Doug is on the staff at Nieu-Communities. Some years ago, he developed a relationship with a Black South African woman from whom he has continued to share and learn. I will refer to her as Doug does. Granny.
Granny lives in a poor townships block of Shoshanguve. The dirt roads of this ghetto follow sequences of simple-sheltered houses, constructed out semi-sturdy branches, holding up a patchwork of tin sheets. It is in a simple house such as this, that Granny lives. Before I get to all of the details of the evening, I just want to ask you a question. What do you think heaven is like?
At Granny’s we have a simple agenda. We are going to enjoy a simple, traditional South African meal. It is prepared for us and Granny’s family, by Granny. We sit down, nearly on top of each other in our efforts to relax, but somehow, just barely, there is room for everyone.
We are served dinner, and smiles and laughter abound. This is not an unusual evening for Granny. She has hosted the Nieu-Community group several times before. She serves as a hostess to show her appreciation for the relationship that she has formed with Doug. We are all most appreciative. Do you still remember what you think heaven looks like?
And when dinner is over, and the basic needs of the dishes are met. We walk out of the cozy living room, through the kitchen (it takes us no more than three small steps to traverse the entire kitchen) and we greet the setting sun and the red, dirt yard. It is time to dance.
Granny takes us all, blacks and whites, Americans, Afrikaans, and Africans, and teaches us a dance. The music plays, and we welcome the night in the frenzy of laughter and joy. This otherwise impoverished matriarch provided the invitation and the space for celebration, and furnished it with a meal of abundance and a dance of delight. The taste of happiness reigned in the countless sounds of smiles. Unashamed, one by one, the members of this unforeseen union jumped down the makeshift arena, lacking any self-consciousness.
So I ask again. What do you think heaven looks like? Because I think it looks a lot like dancing at Granny’s. Granny has very little, but what she has, she gave, to people who probably already have too much. Her greatest joy would be that we were humble enough to come, and we were humbled by coming. Still she lifted us up, and greeted each one of us with a hug as if she had known us our entire life. Then, looking us in the eye, she spoke in the distinct tone of a South African, “You are well-come.”
Perhaps I should throw two more details into the story. Doug has befriended Granny for some time, but he struggles with that relationship because Granny is a Sangoma. This is the title for a “traditional healer” in the South African culture. A Sangoma can mean many different things. Some Sangomas will call upon the spirits of ancestors to intervene for them, which can border on ancestor worship. For a Christian of mission, Doug quietly grapples with what he thinks about Granny’s beliefs (which also appropriate and include Christianity). What is so remarkable is that the struggle has not compromised the friendship they have forged.
Another thing to consider is that Granny lived through apartheid in South Africa. This humiliating and dehumanizing process pinned whites against blacks for decades. Many painful and hurtful images must remain in Granny’s memory. These images may not be directed at the Americans from Nieu-Communities, but may certainly be brought to mind with the knowledge that there are Afrikaans of our group. To have held this dinner, it means that Granny must pay a price. She must face the cost of forgiveness to those who hurt her and her family in the past.
Now, I don’t know if heaven really excludes or includes Sangomas, but I recall a few stories in the Bible about forgiveness and celebration. In those stories Jesus was usually not too worried about somebody’s religious beliefs or background. He was more worried about their ability to act humbly, out of love. Through Granny’s humility, we could sense a taste of heaven, carried on the sound of the music in a dirt ghetto.
You may envision a heaven with clouds and angels. I think that works very well, but for me? Well, I guess I might just envision heaven to look something like dancing at Granny’s.