Our whirlwind cultural tour—a crash course in our new son’s heritage—stopped in Soweto. Forty years earlier, the place my son now safely toddled without a care, shifted shape. One minute a street, the next a graveyard.
A memorial to Hector Pieterson and the Soweto Uprising captures, in a haunting image and accompanying sentence, the aftermath of a fatal clash. Between a child’s sense of fairness and adults interested in the appearance of power. Between black students sounding out the worthy call for equality in education and the battering force of an unsympathetic government.
My son toddled in the shadow of the dead, beneath icons of boys he resembled. I gasped and swallowed. Each amateur strike of his toe and heel settling into grooves which once soaked-up blood, touching ground damned yet somehow sacred.
Returning to our rental cottage in a tree-lined Johannesburg neighborhood, the first place our little trio tried on a family’s clothes, I logged into Facebook looking to self-soothe, to shake off the feeling that everything was too new, too big to wrap my arms around.
In dispatches from home, an image of black students camping on the lawn of my alma mater. Less than a mile from our house, from the modest room we prepared for our son, their leader pledged a hunger strike. Out of faith and options, starvation felt like the last means to a seemingly simple end: making his peers visible to university leaders.
The late, great Rich Mullins once sang:
The other side of the world is not so far away
As I thought that it was ...
The distance just dissolves into the love, into the love
Sometimes the distance dissolves into the love. Sometimes the quickest route from Point A to Point B takes you through outrage, tragedy, barely-harbored hate. Surveying the site of Hector Pieterson’s fateful stand, then casting my eyes home, Columbia, Missouri and Johannesburg, South Africa seemed to exist on opposite sides of the same street, not across an ocean.
In the days between meeting our son on paper and in person, a distant look settled across the eyes of people asking after our progress. Explicit statements rarely passed lips, the hope behind their eyes speaking loud enough.
“You’re rescuing him,” they said in flecks of blue and brown and hazel. “You’re taking him from over there and bringing him over here, where he can thrive, where he can be somebody.”
Face-to-face with sentiments we learned to read, my wife and I deflected. We felt like the fortunate ones. We cleaned out our closets long ago and found no halos. That boy was somebody, with or without us.
With the distance between here and there dissolving, the space between others’ perception and our reality swelled to the point of breaking.
What had we done? I repeated the question to myself. Lifting a boy from a country with an awful racial past is one thing. Planting him in the state that buried Michael Brown felt too similar to qualify as “another.”
People on our side of the world still saw America as the exception to every rule. My first days of fatherhood doubled as the first days of knowing better.
I spy the same distant look all the time now. In eyes which tell me we have arrived, evolving well beyond our mothers and fathers. Clearly, they never ran across the words of G.K. Chesterton:
I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it.
Other eyes protest with equal vigor and an opposite message—that we live in a day of peerless evil and calamity.
To flatten experiences across place or generation feels disingenuous, dangerous even. Yet I tremble as I watch people measure a great distance between then and now, near and far, best and worst.
When it comes to songs of sin and struggle, we belong to different bands performing one melody. We might sing in a local inflection, add a seventh chord or change keys. But our creativity astounds: we never run out of new ways to express ancient problems. The song closes the gap, and we find ourselves on the same plot of ground. Broken and bleeding, but beautiful. Desperate to be touched, aching for grace.
When distances dissolve, the eyes narrow enough to see the “other” standing at your side. Talk about “them” turns into talk about us. The world, smaller and more beautiful than ever, grows all the more awesome and frustrating. Everyone becomes your neighbor, a prospect glorious and overwhelming. Tragedy assumes a different definition: a failure to connect the dots, a refusal to step into shoes which fit better than you think.
A smaller world than you once saw, suddenly more intimate and more divided, poses no challenge for a God who lives outside one time or place. He sees beginning from end, spans the distance between himself and his creation, offers his manifold wisdom as a true and sturdy bridge to end the separation between people far and near.
My chest still hurts sometimes as I see my son—my son!—wander within a scene which stretches far beyond a child’s capacity to see. Even then, some distances dissolve. He and I both teeter and toddle through life, oblivious to varying degrees.
My fatherly eyes see things he can’t. Not yet. But I am a child too, the two of us under the watchful eye of a father—and his son—actively closing the distance between the stuff of heaven and life on earth.