The first time I met Lizzie Hadebe, she had a tattered old canvas backpack slung over her shoulder with the words, "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain," scrawled across the top in thick black letters. I was 17, fresh out of high school, full of missionary zeal and youthful naivete'. She was in her late 20's, already engaged to her future husband, and she seemed like a wise old soul to me. My first impressions were that she was both uncompromising and motherly. First impressions can often be misleading, but on this occasion they were spot on. She quickly became the moral and spiritual rudder of our team as only a mother can, and she and I developed an unlikely yet easy friendship. We were part of the first multi-ethnic band of musicians and actors to travel around Apartheid South Africa with an organization called Youth for Christ, using the arts to speak out about racial reconciliation.
Lizzie was black. She grew up in Soweto, the epicenter of political unrest in our nation and the home of Nelson Mandela. It was 1990, the year Mandela was released as a political prisoner and hero of the struggle against Apartheid. It would be 4 years before Apartheid would finally be abolished, but the cracks in the establishment were beginning to show and the nation was a boiling cauldron of fear and anger. Our team was based in Soweto, and spent most days teaching classes in schools, because teachers in Soweto had a 'revolution before education' policy, so students were simply not being taught. We felt that if we could help students pass their English and Mathematics exams during school hours, then we could speak to them about Jesus and reconciliation after hours. It worked pretty well, but our team was overwhelmed and intimidated. Every one except Lizzie, that is. Lizzie was in her element. She was born to teach kids and completely unfazed by the protest marches, derelict classrooms and general volatility of our situation.
Traveling and living together as actors and singers creates its own natural bond. But our friendship was cemented as Lizzie told stories about growing up as a black South African in Soweto. I'd been so ignorant about how the laws of our country had robbed the majority of the nation of family, wealth, health, education, and ultimately, dignity. I would listen in stunned silence, my ignorance melting and my indignation mounting. How did I not know this was going on? What kind of propaganda had kept me living in such blissful denial of the harsh realities of Apartheid? It was a cataclysmic time for my young mind. Lizzie's gift to me though, was her complete lack of bitterness. She was matter-of-fact about the harshness of her life, yet so lacking in self-pity. She refused to rub salt in my white wounds. Her relentless grace towards me accelerated both my healing from white pride and prejudice, and also my desire to be active in the dismantling of Apartheid.
Also, Lizzie was not a one-cause woman. As important as it was for her to see racial justice and reconciliation, what hurt her more deeply, even more than racism, was the rejection she suffered from her family when she converted to Christianity. Her father was a priest in the Zionist Christian Church, a toxic blend of ancestor worship, animal sacrifice and Christianity, and had ostracized her when she refused to have a goat sacrificed for her 21st birthday. She bore these scars deeply, but still took me to visit him one day in an attempt to rebuild bridges. Lizzie lived as a reconciler between race, gender, class and family fracture, because she understood that she had been reconciled to Jesus, and drew from Him as her life source.
This past Sunday, we held a forum on race at our church. Although racial fracture has been front-and-center in our nation recently, we didn't have the forum just because it was a relevant socio-political thing to do. We had it because we believe that racial reconciliation is central to the Gospel. In Galatians 2, when Paul opposed Peter to his face for refusing to eat with the Gentiles, he said, "You are not living in line with the gospel." Of course the evening of lament, empathy and education connected to the racial turmoil of our times, but we believe that it has always been at the heart of the gospel for the Church to live as a reconciled community. If Christ has truly destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between people of different cultures, it remains for us to walk towards one another through the rubble of our history. The gospel can heal us of racial pride, prejudice, passivity and pain. But we need to realize that for minorities, being healed of the pain of racism is often a '70x7' work of grace, because their experience of racism is often recent and repeated. To say, "Just get over it," is a tremendous display of ignorance of the raw depth of ethnic minority's pain.
One of the panelists at our forum, when asked about a solution to racial fracture in the Church, answered, "The greatest need is to develop real friendships across cultures." I couldn't agree more. I have been challenged and changed more through real friendship than any Facebook debate or expert panel. But this requires that we overcome our passivity and preference for people who are just like us. It can be ankle-breaking work to walk towards one another through the rubble of our hurts and histories. But the rewards are so rich.
The church I led in Johannesburg helped Lizzie and her husband, Humphrey Mohame, to plant a church in their home town of Orlando, Soweto in 2007. Sadly and shockingly, I received the news in June this year that Lizzie had passed away quite suddenly after a brief illness. As I sat in our race forum on Sunday night, I felt a debt of gratitude to my first black friend, for her brutal honesty and relentless grace towards me. Lizzie never had a Facebook account or sat on an expert panel, but her friendship towards me in some way echoed through to our forum together in Brea, California, 25 years later.
In her death, Lizzie has left a priceless legacy and has gained her truest Friend.