On Remembering the Dead

I’m glad I had Annie and Amanda with me. Do you know that feeling right before walking into a room of people who, because you are so different, could judge you so easily? Well, think of that coupled with a little bloating and you’ll know how I felt before we walked up to the gate of Out-Right Namibia during a Saturday night where we were going to memorialize the trans individuals that had died that year in Namibia.

Between the three of us, no one had planned, when we woke up today, to taxi to Windhoek North to be apart of this event. At least Amanda and I had planned on going to see the new Hunger Games movie with the rest of the gang. But, as my mother would say, “You got a hair up your butt son! You’re just like your father.” My dad and I have a reputation for getting these big ideas that we follow at all costs. Although an idea to attend a Trans Day of Remembrance event shouldn’t seem like a “big idea,” I’d been struggling a lot recently with my mental health. Lately taking a shower seemed like a “big idea.” Maybe that was also apart of why I felt so intimidated by the group that evening (though I don’t think that can help explain the bloated part). Somehow, even in the heat of this country, my spirits had gone cold. My depression was keeping me in bed during the day while my anxiety was keeping me up at night.

As I stood intimidated before pushing the gate aside, I grabbed Annie and Amanda’s hands. Their palms warmed my cold fingers. We signed a check-in sheet. In addition to our name was our gender/sex and sexual orientation: mine as gay intersex male. We were the only white people in the complex. A situation that was surprisingly uncommon even in a capital city in an African state. I had introduced my two friends to some of the people in this community that had made me feel loved. Some of the bravest people I have ever met were all in eyeshot.

We stood, we sat. We sang, we cried. We ate, we drank. We talked, we observed in silence. We named the dead, and we dared to tell why the dead are dead. The time we spent together prompted my memories of a particular service in the liturgical calendar: All Saints Day. All Saints is a service, speaking from a Lutheran perspective, where we honor those who have died during the past year, and those in the more distant past who we had loved, naming them all as saints. In the services liturgy we hear, “Loved ones now resting in you, who guided us, nurtured and cared for us; ancestors who worked and traveled, lived and died that we might be who we are, where we are–your precious children in this community of believers” (http://www.crivoice.org/allsaints.html). How wonderful and how scandalous to remember trans people of color in Namibia who have died not just by name but by the title of saint.

Later that night I was crying on the porch of the CGEE house. I was overwhelmed by a lot of things, but mostly by the courage of the saints that we had named a few hours ago. Too often when we talk about social change and promoting social justice we’re really concerned about immediate action. Even if it’s social analysis, we feel we got to get to work now. While there’s probably good reasons for this feeling, I think we sometimes miss something in pure secular work for social change that the religious world can help us with. That is, remembering the dead, and remembering why the dead are dead.

This statement of remembering “why the dead are dead,” is something that has still been ruminating in my mind since I heard it from Pastor Alan Storey a few months back in Cape Town. Storey talked about how we are so many times “addicted to hope!” We forget how important it is to mourn and memorialize. I agree with the Pastor’s thoughts. However, I’m not sure that much can happen when we are devoid of all hope.

Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist in the U.S. that was eventually assassinated, once said, “I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living.” Yes, mourning the dead and allowing ourselves to feel complete despair against the answers to why they are dead is required. But if we stay eloping in that state of mourning forever, life will no longer be worth living. We have to let ourselves stand and sit, sing and cry, eat and drink, speak and be silent. Though we can’t live on hope, we have to keep its flames alive if we are ever going to avenge the injustices that killed our friends. Never forget the dead. But even more important, never forget why you are living.

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“Remember where you came from”

As commanded by our week’s community leader Amanda, we were all wearing our PJ’s. I had this yellow and hole filled shirt, sporting a “Life is Good” logo and the phrase, “Remember where you came from.” The smell of pizza permeated the room. It was pretty good except for the vegan pizza, which tasted like old cigarettes (God bless Emily for her ethical decisions).

We had just gotten back from our Urban Homestay. It was good to be together. We had become a family of sorts. The seven of us sprawled in a circle across the living room floor along with Attila, our mother hen. Amanda had shuffled a deck of cards and spread them out in- between all of us. I picked up the first card, not really understanding what the heck was going on. I laid my card out in front of everyone; an ace. Amanda picked up her notebook and found the question associated with the ace: “What fulfills you the most in life currently?” While I’m definitely one of those people who likes to speak before thinking, this time I really had no idea what to say.

The day before, my host brother Donovan drove his siblings and I to a farm outside of Windhoek. It was hilly like South Dakota combined with the dryness of New Mexico. There was a big army tent set up across from this towering tree. It reminded me of all the trees mentioned in Genesis: the places where death and life happened, an orienting place, a place of reunion. Under this tree was where the people in my host parents’ generation cooked food all day long. The farm was, for today, the setting of a first of its kind family reunion. The matriarch of the family hadn’t yet seen all of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in one place. So for her 72nd birthday, she wanted a family reunion.

At first I was very conscious of difference. I was the only white guy around, the only one with a full beard, the only one whose first language was English, and the only one who was comfortable burping and farting in front of old people. It was about 10 in the morning when the assembly of young and old clustered under the old army tent. Great-grandma sat on the long

side of the tent in the very middle. Everyone found a seat in a semi-circleish thing around her. My host-mom grabbed me. She had me sit next to her so she could translate form Afrikaans into English. Someone could’ve turned her speech into a cliche “trip down memory lane.” But even for a foreigner, it was easy to tell that this was something different. You could tell from the look in her eyes as she smiled down at her great-grandchildren. “Remember where you came from,” she said, like a mother spreading a blanket over her new-born.

She told us the story of her life. She had walked through a land ravaged by Apartheid. She had raised her children through Apartheid. She had seen the liberation struggle. She had seen the revolution. Though these statements are all true, Apartheid was not the main subject of her reflections: it was family.

The week away from the Center on Simpson Street was a week immersed in difference. But it was also, for me, a time to remember where I come from. The time spent accepting the hospitality of strangers reminded me less about difference and more about our universal desire to belong. I saw this struggle to belong with the little girl who’s complexion was lighter than the rest. This struggle was also evident with a gay man who was constantly denied respect and responsibility from family elders. And I saw this struggle with myself, not quite sure where I was supposed to stand.

It was Sunday evening when we got dropped off from our homestay’s. That night our unconventional family of seven plus mother hen was sprawled across the floor in a circle. Amanda read me the baffling question: “What fulfills you the most in life currently?” There’s a lot of ways I could’ve answered the question. And most of them would have been truthful. But being with each other, laying around in our pajamas and our communal breath of pizza smells, made me realize that I belong.

We are not fighting

Central Methodist Mission, Cape Town
Central Methodist Mission, Cape Town

My eyes began to open, being disturbed by the slight shaft of light poking past the peaks of the mountains around our two story double decker sleeper bus. We were on the road all night traveling from Bloemfontein to Cape Town. I dug through my backpack and found my phone. It was a little past 5am. As the light behind the mountains grew I began to more accurately assess the highway we were traveling down. Though our bus was massive and the thruway vast, we were at the mercy of the mountains. But moments earlier, my conscience was somewhere else…

He was standing in front of them; the poor black miners. He was draped in a green blanket. I could hear his voice as it made its way through the police line. I could not make out the vowels and consonants. His tone was deliberate but not violent. It was mournful, passionate, resolute. The sounds I hear made it clear that peace and negotiation were his motives. I saw the smoke, but did not hear the triggers. Though I could not hear the man in green before, I could hear him now; more clearly than gun shots: “We are not fighting.” I involuntarily watched the scene as 112 miners were shot down. But in the moment after, I was looking down on his dead body. I counted 14 in all. The government owned lead had mutilated his face, neck, and legs. I could still hear him screaming, “We are not fighting.” The fluorescent green of his blanket had been taken over by a liquid crimson.

On either side of us, spectacular curves of brown and green earth shot up, as if they connected us to the heavens. There were moments it was hard to see the crimson and velvet sunrise. We were nothing.

Once the peaks opened up and made a valley, we drove past vineyards. My R.A. Attila compared the sight to his time in rural Italy. God, it was beautiful. Who needs coffee when you have a landscape like this to wake up to?

Later that morning we got to Cape Town. The city was more beautiful than the ride that morning. When most people think of countries in sub-saharan Africa, and even Southern Africa, they tend to assume people live in grass huts in the savannah with lions as pets. Cape Town would give these people a surprise. It looked like some paradise, a shinning city on a hill. Her beaches made me feel like I could spend a lifetime watching the waves.

But again, as I saw in Jo’burg, I saw the same here: contrast. Drive just a few miles out of the party paradise city and you’ll come to what they call the Cape Flats. The Cape Flats are where the people who are black were corralled during apartheid. Even though the apartheid regime has fallen, the “economic apartheid” has kept them there.

The third largest township (township meaning black suburb) in South Africa was what made up the Cape Flats: called Khayelitsha. Inside the informal settlements of Khayelitsha, the living conditions made it hard not to avert your eyes. There was one chemical toilet per 10 families. The government was supposed to clean them twice a week, but it was surprising if it happened once a month. Because the bathrooms are usually long walks from people’s homes, women are constantly raped and robbed on the way. Four rape cases are “reported” everyday. Victims of rape are stigmatized, accused saying, “you liked it.” In many instances, if the woman reports the rape, the perpetrator kills the victim. If the perpetrator receives AIDs from the victim, the perpetrator then “blames” the victim for the disease and has killed the victim afterwards in some instances. And if you are a lesbian woman, your likelihood of being raped by men is even higher: they rape lesbians in the name of “correcting them.” Through the shacks of the flats, some speak up. Pastor Xola Skosana is one such person.

Pastor Skosana is not afraid to be vocal about the injustices of the Cape Flats. To bring attention to what a white supremacist, unregulated capitalistic system has brought to his township, he leads his congregation in walking around with banners saying “Welcome to Hell” on Easter mornings. In his advocacy for those living with HIV, he has boldly proclaimed that, “Jesus is HIV Positive.” Skosana’s messages of Jesus’ life with the poor, especially people who are black, barley surviving in a system of white supremacy and white privilege, seems to be in harmony with messages I’ve encountered before: the Liberation Theology I’d seen in El Salvador, the Queer Theology I’d learned from a lesbian theologian, and the Theology of the Cross I had read in Luther’s Freedom of a Christian. 

Jesus is a lesbian woman enduring “corrective rape.” Jesus is a church janitor, who wears everything he owns. Jesus is a gay man in Windhoek, hated by his dying father for who he loves. Jesus is the woman of Katutura, living with HIV. Jesus is draped in a fluorescent green blanket, taken over by a liquid crimson.

Contrast

The view was hard to take in. It was decaying. An endless view of tin, tarp, and cardboard roofs. It was not possible to distinguish between each jury-rigged shack. It wasn’t overtly overwhelming to me. I had encountered the sounds and smells of deep poverty before. The merciless sea that is Alexandria halted drastically as we stopped on a bridge passing over a freeway. When we got to the other side, I realized we weren’t in Alexandria anymore. My eyes bulged as I watched a Lamborghini drive into a mansion. We had entered Sandton, the richest municipality in South Africa. There was an endless contrast between the super rich of Sandton and the extreme poverty of Alexandria, separated by 8 lanes of freeway: now that was overwhelming.

Contrast seems to be a theme, for me at least, in South Africa. On Monday morning we visited the Regina Mundi Church. It’s a place that has been a sanctuary for people of the liberation struggle in Soweto. During the apartheid, non-whites could not legally assemble, especially if the assembly was political. The exception was for worship. So whenever community members wanted to organize, Regina Mundi was the place that people gathered, under the disguise of worship. Regina Mundi was the place children ran to when they were getting killed by police during a peaceful uprising.

On Sunday morning some locals took me to a mega church called Grace Bible Church. I already knew the reputation the church had with leaders of the liberation struggle, in particular Molafi: promoting a prosperity gospel. Though I tried to visit the morning service with an open mind, I wasn’t having it. It wasn’t the charismatic worship, the non-traditional building, or the lively preaching that turned me off; in fact I appreciate these things. It was that Molafi was right, a prosperity gospel was coming through, though subtle. There was an unspoken but undeniable theme: put your trust in God and you will become wealthy (just like the pastor). Filing out of church that morning, I noticed a line of buffed BMW’s, Audi’s, and Volvo’s. It was a place separated by barbed wire from the main parking lot, marked as pastor and elder parking. I longed for the authenticity of Regina Mundi. To me the resurrection became something else in that moment: He is not here, he has risen (from all this materialistic bullshit).

Once we got across the street, I looked back at the massive structure that is Grace Bible Church. There have always been “churches” that build their empires on the backs of the poor. Whether it was the 16th ct. cathedrals or the 21st ct. mega churches, it was oppressive then and it is oppressive now. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun… All of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:9, 14.


Highlights from last week:

  • Regina Mundi Church
  • Hector Peterson Museum
  • Freedom Charter Park
  • Standing on top of a skyscraper in downtown Joburg
  • Orange Farm and the awesome man that is nicknamed Bricks
  • Seeing the play Cincinnati at Market Theatre
  • Seeing the capitol building in Pretoria
  • Visiting the U.S. embassy
  • Freedom Park
  • Voortrekker Monument

This next week I will be staying in Cape Town.

  • Apartheid Museum
  • Homestay in Soweto

Narcissism

In this moment I want to be a narcissist and blab more about myself and how I miss my boyfriend. My mind is elsewhere. But what I need to do is stop being so dramatic (it’s only a few months JD) and start reflecting about the place I’m headed for. 

As a part of our preparation we’ve been asked to read three books. One of them is Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane. The subtile sums it up well: “The true story of a black youth’s coming of age in apartheid South Africa.” I want to share with you some of the most striking things I’ve read so far.

Their poverty made Christmas a dreadful day:

“Sis, Christmas is but for one day. It’ll be over before you know it…”

_____

“I was puzzled by what I thought to be wastefulness on the part of white people: what they throw away, still in excellent condition, things that many black people could not even afford to buy secondhand.”

_____

While his mother and siblings were digging in a dump for food:

“Suddenly, I heard my mother scream. ‘Yowee! Yowee!’

I turned and saw her leap away from the package she was opening. Everyone around the place started.

‘What’s the matter?’ everyone asked.

‘Get away from me, Satan!’ shouted my mother, continuing to back away from the package as if fleeing from a ghost. She trembled from head to toe.

‘What’s the matter, musadi?’ asked several women as they rushed to my mother’s side.

Zombielike, my mother pointed at the package, unable to utter a word, her face a mask of indescribable horror. My sister and I stood equally thunderstruck a couple of feet away from her, clinging to one another in fear, wondering what was happening to our mother. Several men and women left their places and hurried over to where the brown package lay half-opened.

‘What the hell!’ exclaimed one old man as he peered into the package. ‘There’s a baby in there!’

‘What!’ several people gasped.

‘Theres a baby in here!’ repeated the old man, backing away from the package in fear.

‘Is it alive?’ a woman asked.

‘Are you mad, retorted the old man. ‘After being buried under such rubble who would still be alive?’

‘What child is it? asked one woman.

‘Black child,’ the old man said angrily, and added, ‘what did you expect?’

_____

“Two portraits in particular always had me thinking: one depicting heaven and God; the other, hell and he Devil. The former portrayed God as an old blue-eyed white man with a long white beard, sitting between white, fluffy clouds, flanked by two bearded white men. And all around heaven were groups of angels-all of them white people. The latter portrayed a naked black man, his featured distorted to resemble the Devil with a tail, twisted horns like a kudu’s, writhing vipers around the horns, big wild red eyes, and a wide mouth spewing flames and smoke. He carried a long fork, which he used to stab, one by one, the black men and women and children on their knees about him, begging that he not roast them in the pit of fire….[I] considered this blatant depiction of black as evil part of the teachings of Christianity, and had vowed never to let myself be fooled into believing otherwise.”

_____

“Gradually, I came to accept hunger as a constant companion. But this new hunger was different. It filled me with hatred, confusion, helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, loneliness, selfishness, and a cynical attitude toward people. It seemed to lurk everywhere about and inside me: the things I touched, the people I talked to, in the empty pots, in the black children I played with, in the nightmares I dreamt. It even pervaded the air I breathed. At times it was the silent destroyer, creeping unseen, unrecognized, except when, like a powerful time bomb, it would explode inside my guts.”

______

Dad is coming by this morning (it’s currently 4:45am) to help move the majority of my stuff into storage at Papa’s until I get back in December. I should be asleep, but I tried. I couldn’t. My mind is elsewhere.

Out of Sync

“But we we’re in sync!” My dad explains in his whiny sarcastic tone (which is an art form, cause somehow it doesn’t get annoying). He’s talking about how my mother, himself, and me were drinking our beers at the same pace. But by the fourth, my mother just goes ahead and gets herself one but totally blows us off, not asking if we want one! It was actually kinda funny, cause it took us awhile to figure it out … “When the hell did your beer become full?”

Today my mother and I spent the day doing some clothes shopping, then the three of us had a few cold ones until we had dinner: frozen pizza (a delicacy in my family). It was around 7:30 or 8 at night when my grandmother pulled into my grandpas driveway. The front of his house looked like a parking lot: dads work van, my car, the Tahoe, my moms SUV thing, papas pickup, and his Kia in the garage…now grandmas black four-door car. Early tomorrow morning mom, grandma, papa, along with the cats and Tobby, are gonna head back down to their residence in Florida.

The air was hot and heavy, my dad and I shirtless in our lawn chairs. But you could feel the temperature descending with the sun. I could tell in my mothers voice as the sun got lower how much she was dreading our good-bye. This is the last time we will see each other before Christmas time. This was our good-bye before I leave for southern Africa.

Though she was dreading it, I think she wanted to get it over with too: “If you got things to do, you can head out. No big deal.” I took the chance to get the elongated Minnesota good-bye rolling. My mother and grandma both say intimate good-byes in the same exact way. They lock your eyes with a big smile, and initiate a casual hug. But after a second or two, their lock gets tighter. I can feel the rhythm in their breath become involuntary and out of sync. I can feel and hear the sound of their short and forceful gasps. When I let go, I can see the wet mirrors their eyes have become. “I love you.” Both say it with the same vibrato, loosing almost all their breath with the first syllable. And as with the consistent repeat of a record, so they both, each time, put their head down in their shoulders, and turn their backs; trying to break the mirrors their eyes had become.

Though saying good-bye to my family is hard, I’ve grown used to it. I’m not trying to be insensitive, or infer that my love for them is not large. But since they’ve moved to Florida, my heart has learned how to live far from them.

Although there is one goodbye where I will be the one with short and forceful gasps with eyes like mirrors. That moment is getting nearer: when I will initiate a casual hug with Joseph*, but after a second or two, my lock will get tighter. But until that juncture when we have to part ways, we will keep singing the Jurassic Park theme song, sneak kisses in the elevator, and tease each other about his forgetfulness and my crazy driving.

Onward and Upward,

JD

* Joseph’s name has been changed to protect his identity. Some details surrounding him could have been changed for the same purpose. No more homophobia!

24 days away…

If you don’t know who I am, then this probably won’t be very interesting to you. This is not a place twitter will drool over or even a place where I expect more than 10 people to visit.

I’m putting my moments and reflection into words for those who love and care about me. And I am doing this for myself.

I pray that my words will keep my mother from worrying too much, that they will keep the sparks of love animated, that they will accompany the youth of ECLC* in my absence, that they will keep my heart from growing heavy, and keep my life from being unchanged.

In 24 days, South African Airways flight 0210 will be taking me from D.C. to Johannesburg, South Africa. Though I haven’t left yet, my heart is already beginning to walk in the rhythm of pilgrimage. I don’t want to speak deceptively to you: part of me is scared. I’m afraid that my prayers won’t be answered: that my mother will worry too much, that love will fall to the ground and die, that the youth of ECLC will feel abandoned, that my heart will grow too heavy to sustain, and that my life will sit stagnant and smell like a mucky pond.

Today is one of those days I am doubting God’s faithfulness…but fake it ’till you make it, right? #Yolo (don’t judge me)

On a less morbid note, I’m almost done with my shots! Only one more rabies shot to go (which really haven’t been that bad) then I’m done with them all. But last time I forgot my yellow book, the intl’ vaccine certificate. So someone please remind me to bring it when I get my last rabies shot!

In God’s graps,

JD Mechelke
twitter, @jdmechelke

 

*ECLC – Edina Community Lutheran Church

 

If you have any comments, I’d love to hear what you have to say: