By Farley Sanderford
April 5, 2016
One week at our morning devotions, we were reading in 2 Corinthians 5. These verses struck me and brought me back to a place a decade ago in a world away:
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
These verses about God reconciling us to Himself bring to my mind my trip to Johannesburg, South Africa during the summer of 2005. I spent two-and-a-half months working alongside 20 American college students, with students, leaders, and staff at Wits (University of Witwatersrand).
The dark recent history of apartheid in South Africa was an important context for us to understand as we worked with and ministered with mostly black South Africans on campus and around JoBurg. The nation created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose goals were to hear grievances from those wronged under the oppressive and racially prejudiced regime, while also bringing both justice to the oppressors and reconciliation for the oppressed.
Just before I traveled to South Africa, I took a class on African art, and we watched the film Long Night’s Journey Into the Day, a moving documentary by two Americans that portrays the fight for peace and reconciliation in post-apartheid RSA. It showed many of the proceedings and hearings, and I was so moved, that when I saw the video at the Apartheid Museum in JoBurg, I had to get it.
Although this Commission, with the help of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, sought to bring peace and understanding between people of various ethnicities, religions, and genders, and there were certainly moving conversations and offerings of forgiveness that were pictures of our reconciliation with God; it pales in comparison with the true and eternal reconciliation with God that faith in Jesus brings to those who believe on Him. Forgiving one another, even when the hurt is deep and intentional, is something we are called to do. Indeed, Matthew 6:14-15 says:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
We are called to forgive others, because the ultimate forgiveness has been extended to us, by no merit of our own, but exclusively because of God’s grace and mercy through the sacrifice of Christ. However, God delights when we forgive one another, especially as believers.
Last year, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), Richmond’s premier art museum which happens to be across the street from my tiny apartment, hosted Esther Mahlangu as its resident artist. Mahlangu creates colorful and geometric murals as a response to her Ndebele heritage and culture. During her residency, she created a beautiful mural that now hangs at the entrance to the African Art gallery space at the VMFA. If you’re ever in Richmond, check it out. It’s stunning.
During my last days in South Africa, my heart felt drawn to stay. I wrestled within myself and with God. The time I spent there was, and still is, so formative for my faith, and I didn’t want that to end. I knew going back home would be hard, and it was. The people I met, the ways I saw God, and the depth of the truth of the Gospel, they all were so ingrained in my heart and my mind, but through this experience, God also taught me that I need to hold on loosely to the things of this world. And He is not bound by geography or time, so I could experience His goodness and closeness with Him anywhere, even if I wasn’t in South Africa where my heart so longed to be.
I have endured trials and tribulations and through Christ I have overcome, and I can never forget the experiences, the people, and the beauty I encountered in JoBurg and at Wits. My heart’s desire is to someday return to South Africa. And now, as part of my new work with art and mission, the Lord is continuing to increase my heart’s capacity to have a deep and long love for nations and their peoples.