Transformed by God’s Values: Welcome to ‘Our Place’
God operates in the messy, dangerous, difficult and joyous areas of our lives
Our society can be transformed with God’s values, and a new centre in a crime-plagued area hopes to show the way, as Fr Stefan Hippler explains.
Catholic priests in South Africa are normally bound to parish life and, under the authority of a bishop, lead the faithful of a prescribed territorial area in prayer, worship and charitable actions for those in need. My ministry is different. During the week, I am part of running a foundation, HOPE Cape Town, and attend to the spiritual needs of the faithful only on weekends as a supply priest.
Building a campus in a crime-ridden area is not the usual priestly task, and it might be seen as extraordinary, and even flamboyant, in Church terms. And yet, I believe there is merit in looking with a theological and pastoral eye at the campus we have built in Delft, Cape Town. Named The Nex–Indawo Yethu (meaning Our Place), it comprises buildings designed to serve in the areas of health, early childhood development, social services, youth, entrepreneurial skills development, and vocational training.
With this campus, we aim to contribute to community-upliftment, understanding of democracy, and promoting the value of human life and human dignity.
‘Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!’ Genesis 1:31
Having worked in the Delft area for more than a decade, I find this place mirrors all the shortcomings of contemporary South Africa: lost hopes, diminished aspirations, the diminished value of life, latent racism, and so on. Churches of different kinds are spread all over Delft, and often they beam their congregations into a different sphere for a few hours, trying to instil hope for the week to come.
Sermons can be a good tool to inspire, but I feel that theology and Scripture are more than just good sources for fiery sermons. Theology — the word of God — must be much more than a trickle-down of just words and charity; it must be felt and the talk must be walked by development and action on the ground. The Word of God must be felt in the trenches for those left out after almost three decades since the end of apartheid.
Theology cannot be confined only to the framework of parishes, formation seminars, theological faculties and Church structures. It must reflect that “God looked over all he had made”. Theology must be able to be applied to what we do and how we act, to make sense and bring a greater meaning to our actions.
At the same time, there is no need for religion to capture what is done. There will be differences in motivation, ethos, religious affiliation, and conviction among those working together on a project like The Nex. There will be different ways to describe God or the reason for creation, so there will be different theologies — and if such a project fosters more dialogue among those different groups, without it becoming a competition, then there is an ecumenical and interreligious meaning in what we do.
The Nex becomes a place where unspoken different religions encounter each other in a practical way for the greater good of people. The blessings ceremony for the centre last year gave witness to intention and prayers when a Catholic priest, a rabbi, an imam and a sangoma not only spoke but also brought blessings upon the new venture.
In the Catholic Church we talk about the “preferential option for the poor” — and here we are again: It’s easy to establish an NGO in a safe area instead of actually going where it hurts, where hurdles will be encountered, failures will happen, and the hardship of life will be mirrored and shared as people experience them every day.
Walking together and staying together, even if it hurts at times, is taking the words from Genesis “all is very good” to almost a prophetic level: We are not in the promised land, but we have made ourselves ready to walk towards it; together and equipped with hope, love and faith, that we can reach our destiny.
‘Don’t you realise that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?’ 1 Corinthians 6:19
Spirituality is often associated with meditation and prayer, sometimes through fasting regimens which indicate that concentrating on the body is an important part of such exercises: mindfulness towards body and spirit. I strongly believe that to achieve holistic spiritual wellbeing, health and attention to the body is non-negotiable. The Nex acknowledges this by offering health services, linked to social services and the programme of the “First 1000 Days”, which looks specifically at the wellbeing of a human being in the decisive foundation phase of life.
Health, wellness, good mental health, and an environment in which to thrive are so important for children and adolescents especially. The wellbeing of kids with special needs will be catered for specifically in the Early Childhood Development Centre of the campus.
Safety is another aspect of bodily wellbeing. The Nex is situated in an area which is currently marked by violence and gangsterism as well as drug-related problems. It is certainly not a safe area, and it was interesting to see and hear in the first community participation meeting we had that the question of safety was raised several times: “Are our kids, our youngsters, safe on your campus?”
Obviously, this is a challenge and security measures have to play a vital role in planning and executing this project. But the hope that The Nex can be a turning point in moving into a more peaceful future makes the building a prophetic sign that change is possible — and that change in this regard is on the way.
‘The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst; I, the Lord, will answer them Myself…I will not forsake them.’ Isaiah 41:17
God is not partial — but throughout the Bible one can read about God being especially close to those who are in need. And this also means that God can never be far away from poverty and need, from hunger and despair, from all the cries for help. God does not operate from a safe distance but is present in the messy, dangerous, difficult, and also joyous areas of our lives. And he does this through human hands and feet. He does this not by speaking wise and holy words but in deeds. He also does not rely on charity but wants those working in his name to walk with the people and to empower them.
Charity can create dependencies and is rather an emergency tool. Being the living word of God as a Christian means to embrace those in need and in despair entirely — knowing them and walking together in parts of life’s journey. Health and education are the basic tools for having the advantage of a good starting point in life.
‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”‘ Matthew 25:40
Social justice was always a central theme in the Bible and for the Catholic Church. It was not always obvious and has often been overshadowed by other teachings. In the last few decades, the Church increasingly rediscovered its social teachings. These are indeed a hidden gem which should be brought much more to the forefront and implemented in daily life. While charity is certainly a trademark of the Church, development in the context of real participation could still be optimised.
At the core of Catholic moral and social teachings resides the recognition that every person is made in the image of God. Therefore, every person has to be treated with a respect that is based not only on human accomplishments or attributes.
For HOPE Cape Town, which was founded more than 20 years ago as a response to the HIV/Aids pandemic, it was always a creed to treat everybody with respect, and acknowledge the dignity of all. In facilitating direct encounters between those living at the margins of society and those who are in charge, such as politicians, we help to acknowledge this dignity for all concerned.
The common good comprises the sum total of the social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more easily. While there are benefits to private ownership, there is never a justification for exclusive use when others lack necessities. We all have the duty to contribute to the common good. The Nex–Indawo Yethu represents a development with the participation of those living in Delft. Its services and opportunities contribute to the common good of this township and hopefully beyond.
‘I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words.’ Psalm 17:6
The term “Indawo Yethu” means “Our Place” — a place where people come together from all social backgrounds, from all different walks of life to find a safe space to interact, to learn and to listen to each other. If there is something the Church should be doing, especially in South Africa, then it is to create spaces where people can be listening to each other — where there is time, space, and safety to tell the stories of life, of pain, of tears, of injustice, of powerlessness. And not only listening but also hearing what the other has to say, and to acknowledge and respect the path a person has walked up to that point.
This could contribute so much to the healing of South Africa’s society.
Fr Stefan Hippler is based in the archdiocese of Cape Town. For more about HOPE Cape Town and The Nex, see www.hopecapetown.org
This article was published in the February 2022 issue of The Southern Cross magazine