Last week, Arthur Clayton returned from a two week trip to South Africa with the Religion Department at Carson-Newman University orchestrated by their Dean of Religion, Dr. David Crutchley. Arthur is working towards a Master of Arts in Applied Theology (MAAT), a degree program that has been meeting here at First Baptist for the past year. This trip counted as part of his curriculum for the degree.
The theme was Understanding Your Spiritual Journey, and the trip was unique because it wasn’t just academic. It was also spiritual and missional. The three aspects combined forced Arthur to stare into Africa’s history and find hope despite the oppression.
What he brought back may serve as a reminder for us all that true religion is not something we do. It is something we feel – something we are – and, while it may not look the same in every culture, there is always hope.
“While there, a phrase from one of our lectures really stuck with me,” said Arthur. “The speaker said, ‘Don’t just do your religion. Feel your religion.’ Each day, we traveled to a new place of historical significance and we were asked to think academically, spiritually, and missionally. Those three facets went into everything we did and encouraged us to apply the experience to our spiritual journey. We really were challenged to feel our religion.”
One place they visited was Cape Point, one of the southernmost points of Africa where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean connect in a white line of crashing waves.
“If you looked to the right, you saw the Atlantic. If you looked to the left, you saw the Indian. We saw them come together,” Arthur said, interlocking his fingers in front of him to illustrate the line of waves. “Dr. Crutchley would ask us things like, ‘Where do you see God in this mountain, in this cliff, in these oceans.’ Some answers were obvious, some were intricate, but we found that every place applied to our spiritual journey.”
The team also visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. In 1994, the entire island was converted into a museum to document life during and after apartheid – an extended period of extreme segregation and oppression in South Africa. For Arthur, the experience was an awakening.
“On this trip, at every location and every turn, we were reminded of Africa’s history of oppression over centuries,” he said. “So, being in the cells at Robben Island showed me it was more than just a black and white issue.”
African oppression can be traced back four centuries to Dutch colonization. Since then, corrupt government, slavery, white and black oppression alike, and genocide have been prevalent themes in African culture. Today, many African leaders still “sit at feasts, while their people are literally starving.”
Arthur’s realization of these issues and their continuation even in today’s African society left him wondering: What does hope look like for Africa? Is there hope despite the oppression? Like the Atlantic and Indian oceans crashing together, can white and black reconcile after so many centuries of perpetual turmoil?
A sliver of light was shed on these questions through Masiphumelele Baptist Church – a 15-member congregation in the middle of a thousand-strong squatter community of 10x10 shacks.
The team arrived at Masiphumelele on a Sunday morning. There was no call to worship. There was no welcome. Instead, the entire church burst into song, armed with only a block-like instrument to keep the rhythm. Worship only stopped for the congregants to partake in fervent, collective prayer that was followed by more singing. A normal service lasted about 3-4 hours, and one hour in, there hadn’t yet been any indication of a sermon. Rather than a congregation itching to move on to the next part of the day, they pressed into the worship. The Carson-Newman team loved it.
“The spiritual level in that church on any given Sunday,” said Arthur, “is higher than me on my best day. I and the other students felt it was the most spiritual worship service we had ever been part of in our lives.”
The spirituality of the service mirrored Africa’s spiritually as a country, which has persisted through the generations of oppression and darkness. Masiphumelele didn’t have professional lighting, song lyrics on screens, or even instruments, but they had hope.
Hope also answered oppression through the two mission organizations the team worked with: Living Hope Community Mission and Agape Development Center. Living Hope is an after school club for kids, which prevents them from running the streets and being recruited for gangs. Agape is a day program for children with mild to severe disabilities. Families are
At Living Hope, the Carson-Newman team played soccer in the street with children and handed out sandwiches and fruit as they left for the day. For the majority of the children, the food served as the day’s meal for their entire family. Hope hovered over the streets in the form of shelter, sandwiches, and loving hands.
“We didn’t show up trying to save these kids,” said Arthur. “We simply wanted to be the presence of Christ to them. I now have a heightened awareness of what it means to be oppressed through the generations. So, I realize anew the importance of the work First Baptist does in our community, like our relationship with South Knox Elementary. It dawned on me just how important that mentorship program is while I was working with the African children. Organizations similar to Living Hope and Agape are everywhere in America, but in Africa, they stand out. Usually, in Africa, you are with your family, or you aren’t. Your situation is bad or good. There is no middle ground. No one is willing to mentor you. Some kids in America are just one step away from being like kids in Africa, and First Baptist can be what makes the difference.”
What does hope look like in America? What does hope look like in Africa? These are questions Arthur pondered upon his return to the states. What is hope?
Perhaps the answer is simpler than we make it. Africans are not walking around asking themselves what hope is. They know it. They feel it. Their spirituality has covered them since the beginning through the oppression, through the injustice, through the darkness. Perhaps Americans have more difficulty with the concept because even the least of us are not stripped by a corrupt government or rent from our families because we were born with disabilities.
What is hope? Hope is what the Carson-Newman team searched for in Africa. It was written within the theme of their trip: Understanding Your Spiritual Journey. Hope is a spiritual acknowledgment that every aspect of our lives relates to God. As the Atlantic and Indian oceans crash into each other, interlocking fingers in a white line stretching over the earth, so hope is light rising up between the crevices of spirituality and oppression’s fingers interlocked. Like the 15 gathered at Masiphumelele, and the children playing soccer in the streets, hope has nothing to do with possessions or stability or wealth. It is not a barrier between spirituality and oppression. Instead, hope is the result of us allowing God to shine through the darkness. It is a spirit – one of joy proceeding from faith in God.
“I’ve been on a ton of mission trips, both domestic and international,” said Arthur. “But this particular trip – the spiritual aspect combined with the academic and missional – has made it the most impactful trip I’ve ever been on. It was a 10 out of 10, and I doubt I’ll ever have that experience again. If it weren’t for First Baptist’s financial support in putting me through the MAAT program, this kind of trip wouldn’t have happened for me. I was hesitant at first. Because of all the academic requirements, I was actually dreading the trip. That just drove it home and shows me that I expect one thing, and the Lord brings another.”
Part of our vision at First Baptist is to be a Thinking Church. The MAAT class has encouraged Arthur to truly think and feel his religion. For that we are thankful. A Thinking Church asks ‘what is hope?’ and understands that the answer doesn’t come easy, but it does come. Perhaps hope’s only hindrance is
May we be receptive to the Lord’s will, not ours. May we embark on our own spiritual journeys and feel our religion in all circumstances. May we allow God’s light to shine through the crevices of our fingers interlocked with life’s darkness. May we remember that while it may not look the same in every culture, there is always hope.