Ubuntu: The Beloved Community

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When I was a child living in post-war England I was unaware that we were poor. Now, as I recollect that time, I realize that our circumstances were quite meager. But it was not until I traveled to South Africa in 1972 that I encountered a poverty that made my childhood appear privileged. I taught in Port Elizabeth for that year during the apartheid era, though I was shielded from the worst atrocities by the rigid censorship of radio and newspapers. There was no television. Mixing of black, coloured (a term used in South Africa for persons of mixed ancestry), Indian, and white people was strictly forbidden. Benches, beaches, and where to stand in line at the post office were clearly identified. Black people served us as nannies, cooks, housecleaners, and gardeners and often had to travel many miles, mostly on foot, from their shacks in the townships to the comfortable houses owned by whites. Only once did I get a glimpse of township living when I went with my friends to take the maid home. How anyone could survive in these hovels made of cardboard, tin, discarded timber, tires, and any other material available amazed me. What could Jesus possibly mean when he said “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”? (Luke 6:20, NRSV)

When Jesus spoke the words we now call the Beatitudes, they would have been heard as revolutionary statements, a complete reversal of cultural and religious teaching. Those the world called wretched, the poor, Jesus called happy; and he went on to pronounce: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24, NRSV). The word translated as have carries the meaning of a receipt; these folk had received payment in full. They had set their hearts on material things, had got what they wanted, but blessing had passed them by. The psalmist seemed to have such people in mind when he wrote: “(God) gave them what they asked, but sent leanness into their soul” (Psalm 106:15, Book of Common Prayer).

Later in the Gospel Luke reassures God’s little flock that they need not fear because it is God’s intention to give them the kingdom.  And then he said: “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven… For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:32-34, NRSV). Where is my treasure? How do I make the kind of purse Jesus refers to? Should we just let the poor stay poor because Jesus says they are blessed?



Some thirty years after my first visit to South Africa I was privileged to return on behalf of The Upper Room to meet clergy and people throughout the country, in order to prepare for a pilgrimage the following year. I had felt a growing desire to return to this beautiful country and to be directly present to the huge population still living in poverty. Apartheid had ended in 1994, but it would take many years to dismantle racism and provide decent housing and jobs especially for those who had been deprived of good education. Some highlights of my visit included time spent in Durban with an Indian family who took me to see a “hospital” for men who were dying from AIDS. I watched the devoted nursing staff in this church-based facility serve the poor with limited resources and great compassion, and I was blessed to be able to pray with one of the patients. There was no facility available for women. In Port Elizabeth I went with a pastor into two of the local townships where shack after shack lined the dirt roads, children played outside with sticks and handmade “toys,” and women hung rows of laundry on makeshift lines. At lunchtime we joined the two devoted Xhosa women who prepared soup and pan bread for forty of the neediest children selected by teachers at the primary school. The children arrived, smiling, hungry and polite, and sat on benches in the room, which, on Sunday, would become the church. For many this was the only food they would receive that day. In Cape Town I visited orphanages and a medical clinic located in a church building and staffed by volunteer doctors. Although billboards throughout the country encouraged people to get tested for AIDS, many were too embarrassed to go to government clinics but would visit a church where no one would question their intentions.

Since my return visit to South Africa I have taken several groups there on pilgrimage. These journeys are not like organized tours that include numerous shopping experiences (though we do stop from time to time to pick up handcarved and woven items from roadside sellers), but rather intentional times in which our primary attitude is to directly encounter and listen to those we meet. Why do I continue to visit and take others to this wonderful, wounded country? I now realize that it is because I need to be with the desperately poor who live, move, and have their being in the overcrowded townships, hospitals, and orphanages because they have so much to teach me. I need it for my soul health and to be reminded again and again of the call to serve God’s anawim, (1) the beloved children of God who are my sisters and brothers living in poverty.

But it is not enough to visit, raise funds, or take an extra suitcase of clothing to share. I have to ask myself what God is asking of me when I return home. I am so blessed to be with the poor, to hold the hand of a dying man and tell him that he is profoundly loved by God, and to stand with his grieving family. Perhaps I am beginning to learn what Jesus meant by spiritual poverty as I relate to those in such vastly different circumstances from my own yet know that they are truly my brothers and sisters. We are all joined in the circle of belonging that is beyond time, place, and circumstance. Ubuntu (2) is a reality.

One pilgrim wrote to me recently to express what a South African pilgrimage meant to her:


On the pilgrimage to South Africa, we came face to face with real poverty, and a door to my soul was cracked open by the joyful people in the townships. When we returned home, I became more aware of the hunger in my own community and that soul-door continued to open. We were inspired to open a food pantry and are now privileged to provide food for approximately 100 families a week. The privilege of greeting and helping folk choose their food has made me more compassionate. I no longer take for granted the food I can purchase and prepare. The people we serve show me the value of gratitude and caring in a world poor in these attributes.


The food pantry mentioned above has drawn many parishioners who were not previously active in outreach activities to offer to collect food from merchants, package and prepare items, raise funds and serve on the Board, to listen to and accompany shoppers, and also to assist them as they take packages out to their vehicles. Young people and adult volunteers from other local churches have joined the regular team and the pantry receives donations from several local communities. The pantry makes a difference in the lives of those who receive assistance but it has radically changed those who offer their services. “Those” people are now us, and the gospel comes alive week by week through Ubuntu presence to one another.



In his book A Mile in My Shoes, South African pastor Trevor Hudson offers a simple yet challenging format for cultivating compassion: Encounter, Reflection and Transformation. He began leading Pilgrimages of Pain and Hope from his church in Johannesburg by taking privileged white parishioners into the townships, where they lived for a week with a black family. A very direct encounter with the poor by living, albeit briefly, with them sharing meals, conversation and often being invited to sleep on the only bed in the shack while the family slept on the floor was a humbling experience, compelling the pilgrims to examine deeply their own assumptions about otherness and of being the recipients of costly hospitality.

One of my pilgrims opted to spend the night in a township we visited and was graciously received by Hazel, the Xhosa woman who lived there. Hazel had finally been given one of the new government houses built with cement blocks; it did not have running water, sewer line or electricity—all of which were promised by the government for some future time. However, Hazel was able to hook a line into the electricity pole outside, and this enabled her to run one burner for cooking. All evening long friends and acquaintances of the host found a need to visit in order to see the white woman who was not afraid to stay overnight in the township. At bedtime Hazel chose to sleep in the guest bedroom with my pilgrim in case she was frightened by being the only white guest in the township and hearing strange noises during the night.

I learned from this, and other experiences in South Africa, that the poor knew contentment and joy despite their circumstances. Again and again we pilgrims would be greeted with smiles whether we visited children in pre-school, an orphanage, hospital or family home. I don’t mean to suggest that no one is pushing for change, challenging the current corrupt government or seeking to engage leaders at the local and national level. Many of those who form the black majority are members of local churches, and their pastors join them in challenging oppression in all its forms. Sometimes however, what the church can do is provide immediate first aid care in the name of Christ. When the need is so huge it can be overwhelming, but the one-by-one response to suffering is needed alongside protest and legislative challenges.

Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is literal and practical, unlike Matthew’s, which speaks more to the blessedness to come for those who adopt an attitude of poverty of spirit. After he writes “Blessed are you who are poor,” Luke adds, “for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20). He suggests that the poor already live in God’s realm and can experience the blessedness of enough instead of being overburdened by the compulsion to have more. Later in 12:13-21, Jesus illustrates the futility of living only to accrue more and more stuff, like the rich fool who planned to pull down his barns and build greater ones, not realizing that his life would end that night. These words of Jesus are as relevant today and just as challenging. I have to ask myself whether I really need that new pair of shoes, or if it is worthwhile to work inordinately long hours for more pay to the neglect of family. What kind of treasure do I value? I have learned from many of my South African sisters and brothers to treasure the things of God, that my heart may remain there also.


1 The word anawim is used in the Old Testament to refer to the poor of every sort, those who were vulnerable, marginalized, oppressed and without any earthly power. They were essentially dependent on God.

2 Ubuntu – the word derives from Bantu languages and means “I am what I am because of who we all are.”  Former South African President Nelson Mandela is seen by many as the personification of Ubuntu. When asked by a reporter how he would define the word he made reference to the “old days” when he might visit a village and never needed to ask for food and water because he was regarded as “us” and provided with what he needed. The word points to the relational aspect of life and the importance of community.


Reflection Question: What does the African term Ubuntu say to you about bringing good news to the poor?


Elizabeth J. Canham is a priest in the Episcopal Church who leads retreats and workshops internationally. Through Hospites Mundi, a pilgrimage ministry, she invites others to join her on sacred journeys and to meet with local people, especially the poor. Elizabeth has published seven books, including A Table of Delight, and Finding your Voice in the Psalms.


2 Responses to “Ubuntu: The Beloved Community”

  1. Donna Rolfe-Huismans says:

    Nov 18 2013
    Hello Kristen
    I just discovered your website and devotionals. As well your book A Bead and a Prayer- A beginners Guide to Protestant Prayer Beads. I would love to buy the book/giftset. I feel led to do this as a new way to get even closer to God. I live in Toronto Ontario Canada and am having trouble finding. Any ideas where and how I can get this and hopefully not costing me alot. Thank you
    Blessings + Peace
    Donna Rolfe-Huismans

  2. Robin Pippin says:

    You can buy the giftset online here:

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