Thursday, June 30, 2011


Michael  Magongoe - Last week, June 2011

 For the last three months we have kept vigil over a friend, Michael, who I wrote about in the last blog.  It has been a mixture of hope, prayer, making soup, and visiting.  We’ve watched him and Cynthia, his wife, battle his beleaguered immune system and go in and out of hospital. 

Yesterday morning a tearful Cynthia called us  to tell us that “Michael had gone...”  I listened to the sentence with shock and disbelief.  I even said “You’re kidding!” which is not a thing to say, but I was sputtering in disbelief.  

At the time of the call, Mario was at the shops, but I made arrangements to pick her up at her employer’s house.  

Not long after I hung up, I got a call from Portia, one of my best friends, who also sounded as if she was crying.  She asked me how Michael was, but I knew she knew.  I asked her how she knew (for a moment I thought God told her) and she told me that she had received an sms from Monica, Cynthia’s best friend and fellow leader at Junction Church.  She started to cry, I suspected half from memory of losing Thembe, her own dear husband, an elder at Junction. 

I listened to her sobs, and her heart-felt grief at the idea that Cynthia had lost her husband and was now alone.  A few years ago Michael and Cynthia lost their only son, Michael Junior, after a friend of theirs hit him with his car.  It seemed, Portia cried, that grief would not leave this woman alone.   I listened closely, remembering that Cynthia had been with Portia the night Junior was pronounced dead. 

“Portia,” I said, slowly.  “Get it together and be there for Cynthia.  She needs you.  God has put you in this place to be with her through this time.  Why not see if you can get off work and we can come and collect you to take you to the hospital?”  Portia agreed, and sniffled through small sentences.  She wouldn’t be able to leave until 12:30, most likely (It was then almost noon); she would try to have someone else take her place; she would be there for Cynthia.  She knew what it was like. 

I hung up and called Mario.  He was on his way home, and when I told him the news he exhaled and said “Oh, no...” I could almost hear his heart deflate, but he said that he would be home as soon as possible.  I waited by the door with my purse, like a twelve year old.  Finally, through the vine covered hurricane fence, I saw his white Toyota come down the Valley Road and turn into the driveway. 

Getting to Cynthia was my biggest priority.  I was on edge until we saw her, red eyed, swollen faced from crying.  It wasn’t until then that I could think of what had just appened: Michael had actually died.  We hugged and cried...and Mario hugged both of us. 

Picking up Portia from the school where she works was next.   I ran to her gate and saw her, head to toe in coordinating black and grey, looking beautiful, as always.  As soon as she saw me, she started crying again.  We had to walk to the car that seemed miles away, because she wouldn’t stop crying.  I was nervous and kept thinking about the hospital, and I wanted to get there as soon as possible.   There we would meet Michael's mom and his sister.  We would have to take Cynthia to identify the body.  There would be a lot of tears. 

When Portia and Cynthia saw each other they began to cry loudly, and held on to each other like twins in a storm.  Cynthia began to speak freely about everything.  She had seen Michael the night before and he had asked her not to leave.  It made her feel guilty, now, for leaving.  Portia nodded, saying something like “They know when they are going...” and they both cried more.  

Two widows crying together in our back seat, both in their early thirties. 

The next stop was to pick up Dumisani in Cosmo City.  He had been sick all week and had not been able to visit Michael, his closest friend here.  Now he was walking and talking and looked like Dumi, but he was very distracted by his grief.  He greeted both of the girls and we set off for Kalifong Hospital, south east of Pretoria.  On the way, all three began crying loudly.  Dumi was very vocal and shielded his eyes.  It was all starting to soak in...we had lost Michael- a friend to all of us....a husband to Cynthia.

On the way it occurred to me that our western way of grieving was much different from the African way.  Our grief is meant to be contained...only permissible if we have lost someone very close to us.  Even then, we must remain strong, and though the tears will come, we are not to dwell on the grief of losing someone.  Here were our friends, wailing and crying openly in our car on the way to the hospital.  Grief was meant to come out of them like lava from the earth, forming new bleak land as it cooled.

In a way, I wished I could grieve this way.  There was something so freeing to get rid of all of the grief inside by purging it loudly and shamelessly on our way to the hospital.  I remembered every single time losing people close to I sat in shock way too long, only to be mugged by grief much later, usually in the most inconvenient times.  I wished I could cry the very day I heard.... I wished I could join in with them, crying and wailing and being unafraid of judgement.   Instead, I sat in shock... feeling the dull ache of loss.  Seeing that the church, his family, his wife had lost Michael’s influence permanently.  Knowing that he was in heaven was a comfort, but nothing changed the fact that he wasn’t here for Cynthia anymore.  She looked out the window most of the ride to Kalifong....

At the hospital we met Michael’s mother.  She looked precious and forlorn, her deep set eyes (like Michael’s) were searching Cynthia’s as she told her about the check in at the hospital.  Cynthia’s Zulu name (Smongile) was used from here in – and she guided her mother-in-law and sister-in-law to the ward where just yesterday Michael had been sleeping. 

When we walked in, the nurse told us that she would need Michael’s ID booklet (which we didn’t have) to process his paperwork.  Mario offered to run back to Diepsloot for it, but it was too late in the day, and the nurse suggested we come back tomorrow.  We agreed.  In the meantime, Cynthia and her family went to the bed (hospital curtain drawn all around it) where Michael had been.  Under wraps there lay Michael’s body. 
I saw Cynthia look around the wrapping at the top and I drew back.  I didn’t want to see the body without Michael in it.  I didn’t want to see Cynthia’s grief, either.  I went to the nurse’s station and asked if she was sure Mario couldn’t run back for Michael’s identification .  She could see right through me, and lifted up her head only to look deeply in my eyes and shake her head.  “No thank you, Mama,” she said, sweetly.  What she didn’t say was “Why don’t you go be with your friend behind the curtain, now.  Choose the better thing and be with your friend.”  She didn’t say it loud and clear.

I made my way back to Cynthia and her mother-in-law, who were all crying with Portia. They all seemed weakened by the viewing, but comforted in seeing that Michael was no longer there. 

I didn’t know how much tears were in people.  Cynthia and Portia cried a weeks worth of tears in the few hours we were together.  We all said goodbye at the hospital, unable to take everyone in one car.  Mario had ordered a private taxi to take the ladies back to Diepsloot, and we made arrangements to take them back the next morning to get the paperwork done. 
This morning I dressed in a long black dress and picked up the Michael’s mother and sister and took them to Kalifong without Cynthia, who could not get out of bed.  The rest of Michael’s family met us there, where they processed the paperwork and made arrangements with a funeral home in Michael’s home town of Polokwane.   The family seemed grateful that I was there, and encouraged more support for Cynthia, who would need me later, after Michael was buried. 

The drive back to Diepsloot was not as somber as yesterday.  Instead, there was talk of the family coming together in Polokwane and the memorial service at Junction.  The ladies seemed as if they were satisfied with the way things had gone today, and from what I could understand of their conversation (all in Sotho or Spedi) they were concerned for Smongile. 

In the African tradition, when someone is happy, there is a song.  When someone is grieving, there is a dirge.  Music is everywhere in the African home... and people sing if they’re happy, they sing when they’re sad.   Today and yesterday, a low dirge has been playing in my head.  When I finally got home today, I began to sing it out loud... and I recognized it as a song by Charlie Peacock – Now is the Time for Tears. 

The song tells us that we are not required to behave a certain way around people who are grieving.  We can just simply be there.  When people are grieving, their grief needs to be shared.  The grief that’s shared is cut in half, and eaten by those around them .  These are the events that make you family- these are the events that make you close. 

Now is the time for tears
Don't speak
Save your words
There's nothing you could say
To take this pain away
Don't try so hard
You can just simply be
Cry with me don't try to fix me friend
That's how you'll comfort me

Heavenly Father cover this child with mercy
You are my helper through this time of trial and pain
Silence the lips of the people with all of the answers
Gently show them now is the time
Now is the time
Now is the time for tears

©Charlie Peacock 1992

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Mario with Michael at a party at our house, Feb 2011

If I were honest, I would say that when we came here four years ago, I thought we would change the way that the church was being built in Africa.  We had come on three ocassions for ministry trips and were part of the greatest team raising up new leaders in all communities.  The greatest of these, were the poor.

Since they can't afford medicines, hospitals or even over-the-counter medications, poor churches were relying on the healing power of God, and we saw Him come through with amazing results, partly because of their incredible faith.  Since they can't afford schooling or seminary, the average poor pastor will "educate himself" with the Bible.  Some read all the way through their Bibles a few times a year.  In some very poor countries, rural Pastors may split their Bibles in half and share them with another pastor who doesn't have any.  Many are from heavily tribal areas.  Many are just learning to read.  Many have come from worship of idols and ancestors to a new faith of believing in ONE GOD - and trusting Him with everything.  Some have lost relationship with families who find this a threat and a dishonor... to turn away from tradition and walk by the light of God only.

Watching this as an American, used to American church with American finances, was not only inspirational, it challenged me to throw away my version of faith and take on the radical belief that God is who He says He is.  I have never, ever given my life to anything the way I have given myself to the spread of the true Gospel through Africa.

After awhile travelling the continent and seeing amazing things, Mario decided to take on the role of an elder at Junction and our ministry "settled down" to Northern Johannesburg.  Building up the local church, or encouraging the people here to have accountability and relationship, brought to light the struggle of the average pastor, or lead elder: they must encourage the same people day after day to grow in their destiny, what God has called them to do.

There are two unwritten rules of helping to lead a local church:  1.) You must take care not to burn out; and 2.) You must take care to raise up leaders to replace you.   Without minding the second point, a leader turns into a one man show - taking the place of Jesus.  If you build toward yourself, rather than toward the Lord, the people you are trying to reach become dependent upon you and never learn to lead....

One of the leaders that God put in front of  Mario to "raise up" is a man named Michael.  He is married to a woman named Cynthia, both are active at Junction Church, both are influential in their communities, their families and the church.  They are the kind of people you can count on to do what they say they will do, and are peppered.  Few leaders want to lead in small ways - they usually want to preach to thousands, lead worship, lead prayer or give prophetic words in front of the whole church....especially in traditional churches in South Africa.  We are not a traditional church.

Michael has been leading by example in our church and his community.  He has done a lot of un-glamorous work at Junction - set up the hall, organized public transport, supervised sound and music at weddings.  He cooked food for our pre-service lunches...and all of this was done well.

For years we did the same thing: set up chairs, halls; cleaned the unseen corners of church that could never be seen.  Work like this is never mentioned or acknowledged as great.  Mario's heart has always known that  God saw everything, and everything he did was for God, and that's enough.  I am not as noble, and many times wondered why other people didn't help us get all of the un-glamorous work done. Building a church, I thought, involves servant leadership on many levels - including the grunt work.

Michael and Mario are two men that are rare: not seeking attention, but getting stuff done.  When Mario began a life of church eldership,his main role changed: focusing more on the study of the Word of God, prayer and government, directing the growth of the church God had entrusted him with.

The transition is not as easy as it seems.   A servant setting up the unseen things usually has the heart of a servant, and notice others who do as well.  We became aware that some were doing too much hard work, (Michael among them) and challenged them not to become burned out with the work he was doing.

While they worked together to build up new leaders, Michael became sick.  For the last three months, Michael has been in and out of the hospital for a myriad of health concerns:  a swollen heart, TB, pneumonia, and lungs and feet with edema.  No one here asks about or talks about the virus.  It is a taboo and private thing, especially in the townships.

Our church has been noticing Michael's absence in real ways, and seeing its effect on Cynthia, his wife of many years.  She is part of worship team, and her passion for worship, or praising God is felt every time she sings.  Last Friday we asked her if she wanted to go to the hospital with us when we went to see Michael.  She said yes, and we picked her up from her workplace. We chatted on the way, of new directions we were taking as a church, and a controversial decision to transport church members differently.   By the time we got to the hospital, we were all ready to visit.

Michael was sitting up in bed, seemed like himself and was wrapped in two blankets, a pillow behind his back.  We talked chatted, laughed (his sense of humor is amazingly American, dry and witty)... and gave him a supply of soup for the next couple of days.

Michael's bed was one of eight in his corridor; one of twenty-four in his ward.  The public hospitals are usually known for being inefficient and their staff overworked, and today seemed no different.  I couldn't tell if there was a nurse assigned to his corridor, there didn't seem to be one for the whole ward, so we all made sure he was well taken care of of before we left.

The weekend (as usual) was busy...  Sunday (our day to celebrate) was Mario's birthday...and Father's Day.  It was a wonderful day, although a little chilly.  My trainer came to church; we sat and had coffee afterwards. Mario preached the second service and was awesome.   All the kids called him and we got to see their faces and hear their voices....

Monday (the day filled with meetings) was busy, and we looked forward to the next day, when we had an evening out scheduled to celebrate Mario's birthday.

On Tuesday, Mario went out to the hospital again.  Taking the load of soup and snacks we try to keep him supplied with, we went separate directions, and at 2 o'clock when I came home, Mario was already home and looked sad and tired.

He told me that Michael was very much worse.  He had come to the hospital and found Michael much weaker, winded and discouraged.  He cried, suffering, and told Mario he wasn't sure if he'd pull through.  Many times he told Mario how much he meant to him.  Mario had to feed him the soup he brought, since Michael was too weak to do it himself.

As Mario shared with me, I could see it was weighing heavy on him.  How could we celebrate his birthday when our brother was in the hospital and getting worse??  We prayed, then called the whole church to pray.  I sit and write this, asking you to pray.

We don't have a fool-proof plan on prayer and healing.  I have seen many healed, and I have seen many die.  I do pray, though, that God would heal Michael because I am would like this world not to lose him yet.  Please pray with us...and believe God will do what He promises.  Blessings and Peace....

Monday, June 20, 2011


Scottish Moon Walker, Unplugged  ©John Philip 2011

It took Spaldo ten minutes to negotiate the feet of the robot.  How could the giants leave it here in the field, so carelessly in front of him?  Had they underestimated his ability to escape that much??   The group of jacketed baldies carrying clipboards was far enough away for him to achieve the desired result: scaling the slippery dinosaur before they noticed he was out of the cage.

 After years of test piloting wheel after wheel in the lab, they had finally taken Spaldo out of the darkness and into the field, alongside of the monster they had been building for two weeks.  The red giant had decided that the massive steel dupe should smile, and attached the undersideof a used skill-saw under the propellant that they called “the brain”.  All the while watching from his cage, Spaldo could see that the weight  of the ornament might have proven a challenge: too heavy to propel forward, and the decorative smile might be wasted, setting  the team back days in design. 

Each night, under the florescent bulbs in the lab, Spaldo watched and sketched, using the ends if the drill bit shavings to scrawl the diagram of the controls on wood shavings.  Even if the giants could see them, the scrawl was unrecognizable to their goggled eyes, and they would go without detection.  While the giants snacked on Heineken and unsalted peanuts, they left the propellant exposed; making Spaldo realize that the eventual motion of the robot would be unusual- like a giant walking. 

The secret of the design (he could see with limited views from the glass cage) was in the twisted feed of steel ropes that directed the battery current from the enormous feet to the propellant, encased in a helmet of steel .  The eyes were radial gauges, made to detect motion and heat from oncoming giants, as the red and the baldies demonstrated, punctuating their eventual success with jumping up and down and clapping their hands together. 

The cage kept him from getting to the robot itself.  Glass was impossible to scale with his webs, trimmed every day after his last few escape attempts.  He angrily conceded his existence to being kept, like a simple rat, in a place that was not worthy of him, and his own mind wasted, other than to appreciate the giants’ accomplishments while they plugged along. 

It was one night before the test run that he saw the clipped one was out, scaling the robot without much effort.  The clipped one used to have wings and successfully escaped twice, only to steal the giants’ peanuts or smell the beer.  “Useless insect could have been miles from here,” thought Spaldo, secretly overcome with envy at the cunning of the clipped one to get freedom, time and time again. 

Clipped was walking across the dark side of the robot, Spaldo could see in the blackened shadows, the movements he was making, hanging on to the steel jacket and looking over the top of the cage with fans.  “What is he doing?” Spaldo thought, enthralled at the peculiarities of the lesser thing.  It was only when he came into visibility that Spaldo could see that the Clip had freshly exposed razors where his webs would be;  peeled back by the giants to prevent escape.  Exposed and sensitive to the metal of the beast, the bugs face was pained, but determined.  He tried to negotiate the cage, only to continually fail.

Getting off his wheel, Spaldo thought to summon the insect,  then rung the bell attached to his water tray.  It caught Clip’s attention, actually startled him, but he looked directly at Spaldo, who summoned him, with superiority, to come over.  

Clip appeared to obey, but began a journey that took the better part of an hour:  repelling down the robot, then scaling the workbench that held Spaldo’s cage.   As soon as he saw the razors, Spaldo felt a small feeling that was previously unrecognizable: fear.  Why had he assumed that this clipped insect was friendly?  He had an appearance of stupidity, but a large appetite.    As soon as the clipped one’s face appeared, Spaldo felt relief, the dumb eyes searching for him, then excitedly trying to poke his razors through the clear wall. 

“Too much time has been wasted,” thought Spaldo,  lifting a sketch that he had made of the room, etched finely into a wood shaving.   He carefully pointed out the basket of tools that held treasures: the sound machine, for one.  The clip one looked from the drawing to Spaldo, to the water tray to the robot, dimly distracted by the idea.  It was apparent he didn’t understand, and would be  little use to the genius that tried desperately to  think of an alternative plan. 

And then, it appeared.  Spaldo dropped the shaving and went to the food source, grabbing a pellet and flinging it to the basket, only to hit the top of the clear wall, the pellet bouncing back to him.  Another attempt from his water tray proved to be unsuccessful, but had seriously excited Clip, who could smell the food and followed the pellet wherever it went. 

Finally, balancing from the top of the wheel, Spaldo threw the pellet, which hit the floor and spun, like a top on the tile.  For a moment, Clip forgot he couldn’t fly and fell equally hard to the awaiting floor.  Spaldo watched, breathless, at the dumb insect dizzily standing, then scurrying toward the lone pellet, far from the basket under the desk. 

As if by miracle, the clipped one wandered under the desk, into the shadows (after finishing the pellet) and returned to the half-light, wearing small rubber shoes on his razors, and looking up at Spaldo.  It was hard for Spaldo to contain himself, who began to jump up and down like a giant, and scream out further commands to Clip, who realized he was being commanded, then returned to the basket, only to come out wearing a ball of fur around his abdomen, shaking his hips and waving at Spaldo. 

Spaldo could barely speak, out of discouragement and disgust, but angrily jumped and squealed more, sending the clipped one in and out of shadows, all the while returning with trikets that were completely unnecessary: shaved pencils, a ball of wire, a flag of Scotland. 

Then, the sound machine.  Success. 

Suddenly, the light appeared under the door. The familiar sound of keys jiggling startled Spaldo and Clip into a defensible position: Spaldo behind his wheel; Clip behind the robot’s foot.   The sound of a throat clearing, a flick of a switch;  the lights flashing, then beaming and humming could only mean one thing: morning.

It was the red giant, clearing his throat, ambling into the lab.  His paper cup steaming and his clipboard balanced between his briefcase and his white jacket, he walked in with his usual flat-footed clumsiness.  Keys still in hand, he passed Clip without notice, causing the clipped one to scale (in his new shoes rather quickly) the slippery aluminium beast and hide in the jacket.   Spaldo watched, and barely breathed. 

Soon the other giants joined the red, and they chatted busily, as they worked a little to close to the workbench.

It wasn’t until he saw a portable wire cage that Spaldo thought today may be his last day in the lab.  Used to transport the lesser rats to the field, Spaldo knew that most in the wire cage never came back.  Perhaps they escaped, he mused, but instantly chided himself for being so naive. 

In the wire cage, Spaldo sat.  Cold and without all of his etchings, he felt doomed and alone.  In about an hour he felt the cage tip and leer toward the colder pathway... toward the door... finally into the open field, just outside the lab window.  He was set, cage and all, in the itchy, dense grass that smelled like sewage.  He watched the giants’ feet scurry about, then settle down as a thud sounded in front of them. 

It was him.

He stood, smiling, and pointing toward the sun, shining like a god in a green sea, massive and bold.  Spaldo looked at every corner of his cage, and saw the gnawed markings of a rat, desperate to break free.  He tried to calm his beating heart, and looked at the latch from the inside, wire holding it in place.  His webs were no longer sporting his claws, so useful at times like this.  His webs were so...bare.  So itchy in this grass. 

He then saw that his cage was thinly welded at the webs, and he tapped through one square, then another, then another, until a block of cage fell away and folded under his weight.  Scraping himself as he broke free, he looked for the giants.  It wasn’t until he got to the robot.... in the itchy, green thick grass... the itchy, itchy...dense forest.  Finally, the familiar sheen of aluminium broke the feel of hopelessness and despair.

Those feet!!  Those massive feet!!  

It took him ten minutes to negotiate the feet of the robot.  How could the giants leave it here in the field?? Had they underestimated his ability to escape that much?   The group of jacketed baldies carrying clipboards was far enough away for him to achieve the desired result: scaling the slippery dinosaur before they noticed he was out of the cage.

©Janet Rodriguez 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011


South Africa has so many National Holidays!!  Some are so closely cropped together that most citizens are annoyed  by their interruptions of the work week, rather than blessed for their days off. Today , June 16 is called “Youth Day” – perhaps a little ambiguously named.

 It's really not about youth, and it's not a day of celebration.  In reality, Youth Day is named after an uprising that took place in Soweto (SOuth WEst TOwnship) Johannesburg. It's memory is emblazened into most of our heads because of one picture: a little boy, a crying sister and a young man carrying him away, limp in his arms.  

It  began on this day in 1976 with a peaceful protest by high school students, objecting to a recent government edict that all instruction in black schools would be held in Afrikaans.  Most black languages in South Africa that are readily spoken belong to a Bantu stream (Zulu, Xhosa,  Sotho, Tswana)  Afrikaans was not just a language: it was the langiage of the Apartheid Government, who (by their own admission) saw it as a higher, preferred tongue.  Because the Apartheid era had made the separation of schools (white schools were much better funded than black schools) and the separation of classes (Blacks had to be in the township by nightfall) and the oppression of the black people in general (marriages, friendships and freedoms were all subject to the Apartheid government's permission), the few benefits of the black schools were that the lessons given to the students could be instructed in their own language.  The protest, the students decided, was to remain peaceful, and show the government that their language was a cherished right that would not be surrendered for an obscure ruling in Pretoria, made by people who had most likely never set foot in a township.  

The protest attracted a large crowd of non-students who agreed (and were equally angered by the ruling).  The crowd of approximately 10,000 soon became loud and aggressive when the police arrived.   A riot  started, with angry Sowetans killing two school board members, killing, then burning dogs, vehicles and buildings associated with the police and the governing school board.  

A group of 30 black members of the police force gathered outside the Phefeni Junior Secondary, and began singing the traditional Sotho anthem 'Morena Boloka Sechaba Sa Heso' ("Lord, Bless Our Nation" in Sotho), quickly sending the message that in the township, the Police were here for black people as well.  This led to   the crowd became violent, throwing rocks at the white police, there to keep peace for the people. As a result, the next step in police trainging kicked in: a rioting crowd gets teargas fired into it.  It is unsure what happened next, or what sparked the next level of force.  The official explanation was this: "Before the crowd could be dispersed, we opened fire on the demonstrators".

There are conflicting accounts of who gave the first command to shoot, but it resulted in the same thing: people turning and running in all directions, leaving some children, who had originally started the protest, lying wounded on the road.

The boy's name was Hector.  An Hispanic name in a Bantu Township.  Hector Pieterson.  His last name was Afrikaans.  He was hit by a stray bullet, and mortally wounded.  He fell on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets, was picked up by Mbuyisa Makhubo (an 18-year-old schoolboy) who together with Hector's sister, Antoinette (then 17 years old), ran towards Sam Nzima's car. They put him in, most likely already dead, and a journalist by the name of Sophie Tema drove him to a nearby clinic where he was pronounced dead.  

Hector is the image of Youth Day.  He even was given his own museum, as a memorial to the "struggle" and the fall of Apartheid.  He was widely revered as the first child to die that fateful day, but it was another boy, Hastings Ndlovu, who was actually the first child to be shot. In the case of Hastings, however, there were no photographs, no dramatic rescues, no clinic pronouncement.   His name was not immediately known, and when they located his family, they confirmed that their son, Hastings, was the body that lay before them.

More than 500 hundred people died in the uprising. Among them was Dr. Melville Edelstein, who had devoted his life to social welfare among blacks. He was either beaten or stoned to death by the mob and left with a sign around his neck  'Beware Afrikaaners'.  Edelstein (not Afrikaans) loved Soweto and its people...but on the day he was a man with white skin inside of an angry mob.

It is the picture of Hector Pieterson, the one black schoolchild shot by the police, that brought home to many people within and outside South Africa the brutalities of the Apartheid regime. The event sparked the curiosity of a world that couldn't imagine the riot, the edict, the outcome of the day.  With this picture, the words "Apartheid" and "Amandla" became known where I was growing up...and made the UN cause sanctions to be imposed later, after a National decision not to heed warning to remove an oppressive government.  

We have MANY Afrikaans friends who hated the idea of Apartheid.  We have MANY black friends who confess that not all of Apartheid was so bad.  The truth of it remains that the system was destined to fail, as all systems that hijack rights away from citizens do. It is so like our own civil rights struggle in the 1950's that we understand the idea of a Nation moving on and remembering not to repeat the mistakes of the past.  

In the end, the revolt was about a final straw: language.  When South Africans remember Youth Day most likely they remember the boy in the picture: the revolt against the police.  The civil tension and mutual racism is lost in the history that is now taught: it was all about a corrupt government shooting at students.  The truth?  A township refused to be given one more rule; have one more piece of their identity stolen away.  The riot led to police and a show of force that was brutal and the undoing of them.

The issue of language is a deep one - it makes us who we are and gives us a freedom to express who we will want to be.  Nelson Mandela once said "When you speak someone's language, you speak to their heart."

It is true.

Dit is waar. 


Saturday, June 11, 2011


Dear Returning Soldier,

My name is Janet.  You don't know me, but I wanted to write to thank you for all you've done in serving our country.

 I just read from my internet newspaper that a great many of you are being scheduled to come home, and your return date is imminent.  This announcement made me think of the times we prepare to return to the same home for vacations or holidays.  The thrill of seeing family and the thoughts of seeing their faces keeps me up at night in anticipation shortly before I go back.  Once back, I love the relaxed conversations that take place between our loved ones, shooting the breeze for hours, as if we're making up for lost time. 

My husband and I are in South Africa, here to serve God in any way we can, part of a large international team that helps local church leaders learn how to lead.  The country I now live in is wonderful, full of hospitality and great people, but the freedom and rights I grew up with are very foreign here. 

When I go home, after a brief honeymoon period, I am ushered back into the fast-paced society that America has become. It's surprising to me to see how much people in the USA seem to take for granted.  Free speech, our right to a speedy and fair trial of our peers, our right to bear arms and protect ourselves, our right to vote... all of these are uncommon luxuries in the world.  The people back home seem more consumed with Twitter and Facebook... but that's a different story.  

The world  I re-enter is one I am hoping will be different from your perspective.  The reason why?  What will happen when you go back is something our team calls re-entry shock.  I can only imagine what it will be like for you... 

You have gone selflessly and served in a place whose business, traditions, climate and food are so unlike our own.  You've seen a country which does not know or understand the unique freedoms we share in the USA.   I've read that many of you who are returning home are young.  Many of you have done tours in a place that marks your first time out of the country, and even though our situations and experiences for being gone are different, I have a feeling you may benefit from what we've learned.  I'll call this "My Unsolicited Re-entry Advice".  It's my hope that it will help you.

1. Don't  try to justify what you have done in five-minute conversations.

As for your family, your spouse or your children, they really want to know how you are, and what parts of your tour have troubled you or excited you.  Most others will want the five-minute version of what you have been doing with the last few years of your life.  

Without knowing the damage they can do, some may accuse you of not being at peace for the most sacrificial years of your life because you don't have the rehearsed answer that could justify you being removed from all they hold dear.  They may try to bring in opinions of what they have heard from their "spin media" in a wide array of subjects:  Bin Laden, Afghanistan, desert camo, The Hurt Locker, etc.  Just smile and wave... these folks are the ones that have never left the country (and maybe not even their couch) in the last few years.  Try to have patience for them, even if they're screaming at the Starbucks person for more foam on their cappuccino.  These are the people you fought for, too.

2.  Be at peace with who you are, even if the country has mixed opinions

Unless you've been a soldier, you can never understand a soldier's heart.  A soldier follows orders and does what warriors do.  You signed up; you were not drafted.  You did not have to do this for the USA; you did.  You risked your life, which  makes you a hero.  Know that most Americans would thank you, send you appreciation for  your loyalty and dedication.   Most have a deep respect you and your family; for the sacrifice you have made for the United States of America.

Even so, a soldier doesn't stop being human, and the deepest feelings of missing family when you are removed by miles (kilometers), oceans and time zones can't be translated.  These are the deep places in your heart that many can only dimly guess at....  God knows.    At the end of the day, you were a soldier, and that role - even though it was fulfilled dutifully – is not your identity.  The many facets of who you are may never be known to others, so be at peace that God sees you for who you are down deep. 

3.  Don't listen to "experts", like Michael Moore, who with all due respect, is an idiot. 

In old time villages, everyone knew who the idiot was.  They were entertaining, easy to listen to, good for a laugh or two, but not many people relied on their opinion.  Now, put a camera in their hands and a good editing team, and presto!! The world listens.  Most Americans know the truth.  Last week Moore was quoted as saying about bin Laden's execution:

"The Nazis killed tens of MILLIONS. They got a trial. Why? Because we're not like them. We're Americans. We roll different."

Since he was last seen, Moore wasn't supervising International policy or sitting in on UN conventions or negotiating hostage release anywhere in the world.  The place he spews knowledge from is not even as a historian.  An historian would accurately say that Nazi's (while agreeably the most hideous threat and propaganda-programmed army of yesteryear)   openly declared war, openly fought and openly joined forces to fight a world war.  

The difference between the leader of Al Queda and Hitler is that Hitler wasn't a mole, hiding and secretly planning terrorist attacks against countries not at war.  Even Hirohito is seen as nobler, attacking Pearl Harbor on a Sunday Morning while many were in churches instead of at the base... bin Laden was executed like the roach he was – killed before he could scurry away.  The Navy's justice to him and his family was a proper Muslim burial at sea.  

While Moore has been stirring the pot and eating Cheetos in his air-conditioned studio at home, you've been guarding our fence at night. 

It is for this reason, that you have more credibility in my eyes.  

4. Have patience for others who haven't seen what you've seen.

In the end, all people have a perspective that is their own.  All people want to be liked, maybe even understood.    You may be tempted to "school" some half-informed people.  You may be in the middle of a conversation with another school parent, or maybe even an old friend, and it will occur to you that their opinions sound a lot like conservative radio or NPR, or MSN... and they believe what they are saying is true.  On these occasions, it may cross your mind to educate them about the reality of the Middle East, or the oppressed lives of people you've seen up close-up.   In the first world, most people have only seen "resort-third-world", or the poverty that is near their destination wedding.  What people have seen on the news or during a two-day visit is very different to living alongside of a people in circumstances, traditions and governments so unlike our own.   The quickest way to cast your pearls before swine is to make sure they never believe their news source has the full story, or to quote it as their own opinion again.

5.  Take time to re-enter.

Read other's stories of getting back to the USA.  Write your own for your children and their children.  Check out blog sites and start your own.  Personal stories are the quickest ways into peoples' hearts.  It may set you free, in some ways, to see your own thoughts in print.  Why do you think I do this?  

Go to Baskin Robbins and ask the kid behind the counter what his favorite flavor is, and then order it.  Get a big, greasy hamburger with pickles and ketchup and finish it.  Go to the newest park in the neighborhood and watch a little-league game.  Visit a nursing home and ask someone to tell you their story.  Visit Home depot and take a class on how to build a greenhouse, even if you live in an apartment.  Volunteer at a food closet.  Go to a local art gallery and really take time to look at the exhibit.  Go to a midnight showing of a movie, and eat popcorn.

This is your home.  This is what you came back to.  Everyone else will look like they haven't grown or changed or moved an inch, but they have. 

Have hope, patience and love for the next generation.

Remember you are loved, and getting through the re-entry will take time. 

And go to church, soldier.  God has gotten you through this. 

Blessings and Love,

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


At the airport, I parked, went to the arrival terminals and waited...

Ever since the world cup, our airport has been the subject of much oooh-ing and aaah-ing... a gorgeous design to accommodate international visitors and domestic travelers.  On Saturday, it was just a wide-open cold space that would usher in my husband and best friend after 14 days away.

The trip back home was necessary - to reconnect with both sides of family during a particularly brutal time of change and tragedy... requiring one of us at least to touch, to be, and to show up in the midst of it all.  Sometimes when a family goes through bad times, we want to be there, just to be... and whatever we say or do is secondary.  The luxury is not given freely:  It costs us on many levels.

Saturday, I was a whipped pony, after a week of change and emotion here in Johannesburg, with our church family.  Without Mario, I felt unbalanced and unprepared to deal with it all, and had two days of crumbling into tears...very uncharacteristic of me!  Both sides my heart that usually are divided with memories and emotion marked "there" and "here" had imploded on the Saturday before.  I was missing my family, wanting to be with my mom, my kids, my grandchildren, grieving for all our families were going through AND feeling the weight and loneliness of leadership, dried fruit, ineffectiveness, tragedy and misunderstanding.....

All without Mario.

To say who Mario is, is almost unnecessary.  Most of you know him, so who he is to me is an intense version of that.  Bright; strong; caring. A man who has a tender side always exposed; and a pillar when the rest of the world is caving in.   The voice of reason; the reminder of promises; the voice in the night that reminds me who I am...and the man who inexplicably loves me without reason.  Every now and then his eyes twinkle when he looks at me with the admiration of a 16 year old boy looking at a prom queen... and I'm elevated to the woman I am to him.

So, I was waiting there in my cutest dress (a retro black mini) in black tights and boots -- my hair and make-up as perfect as it could be...and finally I say him.  Pushing a cart coming out of the customs sliding doors, dressed in camo shorts and a green shirt, scanning the crowd for my face.  When he saw me, he smiled...and that was it.

I made my way to him through a cloud of tears, and hugged him tightly, my head cradled against his chest as always...and lost in his massive arms... I cried my makeup off and my hair looked terrible after the embrace.  I didn't care....

He was home.

I want to take the time to say that I had been separated from my husband for 14 days... not a whole heck of a lot compared to Army wives or Abigail Adams.  Wimpy and out-sacrificed, I have nothing to compare to a woman who strongly survives her husbands' absence for months; even years.

I can say, though, that when you live in a country that is not your own, you feel on shaky ground many times... but when you're with someone who loves you, they become more than just a spouse, they become your home.

I am reminded of the song by Billy Joel, one that I heard as a girl and thought was kind of corny...and now I see the truth behind it.  Even though I had a wonderful home growing up, my adult life has been a disjointed story of places we have lived.  The threads that bind it together are God...and each other.

At the risk of sounding corny, this is my heart today.  I am home with Mario, my love and my best friend.  I have some of the lyrics to "You're my Home"  in my head, and I have to write them down, then encourage whoever is actually reading to look at the very OLD youtube link at the end to have them set to music.

It is for this love...I am grateful.

When you look into my eyes
And you see the crazy gypsy in my soul
It always comes as a surprise
When I feel my withered roots begin to grow

When you touch my weary head
And you tell me everything will be all right
You say, "Use my body for your bed
And my love will keep you warm throughout the night"
Well I'll never be a stranger and I'll never be alone
Whenever we're together, that's my home

If I travel all my life
And I never get to stop and settle down
Long as I have you by my side
There's a roof above and good walls all around
You're my castle, you're my cabin and my instant pleasure dome
I need you in my house 'cause you're my home.
You're my home.
Billy Joel's live performance of "You're My Home" is found here.


©Janet Rodriguez 2011

Thursday, June 2, 2011


It began as a facebook post.

My son, Vince, posted (for whatever reason) a youtube link for the Boston masterpiece "More Than a Feeling" on his wall, the familiar picture of UFO's that are actually flying guitars next to it.  Even the picture transported me to my size 5 jeans, with newly permed hair and rainbow t-shirt.

Amazing, but I decided to listen.  The most overplayed song of my freshman year seemed even more crisp and sharp than the record I listened to over and over again.  With the new digital mastering, the clear and precise representation of a piece of music from the original recordings can actually be better than the original.

There was once a time when I firmly believed in the saying "Don't mess with a classic", so the thought of remixing the original recordings seemed taboo.  Like remaking an Alfred Hitchcock movie, somethings were best left alone.

Since the original recording of "More Than a Feeling" was done on reel to reel tapes, the job of cleaning them and making them into the album was a task by the time Boston received their first recording contract.  Tom Scholz says that "Amanda", the oldest track on the Boston album, was so sticky by the time they took it to press it felt like there was jam on it.  Still, "Amanda", originally cleaned and pressed to the album eventually became a CD; later remastered and is now an mp3 file that I can download to an Apple ipod I can hold in the palm of my hand...and sounds much better than it did in 1976.

So much for not messing with the classics.  

In 2009 the Beatles Boxed Set was made available for purchase anywhere in the world.  Upon hearing the remixed version of "Nowhere Man", Paul McCartney said he turned around, "...expecting John to be singing over my shoulder."  The quote made me want to hear it, and it is true, the "s" in "please listen" sounds like John Lennon is in the same room....

At this point I have to check myself, since I begin to remind myself of an old fogey marveling at the precision of a fine point Bic pen, but it is a beautiful thing to improve a musical recording in a way that the classics may be kept for the next generation to hear.

Sometimes the brilliance and beauty of words sung in harmony can be lost from one generation to the next, even with the eternal quality that the Beatles brought.  Rubber Soul, the album of "Nowhere Man" was recorded in mono, and meant to be played on the phonographs of teens that could only turn it up loud enough to not disturb their parents in the next room.  If you compare it to the drum and bass trance music blasted in most clubs now, it stands as a recording worth giving to your baby daughter, tender and impressionable, and may as well be remastered in stereo.  The guitar riffs in "More than a Feeling" became the signature of 70's rock, where no good song was complete without the invitation to bang your head while a screaming electric guitar was played by a master.  The best stereo I ever had was in my Datsun B210, and it still doesn't equal the sound transmitted now through my computer and into my headphones.

The year Vince was born, Run DMC rocked Live Aid with a new spin doctor, and new music style called "rap".   I chronicled it it his baby book, knowing that like would never last.  I was wrong about both.  It wasn't until much later I sounded like my parents, lecturing my kids about "real music" and how they should appreciate all kinds.  I never got into Nine Inch Nails, The Cranberries, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony or  Smashing Pumpkins.  I wondered why they couldn't appreciate Tom Petty or The Beatles...  They did the same eye-rolling I did when my parents would say that about Beethoven.

Now I spend most of my music-listening time in the company of worthy symphonies performing Mozart, Vivaldi or Dvorák.  Even their music can be recorded in high resolution, downloaded in mp3 format and then listened to in pure amazement.  I know Antonio would be astounded at the sound of his own music digitally remastered.

I just finished listening to "I Tried" by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, though, who I now enjoy without praying that they won't steer my kids away from all things good and noble in the world.

The good stuff has a way of staying around, and only gets better.