By Sarah Burde
I recently took a twenty-one hour flight to Cape Town, South Africa for a social justice trip with St. Edward’s University. Being in Cape Town was extremely eye opening. Going there I expected to see some major changes during this post-Apartheid period that we are living in. Although Apartheid is no longer in place, poverty is still very prevalent. The unemployment rate is at 25% and there is still extreme separation between social classes and races. During Apartheid the government moved blacks and coloreds into Townships or Shanty Towns, where homes are created from plastic, wood, or old shipping containers, there is usually no running water or electricity within these homes. However, despite the government currently trying to create better homes, families still choose to live in the townships because that is what they are familiar with and it is very community oriented.
The trip revolved around the values of social justice emphasized my freshmen year at St. Edward’s University. During the trip we had the opportunity to work with the Amy Biehl Foundation. The foundation was founded by the Biehl family after their daughter was murdered during her Fulbright trip to Cape Town in the midst of Apartheid related protests. The non-profit’s mission is focused around creating after school programs for children in the townships, so that they have opportunity to be in a safe environment, that allows them to express themselves and learn new skills. Amy Biehl’s after school programs consist of dance, drama, art, literacy, and sports classes that each child who attends can choose from. Amy Biehl has also created gardens at each of the schools they are working at to help provide healthy food options for the students’ lunches. The South African Government does not provide the food for the schools and the stipend provided limits the types of foods the children receive. Amy Biehl’s creation of the gardens teaches the children about the importance of eating well and how gardening their own food is beneficial. Our time with the foundation was spent gardening and spending time with the children while they participated in their activities for the three days we were volunteering. The kids were very loving and welcoming to us and I felt so blessed to have had the opportunity over those three days to build bonds with different kids, despite the language barrier. Working in the townships and visiting areas around Cape Town changed my perspective, forcing me to be aware of how privileged we as Americans are.
The experience I had was very spiritual because it made me raise more questions about God’s role in social justice around the world. Such as ‘Why does God put different families and cultures in the living situations that they are in?,’ as well as ‘what is God trying to teach us from this very evident divide in race and class?.’ As I was sitting down thinking about this post I remembered Matthew 19:16-30. A man approaches Jesus asking what he can do to have eternal life, Jesus tells him to follow the ten commandments and to sell his possessions and then serve the poor and follow Jesus. Then after the man walks away Jesus tells his disciples that it is much harder for the wealthy to enter into eternal life than it is the poor. Matthew 16 made me see how we tend to judge poor and make generalizations that they aren’t trying to better themselves in society. When in reality they are the first ones to help a neighbor and give up a possession for another person. It also made me think about the American mentality, that we as Americans are known for looking at success based on money and how much we have, instead of how we live our lives as individuals and children of God. The post-Apartheid separation and amount of poverty I saw made me reevaluate how we fully live grace filled lives as children of God. Cape Town helped me see how we are all guilty of dehumanizing homelessness and poverty to stop ourselves from feeling the vulnerability it causes. My trip changed how I think about poverty and showed me how the government is handling the poverty in an array of countries. Like Jesus said in Matthew 19, we can do everything right, but until we actually acknowledge and become in tune with the needs of the poor we are just going through the motions of trying to bring social justice through combating poverty.
Another side of the trip that allowed me to feel the presence of God was the natural beauty of Cape Town. On this past college retreat, Priest Ben Nelson discussed finding God’s presence in the beauty of nature. This form of prayer and way of connecting to God was extremely evident throughout my time in Cape Town. No matter your location you can see Table Mountain and the picturesque view that it is, surrounding the city. There is vivid beauty throughout South Africa and being mindful to God’s presence in this nature was very comforting. The two week trip was filled with many tests, the biggest being triggers for my anxiety, but also other events like getting my credit card stolen, seeing the townships for the first time, or experiencing homeless men and women being very persistent in how they ask for money. As someone who has not left the country since I was six, it was quite a culture shock to experience these different scenarios. However, being able to see the beauty from any location was a way to calm my soul and be mindful that God is with me and all the tests are apart of a larger plan to teach me a greater lesson.
In a recent Gathering video with HGTV star Joanna Gaines, says “ focusing on letting His father heart shine through us, fixing our eyes on Jesus and walking in that truth.” This quote became a constant reminder for me after my time working with the Amy Biehl Foundation, it helped me to be open about Jesus showing me my passions and helping me walk in the truth of who God has planned for me to be. Before this experience I knew that non-profit’s who focused their mission around children in the community and education were very important to me. Since working with the kids in the different schools and feeling God’s love shine through them, it allowed me to be consciously present with the interactions I was having with them and really listening and being mindful to the different lessons I was gaining from this experience. My time with the foundation guided me in Jesus’ truth and for me it had allowed me to find other organizations with similar goals to Amy Biehl’s, as well as think of possible ways to raise funds to purchase school supplies that Amy Biehl is in short supply of. Letting His father heart shine through to allow us to listen and see the truth He is trying to show us is very important, and I truly believe that because of this small quote I heard months ago I was able to be more truthful with myself and with God, but also it allowed me to open up to what the truth was behind what I was seeing.
Traveling to South Africa helped me to change my perspective on social justice and showed me how it is carried out in other parts of the world. Traveling has also brought me closer to God in that it connected me to my brothers and sisters living halfway across the world. Meeting new people and adapting to their way of life has helped me appreciate the gifts and blessings God has bestowed upon this Earth and myself. That beauty of the nature that surrounded me as well as the kindness of all those I interacted with me, helped me to see God in so many different ways. This trip has enlightened me to stay strong in my faith, and has strengthened my passion for helping others and embracing other cultures. I am grateful for the experience that St. Edward’s University made possible for me. I can now move forward as a woman for others, instilling positive changes in the lives of those I meet in my daily life.