The Miracle of Connection

I was in Zimbabwe a few months ago where I saw a small miracle take place.

It happened at least 20 times so I know it wasn’t a fluke. But I think it has something to teach us in today’s charged, intolerant atmosphere, where bombs are placed near innocent people in the name of God, where immigrants are vilified, and where politicians use fear to pit races against each other.

In contrast, the miracle I saw was a little bit of peace on Earth, a coming together of potential enemies that was beautiful to see.

Here’s the backstory.

Driving into Zim

I went to Zimbabwe with Dr. Bill Rapier, Founder of Houses of Hope Africa. Bill and I collaborated on a new orphanage home in the town of Whunga, and I was going with him to meet the new kids and see the new building. My friend Clifton Shipway, director of the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission, decided to come along. It was an exciting time.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. Though I travel quite a bit, I’d never been to Africa before and the idea of it was intimidating to me. I worried I’d get mugged or have my camera stolen. I thought about deadly diseases I might encounter. Though it’s embarrassing to admit now, words like “warlord” and “kidnapping” and “Ebola” bobbed in the back of my mind like premonitions as we landed in South Africa and met Bill for the drive to Zimbabwe.

We arrived at the border after dark with a car full of supplies. Eggs and potatoes are illegal to import into Zim for some reason, and we had loads of both in the cab of our rented pick-up truck. We also had some smuggled plants that were strictly forbidden. But Bill wasn’t worried.

Bill Rapier

Dr. Bill Rapier with one of the children he fights so hard for.

Bill’s in his 60s, a sweet silver-haired pastor from Colorado, and a long-time Zimbabwean champion. Over the course of thirty years and eighty trips, Bill has grown to love the country and its people, working hard to make a difference in a place with some serious challenges to overcome.

Economically, the country is a mess. It has a 90% unemployment rate and a hyper-inflated currency that has recently collapsed. Corruption is rampant and bribes are a way of life. It’s just not a place many people visit anymore.

As we approached our first checkpoint, a large stone-faced attendant watched us roll in. He was coated with sweat in the late night heat, utterly humorless, dressed in military-style fatigues. He looked like the kind of character who might arrest you for no reason and extort money at gunpoint…if such characters actually exists anywhere outside of Hollywood or my fearful imagination. If I’d been alone, I would have been freaking out. I certainly would have been quick to hand over some money at the slightest suggestion just to keep moving.

But that’s not Bill’s style. As I discovered, Bill is something of a secret Jedi when it comes to security officers, and this is where the miracle begins. The guard walked up to us, his eyes bloodshot, his face stern. “You would like quick passage?” he asked, scanning the interior of the car, looking for something suspicious.

“Sawabona!” Bill blurted. “Demela!” offering quick greetings in Zulu. Then, of all things, he began to sing.

“Umpakeme, baba. Umpakeme.” He was singing a hymn, with all the power and conviction of a true believer. “You are holy, my Lord. You are holy,” is the translation. On the first verse, the guard seemed slightly annoyed. He shook his head as if to say, “That’s enough.” But Bill didn’t stop. If anything, he ramped up. Second verse, same as the first.

“Umpakeme, baba. Umpakeme.” As I was to learn, the second verse is where the magic happens. The guard began to smile. His face relaxed. He was listening.

“Umpakeme, baba. Umpakeme.” Verse three and the guard actually began to sing. Everyone in Zimbabwe knows this song. It’s a church staple. They often know the harmonies and the guard picked one, helping carry the song to its glorious conclusion.

“Umpakeme, baba. Umpakeme.” And just like that, we were friends. There would be no bribery. No shake own. In no time, we were on our way. Over the next week, this scene played itself out time and time again. At dozens of road blocks…with immigration officers and security personnel. We sang with waitresses just for fun, with shopkeepers and local resident. And it worked every time. Every single time.

To give you a feel for it, here’s us at a local police station as captured by an on-duty officer. What could have been a tense experience turned into a campfire sing-a-long.

From left to right: Clifton Shipway, John Marshall, Bill Rapier & Roger Shipton.

I suppose it wasn’t really a miracle. It was just a connection. After years of racial conflict and distrust, hearing a bunch of white guys singing a song of praise to God in Zulu (the local language) touched something in these people. They usually sang along, asked for more, started to shine in a friendly way that no bribe could ever inspire.

Maybe it’s not an answer to the suicide bombers and the hate mongers out there in the world today. But maybe it is. Somehow we have to connect with each other. We have to find our common humanity, a little harmony, so to speak. In all our fear and separateness, we’ve forgotten that the enemies we imagine might actually be our friends. Friends who are only four verses away.

Dinnertime singing

Singing with all the waiters at our Kruger National Park restaurant.

  • Kelsey Urness
    Posted at 15:04h, 14 March

    I’m very fond of this story, John. Joy is contagious! We all want to be part of it. Singing a hymn? Brilliant! I wish I had been there to sing along loudly like I meant it.