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Commentary: And the truth will set you free

Commentary: And the truth will set you free

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: And the truth will set you free

An e-Review Commentary by Erik J. Alsgaard / Nov. 13, 2008 {0939}

NOTE: A headshot of Aslgaard is available at

I recently had the privilege of visiting South Africa as part of an international communications event sponsored by the World Association for Christian Communications. Themed “Communications is Peace: Building Viable Communities,” the event was held in Cape Town in early October.

I wasn’t sure before I went on the trip how this experience would change me; I only knew that it would. And those changes are still unfolding. It was a wake-up call to communicating truth and hope.

One incredible, hope-filled experience was hearing and meeting Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. The bishop spoke to us on the opening morning of our meeting, speaking of the important role of media in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was formed after apartheid was dismantled and which he chaired.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is greeted by the Rev. Randy Naylor, General Secretary of the World Association for Christian Communications, as he arrives to speak at the opening session of WACC’s 2008 Congress. Photo courtesy of WACC. Photo #08-1057. Web photo only.

“From the start, we in the commission understood the vitally important role that open, full and honest communication through every medium at our disposal could play,” he said.

As reported in the daily “newspaper” produced at the event, Tutu said that although the commission was a secular body, most of its members were Christians or people of other faiths who believed that communication is a fundamental human right given by God.

Calling God a “communicating God,” Tutu said God calls us to an incredible thing: the God project. “God seeks to bind us all together,” he said.

“We are called to be peacemakers, not peace lovers,” Tutu said. Chew on that difference for a moment. One is passive; one is active. I think we need more active to go with our passive.

The second amazing experience was a visit to Guguletu Township, a part of Cape Town nestled between the airport and the city. It was in this area, in 1986, that police gunned down seven unarmed men who were protesting against apartheid.

We visited a Presbyterian Church near where the men were slain. It’s a small church struggling to meet the overwhelming needs of its neighborhood (sound familiar?) that has a vibrant worshiping community. We heard powerful testimonies from a church “mother” who is active in neighborhood politics; a young woman, a member of the church who is HIV positive, who shared heart-breaking stories of trying to get medical attention despite crushing poverty and policies; and a church bureaucrat who told how the church is an outpost of hope in an otherwise hopeless society.

The Presbyterian Church in Guguletu is surrounded by barbed wire as a security measure against vandals. Photo courtesy of WACC. Photo #08-1058. For longer description see photo gallery. Web photo only.

And then the women of the church fed us hope, disguised as lunch. They pulled out the red carpet for us: they served meat, beef and chicken. Normal church suppers, we were told, consisted mainly of carrots, potatoes, corn and spinach, which were in abundance on the buffet set up in the front of the sanctuary.

The addition of meat was a luxury seldom seen. I felt more than a small twinge of guilt knowing that by the time two-thirds of our large group had gone through the line, the meat was totally consumed. Our large eating habits, mainly North American and European, had seen to that.

From the church we went to Robben Island, site of the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela was kept for 18 years. The walking tour of the prison is not to be missed, especially because your tour guide is a former prisoner.

That’s right. Former inmates at the prison now lend their own voices to the history of the island, which had been used for imprisonment and other inhumane acts since the 1600s.

I never did catch the name of our tour guide. He had spent seven years on Robben Island, convicted of acts of terrorism trying to bring about the end of apartheid. He guided us through the cellblocks, walked us through a typical day in the life of a prisoner and showed us the 10 by 6 foot cell Mandela was kept in, one of hundreds in the prison.

At the end of the tour, my wife and I straggled behind. I wanted to ask our guide two questions.
How long had he been giving the tours? “Four years,” he said.

“Why do you do it?” I asked.

I was expecting an answer that bespoke of a higher calling, of a need to share the terrible history of this island so that it is never, never repeated.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, looking me in the eye. “I need the job; I need the money. I like to tell the story to you so that you learn the truth of this place, but first I need to put food on my plate.”

A tour guide and former prisoner leads a guided tour of the prison on Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in a 10 by 6 foot cell. Photo courtesy of WACC. Photo #08-1059. For longer description see photo gallery. Web photo only.

I was floored. How sad, I thought, as I walked back to the boat dock, that this man was not one of the other former prisoners now working in civil society in South Africa: some in politics, some in business, some in seeking to alleviate the crushing disparity between the races that still exists. How sad that this man — who now lives on the island in a government-issued home about a quarter mile from the prison gates — has escaped the prison but not the island. What must it be like to wake up every day and walk through the place where so much hatred, so much suffering, so much pain was inflicted? I could hardly imagine.

But then another thought came to mind. Our guide had told me the truth, however painful. Archbishop Tutu earlier had spoken about “open, full and honest communication” as a way of getting to truth, however painful.

I had wanted a sugarcoated, Hollywood ending, one that would fill me with hope for the future and all humanity. What I got was the truth.

In many places in South Africa, the sugarcoating still exists, and it is easy to miss the truth that even though apartheid is gone, a more sinister racial divide exists along economic lines: the haves and the have-nots. It’s much the same here in the United States.

How we address poverty is a complex issue. But I’m more convinced now than ever that we must address the issues of poverty by speaking truth to one another. The United Methodist Church, I’m proud to say, is on board with this, naming poverty as one of the four key areas of focus in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

My tour guide shared his truth with me. Archbishop Tutu and the women at the church had done the same. Together, in ways large and small, that truth-telling refreshed my hope that in communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ, the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, in communicating THAT truth, we are all, finally, set free.
News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.