Following personal challenges and global tragedies, Japhet Ndhlovu finds fortitude and centring in God and colleagues through United Church clergy gatherings.

Three Black male clergy great each other at the United Church Black Clergy Gathering.
Enjoying conversation with fellow Black clergy during break time.
Credit: Michael Blair

Personal Challenges

As a new immigrant, I have unfortunately experienced a long struggle navigating the Canadian immigration process. After two rejections and several months of waiting on the third attempt, my application papers for permanent residence were sent back to me with a rejection letter. I was greatly disappointed, as this recent rejection was due to the absence of a signature. I wish I had just been given a chance to append my missing signature on the documents. However, I have had to go through the wriggles again and resubmit my application afresh for the third time. I wait, almost with bated breath for the response.

Earlier in the year I lost my father. This weighed heavily on me. For a time I felt like the Psalmist when he wrote, “my soul is troubled in thought, give me life according to your word” (Psalm 119:28, Aramaic Bible in Plain English). The death of a parent has a way of affecting us emotionally even long after the burial has taken place.

Global Tragedies

On my way to visit Mission & Service partners in Angola, as part of my role as a regional program coordinator for South East Asia and Southern Africa with The United Church of Canada, I transited through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That Sunday morning, while at the airport waiting for my connecting flight, an Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet bound for Nairobi crashed minutes after takeoff. All 157 people on board where killed, of them, 18 were Canadians. On that plane were several change agents bound for an environmental conference. Among them was a Canadian I once met in a gathering of families of former Canadian missionaries to Angola.

During the time I was in Angola, Cyclone Idai tore through southern Africa and devastated Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. A few weeks later, a second devastating cyclone, Kenneth, hit the same region, increasing the floods, further straining already limited resources and putting more lives at risk. Massive floodwaters destroyed homes, hospitals, schools, farms, and agricultural land; damaging roads and washing away bridges. Following the two cyclones, more than a thousand people were feared to be dead, thousands more went missing, and up to about three million people were rendered homeless and in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

As Christians were celebrating Easter, three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka were hit by terror attacks. The death toll reached 258, with 500 injured. Islamic State was believed to be behind a video claiming responsibility for the deadly massacre.

As part of my work with the church, I also kept abreast of news from the Philippines, where there was an earthquake killing about 11 people and destroying some structures. Coinciding with this disaster was also great concern for the continued vilification of Filipino human rights defenders in the region. They have been frequently red tagged, intimidated, and too often killed outright in an environment where it has become risky to resist evil and demand respect for human dignity. Some of the targeted individuals are known to me personally.

Added to all this, the news coming out of Southern Cameroons in Africa continued to remain disheartening. A respected church leader directed me to a Facebook page where there was a video of people being slaughtered mercilessly. That video has since been pulled down, thankfully. It was akin to watching a real life horror movie, which remains etched in the mind and haunts one for a long period to come.

Some voices are calling for attention to the silent ongoing genocide, while others are saying that these are just atrocities and cannot yet be referred to as genocide. Whatever name they may give to it, the dignity of human life in Southern Cameroons is in jeopardy. Thousands of people remain displaced from their ancestral lands and the number of civilian causalities continues to increase as the conflict continues.

Cruxifusion

The above mentioned tragedies are in one way or another connected to my work of accompanying partners with The United Church of Canada’s Church in Mission unit. The closeness of these occurrences and their gravity left me grappling with how to further effect change in the face of such negative events. With all these sorrows weighing heavily on my mind, I looked forward to an opportunity to step away, albeit for a short while, to regroup. Attending and participating in the Cruxifusion meeting in Toronto and the Black Clergy gathering in Winnipeg gave me much needed refocusing and centering.

Whenever I attend a worship space, I always find a sense of comfort when the service leader calls worshippers to “centre ourselves as we prepare for worship.” These words help me to refocus my attention from other potential distractions that would easily steal it away. That brief moment of “centering in silence” helps me to prepare to have an inner connection with the worship atmosphere. It also helps me to prepare myself to, as we say in A New Creed, “celebrate God’s presence.” I see centring as a continuum of connectivity to God and to the fellowship of common minded colleagues.

When I think about centering myself I envision Jesus as the point around which a circle is described. For me, this means that Christ is not just part of my life or part of worship. Christ is connected to every part of my existence without division between the secular and sacred compartments. I therefore centre myself on Jesus not only at church or in worship but in all the areas of my life. I want to be Jesus’ disciple who centres his entire life on the story of Jesus Christ at home, work, and play.

Cruxfusion is a network of United Church of Canada leaders proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. We meet once a year for the purposes of supporting, inspiring, and connecting with one another. During the meeting, the keynote speaker, Professor John Stackhouse, shared challenging insights on “The Recent Death of Reason: Are We Now in a Post-Truth Age?” He also talked about how we can share our faith in the context of postmodernity and postmodernism. One of the reflections at the gathering was on how to deal with disappointments in life and ministry. Together with other participants, I listened to the wisdom of two retired United Church ministers and found encouragement and inspiration in their words. They reminded us of the need to keep what is important as important; to learn to say “no,” to expend our energies in the right place, to remember that spiritual and sexual energies have power to consume and overwhelm. We also had another presenter who encouraged us to reflect on United Church theology from the recently published book, The Theology of The United Church of Canada. We spent time in prayer, singing, and had long, enlightening conversations during break times and meals.

Black Clergy Gathering

The next event I attended, the Black Clergy Gathering, has a similar objective to Cruxfusion except that it aims to bring together Black clergy serving in The United Church of Canada. It is no secret that people of African descent experience similar injustices and prejudices. Some of these were mentioned at the 43rd General Council. In this year’s gathering the focus was on decolonizing the mind for ministry when serving in a dominant culture. During the interactions at these two gatherings, I felt a heavy weight lifted from my shoulders. I didn’t find any simple solutions to the many adversities I have faced recently. However, I was reminded to persevere with my very best efforts, rely on others when I can, and leave the things that are outside of my control to God.

As I continue in my work to seek justice and resist evil, as I accompany the United Church partners in southern Africa and South East Asia, I want to be counted among those who say “We trust in God. We are called to be the church.” I strive to continue to celebrate God’s presence, even in the face of challenges, whether they are as a result of human action or natural disaster. I want to promote living in respect with creation. I want to love and serve others and proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. I want to do all this in life and hope to leave a lasting positive mark beyond death. I continue to search for spaces where I can be reminded that I am not in this alone, but I have family, friends, and amazing colleagues and that God is with us all.

Our work for social justice and sustainable human development is long-term work. Especially when we are trying to change the policies and structures of domination it can take years before we are able to measure any significant change. Yes, social justice work can be emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and even physically exhausting; but I am blessed to be able to do this work. I found Cruxfusion and the Black Clergy Gathering to be safe spaces, intimate, touching, powerful, and rejuvenating. I will be back!

—Japhet Ndhlovu, Program Coordinator, Southern Africa and South Asia Partnerships at the General Council Office.