By Kristine Blaess
The incredible promise of Christianity is that salvation in all its fullness is coming to all people. Jesus the Messiah has come; the victory has been won. Everything that has gone wrong is being made right.
This is a bold claim. And it is truth. It is a truth that can be difficult and complex to live into. It can stretch our faith and our hope even to the breaking point. How does hope function in the midst of hopeless situations?
I spent the last few weeks with my family in South Africa. Part of our time was spent in a township called Manenberg with a man named Jonathan. Manenberg was established during Apartheid when the government removed Black and colored people (these were legally-defined categories of the South African populace under Apartheid) from their traditional homes and resettled them away from good schools, employment, transportation, and even grocery stores.
Unsurprisingly, townships like Manenberg suffer the afflictions that come from broken community ties and lack of opportunity: addiction, crime, violence, abuse. The unemployment rate for people under 35 in South Africa is nearing 65 percent, and is even higher for those living in townships.
Jonathan grew up and continues to live in Manenberg with his wife and children. He is a leader in the community. Usually, when Jonathan’s friends visit Manenberg they take a walking tour of the township. However, gang wars make it too dangerous to walk right now, so we saw the neighborhood life just right there around his house.
First, we saw people picking through enormous bags of trash. Jonathan started a recycling business to employ young adults in the township. The young adults collect trash from the suburbs and bring it back into the township where they sort and sell the recyclables. This gives meaningful work and a little bit of income to young people who are otherwise unemployed.
As Jonathan spoke with us, he returned to a refrain, “I just do the random things.” Wherever he sees a need, he tries something. Jonathan says “random,” but I see seeds of the reign of God.
We noticed kids pulling hoops into the empty lot across the street so they could play net ball. Trash covered the empty lot, and the kids needed to collect it before they could play. Jonathan helped them get started, which inspired other neighbors to clean up, too. People arrived with rakes and garbage bins, and it wasn’t long before the street was cleaner and the trash was being burned in an open fire.
Jonathan took us across the street to the empty lot where during the pandemic he had gathered his hungry neighbors to build a community garden. Together, the neighbors took up the blacktop and amended the sandy soil underneath with straw and horse manure. They started putting seeds in the ground — any kind of seeds they could find, any time of year.
As first-time gardeners, they randomly tried things until some plants grew. The day we were in Manenberg, a nice stand of Swiss chard was growing along with cabbage seedlings. Jonathan calls it just another random experiment, but I see a seed of the reign of God.
Then, the noodle soup Jonathan had cooked for the neighborhood was ready. A couple of young men lugged the pot across the street from Jonathan’s house to a make-shift table in the street. Jonathan called to the kids to go get their bowls and bring the people. For the next half hour, neighbors brought plastic bowls, mugs, cut-off soda bottles -—whatever they could find — to get a scoop of noodle soup. For many, it might be the only meal of the day.
It was such a privilege to talk with the children and adults as they came by. There were beautiful children. I wondered how long it would be before the boys were initiated into gangs and the girls were brought too early into adulthood through abuse and rape. Adult men came through with their teeth falling out and their faces caving in because of drugs. I wondered how long it would be before theirs were the bodies the children stepped over after a night of violence. Mothers came, weary and hungry, with babies on their backs. I wondered how long they could hang on.
Jonathan makes one or two pots of soup each day, depending on his resources. During the height of the pandemic, he organized seven feeding stations around the township where up to 3,500 people were fed each day. Jonathan is characteristically modest — feeding is one of the “random things” that he sees needs doing, and he does it. I see a seed of the reign of God.
What did our family learn? It is worthy for us to consider that Jonathan’s work is lifelong work. Jonathan’s ministry to his neighborhood is a commitment he has entered for the full years of his life. The cost to his health, family, and safety are uncountable.
We do well to grapple, too, with the fact that Jonathan will not transform the township. He understands that he will not save his neighbors. This can be a bitter truth for affluent Americans to swallow, as we sometimes believe that we can fix things and save people.
In all the years Jonathan has been at this, only a handful of people have come out of addiction. Only a few lives have been saved. The salvation of this township is not Jonathan’s to accomplish. But it is the work of God, and the seeds of the reign of God are seen in the small and the random things.
Our family discovered the benefit of pilgrimage. We had precious time and space to be open in new ways. At home, our family has only to cross Main Street to meet neighbors plagued with unemployment, gang violence, drugs, and abuse. However, our eyes and hearts were opened in new ways as we witnessed the brokenness in a new place. With our eyes and hearts opened to the people in Manenberg, we have a fighting chance of having our eyes and hearts opened for our neighbors here in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, too.
We came home wondering: What might it look like for us to commit to the neighborhoods around our church for the long term — not with an eye to transforming them, not to save them, but to build relationships, and if we’re invited, to do some of the random things that are seeds of the reign of God?
Jesus set his eyes toward Jerusalem, where he knew that he would contend with the worst that this broken world had to offer. He set his face, knowing that he would face down the powers and principalities, sin, and death itself. We are called, just like Jesus’ first disciples, to hit the road. We might have chances to plant seeds of the kingdom. Certainly we will have chances to tell people the best news of all — salvation in all its fullness is coming to all people.