Updated: Oct 23, 2022
Author, Bettie J. Durrah
I share, teach, witness, and write from the overflow of my faith, knowledge, and experience over the years. Let me say from the beginning that many of my global experiences have come because of my high-profile volunteer status and subsequent national program staff with the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I have been able to balance enthusiasm, creativity, a passion for justice, consummate knowledge, and faithfulness to my witness and service in the church, community, ecumenical, interfaith, and larger global community. My encounters demonstrate how one’s educational background and experience, though far removed from a collegiate, international studies program, can lead to life-changing experiences on the global scene.
On the other hand, living in a city like Atlanta and surrounded by educational and social institutions, there have been many opportunities for global encounters from Eleanor Roosevelt, Haile Selassie, Jimmy Carter, Tandy Luthuli Gcabashe,Naim Ateek, Mugabe, Nkomo, John Gatu, Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela, Allan Boesak, Desmond Tutu, to many prominent world leaders, and many others, both inside of the city and in other parts of the United States and world. This list also includes former seminarians who returned to their home country and became leaders in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, Sudan Council of Churches, and the list continues. That has been my story! My global encounters, both inside and outside of the United States, have made me a new person—one who also developed her journalistic and creative writing skills to tell her story and to help others remove their blinders from their eyes in an ever-changing world. This college biology major taught high school science, but also energized her students, colleagues, and larger church family to widen their circles regarding their world family—especially before the wide use of the Internet. Also, my biology students got first-hand information about the use of “jungle,” “primitive,” etc. It was Professor Delores Williams, many years ago, whom I first heard say, “Enlarge your home world.” That is what I am still trying to do!
In 1977, I made my first of five trips to the continent of Africa. That very first trip to Africa was to both East and West Africa, and it was led by an African American Presbyterian clergyman who had lived and worked on the continent for a number of years; in fact, he helped to establish the All-Africa Conference of Churches. So, you see, the twenty or so of us were not just “tourists.” We came from all over the United States, and our perceptions about Africa were challenged, enlarged, and debunked. We were introduced to the New Africa—a New World—an exciting and growing and ever-changing New World! Realizing that language shapes our reality, our perceptions, and our attitudes, my vocabulary began to change --- undeveloped, underdeveloped to developing, third world to global, from missionaries to mission co-workers, partners in ministry, siblings, and the list continues to expand. I no longer use the word “foreign” because I felt the pain of isolation as I stood in many lines in airports that said “foreign,” including countries from which my ancestors came.
My first major lesson came as I walked alone on the shore of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I encountered a young fisherman who spoke just a little English. He asked me if Black Americans knew about the plight of Blacks in South Africa. Remember this was 1977! This was after the 1976 Soweto uprising and little did, I know that refugees were making their way up from South Africa to East Africa to escape the tentacles of apartheid. I was in for a rude awakening, but I was able to relate briefly what my community and faith group were doing by home in the United States.
Little did I know that a few years later (1984), I would be part of an interracial group of about twenty-five women traveling throughout Southern Africa. My job was to interpret my experience to Presbyterian Women in six southeastern states (my synodical) over a two-year period once I returned. These women were gracious and inquisitive as I delivered my messages with passion and authenticity. As I was changing, I helped others to begin the process.
One Sunday, our group visited a large Methodist Church in Soweto. The children were called forward to welcome the visiting Americans. About three hundred children (I do mean three hundred) came forward—large children, small children, very small children, and they sang “Come and help us, we are building a kingdom for the Lord.” That was an awesome sight and sound—so many children, and all well-behaved, moving to the front with no direction.
I no longer anglicize the word apartheid because it is an Afrikaans word that pronounces and means apart-hate. As an African American woman traveling in Southern Africa as part of an interracial group, there were times when I had to ask very pointed questions (not diluted) whether before High Church Officials of the Dutch Reformed Church at Stellenbosch University, or when seated for “high tea” two chairs down from the administrator general of SW Africa (now, Namibia) at a beautifully-decorated table meant to “deflect” this group of American women who had been traveling all over Windhoek and surrounding areas in the hot sun. I also had to stand up for myself when our group was going to skip going into a squatter camp called Khayelitsha in Cape Town because of logistics. I became visibly upset because I was losing a month of my salary to travel with this group as a single woman with no other source of support. I said so to the group, and arrangements were quickly made for a few of us to go into the squatter camp that was known around the world.
It was at this event where I found my greatest enlightenment when a father stood, lit a nubby candle, and prayed for our group as we traversed through his cardboard, makeshift home. I have sung many times with gusto and pride The South African National Anthem, “Nkosi Silke IAfrika,” including the later version.
It was instances like the ones that pushed one to the brink, but so many redeemable moments would come out of situations. I even had to step in when one member of the group started invading the privacy of a family with her ostentatious picture taking.
I made friends with several persons and shared letters upon my return home. One South African friend who had spent several weeks in my home through an exchange program sponsored by Atlanta University School of Social Work, and who treated me to a nice meal at a restaurant in downtown Johannesburg, years later wrote to ask if several friends could stay with me until they got on their feet. I did feel badly about turning down that request, but I could not afford to take on that kind of responsibility as a single woman of modest means. I had already interceded several times for another female who needed financial assistance, and it was her mother who met our group when we first landed at the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. You never know how you may become connected!
The leaders of my global encounter group asked me to sit next to Archbishop Desmond Tutu during a meal and to give the closing remarks in which I paraphrased Langston Hughes in his poem “Brothers”:
“We are related —You and I,
You from South Africa, we from the United States.
Brothers and sisters —You and I.”
I had really heard that paraphrase of the poem when one of the Southern African leaders visited Atlanta and spoke at the King Chapel at Morehouse College. I wish that I had known the word ubuntu at the time!
Leaving South Africa, I wrote a chore poem, “What Color is Economic Justice.” A group of my high school students performed it at the Nelson Mandela Rally at the Georgia Tech Football Field in Atlanta. Of course, they were part of the “early” entertainment on the field, but that did not matter! They were there to hear Nelson Mandela who would appear much later in the evening. Mark Mathabane visited my high school, and I shared the same reading with him, as he was leaving, and he unbeknownst to me, included a quote from it in one of the introductory pages of his book, African Women—Three Generations, 1994.
Other global experiences kept coming under my radar! As president of the Third World Women’s Coordinating Committee of my national church, four of us, representing different racial ethnic identities were able to attend the 4th UN Conference/Forum on Women in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985. Incidentally, the entity’s name was subsequently changed with church restructure to the Committee of Women of Color. In the Nairobi forum, I was crushed in a workshop when I dared to say something about the United States and its negative posture in the world, and an African woman quickly dissed my comments. I looked around the room for any American sister in the room, and there was none. In that moment, I, and I, alone, had to bear the burden for all that my country had done wrong. For one who has always tried to be on the “right” side of global justice, in that moment, I had to bear the burden of my country. That woman equated me with my country and not as an individual. Also, having observer status at the official conference, I was also taken aback on one occasion when all G7 nations were asked to leave the room—delegates, observers with official status, and all. That was a real lesson for me!
Ten years later, I again took up the travel banner during the UN Conference/Forum om Women Beijing, China in 1995. This time, I traveled with Church Women United, an ecumenical group from across the United States. As I walked around Tiananmen Square, I immediately thought what life was like for the young people who stared down the government artillery a few years earlier. On the morning that Hillary Rodham Clinton was speaking, I got up very earlier in the morning to make my trek to Haikou by bus to where the forum was being held. So did 30,000 others! We did not see her, but we heard, and we remembered, “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” On the plane returning, to the states, again, I wrote a chore poem, “A Tale of Two Cities: Beijing and Haikou” that was subsequently published by my denomination along with reports from various entities. I also got lost on one occasion in Haikou, site of the forum, and could not find my bus to go back into Beijing. After wandering around, I could find no one who could speak any English. It was getting dark, and I certainly could not read the signs in Chinese! I learned my lesson, and I learned it fast by the time I found a bus going back to the city, but not to my hotel. I saw just how important it is to have some knowledge of the language. I also experienced how frightened I could become in another country as “buckets of sweat” came streaming down my head once I boarded a bus and removed my hat.