Peter's Blog

The South Africa Debrief

Written by Peter Johnston on .

On Saturday, 15 October, we had our debrief after a packed few days of meetings, visits, stories, heartache and inspiration.

Graham Philpott from Church Land Programme used the form of a worship liturgy to guide us through our thoughts from the past few days. It was an effective tool. We began with an opening affirmation: "The Lord be with you. And also with you."

The gospel was an exploration of where we had seen good news during the past days. Where had we seen God present in the time and experiences we had shared together? As we started to share the gospel, memories and moments flooded out and on to many pages of flipchart...

Debrief 02

For me, it was in the laughter amidst the trauma and fragility of one of the informal settlements. In the midst of suffering and exploitation, even there God finds a way to bring a moment of light and joy as people work together through their struggles.

We went on to offer our prayers and everyone was invited to share their own. Some wrote, some spoke, one of us (thank you, Shermara) used song, as we tried to express our thoughts to God. Here's what I wrote:

God of love and life,

in our struggle to be human

hold us close when we need to know

we are not alone,

and scatter us far when we need to be

your seeds of life.


When we see injustice

may we recognise it,

and name it.


When we find ourselves

with power to wield

may we be wise and ready

to offer that power to others,

with vulnerability

may we seek community,

solidarity, and peace.


In the struggle, give us hope,

be with those on the margins

where your community grows,

an antidote to greed.

for the common good of all.


And then we moved to that moment in the service when you might recite a Creed or Statement of Faith. And we explored what impact this trip had had on us and our understanding of God. How had our perceptions of what was important to God and God's kin-dom been affected by what we had witnessed?

Debrief 03

This began another outpouring of ideas and feelings and descriptions from the group as we explored what our Statement of Faith, our Creed about God, might look like. We filled two sheets with ideas and as we did so the twin pillars of 'love' and 'life' kept recurring.

On one of the flights back home, unable to sleep, I started toying with the ideas we had splurged onto the sheets of paper and tried to distil them into a form of words:

We believe

that God is LOVE:

present in all of creation,

seeking communion and relationship

on the margins of society,

in the struggles of the poor,

being  both vulnerable and uncontrollable,

active and limitless,

and opening opportunities for grace.


We believe

that God is LIFE:

bringing agency and dignity

in the messiness and bloodiness

of life on the edge,

revealing truth

and disrupting our delusions,

offering hope

wherever it is needed.


We believe

that God is INCARNATE:

journeying with us

in solidarity and faith

on the long, potholed road

towards justice and freedom.


We believe

that God is LOVE

and LIFE,

here and now.

And then we came to the offering of the peace, and the hugs and farewells began for we were going to be saying goodbye to many of the group after lunch. It was such a condensed time together, learning from one another and from everyone we met, and we were all anxious that the experience would be more than a memory of a few intense days.


Safari 04

After such a focussed and exhausting time, those of us who were still in the group were offered a few alternatives to do something different and, of course, we all chose to visit a game reserve. We were laughing together because it turned baltic and the rain started coming down as we ventured out in the safari truck with a very chatty ranger to explore the park and the animals.

We met Zebras and ostriches, wildebeest and kudi, hippos and elands, but the stars of the show were the giraffes...

Safari 02

...who were fascinated by our presence and comforted by the presence of our Ranger who knew them all by name. One of them was called 'Darky' because her patches were much darker than any of the others and she was the Ranger's favourite because she was so photogenic, always coming forward when a picture needed to be taken and presenting herself for the camera in stately beauty. 

I was amazed at how they all came out into the road to have a good look at us.

And then there were the Rhinos...

Safari 03

...this wee one was just months old, still nursing from its mum. The mum, by the way, weighing in at 2.5 tonnes.

The park owners realised that they should keep their shop open until we finished the tour. It was a wise decision on their part and most of us found something for family to bring home with us.

I was getting a bit anxious about all of this thinking I still did not have my suitcase so I would need to buy another case just to put all the stuff in that I had acquired over the last few days. It was returning from the park that I found my suitcase had arrived. Alleluia! Even if it just meant opening it to pull out a clerical shirt and pair of trousers, packing it with gifts and dirty clothes and sealing it back up for the return trip the next day!

Scottsville Presbyterian Church

Scottsville 02

On Sunday morning most of the group headed off to the Anglican Church in Howick where one of our group was the priest. I had made arrangements through a connection of the Church of Scotland's Carol Finlay with the Uniting Presbyterian Church in South Africa to join Scottsville Presbyterian Church nearby for Sunday worship. I was picked up by two daughters of missionaries, Fiona and Mairi Mathieson, who have been long time members of the church and have witnessed how it has evolved from a predominantly white church to a predominantly black church.

It is right next door to the University. There was an extraordinarily high rate of doctoral and post-doctoral worshippers present, one of whom had led our Contextual Bible Study on the Friday. It was super to meet Belinda again and chat with her about her studies and her desire to come to the United Kingdom to explore chaplaincy - something which is taught as a module in the theology classes but for which there is no practical outlet in South Africa at the moment.

Scottsville 01

I spoke with the minister on the phone a couple of days earlier. but he was away this particular weekend in Jo'burg. The service was instead led by the Session Clerk, Songe, who kindly let me introduce myself and the reason I was in South Africa and then to close the service with a benediction during which I taught everyone to sign the Grace using BSL!

It was really good to hear Songe preaching and he did cause me to chuckle as he referenced the political shenanigans in the UK as an illustration of how things in the world are in such a terrible state. By the by, almost everyone we talked to in SA was looking upon the UK with bewilderment at how things fall apart so quickly in what they had always considered such a stable nation. During our time in SA we had the firing of the Chancellor and the continuing meltdown over his mini-budget within the UK Government. One couple I was chatting to later in the day as our plane refueled at Jo'burg told me they loved following British politics because it was such good comedy. Oh dear.

Scottsville 03

Songe, picture on the far left of this group photo was encouragingly honest also about the situation in South Africa, naming gender-based violence as a problem needing to be rooted out and named as abhorrent to the values of God's kin-dom. It was really good to hear this being called out after our meeting with the Ujamaa Centre two days earlier.

After the service and an opportunity to chat with other worshippers, Fiona and Mairi invited me back to their home for tea and home-made carrot cake while they then picked my brains on everything going on in Scotland. They were remarkably well informed about what was going on, even asking me about the formation of the new Presbyteries and how that was developing. They shared their own story and their long and deep involvement with the Church. It was a lovely time, only interrupted by the phone and the rest of the group wondering when I would be back to the hotel as they were hungry for lunch!

Services in South Africa are early! The Anglican Church service began at 8 a.m. and the Presbyterian service at 9 a.m. Ouch.

Scottsville 04

Homeward Bound

We then started to make our way, slowly, to the airport in Durban. We took the scenic route up to the tourist spot of 1000 Hills Arts and Crafts VIllage where we had lunch and got a few more presents to bring home. The setting was glorious overlooking multiple valleys and a surprising number of hills...

Homeward 03

Then it was our final farewells as the larger group of us took the same flight out of Durban to Jo'burg to Doha, to London.

Homeward 02

Time to reflect as the plane gathered us back home, the world turning beneath us as we travelled throught the night and were greeted with the beautiful colours of a new dawn. We started to turn our attention back to the week to come.

Homeward 01

What next?

I hope this blog has been helpful for readers to share something of the journey of these packed days. It is also very helpful for me to reflect and try to unpack some of my own thoughts about the trip.

It has given me a wee insight into the plight of urban poor people in South Africa. Something beyond what you gain from reading a story or watching a short video. It reveals just what a society looks like when there is no social safety net for people. Sometimes that is derided here in the UK, but that kind of derision is easy when you are not faced with the threat of no food, no home, no water, no opportunity.

What I also gained was an incredible sense of the commitment by many people to create dignity and agency for people who are so often denied even basic access to the commons (water, sanitation, etc.) that we take for granted. Then there are the people living in informal settlements themselves, and the sense of frustration and anger of some, and the quiet determination of others: that their story will have future chapters. Often, far more often than the big grand gestures, it is the small acts that really turn the world around: an act of compassion towards a neighbour, an act of defiance towards oppressive systems, a bible study.

There was also the reality that sacrifice for doing the kin-dom thing is not just about words on a page but a lived reality. One organistion has seen 26 members murdered because of their work with people in informal settlements. "Take up your cross, and follow me."

We have heard about the devastating affects of climate change in the severity of flooding that can do such destruction to informal settlements in particular, the tin shacks providing no safety from the ravaging waters. This is the reality for people now, not a distant threat as it seems from the UK.

And having been given such insight, the question remains: what do you do with this insight?

As I write I have spent half the day chairing a meeting, and the rest on administrative work... and it felt like I had never been away. Coming back to write this post has been very helpful to remember that this trip was not a dream.

So there may be more to come, here or in preaching, or wherever else I can share a thought from this experience.

That's enough for now.

Oh, and when I finally got back to Aberdeen (no surprise that the Aberdeen flight was delayed as there were no staff at Heathrow to load the bagged aboard the plane) late on Monday night... my suitcase eventually appeared on the baggage carousel. Yay!