Reflections on Ruth from the church in a divided South African city
Written for the Stott-Bediako Forum in 2016. The theme of the forum was “The Refugee Crisis: A Shared Human Condition”
This paper has been written from the context of The Warehouse Trust, an NGO based in Cape Town, South Africa, that has existed since 2003 to serve and support churches in the city as they seek to respond to poverty, injustice and division. It was written for the Stott-Bediako Forum in June 2016 addressing the topic: “The Refugee Crisis: A shared Human experience”. The organisation has followed a contextual bible study model of giving and receiving with dignity that has been known as Urban Gleaning. It is based on the book of Ruth focusing on the interdependent relationships found in the book which have the potential to lead the church out of a top-down model of charitable giving and into a more transformative network of sharing where the vulnerable are cared for in empowering ways that maintain their dignity and the privileged are invited into seeking relationships beyond their positions of security and shelter from the lived reality of the majority world.
For the purposes of this subject, there will be a special focus given to the various social positions of the characters in Ruth, comparing the role of foreigner and local when both experience poverty and their relationship with local landowners and those who consider themselves as givers. The biblical story of Ruth is explored through the lens of South African stories that emerged during a season of xenophobic violence and widespread displacement within South African cities in 2008 and reflects on what has been learnt, what has changed and what can still be re-imagined as another way for the future that involves addressing social unrest, understanding it’s roots and building shalom across all three groups of people: the foreigner living in poverty, the local living in poverty and the local living in wealth.
The author of this paper has not conducted any formal qualitative research on the topic, nor has there been comprehensive reference to formal research on the broader issues touched on in the paper, of which there is likely to be a lot more to discover that would enhance these reflections. It is a reflective piece done by one person from within an organisation that has been involved primarily with the response of the church in Cape Town to the poverty of both local citizens and foreign refugees. Stories and quotes are from informal conversations and organisational reflections on lessons learnt over the years and should not be generalised as representing any group of people or churches. A wider and deeper study on this subject, bringing together and analysing academic and grassroots learnings would be valuable to the church of South Africa as she seeks to address the root causes of social unrest. A thorough reading of the book of Ruth, alongside this paper will enhance the readers’ insights.
A broken home: South Africa after 2008
Twenty years after the fall of the law of Apartheid, the spirit of separateness and even spatial development seems all too alive in current South Africa. Today we face the disappointment of the failing potential of the country and the apparent lack of capacity within the church to truly impact the systemic poverty, injustice and inequality that still exists. In his book “Mind the Gap: Reflections from the Gospel of Luke on the divided city”, Colin Smith recounts a conversation with a group of church leaders from across the socio-economic divides of Cape Town where one leader discussed the deeply theological implications of inequality:
“He said that we have to understand these gaps are fundamentally a theological problem. He argued that until the church recognises a divided city is not simply a product of history, an awkward reality we might seek to ameliorate or simply live with, but an issue of fundamental theological concern, we will not move forward. We need a spirit-inspired pining that grieves over what is, precisely because we know what could be, what should be, and what ultimately in the unfolding of hope, will be. Confronting the gaps begins with a biblically fuelled imagination, spilling out onto our streets, which keeps opening up the possibility of what might be in the face of what is.” (2015:157-158)
All nations have years that remain in the national consciousness, years that mark a moment that shaped national identity. For South Africa, 1994 will always be one of those years. It was the end and the beginning. The end of legalised dehumanisation, brutality and institutionalised racism. It was the beginning of democracy and the birth of what came to be known as the rainbow nation. However, 2008 marked a moment when South Africa faced a disruption, a kind of wake-up call, to the false narrative of the post-Apartheid united country. 14 years into the birth of the new South Africa, growing inequality between the rich and poor had been leading to simmering tension and anger in communities where the worst of poverty, injustice and inequality manifests in concrete ways: crowded informal housing, limited or no access to basic amenities such as sanitation, running water, waste removal and electricity and increasing levels of community violence rooted in a variety of social causes. In the cities of South Africa these realities exist nearby the neighbourhoods of the very wealthy, further reinforcing the experience of relative deprivation and profound injustice. By 2008 there had been an increase in public protest and disruption and general social unrest, but on the whole, those in central places of economic and political power had remained unresponsive to the signs.
“I will never forget getting your telephone call. It was a Sunday afternoon and we were resting at home recovering from leading the morning services at church. We were surprised to hear from you over a weekend and even more surprised to hear the nature of your request- would we willing to open our church hall to people from other African nations who had been displaced due to violence and threats of violence against them and their communities? Would we be willing to receive them in the next few hours and how many would we be able to host? At first we were stunned and didn’t know how to react but then the wheels set into motion and there was even a sense of excitement amongst those in our parish who were willing to help. People had been looking for an opportunity to make a significant difference to the poor and this felt like such an opportunity. Within a few hours our church hall was transformed into a temporary home and our first guests arrived. They stayed for several months and through the experience we were permanently changed as a church family, for the better, never the same again. Lasting friendships were made. People became family” (Reflections of the rector of a partner church on the crisis breaking out in May 2008. )
What came to be known as “the xenophobia crisis” had broken out in Johannesburg a week before. We had prayed for the city, called out to God in pain for what we had seen unfolding on the news and expressed our disbelief at the reported violence against foreign African nationals perpetuated by South Africans who had been living alongside them, assuming in the very beginning that it was an isolated event in the Johannesburg area. As the violence spread and we packed a truck-load of supplies that was due to head across the country, I got the call from my colleague: “the violence has started in Cape Town, we need to prepare for the arrival of many displaced people”. We were incredulous, this was becoming a national phenomenon, undoubtedly fuelled by the inevitable criminal elements that exist in contexts of extreme inequality, but national none the less, and with identical characteristics in all the sites where it was breaking out. There was little time to reflect on the deeper issues at play, these were to come later, what was called for in that moment was immediate action. No deaths were reported in the Western Cape, unlike Gauteng province that suffered 64 fatalities, but by the time the attacks had been brought under control on 26 May over twenty- thousand internally displaced people were being housed in community halls, churches and official government run tented camps. (Jara and Pederby: 2009)
The Warehouse played a coordinating role for churches with the additional support of dozens of volunteers by facilitating: 1) the placement of people into church facilities 2) the ongoing support of churches who housed people 3) the support of churches who wanted to aid those in their local community halls and 4) the collection, sorting and distribution of essential goods from the public to the sites where people were being housed. Business as usual for our small NGO was interrupted for nearly three months and we had to work hard at maintaining our connection and work with churches responding to other needs throughout the crisis and in some cases re-establishing connection after the response had subsided. Many months after the immediate crisis had been contained and the city and country were moving into the resettlement and reintegration phase of the response, many questions still remained as to what had occurred, how and why. Some noteworthy thoughts emerged during informal discussions that unfolded with our church networks:
- The vast majority of South Africans from all parts of the socio-economic spectrum condemned the violence, with many church leaders, especially those in areas where the violence had occurred, speaking out passionately against the attacks and appealing to the biblical mandate to care for the foreigner
- There was a widespread sentiment that South Africa owes a debt of thanks and hospitality to foreign nations that hosted our political refugees during Apartheid and that these attacks severely threatened our goodwill towards our neighbours
- Many churches from across all spheres of society were motivated to help, some quite sacrificially, in response to the crisis and with the help of our organisation and others were well equipped to do so
- People from the comfortable middle classes seemed to struggle to even begin to understand how this could have happened
- People from, or in touch with, the majority of the country living in poverty, while never condoning the violence, could however understand the root of the unrest
It is the last two of the above points that I will explore in the rest of this paper, attempting to draw a picture for a better future from the book of Ruth in the Old Testament.
“May you find rest”: a home in South Africa?
There is a motif that emerges through the book of Ruth, a phrase repeated several times. At the start of the story, following the devastation of the loss of all the adult men in her family, Naomi tells her daughters in law, women from another nationality who had married her sons: “May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” (Ruth 1:9) The idea of finding rest, finding a home, finding financial security and a place in society runs throughout the book as a dominant theme for Ruth and Naomi as they return to Israel, as vulnerable widows and for Ruth with the precarious added status of being a foreigner. As the story unfolds, it seems as if their wellbeing is tied up with each other’s as Naomi’s obsession with finding Ruth rest in the home of a husband increases. Not content with endlessly living off the gleanings of someone else’s field, Naomi again reiterates: “My daughter, should I not try to find a home for you, where you will be well provided for?”(Ruth 3:1) The New King James version of the Bible, replaces the word home for rest: “shall I not find rest for you in the home of a husband?”
Rest and home as themes that seem interchangeable in this story are crucial realities in the urban context. Indeed they are very much absent in the lives of most of the urban poor in South Africa, the Apartheid city having been designed as only a home for the white person and a place of violent displacement for all people of colour. Relatively few South Africans, even to this day, have found a home, found rest in the cities of the country. Many who have left homes in the rural areas of South Africa and many who have left other African countries, all in order to pursue a perceived greater access to the things that would provide rest (access to employment, education, healthcare, protection from war and political violence), have found themselves in the very opposite reality: a state of profound unrest in a city that excludes, oppresses and pitches the poor against the poor in an endless conflict for the inadequately shared resources and opportunities provided by the rich and exclusive economic systems.
Rest seems to be described in Ruth as a state found when you are not worried for the future. Rest comes when you have a secure home, one that you trust will not be taken from you, or when you feel that you are at home, you belong where you are. Rest in this sense, is not available to the majority of people, both foreign and local, living in South Africa. Rest, in the economic sense is present for the wealthy, mostly white classes of South Africa, as has already been described during the contextual analysis of this paper. A pastor who was leading a multi-cultural and socio-economically diverse church in 2008 that responded very generously to the displaced people, and experienced a wonderful network of reconciled relationships across people of all socio-economic realities, has a very sober outlook on the interplay between South African and foreigner, rich and poor. He described the disparity in a conversation with me as follows:
“Both the local and foreigner are vulnerable, and the scriptures challenge us to look after all the poor. God told his people not to forget what it was like to be oppressed. The situation in South Africa is complex: we need to be aware that as South Africans we were aliens in foreign lands, welcomed and cared for in exile by so many other African countries. It is time to care for others now. Many have to take dangerous journeys to get here and find themselves in a desperate situation. But the other challenge is that when we went we did not go in our hundreds and thousands, but now we face thousands coming here. One of our biggest problems in South Africa is unemployment with statistics being quoted of around 9 million people without work. A lot of refugees come with skills that poor South Africans don’t have due to the legacy of Apartheid education and job reservation, many come with years of freedom that South Africans have only just started enjoying. When the refugees came here, I saw white friends looking at them more favourably. I have seen many white South Africans who still need to deal with their racism and prejudice. Also, foreigners may be willing to work for less than South Africans and therefore suffer from the exploitation that South Africans are trying to end by refusing to work for so little. South African’s may ask for a particular rate and then a foreigner may agree to work for less, therefore they are deemed as taking jobs, and perpetuating exploitation of the poor. Another challenge is because we have not yet dealt with our reconciliation issues, when foreigners enter the white spaces I have heard people say “foreign black people are better workers than our black people”. Sometimes I saw the response of the wealthy white church to the plight of the refugee happening at the expense of the ongoing challenges of the South African poor. How do we as the church, in both rich and poor contexts become aware of not sowing division?”
While this conversation was held with just one person, and cannot describe every person’s thoughts on the matter, I have heard many similar ideas expressed by others and have wrestled myself with so much of what he spoke about. There is no data to prove the latent racism in what is behind the choices of the rich to the detriment of the poor, both local and foreigner, but what is described in this conversation, if indeed a wider phenomenon than just the thoughts of a few, speaks of a deep unrest in the soul of the nation: the very opposite of a home for everyone, the very opposite of finding rest. How then, do we as local rich and poor South African Christians together take seriously the biblical mandate to care for the foreigner in our midst, but perhaps do so as Naomi and Boaz did, from opposite end of the story to bring about the return of both Ruth and Naomi, local and foreign widow, into a secure future, a home, rest.
Making a home: Ruth, Naomi and Boaz in Cape Town
If Ruth is to aid us in transforming the story of unrest, it will not be by overextending the parallels from the context of ancient Israel to our own, but rather observing what unfolds in this extraordinary Old Testament story and allowing it to ask some questions for ourselves. It may be helpful to start with naming the various characters in the book, both central and peripheral to the story and acknowledging that modern society in South Africa is not too different:
- Naomi, the vulnerable widow who returns to her homeland, has lost everything and is at the mercy of the local systems of charity, but who has local knowledge of how these systems work and how to attempt to secure a future for herself and her family
- Ruth, the foreign widow, who through her loyalty to her mother-in-law and perhaps a perceived future of security in the land of Israel, has been made vulnerable by her widow status and her choice to become a foreigner in a strange land
- Boaz, the wealthy landowner who ensures that Ruth does not come to any harm or embarrassment on his property (Ruth 2:8-9), who seeks out her story (Ruth 2:5), who receives Ruth’s proposal as a kindness (3:10) and who ultimately embraces his role as a kinsman redeemer, honouring Naomi
- The land owners of other fields who seem not to care what happened to vulnerable people in their fields, on whose farms Ruth may have been harmed (Ruth 2:22) and the workers in the fields who had a reputation for harming or shaming vulnerable women (Ruth 2:15)
- The relative who was first in line as kinsman redeemer who deems marriage with Ruth as a threat to his own inheritance and estate (Ruth 4:6) and in doing so does not enter into the redemptive story that unfolds
In applying the contextual bible study of Ruth to an urban context, considering that if we are honest, all of the above characters and responses are present in the church body across the city and that not all of them reflect the call to dignity, rest and shalom for all people, we have been asking followers of God’s word in Cape Town and beyond, as a form of “entry level” social justice message, the following questions:
- If you were to apply the generosity laws of gleaning described in Leviticus 19:9-10 and Deuteronomy 24:17-22 what would you consider the harvest of your life that should be left aside for the poor, the widow and the alien to be able to work with and glean in a dignified way?
- What are the ways you see the vulnerable being exploited, shamed or harmed in other spaces and what do you do to ensure that you provide safety to them?
- How do you, like Boaz, seek out the story of the vulnerable person so that they do not remain an anonymous recipient in a long line of top down charitable acts?
Answers to these questions have led to some good practice growing through the church of Cape Town. Over the years everyone who has visited The Warehouse has been able to interact with the Urban Gleaning hub, a space where people from the width and breadth of Cape Town and even the world have brought their treasures, time and talents for distribution to the most vulnerable families in society, both in response to the ongoing poverty identified by a network of church relationships and in times of large and small scale disaster. Two elements of this model were particularly effective. Firstly, the concept of maintaining the highest level of dignity and quality when giving material goods was taught and upheld, sometimes to the chagrin of people who were hoping for a low maintenance response to their desire to help. It was always emphasized that those who have been treated as the bottom of society or who have lost everything should get the very best, not be considered grateful recipients of things those wealthier than them can no longer use or no longer want. Secondly, the very space where Urban Gleaning happened was a neutral space in the city where people from all walks of life were able to serve side by side, sorting through and lovingly packing the donations given by others. The great leveller, the gift of time, was able to be given by young and old, rich and poor, local and foreigner, unemployed, retired and employed. However, I do believe that the true spirit of gleaning, where the vulnerable poor are given free access to our fields is yet to be seen in our context. Ruth, in 2:19 says:” The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz.” This shows a true equality that we struggled to achieve between giver and recipient during the years of running the Urban Gleaning hub.
A direct outcome of the lessons learnt during the acute crisis of 2008 was the increased ability of our organisation to coordinate large scale responses to disasters, the birth of several other organisations from within church networks that specialise in disaster response and a growing network of churches called RESPOND who are ready to respond in a highly networked fashion when there is a large scale disaster and are able to work locally between a couple of churches when there are regular incidences of small scale disasters, namely the inevitable seasonal occurrence of loss or damage to homes and the resultant displacement of people through fires and floods in the informal settlements of the city. All these responses are done with an equal emphasis on quality and dignity as with the Urban Gleaning model. This is a hopeful way we have seen the lessons learnt during 2008 benefiting society as a whole.
However, what could it look like in our fraught contexts, described in the situations of unrest and racial tension in the first part of this paper, for a deeper reading of Ruth to lead to a much more transformed way of life for all? What would the church of South Africa be able to give birth to if we were brave enough to move beyond symptom control and relief responses into a network of interdependent relationships. What kinds of questions will move us towards this?
- Boaz acknowledges the kindness of Ruth’s proposal (Ruth 3:10). What would it mean for people who only ever give in a charitable way, to become recipients from the poor, touched by the kindness of those who they are always postured to help.
- The relationship between Ruth and Naomi is a close one, mutually depending on each other for increased security in the world. How can the church become a place where relationships between local and foreign poor be nurtured and strengthened for their mutual benefit?
- Boaz and Ruth act in such a way that ultimately their relationship includes a future security for Naomi as well (Ruth 4:17). At the end of the story it is Naomi who holds the child of significant genealogy and inheritance and the woman of the city declare that “Naomi has a son.” Do we even know what this could look like in South Africa?
A conversation with another colleague of mine was very revealing and helped me to reflect on some very significant and critical changes that we as an organisation have made since 2008. She reflected the following:
“If we were to talk about May to July 2008 today we would still talk about the relief response of the churches to the crisis. The question I ask myself is not how we continue to do relief in ever increasingly effective ways, but how we help churches with transformation. We have learnt that we can give up our halls for a few of months because we know that the people will not always be there. In the best cases true friendships were formed that last till today, but the challenge for the church and therefore The Warehouse as those who serve the church is the need to address the root cause of the violence, the competition for scarce resources. Ultimately churches need to be confronted with this. A challenge is what does the common Christian do? Do we just improve how we provide relief? The Kingdom of God is the smallest thing sown…even Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, just three people, becoming the forerunners of Jesus.”
If 2008 was a wake-up call for the country it did not take us too long to go into somewhat of a slumber again. The root causes of xenophobia were not understood or addressed in a significant way nationally or by the church and the gap between the rich and the poor continued to grow. In 2012 we suffered another enormous tragedy: the massacre of 47 striking mine-workers by South African security forces in August of that year, leading to a nationwide lament that our beloved democracy was under enormous threat. And yet again, this did not lead to significant societal change. 2015, however, challenged complacency and indifference as the youth of the country led university campuses in what was called a national shutdown, calling for free education, an end to exploitation of workers on their campuses and issuing a clarion call to “decolonise South Africa”. The students of the country named what so many had been feeling. Like Naomi at the beginning of the story, they lamented. They named their lives as bitter, they expressed their anger and dissatisfaction, to the discomfort, disturbance and disruption of the comfortable in the land (Ruth 1:19-21). A new era in our democracy has been declared and it is relatively impossible for anyone, not least of all the church, to any longer ignore the root causes of social unrest.
The Warehouse has been changing a lot since 2008, enabling us as a servant to the church to be prepared to walk with churches in the tumultuous months of protest in 2015 and 2016 and hopefully into a more equal future. Although there were many factors that helped us change, the things we learnt, the unease we felt, the desire to work with root causes rather than symptoms, learnt during 2008, are at the heart of our metamorphosis. While we remain committed to helping even the simplest of entry level acts that address inequality in a dignified way, we have since closed down the Urban Gleaning hub and are exploring with churches how to ensure that they remain prepared for disaster response and are able to respond well, and most importantly relationally, to ongoing emerging needs around them. The majority of our time, however, is no longer spent as it was before 2008 running community and church based responses to issues such as orphan care, youth development, unemployment and HIV/AIDS but is spent working with ongoing theological development and mind-set transformation of the churches of South Africa. In doing this we see churches themselves starting to develop their own relationship based models of community upliftment and justice initiatives. These days the work of our small NGO includes hosting really hard conversations with churches who are trying to understand themselves in the midst of upheaval and unrest, nurturing peace-building initiatives, helping churches interrogate their own prejudices and racism, helping leaders explore how to address the core issues of inequality within their own congregations and beyond, encouraging churches to listen to the voices of those they have ignored for too long. It is fair to say that change was hard, people were disappointed, as an organisation we let people down and we took a financial knock over time, but the value of the honest walk we are starting to have with churches, a glimpse of the hope that the body of Christ in South Africa can move beyond relief to transformation through relationships of interdependency across all levels of society, and serve our country as we do it, is worth the tough moments.
Conclusion: towards a new home
The book of Ruth tells a story that is very honest about the fallibility of the times and the harshness of the culture the story was set in and how the law of the Lord can be followed by a people in both dehumanising and humanising ways. Ruth makes it obvious that foreigners did not expect to be treated equally, but shows what it can look like when people take their roles as protector seriously, when real relationships of equal need and provision are worked out and when no-one is side-lined. Ruth is like an island in the Old Testament where so many of the stories reflect the fight of the nation of Israel for her national identity, their place in the land, as promised by God, where even their justice laws that we so often draw upon for justice imperatives, for example the Jubilee laws, are exclusionary to foreigners (Leviticus 25: Jubilee for the people of Israel, but not for the foreigner). Ruth stands as part of the prophetic strand that weaves its way through the Old Testament, a strand that speaks of justice and inclusion for all and that eventually is picked up by Jesus, who even in his own life seems to grow in progressive revelation into the understanding of the good news being for beyond the Jewish nation. Ruth provides a foretaste of this ultimate shalom between the local and the foreigner, the rich and the poor.
In our country and beyond, we are struggling to echo these prophetic strands of shalom for all. We find ourselves in a global reality of fear mongering and violence against “the other”. Another colleague of mine challenges the use of the term xenophobia, when describing the violence against foreigners in South Africa, but rather asks us to explore a sense of misplaced anger and violence, one that could be addressed with a restorative justice, a restitution of past wrongs by those who benefited from an unjust system to the people who were wronged. This makes me wonder what true restorative justice could look like in every society dealing with violence and fear of the other. It begs the question of us: what is the real enemy and how do we fight it instead of each other, in the subversive manner seen employed by the characters of Ruth? The unequal state of today’s South Africa, and indeed world, should not yet reflect a sense of home or rest for any of us, no matter what level of comfort or wealth we live with. If we are brave enough to follow in Naomi, Ruth and Boaz’s footsteps, to lament as Naomi did, to allow her voice to be heard and not to shut her up, to listen to Ruth’s story, to share our harvests, to receive from the poor, to seek relationship beyond charity, to leave no-one out of the redemption or at least to refuse to call it redemption at all of it is not redemption for all. If we are brave enough to do these things, we may one day all call our land home, we may one day take our rest together.
Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright 1973; Biblica, Inc
Jara, M.K & Peberdy, S. 2009. Progressive humanitarian and social mobilisation in a neo-apartheid cape Town: a report on civil society and the May 2008 xenophobic violence. The Atlantic philanthropies: Cape Town South Africa
Smith, C. 2015. Mind the Gap: Reflections from Luke’s Gospel on the Divided City. Portland: Urban Loft Publishers.