The Gift: A Journey Through Immersion Learning
January 06, 2014
By M. Celeste Jackson, assistant director of Diversities and Community Relations, Iliff School of Theology
In an opportunity of a lifetime, I recently experienced Southern Africa traveling with a group of 14 alumnae and students of the Iliff School of Theology (Iliff). The school’s tradition serves students and alumni from all walks of life, ages and faiths and helps people express their callings in myriad ways. Dr. Edward P. Antonio, associate dean, Diversities, Harvey H. Potthoff associate professor of Theology and Social Theory, Iliff, and wife Gladys Antonio, who are natives of Zimbabwe, designed Iliff’s Zimbabwe South African Immersion Learning Program to engage the mind, heart and soul around the issues of social justice and they did so handily!
Through this article, I share my interpretation of the adventure in the former land of apartheid, and the ways issues of Justice and Peace, faith and goodwill were evidenced for us during 17-days of immersion learning through the African southern hemisphere with visits to Zimbabwe’s Harare, Mutare, Victoria Falls and South Africa’s Cape Town, Robben Island, Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Iliff is a graduate theological school affiliated with the United Methodist Church, so fittingly we attended Sunday services at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church in Mutare, Zimbabwe. A black congregation, we witnessed the opportunities of progress represented in the markedly patriarchal country. You see, the entirety of church leadership was led and loved by talented women!
From the woman who taught Sunday school for the congregation’s youngest parishioners to St. Peter’s choir director and Reverend – it was women sharing and interpreting the gospel for the more than 70 faithful who were present on that day.
For more than 120 years, Iliff has been preparing imaginative, innovative leaders for the world, church and academy, and I was delighted to see my fellow travelers describing and expressing their callings as we took turns introducing ourselves to the parishioners. As I stood in the church, I felt the presence of the Divine encouraging, comforting and affirming us amid the strangers we would come to know. A special witness for me was observing four women in our group, each of whom holds a strong Christian faith, gain an ease and a clear presence of peace as they engaged in the service.
It would be several days later, that I would again witness grace as we encountered a baby in an orphanage. The baby’s name is Morelight, and as she emerged from her nap, the little one, who had never seen the Reverend, reached for her as though seeking to connect with my friend’s spirit-filled, warm and loving body. The blessing of that moment was profound, joyous and moving. I am convinced the Divine brought forth the encounter of two souls destined to be known!
Our travels took place during the American period of Thanksgiving, and served to vividly bring into focus the abundance present in my life. Exploring Justice and Peace in the former land of apartheid, at the time of our discovery, with our distinctly diverse group of travelers enriched the lessons and immeasurably amplified its messages. If not for the American Civil Rights movement and its successes, which for 40 years Americans have embraced. If not for the end anti-apartheid movement and the two decades of liberations its successes created for South Africans, our trip simply would not have been possible. Our family of travelers represented diversities socioeconomic, gender, race, ethnic, sexual orientation, education and even country of origin. Our concurrent group dining, learning, lodging, and travel were results of opportunities born of successful Justice and Peace commitments. It was the miracle of these progresses that made possible my room sharing with my Caucasian friend throughout the journey, and for that, I again give thanks.
If like me, you believe in the influence of the Divine and that nothing happens simply by chance or coincidence, then you might imagine how poignant it is that exactly one week before the passing of Tata Madiba, we toured Robben Island, seeing first-hand the cell that jailed the great leader for 18 years. You might also agree that our having stood in “Mandela House” on Vilakazi Street, Orlando West, in Soweto, South Africa during this time also was remarkable. Justice and Peace, and progress allowed that together we could learn, tour and photograph the home in which the great leader slept on the night before he was jailed for the final time, and it was to “Mandela House” that he returned 27 years later. He was said to have called his home located at 8115 Vilakazi Street “the centrepoint of my life, the place marked with an X in my mental geography.” Having personally stood in that space, which was sacred to him, the place he called home, built a life with his wife Winnie, welcomed his children into the world, shared dreams and organized plans, was humanizing, highly personal and intimate.
I give thanks for the immense opportunities afforded me to feast on the bounty of beauty, sights, smells, countless generosities, hospitality, cuisine and lands previously foreign to me, and yet, the native land of my blood ancestors. I am humbled and grateful for the abundance seen fit for me and am eager to advance my role in the efforts of social justice. Repeatedly individuals have answered the call to bring forth change whose time has come and for that the world has been made better.