I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve met my fair share of people in places I’ve visited, lived, and worked. Many of them are but vague memories from a distant past. Others are permanently etched on my brain. Some I hold close to my heart. And a few, a small few, have taken a sliver of my soul and called it theirs (they’re my soulers). All have contributed somehow to making me the woman I am today.
You might think that the soulers are the ones I’m closest to. Not true. I might have met them fleetingly, in passing, friends of friends. I might not know their birthday or their dog’s name, or even if they have a dog. I might know very little about them other than that one thing that resonated with me and made me look at the world in a different way.
I heard this week that one of my soulers had died. He fought an eight-month battle before waving the world adieu. I have no doubt that he’s gone on to bigger and better things and that the world’s loss is truly heaven’s gain.
I met J when I was visiting South Africa a few years ago. [I think of him as Big Mac, his email handle :-)] He and his lovely wife E took me to visit the township of eSizameleni. When they retired around 2005 and moved into a retirement village, they tithed money from the sale of their house and committed, through their foundation, Smiley Families, to helping the resident gogos (isiZulu for grannies) and the kids they’re rearing. That middle generation has been all but wiped out by AIDS – and those healthy enough and lucky enough to find work often have to travel to it, leaving their parents at home to mind their children.
What impressed me most, during that brief time, was Big Mac’s empathy. He wasn’t blinded by grandiose thoughts of doing good. He wasn’t prescribing what he saw as a fix for what ailed the people or the township. He wasn’t out to convert the world to his way of thinking. His lot, as he saw it, was to try to make their lives a little less bleak.
He wore his religion lightly. He was a man of faith with a staunch belief in his obligation to help, to do what he could for his fellow man.
Our core function is to hold a monthly service to provide spiritual support for some of the grannies and the 60 women-headed households in eSizameleni township here in Wakkerstroom. Together with a religious service we provide a nourishing soup for all those who attend. A local baker provides fresh bread for each meeting and everyone gets at least one loaf of bread together with about three litres or so of soup to take home.
I saw videos of these get-togethers. The happiness. The joy. The smiles. And all from a people with little to be happy or joyful or smiling about. Inspiring stuff.
I asked him once about what would happen when he and E were no longer up to the task, not knowing then that it would only be a matter of years. He said they were planning to send four of the younger adults (18-28) on a Christian Leadership course which they hoped would:
…equip them to someday take over from us when we can no longer do things and thus ensure the future of Smiley Families when we are gone.
I really hope this happened.
When I had it, I sent money. He asked me once what I wanted him to spend it on. Up to you, I said. Your call. You’re there. I’m not. One Christmas, he bought the gogos some hampers but instead of the usual groceries, he told me that he’d included
…special treats that would help take their minds off the grinding poverty of their daily life.
Another time, the local lads wanted to play in the soccer league and needed kit. My money helped suit up the team. He sent me this photo – one I look at periodically when I feel as if nothing I’m doing matters a whit. It never fails to make me cry and remind me just how lucky I am to have been born into the life I live. There, but for the grace of God and all that…
He was in the UK a couple of years back and I made it my business to be there at the same time. We met in Durham. He was a little older, a little slower perhaps, but he still had that glint in his eye. He still radiated the same pragmatic goodness that drew me to him. That evening:
I had the privilege of sitting around a dinner table with four South African friends with a combined age of 270+ years. Talk was not of pains and aches and pills and potions. There were no complaints, no regrets. Instead the conversation was futured with new opportunities, new travels, and new friends. No one was even close to being ready to sit back and retire to suburbia. Ageing gracefully is truly a case of mind over matter.
Just when I can see the light at the end of my dark tunnel, others are about to enter theirs. My thoughts and prayers go out to Big Mac’s family and friends. I will be eternally grateful that through his ministry he gave me the opportunity to help, to do some good, to make a difference in someone’s life, however slight. He did so much for so many without expectation of anything in return. He helped me build a yardstick by which I measure goodness and served as a constant reminder that something as simple as a bowl of soup and a box of groceries can make a difference.