Arriving back in the US has been a incredible experience. Each year our trips have been completely eye opening and life changing and this year was no exception. However the difference this year is that we were immersing ourselves in a culture that looks very similar to our own…from our hotel we could wander to the closest Waterfront mall to purchase Gucci handbags and Jimmy Choo shoes… yet each day we were choosing to enter into the intense poverty of the Cape Town Flats and to deeply engage with both the geographic as well as the mental and spiritual apartheid that still exists in South Africa today. We met some amazing people who are strategizing and implementing long term and thoughtful solutions to the problems that stem from institutionalized racism and oppression and the feeling of hope for real and lasting change was palpable. Perhaps that was the difference that I saw. Perhaps because in South Africa the issues of racism, poverty and lack of education are discussed so openly, there is also a belief in the power of individuals and communities to engage in dialogue that brings about real healing and growth. Perhaps a precedent was set by the innovative and very effective Truth and Reconciliation hearings and philosophies. Perhaps the implementation of land reclamation (plots of land are, slowly, being given back to those who can prove that they or their family lived there) is helping. Perhaps South Africa’s leaders are beginning to understand that the development of future leaders (of all races and genders) depends so much on the quality of education available. Whatever the reason, the air was thick with hope, pride and possibility.
South African history has some very deep parallels with our own…the irony of settlers seeking religious freedom and in doing so sparking a systematic genocide of the indigenous people of the land…long years of organized slavery… continued white privilege ingrained in almost all aspects of our lives…from media to education, access to employment to governmental policy…and yet there was something that seemed so different in the open dialogues and radical honesty we were encountering.
As we examined our own internalized apartheid, racism, fears, assumptions and misunderstandings…as we created an open and non-judgmental dialogue about our conscious and unconscious white privilege, as we explored the ways in which the suffering of any (race, class, gender, sexual orientation) of us, effects all of us, I began to see that the culture we were immersed in was an incredible teacher for us. I became aware of how we in America are so challenged to find ways to talk about the cycles of trauma that have created years of internalized and externalized oppression. How we all suffer from the continued racial and economic divides that exist all around us. How easy it can be (especially in spiritual communities) to avoid the important and deep discussions about our most challenging and divisive issues for fear of being politically incorrect. How in being afraid to admit and talk about our own fears and assumptions, we limit ALL of our truth, all of our unique perspectives and in doing so we all lose.
Slavery still exists in our world today. It is both overt (the worldwide sex slave trade is rampant) and covert (privatization of water, economic control of entire third world economies, corporate control of our media and educational institutions). Stories need to be told. Some of the most meaningful and effective work for change in communities in crisis has been initiated by the simple act of creating conversation amongst community members. When people are given an opportunity to find their voice and to tell their stories, real healing occurs and the freedom of self expression, which is a universal desire, can play a huge part in the creation of systems of inclusion and empowerment in which there truly is enough for all.
When exchanging stories and meaningful dialogues are seen as crucial to our healing…when we can actively utilize the spiritual and emotional tools that we have had the privilege to be able to learn…when we learn to not be afraid to ask uncomfortable questions to bring the issues to light…when we learn to face each other and hear each others truths without trying to fix or change or explain them away…we may be able to then learn and embody one of the deepest and most difficult to master spiritual truths…the art of forgiveness.
I am so very thankful to all of the participants this year who showed up with their hearts and minds open and ready to be challenged…ready to peel away the layers of appearance and get down to the deeper levels of their experience…willing to take responsibility for their unconscious assumptions and irrational fears. We did some amazing work together and learned to love some incredible people. We met Rosie, a quiet but strong willed Mama caring for over 180 orphaned children, housing on her site a clinic, a hospice, a soup kitchen and running many programs for the community. We worked in collaboration with the South African Whole Grain Bread Project to build a bakery on her property which will provide high protein bread and jobs for the site, and we also supported her purchase of property for a halfway house to help the orphans learn crucial life skills. We supported Linawo Children’s home who are helping to create a new model for bringing up orphans in a supportive family setting. We worked with Gold, an organization mobilizing nationwide efforts to utilize peer to peer trainings for empowerment and health education. We provided funds for a classroom so that the incredible Earthchild Program could have a space to bring yoga and wellness classes to the children in local schools. And we launched the senior library at Christel House which is educating and nurturing some of the most poverty stricken children to be the future leaders of the country! Most importantly though, we showed up in each situation and engaged deeply, asking questions, stepping out of our comfort zones and finding real connections. We worked, we told difficult truths, we laughed, we danced, we sang and we loved. And each of us is now changed forever by the simple experience of presence.
Thanks to the participants, trip leaders and South African partners who were part of this unforgettable journey. And thanks to ALL of the fundraisers and supportive community members who made this entire year’s Seva Challenge a memorable and successful experience!
by Suzanne Sterling