On Saturday, we listened to Peter Storey talk about his experience as a minister and an activist. Though he grew up as a practicing Methodist who always knew he’d be a preacher, he was unsettled by the contradictions between The Bible and the messages from the church. According to Storey, the God he knew and believed in from The Bible calls us to welcome the afflicted. “You can’t call yourself a Christian unless you engage with the poor,” he said. Storey grew up during the apartheid era, when other white Christian men like him enacted discriminatory laws against black and “coloured” populations in South Africa. He described the church and the country he lived in as full of “ironies, paradoxes, and things we’re not proud of.”
As I reflected on my own struggle with my faith, his talk felt more like a sermon. I thought about the contradictions between my faith and my discomfort about the Catholic Church and its hypocrisy. Being a black Catholic feels like a paradox in itself, since it’s sometimes hard to reconcile my faith with the Church’s role in all types of systems of oppression (colonialism, racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc). It’s ironic how a man with hair “like the wool on a sheep’s skin” (Revelations 1:14) would’ve been discriminated against by many Christians under America’s system of slavery and segregation and South Africa’s apartheid laws.
My experience in Cape Town has been full of ironies and contradictions. Palm trees grow outside in 50 degree weather. Wine is sometimes cheaper than bottled water. Chains of mountains and natural scenery tower over the top of concrete urban buildings downtown. The city is in the middle of a water crisis, yet I’m comfortably living in a villa with a pool. Only 8.9% of the South African population is white, but a majority white crowd surrounds me most places I go. Every night a coffee bar down the street entertains a popular outdoor party scene as a group of homeless people sleep on the ground a few steps away. The wealth and racial disparities are among the largest in the world, in a country with a majority black population.
As I struggle with these contradictions and ask history to explain itself, I feel confused, discouraged, and unsure about what I know and what I should do. I’m not sure I completely believed Peter Storey when he told us to trust that things will get better. But according to Steve Biko, “every liberationist is an optimist” – how historically ironic.