In 2009 I traveled to South Africa on pilgrimage. While there we visited several of what South Africans call “locations”. Locations are not to be confused with townships. Locations are simply vacant spots on the map where the apartheid government dumped black people to get them out of the way.
We visited one such location called Ezibeleni. We went there to visit a place where children orphaned by AIDS are tutored, learn life skills, and get a snack. It is called a “Safe Park” where kids can be safe for a while, before returning to parentless homes. The afternoon we were in Ezibeleni, the children and the adults that care for them taught us to play the xylophone and drums and to dance.
Among the dances is one that is usually done by girls. It is a sort of face-off between the two dancers who stare into each other’s eyes and hop on one leg while extending the other leg and wagging the lower part below the knee. If you think the description sounds awkward, try doing it. Needless to say, this is something that loose-limbed little girls excel at, but that is hard for adults to manage regardless of gender or athleticism.
Being guests we were each asked to take part in this dance. Fortunately I was not paired up with a little girl. Instead one of the female workers was my adversary/partner. We both did our middle-aged best, and in the midst of the dance someone snapped a photo.
I was not aware of the photo, until one day after we returned to Richmond much to my surprise I saw a huge version hanging in the parish house hallway. The photo captures the joy and abandon I felt in the moment. You see my partner/adversary from behind, but you can tell that she too is smiling and enjoying the absurdity of the moment.
When the missionaries with whom we traveled in South Africa came to visit Richmond one of them, Heidi, beckoned me to look at this photo. She told me that my dance partner had recently died of AIDS. As I looked at the photo I felt a curious mix of sadness and joy. I realized that I could not recall my dancer partner’s name. Heidi told me her first name was Sibongile, which means “thanks” and her last name was Breakfast. Sibongile Breakfast. What a wonderful name.
Since that day I have pondered our slim connection, my joy, and the sense of loss I feel. How is it that I can be so connected to someone whose name I did not know and with whom I interacted for only a minute over twelve years ago?
We meet so many people in our lives. So many of them we hardly recognize as individuals. They are cashiers, waiters, pedestrians, drivers, and shoppers. They are people certainly, but they are more part of the landscape than they are individuals. It feels demanding on my limited emotional resources to have to treat them all as persons just as beloved by God as I am. It feels easier to look through them and not let them all in.
What Sibongile reminds me is that letting people in does not diminish me, it enlarges me. My heart, my ability to love, does not get drained by letting others in, it gets filled. The more people I let in the door of my heart the larger my heart becomes. My heart does not become overcrowded and tight it becomes expansive. It is impossible to have too much love. I think that is what the psalmist meant when he wrote, “my cup runneth over.” More love in, more love going out and my heart remains full.
So even as I mourn Sibongile Breakfast, I also feel joy. I feel joy that she has gone on to larger life in Christ’s love. I feel joy that we had that moment of abandon together. I feel joy that she is in my heart forever.