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It took just about two weeks for me to know what love looks like. And though I've been to cafés in Paris and Greece, the Great Pyramids of Egypt and the exotic bazaars of Turkey - you know, far off places where that type of stuff seems to be in abundance- I can tell you that love doesn't always look like it does in the movies. It looks like a bunch of boisterous, ornery, no-good kids in a township school in the Cape Flats area of Cape Town, South Africa.
The Cape Flats area consists of miles and miles of shanty-town style living units, inst and amongst trash heaps, goats, the occasional highway, and lots and lots of people. Oh, and they're all dirt poor. Anyone who knows a thing or two about real estate knows that people with a lot of money tend to like certain geographic features, and so most of the real money in Cape Town is either by the port and along the beaches, or up on the base of Table Mountain, the huge plateau that casts its warm shadow over the city and out into the Indian Ocean. The poverty stricken in Cape Town, and there are many following years of oppression and Apartheid, tend to live in the Cape Flats district, which lies in the vast space beyond these two high-rent districts. During Apartheid, the masses were apportioned into townships by distinctions of family lineage and skin color.
I didn't really know all of this at the time that Eckerd offered a Winter Term trip to Cape Town during my sophomore year, but the trip seemed like one of the more important things that the school was offering that year, and so I applied and was accepted for the trip. All was going well of course until I actually saw the Cape Flats, and I don't know if I am able to convey what it was like trying to hold it together in front of a group of students, who were then strangers, when I had felt so strongly that I could have cried and lost my lunch at the same moment. I was instantly depressed.
We were to spend our time during our stay in two modes: on one hand we would, over the course of our stay be reading, researching and discussion the history of the apartheid government and how the country pursued reconciliation following that government's demise; on the other, we would be spending time at various schools around the townships in conjunction with a local organization, offering our time to wherever the school had need. I was assigned to a fairly troubled school that was in need of playground chaperones. While working at the school, a handful of Eckerd students and I would be in charge of keeping whoever was on the playground busy, so that the woefully understaffed faculty of the school could attempt to educate whoever fit into a classroom at any one time.
This was a very tiring job, and the kids were absolute menaces. Like a prison warden, by the end of each day I had a pocket full of sticks, stones, sharpened pencils and tile shanks that the kids had attempted to brandish upon one another. In order to keep them busy we ran them through race after race after game after wrestle-Greg session after another and they still came back up smiling, ready for whatever else we had to throw at them. It was awful. And yet, those weeks were some of the happiest that I think I've ever had.
The school couldn't really offer much to these kids, and many of the kids weren't interested in what the school had, anyway. They had seen true success in the townships, and they knew that the true success, and true parental guidance, came from the top of a gang hierarchy. After all, even my guide was a reformed gang buster who had pleaded guilty to gun violence and was given a new lease on life by the government's Truth and Reconciliation Committee. But the kids saw us differently. Those goofy white kids from America - who, by the way, all personally knew 50 Cent and Eminem, because all Americans were celebrities- were different. For some reason, just a little bit of real talk, a little bit of physical touch, and a genuinely stressed but caring and well-meant set of directions were enough to give those kids a little bit of space from their environment, and allowed them to grow a bit. Within a few days they were able to let outsiders in. They were able to express themselves. And believe you me, I spent a lot of time weeding out the little pranksters from the rest of the herd, so I know who was pulling my leg and who wasn't - those kids were expressing love.
On our last day at the school, we each walked around with a little group pried to our arms and our legs. We had been preparing them for the inevitable, because we knew just how many must have left these kids during the few years that they had so far lived, and we wanted so badly for them to know that our intentions were good. And as we were saying goodbye, the world fell from around these kids and they were in an instant giving everything that they had to their new friends. They loved us, and it was so simple that I'm positive it was genuine.
Those kids, those little grubby fingered punks, were giving more of themselves than I think I had in my whole being. It took so much for them to build up that hard exterior that wouldn't let the world creep in and yet, a few pokes later, they threw off their much-beloved armor and were running after us with open arms. Not too far, of course - just to the end of the building- because the gangs had started to shoot at each other again that day, and there was fear that the fighting's close proximity to the school would put the kids in danger. We left the townships in a hurry, and with a worry of bullets in the air, I was left upright and calm with the overwhelming spirit of hope.
There aren't many weeks that go by when I don't think about those kids. It was so simple, all of it. We were what we managed to be for them, too overwhelmed by our situation to have expectations. They just loved us. And their courage gave us the peace of mind to just love them back. It doesn't sound like it, but this to me was an incredibly profound experience. I don't know how to quantify what we did for those kids, but if I attempted to do so I think I'd be missing the point - a servant is both one who, in a mode of self-emptying, puts aside all personal desire and expectation in hopes of unreservedly offering up whatever is requested of him or her, and whose presence serves to facilitate the same response in the one whom he or she is serving. Whether out of ignorance or not, it seems that all it took was someone to turn a blind eye to the seemingly inescapable qualities of the present for those kids to see and turn towards a more positive light.
I think my experiences in South Africa, in no small thanks to the office of Service Learning (an office that truly serves Eckerd's campus), constitute some of the first times that I really got a glimpse of what it might be like to be a servant without expectation, and were some of the most important experiences that I've ever had.
Greg Stevens is currently pursing a life of service in the Orthodox Christian Church through a monastic vocation.