Pain is an odd companion. It demands your attention, but seems to increase the more attention it is given. Because of this, a common theme I hear from people in pain is that they have “gotten used to it.” The reality is that pain becomes the filter through which days are evaluated. As Cavanaugh puts it, “Pain is often called ‘blinding’ because it eliminates all but itself from the field of vision.” A “good” day is one in which the pain is somehow lessened, or there is some delight that steps between the person and the pain to mitigate it. A “bad” day is one in which the pain has worsened, been compounded, or the person simply is not able to find another focus to distract.
I left for South Africa in pain and I returned home from South Africa in pain. The pain did not relent, but there were good days and bad days. I asked friends at home to pray that the pain would open compassion in me rather than make me surly and withdrawn. I think maybe it was a draw between the two.
One can hardly experience South Africa without noticing the pain. Even in our luxury hotel nestled on the waterfront of Cape Town, we were surrounded by people living with deep pain as a result of Apartheid and the ongoing effects of a white supremacist structure. Our servers, for example, shared that many of them see their children only every six months or so because they had to leave the West Cape and come to Cape Town in order to find good work. While pain laced their words, their smiling reassurance that they loved taking care of people reminded me that finding joy in daily life mitigates that pain, but the pain does not relent.
The best, worst day of our time in Cape Town was the day we travelled to the District 6 Museum, and to Robben Island. In both places, survivors of the atrocities committed by the government shared matter-of-factly and with a bit of humor stark descriptions of the pain inflicted over and over again by a government determined to subdue and subjugate an entire race of people in South Africa. Fear, pain, starvation, degradation, and humiliation – these were the tactics used by one group of human beings toward another group. What quickly became clear is that, while apartheid has ended, the effects have not. Political prisoners may no longer be housed at Robben Island, but they remain in a prison of frustration and pain because they remain second class citizens in their country. The government may not be perpetrating forced removals as they did in District 6, but neither are they returning the land and restoring the homes to those who were removed. The government of South Africa continues to fail its black citizens.
Traveling to Gugulethu and Khayelitsha Townships, we saw and heard about the effects of this government failure. The beautiful people of JL Zwane church shared their vibrant heritage in dress and in worship on Sunday, and followed with a stark witness to the ongoing pain on Monday. The pastor of JL Zwane church stood, to me, in stark contrast with those government “leaders” who have taken without giving, and promised without fulfilling. Listening to him, I kept remembering Max DePree’s words, “Leaders don’t inflict
pain; they bear pain.” This pastor and his team work tirelessly to bear the pain the government inflicts on its people. In our discussions, we came to realize that our positions are not so different because many things in our countries our not so different. As leaders who follow Christ, we are called to bear the pain, even when it is inflicted on us and our people by our own government.
In my efforts to find compassion through pain, I kept notes in my journal regarding where I noticed pain among my own colleagues during this trip in an effort to pray for them and, really, to know them better. There was so much pain present in this group of 40 or so people. In my own cohort, every person grappled with some sort of pain, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual. Other colleagues suffered pain from illness or injury, the pain of being separated from family, the pain of coming up against their own biases and not knowing how to resolve them, and the pain inflicted by the biases of others. Reverend Michelle Boonzaaier introduced us to the pain she experienced when she realized
that God loves those who hate her just as much as God loves her. God is the God of those on both sides of any fence as well as those in the middle. There is deep pain in realizing that, just because God loves me, that doesn’t make me “right” and others “wrong.”
Looking through my “list of pain,” I realized that there is so much more pain in the grey areas of life, than in the black and white/right and wrong places. Apartheid was wrong, but ending apartheid has not ended the pain. Slavery and Jim Crow were wrong, but ending those laws has not ended the pain. There are many grey, nebulous spaces where pain continues to be inflicted and wounds continue to fester. There is little healing happening while these grey areas exist.
As I said, I returned home in pain – worse pain actually than when I had left. One thing I brought home with me, however, was a sense of community in pain. While the pain I have right now is some of the worst physical pain I have experienced, I am practicing stillness in the midst of it, meditating on the pain of others and praying for mitigation and healing for all of us. Instead of just asking God, “Where are you in this pain?” I am asking, “What pain am I to bear as a leader? Who needs me to come alongside and bear some of that pain?” I wish these practices eased my own pain, but there is something deeply mitigating in knowing that I am a part of a body of leaders, in our DMin LGP family and around the world, who are called to bear the pain of others as we bear each other’s pain and we bear the pain of our communities together.