Lessons from suffering…

My wife Trish and I have been living in the inner-city slum of Hillbrow, South Africa, for just over a year. We moved from a six-bedroom home in a gated-security community in Midrand, a suburb of Johannesburg. We left the suburbs and moved to Hillbrow for a number of reasons, including our wanting to allow our lives to prophetically declare that the current growth in poverty and inequality requires a church and the nation to live differently. We believe that God is extremely concerned about the brokenness around us and wants Christians to place themselves right in the middle of forsaken communities and become signs of hope.

Hillbrow is one of those communities that have the dubious distinction of having governments specifically issue travel advisories to its citizens not to travel there. With its reputation for crime, prostitution, drugs, and extreme poverty, it is not really a place tourists flock to anyway.

The first time I experienced an attempted robbery in Hillbrow was about a year before we moved in. We were on our way home after looking at possible apartments to rent, and had just seen one which we thought was quite suitable. The music was playing in the car, we were all excited, and my car window was down. As I was parked in heavy traffic while driving down one of the busy main streets, two homeless guys, both high on glue, came to my window and began to stretch their hands in and start feeling for cell phones, wallets, or whatever they could find. I grabbed their arms and shouted loudly at them, “Hey!” They both got a fright, jumped back, and ran away without taking anything. One would think the thwarting of this close encounter with crime would have resulted in my rejoicing, but on the contrary, I felt sadness that I had not responded in a better way. I had been reading the Sermon on the Mount, and in particular the sections on enemy love. I remembered Matthew 5:39 and 5:42, where Jesus said, “But I say, do not resist an evil person!” and “Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow from you.” As I reflected on these words, and spoke to friends, I felt stirred to pray, “Father, I pray for another opportunity to represent you better and to reflect your heart.” It wasn’t quite the Jabez prayer, but I felt it was the right thing to pray.

Fast forward a year after we had moved into Hillbrow. As I was driving home from work that morning, in God’s providence, I had once more been reading Matthew 5 and reflecting on my previous experience. My window was very slightly down and I was stopped at a traffic light with Kombi taxis all around me with nowhere to move. At this point I was approached by a man who demanded, “Give me your cellphone!” I couldn’t really hear at first, so, thinking he was a beggar, and knowing that I had no money on me, I wound my window completely down and turned to him and replied, “I am sorry, my friend, I have no money on me. I will have to come back later and bring you something.” The man brought a gun hidden in his jacket closer to me and said, “This is a gun, now give me your cellphone!” Still not registering what he said, I again turned to him and said for a second time, “I am sorry my friend, I really have no money on me—I will have to come back later and bring you something.” This time he responded by putting the gun to my forehead and said, “I’m going to kill you; give me your cellphone!” Suddenly I registered what he was saying. It was as if everything paused, and in that moment I was reminded of the same text from Matthew 5 where Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person” and “give to anyone who asks from you.” In response to this text, rather than in response to the gun, I reached out my cellphone and handed it to him. He ran away. The traffic light changed colour and the cars around me began to move and I drove about ten metres before I broke down in tears. Questions flooded me in that moment. Why had I moved? Had God really called me here? What about my family—we were walking here at this exact spot just yesterday—was I an irresponsible father?

I got home and told Trish all that had happened. We phoned a friend who immediately came out from Pretoria. As we debriefed together about what had happened, I realised that while my heart was “forgiveness-ready,” I did not know what to do with the fear I felt. My friend suggested we go outside and tell the story to some street vendors nearby, who were selling their goods on the side of the road. We did this, and as I told my story to them, I asked them if they would help me by walking to the spot where I’d been held up. About 15 street vendors agreed and we walked the block and a half to the spot where I’d been held up. I felt so empowered, like I was on a human rights march. When we got to the place where it had happened, I prayed for three things: 1) I prayed that God would keep my heart soft; 2) I prayed that God would keep the community safe; and 3) I prayed that God would rescue from his sin the young man who had stolen from me. The street vendors prayed with me.

Two days later, a group of church leaders, together with my family and me, went to the local fish shop and purchased boxes and boxes of fish n’ chips. We took these boxes and handed them out to homeless people, street vendors, and passersby. We decided that we would sow love where there had been violence.

Through this I felt God remind me of the Scripture in Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This is a verse that is often quoted when reflecting on tragedy. As I reflected on this verse, I felt God speak to me about us being co-workers with him through tragedy and suffering to accomplish his purposes. We can utilise tragic events, and difficult things that happen, to shout out the glory and kindness of God. Our finest hour is when, in the midst of suffering, in the midst of tragedy, in the midst of all kinds of difficulties, we boldly proclaim the hope that we have. I am discovering, not just through this incident, but through many others over the year, that it is in times of suffering that our voice is amplified. As I have often reflected on being held up in the last year, I can honestly say that I am now grateful that it has happened, because through it all I’ve had the opportunity to declare that God’s love is more powerful than violence. I have also had the opportunity to sow love into my community. I am convinced that we cannot stop the crime or violence in Hillbrow with more violence. We will only be able to overcome it with love. Being held up has given me the opportunity to demonstrate this. When bad things happen to us, and they will, we need to explore how we can partner with God to make it work for the good.

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