NEW PALESTINE — Looking one direction, the view is like a calendar or postcard, with waves lapping at the shore and mountains in the distance.
Looking the other direction, the view is jarring — row upon row of one-room shacks, punctuated here and there by a clump of green-doored toilet stalls, for which a few nearby neighbors hold the keys.
Two local pastors traveled to South Africa recently, the culmination of a two-year leadership program for clergy. Their experiences in a country facing post-apartheid struggles gave them a fresh perspective on race relations and other social issues. They’ve planned a two-part series to share highlights of the trip and cultivate the conversation locally.
The Rev. Ethan Maple and the Rev. Aaron Stamper traveled to South Africa from Sept. 30 to Oct. 13 with about a dozen other members of their cohort in the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program, which provides professional development opportunities for Indiana pastors who have served five to 10 years.
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Stamper is pastor of youth and family ministry at Cross of Grace Lutheran Church in New Palestine. Maple, a New Palestine resident, is pastor of the Movie Theater Church at Washington Square Mall.
Maple, Stamper and the Rev. Aaron Jenkins, priest of St. Michael Catholic Church in Greenfield, are part of the fourth group to go through the two-year program. (Jenkins was not able to go on the South Africa trip.) For two years, they’ve met every other month with other Indiana clergy at Wabash College to discuss a range of issues, including education and health care.
During the first year of the program, the group traveled to Seattle. The second year of the program includes an international trip.
“The point of the trip was … to get into a different community and culture and learn,” Maple said.
Stamper said he was not prepared for the global tourist city he found Johannesburg, South Africa, to be. The group stayed in a location not far from the soccer stadium where the 2010 FIFA World Cup took place.
Maple said the area felt safe and secure. Views of the ocean and the mountains add ambiance. And yet, over the mountains, many live in tight quarters, displaced from their original homes decades ago by apartheid, a policy of racial separation.
“You see the townships, which are just shacks without running water,” Maple said.
The official policy of separating racial groups is over, but the uprooting of millions of non-white South Africans from their homes into segregated areas has had lingering effects. Today, those crammed into the townships walk as long as 15 minutes to reach a toilet. Or they can use small white potty-chair style seats in a corner of their one-room homes. The government swaps out the bowl portion of those twice a week, Stamper and Maple said.
Yet there are people advocating in South Africa for proper toilets for the townships, with the belief that this one step is an important one on the path toward dignity for all.
Their example made an impression on Stamper; in his first Sunday back after the trip, he told members of the Cross of Grace congregation about the advocates’ committed focus on an issue and asked a question.
“What is our ‘toilet?’” he said. “What is our thing we need to pursue to give dignity to people?”
There were other examples that stayed with Maple and Stamper from the trip. They toured a hospice clinic that focuses on AIDS and HIV. It sends nurses into remote mining towns and supplies a regimen of drugs to expectant mothers and, later, their newborn babies. It seems to be effective; so far, none of the babies have the disease their mothers do. Maple and Stamper estimate the leader of the hospice center accomplishes this on less than $1 million a year.
The group also met Peter Storey, a white bishop who was on the front lines of apartheid protests, and visited the Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela was held for years.
Group members also attended a Communion service at which Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu presided. Tutu, who turned 85 that day, is retired and battling cancer. The two local pastors said this may have been the last service at which he presides.
But the trip was about more than history or poignancy, they say. Because of it, they see issues in the United States through a new lens. For example, in the “fees must fall” slogan of university students making their case for opportunity in South Africa, Stamper found a parallel to the “black lives matter” movement in the United States.
Stamper said he’s grateful to the Lilly Endowment for funding the pastoral program, including the trip. He said he feels a responsibility to continue to explore the issues raised by the trip; to do otherwise would be “a great disservice to the gift I was given.”
He and Maple plan to summarize their trip at two community conversations. Starting that dialogue about issues is important, Stamper said, because it takes time and learning to pinpoint a meaningful course of action. The toilet advocates, for example, didn’t find their issue on a whim, he said.
“When you live in a community like New Pal, … the issues are less glaring,” Maple said. “Yet at the same time, that almost makes them more dangerous …
“Our fear is if we don’t ask the questions, we may never find the answers.”
Revs. Ethan Maple and Aaron Stamper will speak at each other’s churches 6:30 p.m. Nov. 27-28. Maple will lead the conversation Nov. 27 at Cross of Grace Lutheran Church, 3519 S. CR 600W in New Palestine. Stamper will lead it Nov. 28 at The Movie Theater Church, 10202 E. Washington St. (inside Washington Square Mall, across from Champs).