A reflection on the Izwe Lethu Worship Night

It is with great hesitation that I am writing these words. I fear that the words I have selected to use here are completely inadequate to describe what happened at the Izwe Lethu worship night and would somehow end up misrepresenting or misinterpreting the power of what took place – in us as we were together, but also in the hearts and lives of every individual present. But because I feel compelled to testify to the faithfulness of our God and the courage of the people, I offer these unsatisfying, imperfect words as to why I think the evening was so undeniably profound.
The evening was largely unstructured with everyone contributing freely to the worship space by reading scriptures, sharing quotes by theologians and political leaders, sharing powerfully emotive poetry, and as well as sharing raw stories with deep vulnerability and authenticity. And yes, we sang songs in lament to our God who comforts and rescues and loves and saves (my goodness we sang!).

I have not asked permission to share any of the personal stories we listened to on the night because I do not want to be disrespectful towards those who told their stories with such courage in those sacred moments. What I will say – no actually what I MUST say – is that I felt (once again) completely overwhelmed by the vast amounts of pain people carry at this time. It was gut wrenching to hear how hurt students felt by the judgemental words and actions of people they have trusted and even considered “family” as their involvement in #feesmustfall has developed. It is important to remark here that it was very clear, as the stories were being shared, that involvement in #feesmustfall was not random, but rather it was birthed out of a place of deep conviction and faith. What also became clear was that many of the students in the room felt deeply betrayed by people in positions of power, and in particular, my heart shattered at hearing how often it was church leaders that the students previously considered their “family” and, who by all accounts, seemed to be the very ones they felt betrayed by.

I found myself thinking that even in the face of that betrayal, that pain and hurt, my presence as a white person and a church leader, was welcomed by so many black people and students in the room. For me personally, it was an incredibly humbling moment – an immense privilege to have been present and to have had the opportunity to sit with and share in some of the pain and the brokenness – even if at times I felt it was totally undeserved for me to have been there.

In that space we listened deeply and were present fully, because we all shared a commitment to justice and we all recognised the human experience as something unique and diverse for each person and race group. The evening was not neatly structured and “hygienic” in terms of what was shared, but the willingness of people to run towards God amidst their struggles, to be simply and deeply present, to be real and vulnerable, and admit that we do not know (or have to know) “the best way” to do all of this, created fertile soil for a powerful engagement with each other and our God.

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And finally we could perhaps say that what made the night so profound was that after the emotion and the pain was shared: God “showed up”. Actually no. What really happened was that our eyes and hearts were opened to see God being already present and at work amongst us in the most powerful way. Why? The Bible makes it clear that God is especially present amongst those who are in pain and who are marginalised. And the tangible presence of God amongst us confirmed this.

That night, we all left reminded of and reaffirmed in the truth that we are human beings created in the image of a God who cares. We left re-humanised. Hopeful. Humbled.

Jana Niehaus – Izwe Lethu

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