Living Social Justice

A blog about responding to poverty and injustice, everyday and in all sorts of ways

Archive for the category “My Story”

What Down syndrome taught me about Faith, People and Christmas

Dion with his wife, Vanessa, and his older son, Zachary, and Olivia

Dion with his wife, Vanessa, and his older son, Zachary, and Olivia

By Dion Govender

“We suspect that Olivia might have Down syndrome,” explained the pediatrician clearly trying his best to break the news to us empathetically while attempting to conceal his own discomfort at the situation. I suspect it never gets easy for doctors breaking bad news to families. He had to reiterate himself a few times before it even registered with me. I was dumbstruck. I felt claustrophobic, in a bad dream where time seemed to have slowed down to heart shattering seconds. Down syndrome? Our perfect little girl? Tears.

We recently celebrated Olivia’s first birthday – a little person who has not only impacted our lives, but also the lives of many around us; a little person who helped redefine and put into perspective so much of life, faith, success and a myriad of other important factors that make up who we are…

The last twelve months have been a beautiful journey. We have learned, been challenged and are grateful for so much over this year. And because of this, I believe that we’ll be looking at this Christmas so much more differently than previous years. We’ve been conditioned into believing that “stuff equals love” more so over Christmas and the festive season. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a joy to give gifts and I love receiving the iWhatever as much as the next guy, but in Christmas’s passed I have to admit that it became more about excesses than the true ‘reason for the season’ – Jesus.

In many ways, Down syndrome has illuminated the real and true values of Christmas for us:

Be thankful. My wife always shares a little quote that she once read which we’ve adopted for our family: “We wouldn’t choose it [Down syndrome] but we’d never change it.” We’re thankful for this journey we’re on, it’s brought into clear perspective all those people and comforts we are so grateful for and we’re excited about letting them know how we feel this Christmas. This year we’re making “Thank you’s” a part of gift giving. What or who are you thankful for? Pen a hand written note, or better yet tell them how you feel. In our case: over 50% of children born with Down syndrome have Congenial Heart Disease, but Olivia doesn’t. Boom!

Be tolerant. Down syndrome has taught us to be patient with people – and I’m not just referring to people with special needs but ‘normal’ people. I’ve learned that most people’s misconceptions with Down syndrome and other disabilities are based on fear and ignorance. We were ignorant, and because we didn’t have any facts our fears were based on myths. Life’s too short to sweat the small stuff. I’m more gracious with folks and treat them with gentleness when correcting them. Christmas is a great opportunity to be gracious with folks: no cynicism just grace. Isn’t that what Jesus would want us to do?

Dream big. One of the first thoughts I had when we received the news was, ‘I’m never going to walk my daughter down the aisle.’ I was broken. This last year has taught me that we can still dream for our daughter and we should teach her to pursue with passion the dreams that she has for her own life. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that dictate that our dreams are lost. Old dreams can be replaced with new dreams but we should never stop dreaming.

Christmas is my favourite time of year because there’s a tangible sense of hope in the air. This is an opportune time to reach out to people who find themselves in hopeless situations with shattered dreams. We’re planning on inviting a few specific people over for a meal and to hopefully encourage them to hold on to their dreams. Also, as the year winds to a close it’s a practical opportunity to plan, dream and stir optimism for the New Year.

See the world as Jesus does. Down syndrome has taught us to see people through Christ’s eyes. We can easily label people based on what we see on the outside, what they have done in the past or where they find themselves presently. Down syndrome doesn’t define my precious little girl – it’s very much a part of her life but it’s not who she is. Look at people beyond what you see on the outside or the label that society places on them.

This Christmas my family and I are praying specifically for opportunities to engage and connect with people we might have looked passed over previous Christmas’s. Uncomfortable? You betcha! But here’s the thing, not many lessons are learned in comfortable situations.

I guess the strongest point I’m trying to drive home is that beyond all the great stuff that Christmas brings, people are the ones that matter most. The fact of the matter is that we live in a day and age where we’re bombarded constantly with a message that we don’t need real life connections and the more stuff we get the more satisfied we’ll be. Of course this is a fallacy as we quickly find we’re never satisfied. There’ll always be something better, faster, or shinier before you can even spell A-N-D-R-O-I-D.

So, my hope this Christmas is that I seize every opportunity to engage with real people. There’s a hurting world out there and everyone has a story to tell. I want to encourage you to, just like me, push through your comfort, fears or misconceptions and extend the hand of friendship and spread some Christmas cheer.

Dion is a fashion trend caster, husband to Vanessa and dad to Zachary and Olivia. He is a member of the Common Ground Durbanville congregation. 

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Show loveLooking for ideas how you can make a real difference in the lives of those who are vulnerable and in need this Christmas? For more information on our ‘Show Love This Christmas’ campaign and how you can get involved, click here.

A Friend in Need

Have you ever tried to build a friendship with someone from a different background to your own? In today’s post, Christine Martin Van Wyk shares the story of her friendship with Janvier – and shows why pushing past the difficulties is so worth it. By Christine Martin Van Wyk 


Meeting Janvier

I met a homeless man online. My job means that I start my day with over 100 emails waiting for me in my inbox. Then the back-and-forth begins. In all these mails, I receive a lot of spam and sign-up’s. God used one sign-up in particular, I believe, to gently shift my perspective, and not so gently grip my heart:

“Hi Christine 
I’m so glad to receive from you a detailed program of DNA course and I 
take this opportunity to confirm my attendance to BOTH sessions (Monday 
28 January and Monday 4 February). If any change occur from you, please
 let me know via e-mail as I do not have a cell phone at moment. I have 
access to the City Libraries Internet for one hour every day from Monday
to Saturday! Concerning if I’m a vegetarian or not, I can say that I’m
not because I eat any kind of food! Once again I thank you so much and
may God bless you abundantly!  C u soon!
 Janvier Ntahomvukiye”

That was it. The simplicity of asking me to email rather than call; the blunt explanation of his gut wrenching situation; the resourcefulness of using a library; and the fact that he wasn’t a vegetarian.

Building a relationship

Over the next three months, Janvier joined my flying squad of back-and-forth emails. I found out that he speaks English, French, Russian, Swahili, Kirundi and a little bit of Spanish. I learnt that he’d been working as a chauffeur before being retrenched, and that he had lived in a shelter until he could no longer afford it. He wrote of how “the street life was not for him”.

That was how I got to know him, and build a relationship with him. I told him about NETwork, and organised to meet him after church services. We met to check in, to have coffee, and for me to give him the train tickets that my small group had sponsored. He was also able to take part in the Job Readiness Programme at NETwork. Through this he was able to renew his driver’s license (also sponsored by some ever-so-loving small group members), find work (currently as a driver for a cab company), and even meet a roommate.

More than just a “charity-case”

The important part of this story is that it is not a success story – it’s a relationship. Janvier is my friend. And it hasn’t been easy. Amid planning my wedding, I was challenged about how I stewarded my finances (flower budgets could have paid room rental). Janvier also had a run-in with the police, and there was a domestic upheaval which saw Janvier back on the streets.

When the impulse to give up becomes strong, I remember the first time I almost gave up on my friend. The time when I noticed that he hadn’t attended church two Sundays in a row. In all honesty, I thought he’d given up on church and given up on God – that the gravity of his situation (he was still sleeping in a park at that stage) had taken over and that he had decided to throw in the towel. I teetered on the edge of feeling like I had been taken advantage of – thinking that maybe once Janvier had realised that I wasn’t going to pay his way out of poverty, he’d moved along.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. After emailing him, he replied days later saying that he’d been beaten and mugged, and had had to be hospitalized. To top it off, he spoke words that thawed my heart. “I was too embarrassed to come to church C,” he wrote. “They also took my shoes. I can’t come to church without shoes,” he added.

There was a genuine necessity to build a friendship with Janvier, in order for me to be able to help him. Simply meeting his material needs wouldn’t have been helpful. When I met him, I thought that money and a steady job were what he needs. But those were things that would have met his foremost needs, but not his innermost needs. What he needs is for someone to walk with him, to hear him, to be his friend. And step in when he needs help, like I would for anyone else who I call my friend.

Christine is a member of Common Ground and is the Rondebosch AM Administrator. To read more posts in our Warm Up Winter blog series click hereFB_profile pic

Confessions of an Amateur Giver

On the eve of our Warm Up Winter campaign, we begin to think about giving and what it means. Common Good Executive Director, Sarah Binos, shares some of her personal discoveries about giving in ways that don’t erode dignity. 

[Note: This video is a small excerpt taken from The full video can be found here:]

For the last few weeks something that a Common Grounder shared with me over a Sunday lunch has been ringing in my head. The thought was this: “The truth is that we are all equal in Christ, that at the foot of the cross we are united in Christ and through the gospel. The problem is that given our recent history, all South Africans will be tempted to erode this equality. White people will struggle with the temptation to feel superior to other races, and blacks in particular will feel tempted to feel inferior to whites. This will erode our dignity, and will cause our unity to crumble.”

We’re about to start our Warm Up Winter campaign, and this statement has put me in a state of deep reflection about how we give. Yes – I always give good quality items that reinforce that all people have worth, but in the process of giving there are many other ways that we can do harm.

If you watched the video clip above you would have seen that even the best intentions can lead to deeper divides and hurts. If I’m honest – I have been the Jo in that scenario. Instead of giving you a blueprint for giving (because there isn’t one!), I thought it might be helpful to share some of the mistakes that I have made in the area of giving – and hopefully this will equip others not to do the same! You may end up feeling like this call to be extravagant yet responsible stewards is just too hard, messy and complicated. But fear not – our next few blog posts will explore some really simple ways to rectify these mistakes. Our hope is that these posts don’t discourage you from giving but rather that they inspire you to give in a way that results in an increase of flourishing in our city.

Mistake #1: I have not prioritised building relationships enough as I try to live out Christ’s call to do justice.

There – I said it. Painful but true. While I have built friendships that cross the divides in our city, I have not taken enough time to truly understand my neighbours. To truly understand someone you need a level of honesty and trust to share deeply. In the context of friendship we listen to each other’s stories – stories that reveal past hurts, current needs, future hopes and aspirations. As we do life together we give to each other. Giving is safe when it’s a two-way affair. Giving is safe when a friend can tell you that your oversized jeans just don’t fit. When we are not in relationship with the people we are giving to they become our charity cases – which often results in the inferiority/superiority carrot being dangled.

A friend of mine is the daughter of a domestic worker whose employer paid for her schooling. As a result, she was afforded an opportunity she would never have had access to. However, the employer never connected with my friend. As a result, my friend grew up feeling inferior, and whilst she was grateful for the opportunities afforded to her, she felt like the charity case of a rich, successful donor. She accepted the gift, but deeply resents the way it made her feel. “Ungrateful”, you may be thinking. I think “grateful, but hurt” would be a better way of describing her response. My friend explained how much it would have meant if her donor had been more like a distant aunt – who checked in with her occasionally and saw her a person with hopes and dreams as opposed to a project.

Mistake #2: In my attempt to “fix things”, I have communicated that “I am the adult and you are the child”.

I think quickly. I speak quickly. When I give, I have at times attached a whole lot of unsolicited advice to my giving – without it having been requested. I hate it when people give me advice that I haven’t asked for! Instead of engaging, asking insightful questions and giving the person I hope to love the space to process and think through a way forward, I present a quick solution with a whole lot of uninvited advice. This can communicate the idea that I’m wiser, and that I know how to solve your problem better than you do.

Mistake #3: I have not listened and empathised enough.

Sometimes we see the broken things of this world, and then quickly think of ways to fix the brokenness. In our haste, we bypass the process of listening, understanding, and identifying with those in need, and instead jump straight to giving something that will hopefully fix the problem. A friend of mine replaced his domestic worker’s roof on her tin shack. The domestic worker asked my friend to use local members of the community to assist with the labour. However, my friend decided to cut costs and do it himself. Local community members retaliated by setting the shack on fire. In not listening attentively, I too have assumed to know people’s needs. Have you ever been given something you just really don’t need, but that the person giving it to you thinks it’s just what you need? It sucks. Because it communicates that they don’t know you very well.

Mistake #4: At times I have perpetuated cycles of dependency and bad habits.

Sometimes, the most loving thing we can do is to NOT give. I have given to street children where my giving perpetuates cycles of addiction and acts as a means for them to stay on the street. Bob Lupton in Toxic Charity says that ‘giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.’ Giving something material is often the easy way to help. Giving in a way that will move people from relief to development is much harder and more sacrificial. When I come across people in need I do not know (there are many in our city), I try to limit this one way giving to instances of relief only. When I feel burdened by an issue I give to organisations who have a track record of success in dealing with the issue.

I am still learning and will continue to do so as I better know and follow Christ. Some of these mistakes have been easy to rectify, but others are harder and require more thought and discussion. Connecting and building relationships with people across all the divides (race, class, culture) in Cape Town is perhaps the biggest challenge we face in this city. Thankfully we have Christ to lead and empower us – this has been my greatest lesson! Listen to the whispers of the Holy Spirit.

This is the second blog post in our Warm Up Winter blog series. If you missed the first one on why we should give, you can read it here. Follow our blog so you don’t miss out on the rest of the series! 

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Why teaching a child to read is about so much more than A,B,C

Literacy programme volunteer, Anneke Jagau, gives us a glimpse into the life of the little boy she’s teaching to read every week. 

The school in Kewtown that I visit every Tuesday for the literacy programme is not very far away but it always feels as though I’m driving into a completely different world. Kewtown is one of the poorest areas in Athlone. Out the window of my car, I see rows of badly maintained houses, grey blocks of flats and deteriorated playgrounds. Even during ‘school hours’, many youngsters of school going age hang around on the streets and at the shops. Names of the different gangs are spray painted on the walls to indicate territory. Sadly, the police have very little presence in this area; the gangs often have the last word.

My heart breaks when I hear the stories of the children. They grow up in a world that exposes them to too much too young. The little seven-year-old boy who I always read with is a cute little chap but he finds it hard to concentrate. He is very restless. In his eyes you can read the pain and the sadness, caused by the things that have happened in his life. Last week, he was wearing a little bracelet which he told me proudly he’d made himself. I asked him how he’d done it and he said, “Oh, very easy, I made it from a condom. They are always behind our flat. They throw them their when they are done. I just washed it and burned the soft plastic. Do you like it?”

Read more…

No Place Like Home – Mary’s Story

When Di Forrester first met Mary, a refugee from Burundi, she heard a heartbreaking story of pain and loss that to the eyes of the world appeared hopeless. But despite her circumstances, Mary never gave up hope in Christ. Here, Di shares her remarkable story.

I met Mary* during the xenophobic attacks in May 2008 at Chrysalis Academy where the organization I worked for, Westlake United Church Trust, had set up an unofficial refugee camp with the help of other churches, including Common Ground Church. Mary was one of the many foreigners who had fled to the US Consulate in Tokai seeking refuge during the attacks.

The police brought her and about 60 others to Chrysalis but unfortunately there was no more accommodation available. We finally managed to find a safe house for her and her two children belonging to St Martin’s church in Bergvliet.

When members of St Martin’s church chatted to Mary they realized the full horror of her story. She told them how her husband had left to attend a funeral in Joburg a few days before the xenophobic violence had broken out. While in Joburg, his cellphone and money had been stolen and he had been unable to return to Cape Town in the midst of the xenophobic chaos.

Read more…

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