We Must Rise… Healers – Dreamers – Jesters! 10-21 August 2016; Pretoria, South Africa
For 20 years, the Urban Ministry Consultation has represented a space in which urban people working in the trenches of post-apartheid South Africa, or in urban slums and inner cities elsewhere in the world are able to connect deeply, share experiences and struggles, and discern together what God would have for them back in their cities.
In 1996 the first Urban Ministry Consultation was held in Pretoria, South Africa under the auspices of the Institute for Urban Ministry, incubated by the Tshwane Leadership Foundation. The theme was “Gospel: Struggle in the City” featuring Ray Bakke as the main speaker. Twenty years later the 11th Biennial Consultation on Urban Ministry was held, bringing together urban ministry practitioners, activists, students, and scholars to explore how to be prophetic communities taking local ownership for reconciliation and justice. The theme of this year’s Consultation was We Must Rise: Healers-Dreamers-Jesters.
The theme of this year was inspired by recent student movements that swept campuses across our nation, pursuing aims of decolonization; addressing university fee structures to give increased and just access to poor students; fighting for an end to outsourcing and exploitation of workers; and changing language policy and curricula to be in line with the South Africa of 2016 and beyond.
Many of us were in solidarity with the student movements, sometimes as participant observers, sometimes as mediators. This has come to be known as the #Fallist movement as the focus was on constructs of colonization and oppressions that had to fall!
As faith communities in cities our concern is with the vacuums that might be left after certain constructs have justifiably fallen. How do we ensure that these vacuums are not filled by even more oppressive forces? What do we rise to? What do we put in its place? How do we take local ownership to build ethical, aesthetical, healthy and vibrant communities where all of God’s people can live with dignity and meaning, sharing in the abundance of God’s resources?
We took up these very questions at this year’s Consultation. 200-250 people participated over the course of the 12-day, three-part event, coming from cities across South Africa, but also from Maputo, Bujumbura, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Memphis, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Anchorage, and Detroit.
The time began with a number of speakers who shared their stories and challenged our assumptions. Lovelyn Nwadeyi, student activist from Cape Town and Jim Perkinson, theologian and spoken word poet from Detroit, challenged us in terms of the church and decolonized cities; finding seeds of hope in social movements and grass-root artists; and making space for women’s voices. Alan Storey from Central Methodist Church in Cape Town spoke about going with Jesus to the other side and allowing the other side to transform this side, so that in Jesus there really is no other side. Veteran urban ministers and activists, Paul Verryn and Trevor Ntlhola, encouraged us to be healers in communities of deep pain. And a panel made up of Jember Teferra from Addis Ababa, Howard Eddings from Memphis and Nkosi Gola from Cape Town, shared with the Consultation the dream they live and work for in their own cities, and how they sustain this dream. Rich times of shared meals and fellowship created space for conversations and friendships to be formed, and on one day 10 different sites were visited by Consultation participants, as part of discerning not only the cries of the city, but how God is raising up leaders, or inviting us to rise, in response to urban challenges.
Following this event, leaders from different African cities convened for the meeting of Leadership Foundations Africa. During the time possible Senior Associates from African cities were identified and prepared for the task of coaching Local Leadership Foundations and then asked to pray and consider taking up such a role as we go forward. The African network also planned for 2017 and 2018 in terms of accreditation, training events and a joint research project in which we would document the narratives unfolding from African cities.
The final part of our time began on the campus of the University of Pretoria where the feast@UP partnered with the Tshwane Leadership Foundation’s Feast of the Clowns, to create awareness for social justice. The event included a meal and conversation about ‘Protest in the city’, a screening of Becoming Fools– a film from Guatemala City, as well as two public lectures.
On Saturday the 20th of August, the whole Consultation gathering, as well as leaders and community members from different African cities and the inner city of Pretoria, gathered at Burgers Park for the annual March of the Clowns through the city and the Feast of the Clowns. This was once again a rich space of community-building, allowing local people to take ownership in arranging activities for the day, making space for known and emerging artists to perform, and weaving some of the challenges that invite us to rise as a community, into the day’s activities.
It was fitting to end an amazingly rich and busy time of engagement and reflection, with a public party that took to the streets! Jesus indeed wants to take us to the other side, there to transform us, and bring the other side back with us, to also transform this side.
What have I personally taken away from this time?
We have to interrogate our own theological, organizational, ministry, and urban constructs, to see in how far we represent the original Jesus movement, or in how far we have been co-opted into the church of Constantine. We too have to wrestle, especially in the global South, with the legacies of colonization, with the demon of inferiority and the on-going constructs of superiority and supremacy exported to us, or living inside of us. In the midst of broken communities, often the victims of other people’s projects and constructs, we have to foster agency, heal fractures, imagine bold alternatives and jest away bad power – announcing that a new day has come, the new day is here, it is with us, and it is up to us to claim and proclaim!