Starting Point (Personal Interests)
As a child, and certainly into early adulthood, I was possessed of a decided lack of tolerance for ambiguity:
- I distinctly remember my mother often giving me what she called ‘advance organizers’, verbal cues about what was going to happen in the future, so that I could be adequately prepared for whatever was coming next, good or bad.
- In the Dr’s office, I could never stand to look away when I was about to get a shot – like they always tell children to do – not knowing exactly when the pinch of the needle was coming was far worse than the pinch itself. (this is still true!)
- Like many in my generation, the Star Wars saga had a formational place in my childhood: I had a viscerally negative reaction to the Obi-wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back that what he had toll him about Darth Vader killing his father was ‘True, from a certain point of view’. I remember this still, because I had such a difficult time reconciling what, in my view at the time, was a clear lie to Luke, with my love and respect for Obi-Wan….. ‘How could he lie?’ I really didn’t understand.
- I was a serious rule-follower as a child and even as a teenager, not mostly because I was so good or morally upright, but because it was physically uncomfortable for me to break the rules.
As I have aged and, hopefully, matured I have grown to understand that not everything fits neatly into a binary system and that, while there are certainly ‘objective’ or ‘absolute’ truths, our perspectives as we encounter life plays a significant role in our perception. In the world in which we live, it is impossible to truly understand our world or each other without at least some sense of perspectives and how they might differ.
The name of this program, ‘Leadership and Global Perspectives’, is of course, no accident, and it is likely at least a vague awareness of the importance of these differing perspectives that drew my cohort and I to this program. Perhaps the critical learning at this halfway point in our
Nothing like the edge of the world for some perspectivedoctoral journey is the absolute necessity and value of occhiolism, the awareness of the smallness of our perspective, as we seek to understand our world and lead within it.
With all this in mind, it was very interesting to me that much of the initial conversation upon our arrival in Cape Town centered around how our setting did or did not fit with our expectations, which are really a subset or result of our perspective. Some in our cohort, especially those with previous African experience, remarked that it ‘didn’t feel or look like Africa.
Personally, I was surprised by how much our immediate surroundings, the Victoria
and Albert Waterfront, felt like an upscale version of a Caribbean cruise ship port – a strange mixing of colonial and ‘native’ influences, but all of them aimed at selling you something. I can’t really articulate now, in hindsight, what I thought Cape Town was going to be like, but I know that it exceeded my expectations and expanded my perspective.
If I am being honest, my primary perspective before the trip – not about Cape Town, but about the trip itself – was one of reluctance. Simply put, I didn’t really want to come. I knew that it would be an amazing learning opportunity and a unique experience – and even that I would have fun, but life was feeling particularly rushed, busy and I was acutely feeling the tyranny of the urgent, and the just the thought of 12 days away was overwhelming and anxiety inducing.
But before I finished my turmeric latte while walking on the waterfront the first day, my perspective had changed. I still missed home and acutely felt the pull of other responsibilities, and yet, I couldn’t imagine not being right where I was, challenged and encouraged in my own life and situation by catching a glimpse of the perspectives of those we met in Cape Town.
Changing Perspectives (New Knowledge)
As I think about our perspectives, how limited they can be and how transformative it can be to see beyond our own perspective to gain wisdom, insight and practical implication from another point of view, this trip helped me
understand the centrality of place, the importance of our physical location in forming our perspective and creating our understanding of what is possible.
Hearing Noor Ebrahim tell his story – a story of hope, perseverance and place – surrounded by the literal monuments to the struggle to possess a place, I was transfixed by the triumphant spirit of joy that Noor exhibited. It was unmistakable the reverence that Noor had for District Six itself – his voice picked up noticeably as he spoke about the cosmopolitan nature of the community before it was uprooted. There was joy and pride in his face and his voice as he spoke of this place, this community. One does wonder though if it is the physical, biological, tangible space of District Six was that was so important to Noor and so many others, or if it was really what Harari would call the ‘imagined community’ that was created within that physical space that was some important and so worthy of reverence.
In terms of the decidedly ‘real’, we heard multiple times on our trip the important role that land, and particularly land ownership played in the reconciliation process after the end of Apartheid and the critical role that it needed to play in the future for their to be justice and peace in South Africa. Another reminder of the importance & centrality of physical place.
Surely the stories of people killed because they refused to abandon their homes as they were being bulldozed to make way for ‘whites only’ development was about more than the physical building. It was about the home and the community that was contained within. No mere shelter, concrete, brick and wood is worth your life, but don’t we all have community relationships – ‘imagined’ as they might be – that we would be willing to risk all for?
While it isn’t exactly a ‘new’ learning, our experiences in Cape Town provided a sterling example of the power of story – and just how much we can learn from the stories and experiences of others.
This was particularly evident in our visit to JL Zwane Memorial Presbyterian Church, as we heard powerful stories about the struggle against personal and institutional racism and the fight to find hope in the midst of that struggle. The stories that were told, and the faces of the men and women that told them, are burned in my memory. The real learning, however, was how attending to these stories – and hearing from another perspective – provoked deep and meaningful reactions in members of our community. These stories unearthed strong reactions from many of us, and they lead to uncomfortable and hard discussions. These conversations simply would not have been possible had we not heard the stories from our South African sisters and brothers. These conversations, as difficult as they might have been, were important and the contributed to necessary changes in our own perspectives and in the formation of our community.
Living into New Perspectives (Practice & Application)
As we sat in the Americas Cup room of the Commodore hotel, I had no idea that Michelle Boonzaaier was going to say something that would challenge and shape, not just my work as a pastor and church leader, but my everyday effort to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Michelle talked about here experience of growing up as part of one of the oppressed communities in South Africa – she knew and experienced God as the God who brought release to the captives; a God who was about freedom from oppression and a bringer of justice.
Then, when she went to seminary, experiencing dissonance with who God was for the first time, as she had to reconcile her experience and understanding of God while she was suddenly classmates with white South Africans – members of the very same group that was responsible for the oppression and injustice thrust upon her people. Michelle came to understand, she told us, that our God is the God of both the oppressed and the oppressor. That our God brings healing, mercy and justice to all that come seeking to have their lives – and their perspectives – transformed.
Of all the many things that I carry with me from Cape Town, this has been the most profound and most important. The understanding that God is, of course always on the side of the poor and the oppressed, and God is a God of justice. But at the same time, God also stands with open arms and a standing invitation to those that have been part of the systems of oppression and even those that have oppressed themselves. God is for all of us. In my role as a leader of a church, much of time one of the primary responsibilities is to facilitate discussions and disagreements and work towards discernment of God’s will. This can’t happen if I am unable to see the perspectives of everyone at the table – even, or maybe especially when I don’t agree with them or I feel wronged by them.
There can be no doubt that my experiences in this remarkable place called Cape Town, and the different points of view that I have heard, will have a lasting impact on the perspective I bring into my life, my faith and my leadership and will continue to shape the imagined places – the communities of which I am a part and that are a part of me.