a love letter to a son of our house

In our community we believe it takes a village to raise a child, but not only that, we believe it takes a village to raise them into the men and women they were created to be. This means that children are in and out the arms and homes of adults they were not born to, or by law adopted into, but who love them deeply, and who take an unspoken guardianship of them. Adults, who know these children’s true identity beyond their external behaviours and call it out, people who know their hopes and dreams and whom these kids know have their backs. As the kids get a little older, we try to establish particular relationships between these “village parents” and the kids with the intention of sharing the role of mentoring with their ‘legal’ parents. It is not really a formal thing, but more of a natural emersion with some intentional sowing from the adults. This is one of my favourite things about our community and our people, Tree of Life Manenberg. One name we give this friendship and relationship is ‘spiritual mother or father, son or daughter’. I have the great privilege of being such a spiritual parent to a number of beautiful kids and young adults. In fact I love this part of the life so much; it is part of my job. I am the ‘house-mother’ of a recovery home for guys coming out of gangs, drugs and lives of crime and violence, which means I get to be their spiritual mother, and to many I become their ‘second mom’ – a role, of course, that does not, cannot and is not intended to, take the place of their mother by birth or law. It is a ‘something else’, that communities who live outside of the ‘nuclear-family-isolation’ cultivate naturally, and I think is often lost in many western countries and societies. A ‘something else’ that is also found in the bible through the model of discipleship shown to us by Jesus, really all we are doing is discipling (raising up) the next generation to be who they were made to be and to disciple those that come after them. This is to explain who I am so that you understand what you are about to read.

On the 2nd of September 2016 my husband and I lost one of the sons of our house, a spiritual son, whom we loved with everything in us, and whose death has devastated us. I think it was the worst day of our lives, and the weeks that followed some of the worst. Along with our community, our people, we held the space of handling the logistical chaos of bringing his body home from another city and leading his funeral back home upon the blessing and request of his mother and family. I was to share a tribute at his life celebration, and writing it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But late the night before I willed the words to emerge from the emptiness of my soul and so after stalling, hands shaking, lips trembling I shared:

 Part 1 – a tribute

There is a hope inside of each of us that we can be better than what we are, that there is more in this world than what we have seen and experienced. We wish to see light that tells us this hope is true, and deep down we wish that one day we may carry that light too. Maruwaan’s life was a living story of the desire, the discovery and the becoming of this light. When I first met him he was drowning in the darkness, yet he had reached through the dark to touch the light he saw in his friend, bravely choosing to follow it through valleys of great pain, great effort, discipline, difficult choices, and putting aside his own desires for a life he knew would bring life to other’s.

The first thing I ever knew about Maruwaan was how much he adored his family. He wrote on his application form to join Cru62, “[I want] to be a example for my younger brothers and sister and to be a child for my mother”. And in the following year and a half, I saw him wrestle with what was the best decision to make in any situation based on what was best for his family. But it was always the thought of you, that kept him in recovery, because he knew that if he left and relapsed, he would not be the brother and son he wanted to be. And I saw this love and care extend beyond his family to the brothers of Cru62, whom he cared for with a fierce protection and love. Whenever he thought an unfairness had taken place he would come to me and speak on behalf of the other sons of our house. I saw it in how he looked after the small children in our church on a Sunday and how they adored him in return. I saw it in how from the very beginning he would always notice if I was sad or something was wrong and ask if I was OK, how he would pray for me when I was broken-hearted and speak truth to me when lies had crept their way in. I saw it in how he gardened and cared for the flowers and the plants. I saw it in how he loved his horse at their horse-therapy. I heard it in his voice the last time I ever spoke to him, the night before his big walk, I was phoning to wish him well and see how he was feeling, but all he cared about was finding out if Dowayne was OK because he was worried about him. I saw it in how the first thing he wanted to do once he had graduated from the house was to work with us to look after other guys from Manenberg coming out of gangs and drugs and to work with Jonno in schools to prevent children ever going there in the first place.

Maruwaan’s kindness and love was felt beyond us, his family and our people. People across the earth saw this light in him and were moved to tears and sometimes celebration when they heard his story and learned of who he was. His greatest wish was that others would experience the joy, the hope and the freedom that he had discovered. He knew who he was and he was walking in the plans and dreams for his life from the moment he reached through the darkness and asked Dowayne to help him.

Maruwaan I will miss your gift of hospitality, your love of cooking delicious food especially your smoersnoek braai. I will miss how you always looked for the lost sheep, leaving the herd to find the one that was missing and bring him home. I will miss your hugs and your beautiful smile. I will miss how when you worshipped you NEVER clapped in time to the music but you were always the first to start clapping anyway. I will miss watching you jump from the rocks into any body of water you could find. I will miss our chats after a long day hearing what new thing you learned and what new thing you plan to learn. I will miss your gentle spirit. I will miss your gift of joy and making others laugh.

We know that a time will come when we will see the brightness of your light shining beyond the darkness we now feel, the emptiness left in the wake of your absence. And yet even in this emptiness I still see you in the poppies, and I feel your presence in the magnolia trees, I hear your voice in the songs we sing and I recognise your joy in the stories that others tell of you and I know that the veil is thin, and you are not far away. We will forever love you, you are written on our hearts, our sweet boy.

_____

When it was all over and reality began, I discovered I had many more words.

Part 2 – a love letter

I loved you before you spoke to me. I loved you as you trembled and shook and looked to me to guide you. I loved you as you took courage and faced your fear, trusted me when you knew not what to do. I loved you before you became famous, before you chose to do good, before you chose to give back and before you gave your life. I loved you before you were transformed and changed. I loved you when the newspapers and media did not care to tell your story while you lived, and I did not love you more when they chose to tell your story because you died. I loved you before you were a hero and the world knew your name, I loved you when you swore and shouted, when you wanted to give up and when you tried to push me away. I loved you when you made bad decisions, and I loved you when you put others lives at risk because you were still learning how to be responsible. I even loved you when you lied to me and deceived me. I did not love you because you saw the light and emerged from the darkness. I did not love you because you were an inspiration for our people and you defied the odds. I didn’t even love you because of your great big heart and your beautiful smile. I loved you because you were you. And you were my child. I loved you because God had given you to me to love, to show love to and to show how to love.

I loved you when you cried at night and I rubbed your back until you fell into the peace of sleep. I loved you when you doubted me and questioned my motives. I loved you when you played soccer and when we went shopping for new clothes. I loved you when you made your special fish dish and kept asking if it was good. I loved you even when you pulled a knife on another son of our house because you were still learning to break the habit of violence you had learned to survive, and I loved you when moments later you preached at church because you knew it was God’s grace not your perfection. I loved you when you chose my favourite shoes as my birthday gift. I loved you in it all. I loved you as we walked the dam on your birthday and you described all you had seen and done and all the wonderful people you had met. I loved you because you wanted to see the world and preach the Gospel in Malaysia and the Middle East, and I loved you because you wanted to go to India to see the pretty girls.

And then there was a phone call. There had been a terrible accident. It was serious. I called the messenger back, I got through. Her voice shook and she told me there was a body. Then I waited and I called your phone. I called Jonno’s phone. I kept calling your phone. I called Pete and he got in the car, parked outside our house. She called back. ‘I’m so sorry Sarah, it’s Maruwaan. It’s Maruwaan’s body’. I started screaming.  No. No, no no. We got out the car shaking and called the other boys. ‘It looks serious,’ said one. ‘It is’, I replied.  ‘We need to pray’. I told them what had happened. I called 3 maybe 4 times to check if a doctor had declared you dead. Definitively. Then a friend called , “I’m standing over his body Sarah, he’s definitely dead. My body shook for 4, maybe 6 hours. This cannot be happening. This isn’t happening.

Pete and I got on a plane to come and get you, to try to raise you and bring you home. We arrived at the morgue at about 18:30 and you were there. Your body lay upon the table, your eyes sparkled blue. You had not yet been washed and you continued to bleed out of your head wound. I put my hand to the glass and wept. You were so beautiful. You always were. But especially that day. We sang your song over you and promised to come back on Monday. We returned and the colour had left your body. The forensics doctor had seen you and washed you. We prayed, we worshiped, we declared your destiny over you and still you did not stand. I saw you in heaven; I saw the light and the joy. And I begged you to have courage to come home but you did not. 2 days later we followed your body to the mortuary and we prayed and we sang again, but you had left. You were not coming back. The staff informed us we must leave, there were others waiting to see the bodies of their beloveds. I took my oil and we unwrapped your feet. I washed your feet in the oil and I told you how much I loved you, and that I released you to be in your happy place. I held your face in my hands and I kissed you all over, my tears fell upon your cheeks. I let you go. My boy. My sweet, brave, beautiful boy. My child.

I sat outside. I could not move. I could not speak. I prayed that I could trade with you. That I could take your place. And then we brought your body home. 10 days later we lead your funeral. I spoke of how your light and love touched us all, Pete preached the message of your life, you would have loved it. The media behaved badly and stuck their cameras in the faces of your weeping family. Then we made the journey to put your body in the ground. I stood with your poppies and my body shook, I could no longer hold back the tears and they fell from my cheeks, like a river with no end. We buried you and people left. And at the end, when most people had left, neither my legs nor my inhibition would hold me any longer, and I fell to the floor and I wept for my child. The boy we had raised into a man. I was a guardian and I failed to protect you, I was a mother and I succeeded to love you.

I loved you before you were famous. I loved you before you chose to be a change. I loved you when you were a liar and a cheater, a gangster and an addict. I loved you because you were. And I will love you forever.

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The Outrage Generation

With pride we expose the wrong,

And sing our revolution song,

The generation who bring to account,

And put criminals on the mount.

We bring justice where there was none,

And I agree it must be done,

But I wonder if the way we do,

Could be done different for a few.

You see, the message of our action,

Is one of a justice fighting faction,

An army with no tolerance,

For sins are met with abhorrence.

I love the strength with which we stand,

And in our fight we use our hand,

To vote out hatred, harm, oppression,

With no inequality concession.

Yet I wonder what we say,

When our message in each day,

Is justice, report and judgement,

With no room for one’s atonement.

We rarely hear about the heart,

That turned so sour in the start,

Seldom do I get the feeling,

the sinner is allowed some healing.

So what is the song we sing to the young?

Is it perfection from when life begun?

Mistakes are banned and shall be shown,

So all your failures will be known.

Justice is found in public shame,

To expose, ridicule and fully name,

Those who have dared to fail to be,

The perfection of humanity.

And we all know we’re so perfect,

With no blemish or single defect,

So with boldness we show outrage,

And put the sinner up on the stage.

But in our haste, we do not see,

We put fear in people to fully be,

For if they trip, tumble and fall,

We’ll be waiting to put their name on the wall.

For how we disgust at what we see,

Means people aren’t able to be free,

To trust you with what they’ve done,

Because they know you’ll probably run.

And in our triumph of making all known,

We find we’re a generation alone.

Hiding in the dark of our blame,

A generation exposed and full of shame.

Hear me out, let me be clear,

About what I’ve said and written here,

I’m not talking about the ICC,

Where criminal warlords are set free.

I’m talking about the famous

Who can’t escape surveillance,

Whose rise to the top we celebrate,

But if they fail we’re quick to hate.

Or the single mom and her three,

Very small kids at KFC,

Who just for one second lost her cool,

And called her kid a silly fool.

The mom working 12 hours a day,

To give her kids all her pay,

Who for one moment had not enough,

To calm the tantrum with ‘perfect love’.

Whose name is now in our home,

a criminal who should be known.

And so we tell our human race,

we’re a generation without grace.

brave, safe and free

Fighting the cravings, braving the turkey,
Escaping memories, the past is murky.
Friends hold hands, pray through fear,
Remind in the pain, that God’s still here.
Shivering, sleeping, waking, choking,
Covered in sweat the bed is soaking.

You are brave.

Light seeps through and breath is drawn,
The muezzin signals the break of dawn.
Roll over in bed, pillow over head,
A few more hours before sleep is shed.
Time to wake, begin new rhythm.
Coffee, cigarettes, porridge with cinnamon.

You are Safe.

Prayers, conversation,
step work, revelation.
Cooking, building, baking, making,
Shouting, crying, no more faking.
Broken bones, broken hearts,
Broken dreams, healing starts.

You are Free.

With each new day a choice is made,
To resist the dark and ignore the crave,
Just for today, you choose the light,
Breathe in life and choose to fight.
A little seed becoming a tree,
‘cause you are brave, safe and free.

(C)Portal 2015

Blue dots, red dots and tennis balls in jam jars.

So I know I write a lot about grief and stuff, but if there was one thing I REALLY wanted to tell the world about it, it would be this post (so please bear with me).

A couple weeks ago I found myself sitting in my car, hiding below the window sill outside my offices in Manenberg trying to work out whether to make a run for it or wait out the gang shoot-out happening in the road I had just driven through. Once I remembered that bullets come through car doors, I grabbed my stuff and made a run for it. We proceeded to have our morning meeting on the floor of our offices … conversation interspersed with tense moments of silence as we listened to the gunfire raining through the streets of Manenberg. At some point silence fell and shooting suspended, I hopped back in my car and went off on my days errands. At about 4pm that day I found myself outside the door of my mom’s best friend’s house, balling my eyes out because, after all the tension, the shooting, the reminder of my own mortality… I just wanted my mom.

The truth is that in the 3 years since my mothers passing and the almost 5 years since my sisters’, time actually doesn’t heal. Well, not in my experience. The pain doesn’t get smaller. And you don’t miraculously just stop loving them as much as you once did. People tell you this when the shit hits the fan to encourage you that it will all be OK and that one day it won’t hurt as much, to make the foreseeable future bearable. We say it out of love and because we want to take the pain away. But actually, these things aren’t always helpful… well, I found them unhelpful. And I am going to tell you why, because I wish someone had told me this when I needed to see horizons.

In my journey to work out how to not only surive life without my loved ones but to thrive in it, I explored different ways of processing one of which was a 5 week bereavement course when I lived in London. In the first day of the course they explained to us that it’s not time that heals and grief doens’t get smaller. I almost burst into tears. I was so relieved. I had been walking around feeling like a failure, that I could not make the pain get smaller, I could not force my heart to heal up. It had been a year since my mom died and when people asked how I was I’d lie because I thought something was wrong me. I had failed to be healed by time… Everyone said time heals EVERYTHING…. except, apparently, me.

What the course DID explain however, was that if I was a litte blue dot and my bereavement was a massive scary red dot, in time I, the blue dot would grow. And eventually one day I would realise that the blue dot had grown so much that the red dot now appeared small. I would become bigger than my pain. Semanitcs? Maybe. But it’s semanitcs that set me totally free from false expectation of my pain reducing and allowing myself to grow at my own pace.

At a wedding in Italy this year I met a young woman who shared how her unlce had explained grief to her when her mother died when she was 7 years old. We are all little jam jars and when someone dies it’s like a tennis ball has been shoved into the jam jar. It bounces about hitting the sides of the jar, hurting with each bump. But as we get older the jar gets bigger too and the ball keeps bouncing. But because the ball has further to travel after each bounce, we have time in between to breathe until the next bump. And so you never stop feeling the bump, it’s just less frequent. I found that analogy super helpful because as I discovered at the door of my mom’s best friend’s house, there are moments in my life when I still miss my mother (and my sister) and I feel such a great pain in my heart that it bursts out of my eyes. Yeah, it doesn’t happen so often anymore, but when it does I don’t hide it. I accept it, let it out, and keep growing.

Time itself may not heal, but IN time, you grow, and although you still feel the bump, it will become less frequent and your heart will become big enough to hold it.

It’s OK to feel like you’re just surviving for a while. I remember when my sister died having the most excrutiaitng pain in my chest so bad I genuinely thought I’d die of a heart attack. On my mothers first anniversary I remember beginning to panic because I had actually survived. I had survived the year without my guidance, my best friend, and I was still alive! Now I knew I had survived the year, I had to learn how to live again. Once I got over my panic, I began to work out how. And I did.

Yes, my healing journey involved counselling, anti-depressants, a LOT of crying and much wanting to be on the other side – where there will be no more pain and no more suffering, with so very many people I loved who were already there.

But I grew bigger and I am still growing bigger. And what I have discovered is that my heart is much stronger and much bigger  than I thought it was. And boy am I glad I stayed! The hole that the pain carved out has made a well that has been able to hold even more love than what I had before.

I believe we can all survive loss and even live life in all it’s fullness once again, with strength and love… thriving.

I just wanted you to know what I know because it helped me grow.

hanging from a cliff edge

I was reading through one of my old journals in search of a piece of information and came across something I wrote after losing some of the people I loved. I had a little giggle at how honestly I expressed myself. My mom used to tell me I was a little rough around the edges. You know the type… the happy, joyful, loving one who drops an F-bomb now and again in a sentence when filled with passion (and forgets to apologise for it).

When reading this piece of writing I was reminded of how when some of my family members died before their time, the loved ones around me often expressed their desire for me to tell them what I needed, how I was feeling and what was going on in my head because they simply did not know what it felt like and therefore how to help me. I have come to learn that actually no matter whether you have or haven’t experienced a loved ones death noone knows what it feels like. Each loss is essentially unique because the person lost was so unique and each persons relationship with them is unique. But we can do our best to learn to communicate, help people express themselves and support them where possible. I wanted to share this little piece of expressive diary entry ‘cos whilst each bereavement will be different, there are times when we do experience feelings and thoughts that others have before, and sometimes it’s helpful to know we’re not alone 🙂

This is how it feels….

I once hung from a cliff edge. The most frightened I have ever been. Rope around my waist, rope in the hands of another person on the ground… safe, confidently willing me to keep climbing. I am terrified. I don’t even want to be here. Hanging on to the face of the cliff with my finger tips, my knees pressed so hard against the rock of the mountain face that they start to bleed. So do my hands. “Up you go”, they call to me… “You’ll feel so good once you’ve done it”. So up I go, too terrified to stop because everyone’s telling me I can’t (freaking happy-clappy-camp-leaders!). I reach the top, touching the edge with my bloody finger tips. My legs have trembled the whole way up. As they release from the rock to shimmy back down again, they tremble equally uncontrollably. I reach the bottom in tears, legs shaking and hands bleeding. The instructor (said happy-clappy-camp-leader) asks if I feel any better, do I feel I have achieved something?

I look at him and think, “what a jerk”.

And this is what the first year of grief feels like. You hold onto life with the tips of your fingers, so hard life makes them bleed. You make it through the year trembling and bloody, tears in your eyes, overwhelmed that you made it through alive. Tears of relief, but also tears of fear and shock.

And someone asks you, “Feel any better? Do you feel you have overcome this thing (insert ‘achieved something’)? And I look at them and think, “what a …….”.

Lol. There’s never gonna be a right question or a right answer when someone is in the valleys of grief, depression, trauma… not really. Well, that’s what I think anyway. It’s a messy old journey; mistakes, misunderstandings, lots and lots of pain, lots and lots of tears, joy and a lot of love. So I reckon we do it together; whether hanging from the cliff edge together or holding the rope around their waist.

Breathe deep

breathe deep.
live to live, live to love, love to live, love to love.

time passes by in heart beats,
when do we have enough of it?
have i used it well?
am i enough? is it enough?
was i enough?
i am not where i thought i would be,
but i am where i want to be,
and i’ve done more than i thought i could,
and i lived more than i thought i would.

breathe deep. life is full on.
its still in the chaotic and chaotic in the still.
living through the shooting and shooting through the living.
breathe deep. life is full on.

connecting to the creator and creating for the connector.
the earth, she breathes deep,
the sky, he breathes deep,
the trees, they breathe long.
father, mother, sister, brother.
child. breathe deep.

we’re all in it together.

falling, feeling, failing, fearing, flying, finding.

breathe deep.
spirit in body,
breathe like you’re the wind.
because you are the wind.

©Portal 2010

Extraordinary ordinary life

Every now and again, probably more often than we’d like to admit, we need to realign ourselves with truth. I had one of those moments a few days ago.

I recently watched About Time for the second time, and was struck afresh by the message of the film. In a nutshell a young man is told by his father that his family have the gift of travelling back in time. So ensues a story in which he goes back to undo awkward moments in front of girls, intervene for a friend when disaster strikes and so on. By the end of the film, he learns his father’s ‘secret formula for happiness… just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day like anyone else… [then] to live everyday again, almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be but the second time, noticing’. Then the young man says, ‘and in the end, I think I’ve learnt the final lessons from my travels in time and I’ve even got one step further than my father. I don’t travel back at all, not even for the day. I just try to live every day as if I’ve deliberately come back to this one day to enjoy it as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary ordinary life. We’re all travelling through time together, every day of our lives, all we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride’.

I have always been intentional to live my life this way in the past, as I wrote in a previous blog post. But I realised at the end of the film I had not been living this way for the past few months. I had been bearing the weight of deadlines and trying to get our boys house up on its feet forgetting that Jesus promised us his yoke is easy and his burden is light. I had been so focused on trying to get to the goal, because “people’s recovery depended on it and we need to show donors the fruit of what they had sown”, that I was actually just surviving the stresses of the journey, not living the journey in all its fullness. All challenges that arose were problems, not opportunities. I have realised in the past few days that I had taken on a burden that was not mine to bear, and it was taking my joy and therefore my strength. I could feel my heart tighten and my grace with others diminish, and as I saw that I felt my internal tensions increase because I know this behaviour is not true of who I am.

I was reminded how I used to think often as a teenager, “if the world suddenly ended would I be joyful at how I’d spent my last days”. I knew I’d been living my life these past few months in waiting… waiting for something to happen in a few months time and sowing all of me into just getting that thing to happen. Something I know to be inherently true of me, is that no matter how long I wait whether a 15 year old waiting to turn 18 so that I may be allowed to travel to countries I had seen in the news and help those I’d seen, or waiting to get a 3 year degree before I can stop talking about solutions and actually go and do them or even waiting in the painful throes of the valley of death for a loved one to go home, I have never allowed the ‘waiting’ to be my position from which I love or live. I decided long ago that if the world suddenly ended, I would not die whilst waiting for something to happen. Waiting may be an ingredient of a life being lived from glory to glory (how else does one build character if not given the chance to persevere through waiting). But I sure as heaven was going to live it with all my strength; never missing an opportunity, a moment to love with all of me and to experience the sweetness of the world. But life gets crazy, filled with tensions and worries, disappointments and tragedies and we take ourselves far too seriously and ultimately we forget. I forgot. I forgot who I was for a moment. I forgot that life is one, big, fat, epic, lekker-gevaarlik partyjie merely on the way to another big, fat, epic, lekker-gevaarlik partyjie!

I forgot that my gift is to love in the way that an opportunity offers at just that moment; whether it is taking a walk with my husband as the sun sets or opening a home for a bunch of boys needing a safe place to fully reintegrate back into society from a life of drugs and violence. It’s the opportunity to love in the moments of one journey taking you to the start of the next. When we remember to stop taking life so seriously we are able to laugh at the ridiculous, allow others to make mistakes and ourselves to breathe and enjoy ‘how sweet the world can be’ and in turn we will learn to delight in and enjoy our own extraordinary, ordinary life.