The Black Wedding Guest

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O_Siki

I once attended an Afrikaans wedding in South Africa, where I live, and then vowed I would never attend another one in my life. I since have attended more Afrikaans weddings, but that experience stands out, because when I was treated as being different from everyone else, it challenged me to look deep into my own heart.

It all began when a friend invited me to a new small group she had joined. I love new experiences so I went with her. Until that day, we’d only ever spoken English to each other, but at that meeting, I discovered just how Afrikaans she was. I was the only black person in the room. Everyone at the meeting was white and they all spoke Afrikaans.

I felt uncomfortable right away, because the meeting was very different from any other prayer meeting I’d attended before. There seemed to be a lot of whispering, no sharing of the Word and a general understanding among the members that I didn’t feel privy to.

I felt like an outsider.

I instantly began “othering” the group in my mind: What was going on here? Who were they? Why did they meet like this and which church or organization were they affiliated to? Why were they all white Afrikaners in the middle of the city meeting and praying alone in their own language?

There were pictures of black people on the walls of the apartment, but they were clearly not images of friends or black people they knew. They represented pieces of art and possibly their mission field in another African country. I was not sure if that was something I was comfortable with or if it made me more weary and nervous. I have been in too many rooms where there are Nelson Mandela quotes on the wall, but injustice and inequality are still practiced.

These pictures reminded me of the words a friend once said: “Nothing irritates me more than seeing paintings of black people on the walls of white people’s homes but you will never see black people sitting on their couches or chairs.” In this case these images represented that exactly; there were no black people in the room except me. I did not feel welcome at all. If anything, I felt ignored.

My friend forgot that I did not speak Afrikaans and I was with a group of strangers who didn’t do a great job of embracing an outsider. At first, no one acknowledged me. I may as well not have been there.

Eventually a bridge was built when one of the Afrikaans girls came to give me a word of encouragement. We instantly connected and she became my friend. She was the one who then invited me to her wedding.

Again I found myself the lone black person among unwelcoming others. In the midst of trying to connect, despite my limited knowledge of the language, I was ignored. It was clear that in this small town, blacks were still the servants, not guests at white weddings.

Then, something happened.

“Finally!” I thought.

An older man proudly walked towards me, smiling, with his hand stretched out. It would be the kindest gesture that day, and under normal circumstances it would be the worst. But this was not a normal day.

It was a very quick encounter with a farmer in the area. “I am coming to greet you, because you are black,” he said to me.

I was still thinking, did I hear that correctly? when he proceeded to say,I once greeted another black girl and she was so surprised and felt so honoured that a white man greeted her.”

I replied: “O really?” but he was long gone. He didn’t listen for my response. His work was done—he’d greeted a black person.

Something significant had occurred, though. He had simultaneously welcomed me and alienated me. For him, this was an act of kindness. I was inwardly entertained by his self-importance and false superiority.

By saying that he was greeting me because I am black, signified to me that white people don’t greet black people in that area. He confirmed to me that the relational barrier I was experiencing was indeed as real as could be. I later learned that the town was and still is struggling with generally racist farmers who are still stuck in the Apartheid era.

I have found Afrikaans people who are unbelievably welcoming and friendly. Their love has the ability to usher a person to heaven and bring healing by simply who they are. These are people who are no longer defined by the culture of exclusion. They are free and my heart has been deeply impacted by these amazing Afrikaans people. The friend who brought me to that original meeting is one of those people.

I understand that, most likely, in these situations I am as guilty as the party I am accusing. If I am feeling “othered,” I am most likely also “othering” in order to cope. But how do I draw out people’s humanity while saving my own in the process?

If I do not connect with the people, do I at least walk out with my own humanity intact? For my humanity to win out, I must love the people and not view them as enemies. If I cannot honestly love them as human beings, even if they are racist, then I am as terrible as the very behaviour I am against.

I have come to love Afrikaans people, but it has been an intentional decision. If I can love the people whose language and culture were a symbol of Apartheid, then I can love all people as Jesus called us to do.

I have found that it is impossible to walk this road without choosing humility over pride. Indeed, pride and love can never co-exist in the same heart. If I am proud, I cannot admit my part in being “othered” or “othering” someone else. Pride will only rob me of rich friendships with those who may offend me. It will also rob me of a richer relationship with God. I am learning: for every uncomfortable experience of “othering,” there is an invitation to a greater Love.

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Image credit: Markus Reinhardt

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