returned to his seat, no longer smiling.  He didn’t like talking about his son.

“How is Therese?”  Pastor ventured further.

Adam thought of his wife and her habits which had changed so much.  She was now praying the rosary with the Catholic ladies in the yard and staying away from the Pastor’s  church altogether. 

“Why should I go if they have no power to raise the dead?” she shouted at Adam.

“Please, Therese.” He wanted to beg her to come with him, but he didn’t have the strength or the truth to do so. 

“It’s one of the works of Christ, you know!”  Therese’s eyes narrowed and accused Adam.
 
“Yes, my wife.” Adam ended up walking by himself to church that day.  He did the following Sunday as well.  He even did the following Sunday.  Therese had not been back.  Perhaps that was why the Pastor was here.

“How can I tell the Pastor what Therese had said?” Adam thought.  “It was so cruel and crazy…”

The shopkeeper in front of the soccer game came out to tell the children to move and make way for a shipment of oven that was on its way. 

The children dispersed, the tallest one taking the ball and running toward the old town road.  Two smaller children ran after him.  The rest of the children went in opposite directions.

“It is a very hard thing to lose a child, my friend.”  Pastor didn’t look at Adam, but both men felt a special intimacy at that moment. 

“It has been a loss like no other, Umfumdisi.”

Silence.

“I would like to offer you something,” Pastor was fishing in his pocket and pulled out his phone.  He showed a picture of a tree to Adam.  It seemed, Adam thought, a strange picture of one tree, a sapling with hardly any life in it.

“I have planted this tree in front of our church building.  Do you see that it is a mango tree?”

Adam nodded, smiling slightly.  He remembered planting mango trees in Venda when he was a child.  He loved going back there and eating them from the tree now…

Pastor watched the thought process with delight.  “Do you think I forget that you are Venda?  You are the tree people, are you not?”

Adam erupted in embarrassed laughter.  “We are indeed!  Let us plant all of the trees and you will surely have fruit!” 

“Perhaps you should have planted this one.”

“I can come and plant any time you ask me.”

Pastor put his phone away. 

“I have called this tree the Blessing Tree and I have planted it outside of our church.”

“The Blessing Tree!” Adam was pleased that the tree had the same name as his son and was also a mango tree, his son’s favourite.  Then it occurred to him that this act was a purposeful one – perhaps to memorialize his own young son.  He looked into the eyes of his pastor.

“When did you do this?”

“The elders and I have done this planting yesterday morning.” Pastor nodded, smiling.  “In honor of your son.  His memory shall go on, Adam.”

“I see.” Adam didn’t know what to say.  The act was indeed an honorable one and surely would please his wife, but his son was still dead.  Did Pastor think a tree would make his grief go away?

“It seems a small matter,” Pastor seemed to have been reading Adam’s thoughts.  “It seems like a small thing, but it will help us all grieve together and help us to remember that life goes on.”

“Yes, it does.”

Silence.

Pastor sat still and waited for twenty minutes.  When he stirred to leave, Adam spoke. 

“My wife will not return to church.”

Pastor nodded and sighed. 

“She says that you should be able to raise the dead.  If you can’t you’re not a man of God.”

Pastor nodded some more.  “I see.”

“I don’t agree, Pastor,” Adam now regretted saying anything, but then realized it was just as well  he did. 

“We accept sufferings of Jesus Christ so that we can share HIS resurrection.  I believe in the Resurrection of the dead but I have never raised a dead man while I have been alive.”

Adam was quiet, but watched what Pastor would say next.  He had to speak.

“Let your wife come to see the mango tree,” Pastor said, standing up. 

Adam stood and nodded.  “I will bring her on Friday, which is my next day off.”

“Good.”

Pastor and Adam shook hands again, then walked to the gate.

“It is by grace we are healed, Adam.  Do you believe this?” Pastor asked, stalling at the gate.

“Yes.”  Adam wasn’t sure what that meant.  His son was still dead and his wife would not return to church. 

“Through the death of his Son,” Pastor said quietly and deliberately, looking into Adam’s eyes.  “Our Father has provided a complete salvation package for us so that we could have everything that we need or ever will need in the future. Jesus came not only to rescue us from eternal death but also to completely deliver us out of Satan’s kingdom of darkness and bring us into God’s kingdom of light. He did this so that we could have life and life more abundantly.  Here on earth, not just in heaven.”

“Yes, Umfundisi.”

Pastor nodded and then put his hand on Adam’s shoulder.
 
“I will make tea for you and your wife when you come to see the tree.”

“Yes, Umfundisi.”

Pastor walked through the gate and past a cacophony of stoves being unloaded at the appliance shop.  One man was yelling at another in Zulu, who was yelling back in Sotho.  

Adam watched him walk away,  and when he was just a white dot on the old town road he walked back to his wendy house.  There he thought about his life and how the color had gone out of it.  He thought of how the Pastor’s faith was so much greater than his and how his wife must always be pleasant and agreeable during night time prayers.