Sunday, March 30, 2008

IAM What I Am

Courage is the trait that I most admire in people. I’m not, by nature, a courageous person. Perhaps that’s why I admire it so much in others.

I’m attracted to courageous people. I like to surround myself with them. Interacting with courageous people pushes me to be more courageous. In fact, it forces me to be more so. I find I can’t be around courageous people without striving to be more courageous myself. It’s incumbent to do so.

I draw courage from the people of South Africa.

When Laurie Gaum and Judith Kotze, two Dutch Reform ministers in Cape Town, told me about a project to open a safe house for gay, lesbian, and transgendered people in the township of Guguletu, I doubted that it could happen. I make no claim to understanding South Africa – certainly not township culture – but I do know that even in the most supportive of environments it can be challenging to work on GLBT issues. It seemed to me that those challenges are even greater in an area with widespread poverty, unemployment, and rates of HIV/AIDS. But if the challenges are great, so is the need.

What Pieter Oberholzer, founder and director of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM), along with people like Judith and Laurie, realized was that the discrimination and prejudice that gay people around the world have experienced is exacerbated in a township setting when “combined with religious fundamentalism, negative beliefs, and apathy of pastors and the clergy.” The lack of social services, resources, and support, specifically for GLBT people in the townships, makes them even more vulnerable to persecution and violence.

Judith and Laurie told me stories of gays and lesbians being kicked out of their homes by families who didn’t understand and couldn’t accept their children’s sexual orientation. They talked of gay men being harassed and beaten, of lesbians being raped. As much as we would like to believe that there is always help available for people who need it, sometimes there is no sanctuary – until courageous people come along.

Pieter Oberholzer and his colleagues at IAM did not accept the conditions in the townships. They realized that GLBT people need a safe place to go for a limited period of time to get off the streets, to attempt to reconcile with their families, to have the support of other gays and lesbians in the townships. Their response to this very complex issue, really a cultural taboo, was to establish the first of its kind GLBT safe house in the townships outside of Cape Town. But as we all know, few neighborhoods warmly embrace facilities like this one into their communities and resources for any project, especially one that has never been done before, don’t just materialize. For this courageous group to be successful with this project they would need to find someone from the townships, a person who spoke Xhosa, who understood community organizing, and who was willing to advocate for gays and lesbians. Any person who could get a neighborhood in the township of Guguletu to support locating a GLBT safe house there would, it goes without saying, also have to be courageous.

Yvonne Daki is courageous. Yvonne works part-time at the Zwane Community Centre in Guguletu coordinating Zwane’s response to the increasing numbers of AIDS orphans and child-headed households. During the struggle against apartheid, Yvonne and her family were very involved with the ANC (African National Congress) and it was through the ANC that Yvonne learned grassroots organizing. Canvassing the neighborhood would be critical to the actual realization of the safe house, but Yvonne possesses an even more valuable asset – perhaps also learned during the apartheid years – she is inclusive.

Yvonne agreed to assist IAM in their efforts by going door to door, street by street, talking to neighbors about what the safe house would provide, who would use it, and why it was important. Initially, some thought the safe house would be a gay shebeen (a bar) but because of Yvonne’s credibility and her dogged determination to dispel rumors and breakdown stereotypes – now not based on race as her earlier work with the ANC had been, but based on sexual orientation – Yvonne won over the community and iThemba Lam was opened.

iThemba Lam, Xhosa for “My Hope,” is a small two-story house in the Oliver Tambo section of Guguletu. It has a living room at the front of the house which serves as the meeting space for the GLBT support group. There is a small office on the first floor and two bedrooms and a kitchen upstairs. The furnishings are sparse, but for someone whose coming out has resulted in them being kicked out of their home, iThemba Lam offers more than a temporary sanctuary. It really does offer hope.

Judith Kotze of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries says, “Homosexuality is an issue that can’t compete with poverty and AIDS, but if people can find a way to be with this issue, they will be better experienced to deal with all issues of diversity.”

iThemba Lam is a fledgling project in need of a sponsor. In addition to providing temporary housing for GLBT people, iThemba Lam’s founders dream of having counselors on staff to assist gays and lesbians in reconciling with their families and their faith communities. They want to facilitate training on counseling, leadership, self-awareness, and caring so more people can be educated on GLBT issues and provide greater services within the townships. They hope to incorporate a resource library of books, articles, and magazines that GLBT people in the townships might otherwise never have access to.

iThemba Lam and Inclusive and Affirming Ministries are courageous projects run by courageous people. This kind of courage needs to be supported.

For more information, visit

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Discard is a word that I don’t often use. I throw things away. I toss things out. Occasionally, I say I dispose of something. But the only time I remember using the word discard was when I would play cards with my parents and discard those suites or numbers or face cards that were of no value to my hand.

So what language do we use when the thing that we are getting rid of – the thing that has no value to us – is a child? Do we throw that child away? Do we toss that child out? Do we dispose of that child?

In South Africa, that abandoned child is said to be discarded. It sounds awful, discarding a child like an unwanted playing card, and it is. But there are worse things. There are worse things in South Africa. There are worse things in America. There are worse things in my family.

I have a cousin whose parents divorced when she was very young. No doubt divorced because her father was beating her mother. I suspect my aunt ended her marriage to protect her children. But when my aunt developed a terminal illness and died shortly after her divorce, neither she, nor my family, nor the legal system could protect my cousin and her little sister. My cousins were returned to the custody of their father who abused them horribly for years until the courts could no longer ignore the physical signs of abuse, and they were eventually permanently removed from their father’s home.

That was 40 years ago, but the anguish still exists for my cousin. At this point, it probably will never ease. One thing she does, however, to occupy her time – and probably to occupy her thoughts – is to make fleece blankets for children who are abused, sick, or orphaned. She makes these oh-so-warm blankets for us to bring to foster homes and orphanages in South Africa.

We delivered some of these blankets to Nancy’s Place – a small house in the townships where a woman named Nancy has taken in 14 children with severe mental and physical disabilities. Some of these children may have been discarded by their mothers and fathers, but as long as Nancy has the funds to buy food and nappies, they will be looked after.

Although none of the children can communicate with words, an eight-year-old girl in Nancy’s care burst out with sounds of glee when the soft fleece of the blanket was rubbed against her face. I wish my cousin could have been with us to see and hear for herself, the excitement that erupted from that child when she was presented with a blanket. The joy of a discarded South African child would have gone a long way towards healing the pain of a middle-aged American woman who was hurt long ago by her father.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Soccer Shoes and HIV

I’m back in Cape Town, South Africa – a city I had never been to eight years ago and now know better than any city other than my hometown of Minneapolis.

On this trip, as I have for so many years, I’m staying in Sea Point, the neighborhood just outside of the central business district of Cape Town. As the name suggests, Sea Point stretches along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, and the lodge where I stay is a few short blocks uphill from the ocean.

Every day I drive past the hotel that a small group of us from Open Arms first stayed at in 2000. The Victoria Junction was a fairly new hotel eight years ago and between a strong U.S. dollar and a weak South African rand, we paid less than $80 a night for a room. Yesterday, an electronic sign on the front of the hotel said that same room was now about $250 a night. This is but one change I’ve noticed in eight years of traveling here.

The Victoria Junction always triggers memories for me because the lobby of the hotel is the place where I first met Spiwo Xapile, the Presbyterian minister who would become Open Arms’ partner in our work in the township of Guguletu.

The travel agent who was coordinating that first trip to South Africa for us to attend an AIDS conference in Durban connected me with Spiwo. I sent an e-mail to him introducing myself and the work of Open Arms and told him we were interested in learning more about HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Spiwo responded to my e-mail with an invitation for our small delegation from Open Arms to spend a week with him, seeing first hand the challenges and opportunities in the townships.

There were five of us from Open Arms coming to South Africa on that first trip. I asked Spiwo if there was anything we could bring with us that would be helpful for his program. We had already collected condoms and medical supplies, but I was wondering if there was something else that would be particularly useful for him. Spiwo’s answer surprised me. He asked us to please bring children’s soccer shoes. Soccer shoes. Now, I didn’t know much about South Africa then, but I knew it was a country with an escalating AIDS crisis and soccer shoes seemed like a luxury when every pair of cleats meant less condoms, aspirins, and vitamins being packed in our suitcases. Never having touched foot on African soil, I came very close to discounting Spiwo’s request and bringing what I thought, from my Minnesotan worldview, would be best for the people in the townships of Guguletu.

Although I wasn’t excited about collecting soccer shoes, we did it. A sporting goods store donated 30 news pairs, and volunteers brought in used pairs that their children had quickly outgrown. We left the Twin Cities with 75 pairs of soccer boots stuffed with packages of condoms, bottles of aspirin, and sealed band-aids and packed in our suitcases.

When Spiwo met us in the lobby of the Victoria Junction he immediately asked us if we had brought the soccer shoes. This turned out to be the first thing we did right in our now eight year relationship with Spiwo and the Zwane Community Centre. Although the request didn’t really make sense to me at the time, we honored it, and this established a level of trust between the Zwane Centre and Open Arms and between Spiwo and me right from the beginning.

The next day our group met Ace, a former professional soccer player who was now coaching kids and the soccer shoes were distributed to members of a soccer team affiliated with Zwane Centre. Ace explained how these soccer shoes were one of the most effective tools he had to educate the young players about HIV/AIDS. He said the Zwane Centre could announce an AIDS education session for young people and maybe a few kids would show up for it. Or, they could announce the formation of a soccer league and scores of children would turn out. Then they could start practicing and holding games and at some point during every practice, Ace could talk to the kids about AIDS and other life skills.

I thought, from my limited worldview in 2000, that the most effective AIDS prevention program would be a presentation on the ABCs of AIDS – A, Abstain; B, Be Faithful; and C, Use Condoms – and then making sure there was a supply of condoms available. And this is an effective model of AIDS education and prevention. But so is giving kids a pair of soccer boots and creating a place that’s safe to talk about issues like AIDS. Although we no longer bring soccer shoes and condoms with us to South Africa, I can’t help but think, every time I drive by the Victoria Junction Hotel in Cape Town, that ultimately those soccer shoes might have prevented more transmission of HIV than the condoms we first brought with us.