Visit to the Diocese of Natal 12-19 April 2002
In many ways, this was an overwhelming week. My experience tells me that wherever one goes in Africa (and in other parts of the world) the welcome is always warm and the hospitality generous. This was confirmed many times over in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Bishop Rubin Phillip, whom were delighted to see in St Peterís at the beginning of May, and Rose his wife, and Moses and Thulli who drove us all over the place, Mpume Mbonambi, a young researcher in HIV/AIDS, who will be coming to Nottingham for a year next Spring, and so many others - all very different characters, but so warm, open and welcoming.
But it was a week of contrasts. Fran and I were billeted in a very pleasant hotel, the Blue Waters, on the sea-front. Never could a name be more descriptive! We could have been enjoying an upmarket holiday in any of the great seaside resorts of the world - wonderful rolling sands, surf, and not a little sunshine, all making for a sense of well-being all given to us by the owner, who is an active church member. But then on Sunday afternoon we drove just a few miles south of the city, slightly into the hills, to visit Mpumeís home, which would virtually have fitted into our hotel suite - and she lives there with her mother and her sister; and Mpume is a highly educated, professional young person, the future of South Africa. So the continuing reality of life for the vast majority of black South Africans was forcibly brought home to us. No complaints from her though, or her family, far from it. Rather, real appreciation for the progress which has been made. Mpume has an infectious personality. She is excited about the future, and optimistic despite all the massive problems which beset her society. And that is what one finds amongst so many of the black South Africans. If anything it is among the whites that one finds the cynicism, and the lack of vision and confidence, but even they - those whom we met anyway - retain a sense of determination and commitment.
Of course, as with others, preaching to 700, and being completely bowled over by their music-making - so natural and powerful and emotional - and blessing upwards of 150 children, these are the things that stir one up to a fresh desire to build our links, knowing deep down that it is in prayer and worship that they can transform the life of our church. Chaotic it may be at times - quite unpredictable, you never know when you might be asked to do something off the cuff, or when another group of people will be called out to the front for some ceremony or other - but I know that after three and a half hours (and I didnít look at my watch once except to see how long I had preached for!) we came away from St Augustineís Church, in the huge township of Umlazi truly elated.
But then there is HIV/AIDS. We knew the statistics before we went, and they are truly shocking - some 40% of the population of Kwa Zulu Natal infected. I am still not sure that many people in South Africa really appreciate the extent of the tragedy. ĎThe Churchí struggles to come to terms with it - many would rather believe the church is not infected. Indeed I was concerned by the tone of the discussion at the Senior Staff meeting which we attended, which really didnít seem to give it the priority I would have expected. They seemed on more comfortable territory speaking of history and internal church matters; but those we saw on the ground at the hospice at Inchanga and Adamís Mission have a different story to tell. Perhaps, gently, this is an area we can help in - we canít do the caring, but we can keep on prompting the discussion. And anyway, we still have so much to learn. At Inchanga we visited about twenty people close to death. At the end of the visit Bishop George prayed and gave a blessing, and one of the young girls, covered in Kaposiís sarcoma, someone who had enchanted us all, called out ĎThank you for comingí and Bishop George replied ĎIf I could sing, I would sing you a songí. In return this girl, who I am sure is dead now, broke in to a beautiful Christian chant, quickly joined by the staff and some of the patients. The visitors, all of us, fought back the tears, I can tell you. The joy and the faith amidst so much suffering is truly spell-binding.
Our Thursday visit to a small nature reserve and the beach, by way of a little relaxation, could have left us with a wonderful sense of well-being, so beautiful were the places and such fun the company. Most of us had not been within twelve miles of wild zebra, let alone twelve feet. We were surrounded by them, and saw a number of other beautiful animals - well wildebeest are not quite beautiful, but donít tell them I said that. And the seaside at Scottburgh almost persuaded us to miss our plane back! But we had seen enough in the week to know there is real challenge and real suffering behind that front together with such vibrancy of faith, and such joy in believing! I have heard it said more than once of the life of St Peterís that people do not leave us filled with joy. Perhaps that is something which we can learn specifically; but I am quite sure that the Companion Link is going to bring something very special indeed to the life of the whole diocese.