Shalom

Monday, July 31, 2006

Shalom

The Eluxolweni Street Children’s Shelter in the Grahamstown townships is one of five shelters for street children in the Eastern Cape. Other shelter projects exist in Queenstown, Port Elizabeth, East London, and Aliwal North. I decided to visit along with some of the other Contextual Theology students to see the ways in which Christians were helping street children.

The Greek for ‘economy’ is ‘oikonomia’ and it means something like the ruling or state of affairs in a household. My project during my time here is to look at how the Trinitarian doctrine should and does shape ethical economics. In other words, how does the divine economy (love, equality, reciprocity, outreaching salvation) compare to a human economy here in South Africa (oppression, subjugation, capitalist slavery, fearful insularity)? Or, how does the loving sociality of the Trinity (co-equal Father, Son, and Spirit) provide a way to live in the world?

Children often enter the Eluxolweni Shelter with a history of sexual or physical abuse and delinquent behaviour. The world and its messed-up economy has led to their abuse, rejection, and isolation. Eluxolweni means ‘Place of Forgiveness and Peace’, and the Shelter tries to give back to the children through daycare and school education a sense of God’s shalom, of wholeness and genuineness of loving being and care. That shalom is God’s economy. The shelter has suffered serious management problems in the past. Records were poorly kept and the building was in shambles. But over the last few years a new committee has re-energized the shelter and taken over its management. It has stood out to show the government that shelters for street children are something worthwhile. It can serve as an example of which we need more. It serves as a great example of Trinitarian praxis: Christians seek out those who have no-one and nowhere else, and give these ‘outcasts’ love, care, and potential. Eluxolweni reminds me in these characteristics of the Temba HIV/Aids care centre, or the sick communions in which I participated.

It’s a common part of the South African urban landscape to be approached by children begging for money. Most of the street children have families and homes but are lured into life on the streets for various reasons, for various fucked-up economies of injustice and oppression. Some children cannot cope with substance abuse by their parents and the physical abuse that may accompany it. Others leave home because they feel neglected. Some children dislike the lack of space and privacy their one-room homes provide.

As I walked towards Eluxolweni I saw how the walls of the shelter, which was formerly a train drivers’ rest stop, are covered with colourful murals. This place, abandoned by others, has been reclaimed and made beautiful again. A small courtyard in the centre of the shelter has been converted into a vegetable garden full of tomatoes, beans, cabbages, and beets; the community tries to be as self-sustaining as possible. Eluxolweni goes a long way to provide some semblance of a home, even if the home is a poorly built, concrete, one storey building on the edge of a disused railtrack. But the shelter’s limited funding does not stretch to cover the services of a social worker. Classes are taught in two poorly ventilated containers in the yard which are hot and airless in the summer and freezing in the winter. It is like Eluxolweni is a foreshadowing of God’s shalom, a hope or cry for or of it, but not quite yet the shalom that these children deserve. It is difficult to replace an ingrained, unseen, and forgotten culture and economy of neglect and oppression with God’s kingdom and economy of care, reciprocity, and loving investment.

Eluxolweni was a mixed experience for me. I walked into the dining hall there and was at first taken aback by the shoddy conditions. I sat beside a non-responsive and obviously traumatized child, between the ages of 8 and 11. He rocked as he vacantly ate a bowl of beige-coloured, mashed maize. He wore a ratty t-shirt with worn holes, and a pair of sweatpants encrusted with old food and what looked like urine rings. During the lunch, workers changed the children into cleaner clothes, presumably part of the daily or at least half-weekly routine. Yet, as the children became acclimatized to their new visitors, they began to open up. Most spoke only Xhosa, but a local African nun translated for is their stories of pain, suffering, but also profound hope. Despite their disadvantages, these street children wanted to be doctors, soldiers, lawyers. They had drive; many may not make it to their chosen profession, but they had been given back hope by Eluxolweni at least. The human economy which had screwed these children was being replaced by a divine economy where they were not only worthwhile but equal to everybody else. That was the beauty amidst the pain, the shalom arising out of suffering.

The outreaching, loving action of the Eluxolweni workers becomes enveloped in the gratuitous action of the Trinity’s saving work. Like the Father, the workers are patient in bearing with the iniquities of a corrupt human economy. Like the Son, the workers share in the suffering of the children and provide a glimmer of the resurrection, the first fruits of new life. And like the Spirit, the workers unite the children to a vision of God’s kingdom of freedom and equality both already here and yet still to come.

posted by Xhosa at 5:32 AM

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