I flash my expensive boarding pass on my fully-charged iPhone and I move through security quickly. No problem. I stash my bulging bags of luggage and wait for the food, drinks, and in-flight entertainment to start. So excited for solidarity! Uh-oh—I wrestle with this fresh bout of cognitive dissonance for a moment before the woman sitting next to me asks about my travel plans, and we begin discussing the wonderful value of travel, how it can broaden one’s world view. I am feeling better and the positive intentions of the trip seem clear. A few movies into the flight I overhear her husband telling her that he’s “tired of sleeping” and I cannot help but wonder again about my motivation. Does this “community-focused” trip actually focus on an “exotic” experience for me? Twenty-seven hours later, the importance of this story becomes more tangible.
Burning. Burning coal, garbage, vegetation. The acrid smell of smoke welcomes me back to Soweto. The tangy smell reminds me of the violence during apartheid that had once burned South Africa’s cities. Now, coal-powered industrialization fills the air with the same smell. I wonder if industrialization exploits similar systems of inequality as apartheid.
A significant motivation for this trip was to address the fact that many of us are in relationships that we neglect on a daily basis. The clothes I wear, the technology I use, and the food I eat put me in relationship with millions of people that I ignore because our relationship is purely economic. Despite the fact that my consumption influences the quality of life for families around the world, my society gives me no reason to treat these relationships like the other relationships in my life. As long as I do not change my consumption habits, I am partly responsible for that constant burning, much as the inaction of the United States allowed the spread of apartheid.
Another reason for returning had been waiting for me at the airport for the past two-and-a-half hours. Roy and Thanduxolo—friends from my very first trip to Soweto—surprise us at the airport. Their Friday night quest reminds me of Fr. Gregory Boyle’s idea that “the strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place,” physically present with those we love. Said another way, genuine relationship seems to demand authentic presence. On the following Sunday, our host, Fr. Bruce Botha S.J., reminds the parish community that family does not depend on blood but is built on time and attention.
I consider Roy and Thanduxolo family which was particularly evident last year when Roy argued for presence over profit, hoping to reconnect in person rather than receive the money we spent on transportation. Like Roy, I think Christ calls for communion before financial contribution, such that our compassion is human-centered and lovingly motivated.