Before coming to Candler in 2015, I had been to South Africa three times already: once for vacation with my family, once for a study-abroad program, and once as a young adult missionary through Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. So when friends and family asked me why I was going back to South Africa this summer for a fourth time, I had several responses ready.

I told them about the program I was joining, how I would be serving in a leadership role during worship services, and that the director of the summer program was a community missional pastor (the kind of pastor I want to become). I told them I was going to learn more about the balance between congregational pastoral care and community advocacy.

For friends and family who wanted a deeper answer, I told them I told them that I wanted to explore the relationship between liberation theology and theology of reconciliation in South Africa, a context I believed would educate me about prophetic leadership in an age where Donald Trump is the president of my country.

If I wanted to make people jealous, I would tell them I was learning how to “suffer for Jesus” this summer by staying outside of scenic Hermanus, South Africa (a well-known whale-watching beach destination) and my program would allow me to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Also, what could go wrong? My former classmate, Sam White 15T 16T, had gone on the program last year, and he couldn’t stop talking about it.

What I didn’t realize, however, was that I was coming back to South Africa to experience healing, wholeness, and a call to action.

Enter the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Program, a.k.a. VYLTP.

Creating plans for social change during 'Reconciliation Week.'VYLTP is the brainchild of Cape Town’s Center for Christian Spirituality and the Volmoed Retreat Center in Hermanus. Based on a previous program in the 1980s, VYLTP’s purpose is to develop a generation of conscious leaders by drawing on the memory of student activism for social justice in South Africa. In Afrikaans, the word “Volmoed” means “courage and hope.” The land that is now the Volmoed Retreat Center was originally a leper colony. From 1817-1845 (until they were moved to Robben Island), lepers and their families came to this land for community, healing, and wholeness. In 1986, the current owners bought the land and wanted to create a place of peace and reconciliation amid the injustice of the Apartheid government. Since that time, countless individuals have come to Volmoed for healing of all sorts. It’s hard not to find that healing; the rural farm is situated by the Onrus River, where the blue side of the mountain meets wild fynbos plants, protea bushes, and majestic hills with rocky outcrops. It’s a place where the silence of your own thoughts can prevail, and the still-small voice of God can whisper in the gusty wind.

Our entire program was built around five themes: Community, Healing and Wholeness, Creation and Creativity, Peace and Justice, and Reconciliation. Each of our activities was meant to correspond with the week’s theme, that we might cultivate skills in each of these areas for personal and social transformation. The program’s ecumenical nature and “glocal” perspective also allow international participants to join…which is where I come in. Thanks to the Candler Advantage Program, I joined VYLTP not only as a participant, but a worship facilitator. My job was to help my peers become more confident in leading worship with Taizé-style songs and prayers, mixed with the creative flavor of each participant.

What I got was far more than I expected.

For nine weeks, I was a part of a community of 16 people. Apart from a Nigerian, a Swaziland citizen, another U.S. citizen, and a Zimbabwean, and myself, all the other participants were South African, and they also reflected the diversity of the Rainbow Nation. We had chapel twice a day, and our time between those morning and evening prayer services was filled with lectures, guest speakers, field trips, and conscientizing conversations over meals and tea times. We created community rules emboldened by respect, honesty, and compassion. We were asked to dig into our most profound places of pain and hurt, be it gender-based violence or inherited poverty. We were challenged to read the Bible “seriously, not literally” by Volmoed’s resident theologian, Rev. Dr. John de Gruchy. We listened to environmentalists talk about the Cape Town water crisis and developed action plans for promoting environmentalism in our home communities. We listened to the grandson of Apartheid’s designer discuss his wrestling with white supremacy and conflict transformation.

And this is only a small taste of what we did. 

Hillary samples a chicken foot at the opening of a Youth Cafe.There were some mornings I struggled with my community members because they violated community rules and personal boundaries. There were days I woke up with massive headaches from all the crying I’d done over wounds I had not been able to expose (some of which were leftover from my missionary days in South Africa). There were other days I felt incredibly neglectful of the injustices happening around the world. Likewise, there were days I witnessed miracles. I saw people removing their masks of invincibility, thus beginning their own process of healing and wholeness. I saw community members begin wrestling with systems of oppression instead of simply hating the oppressors. I also saw my community’s awakening to the ways in which they could be in solidarity with others experiencing injustice, like present-day Palestinians, based on their own cultural memory of South African Apartheid. Together, we VYLTP participants became each other’s “iron sharpening iron” from Proverbs 27:17, helping one another confront hopelessness, prejudice, corruption, inequality, and (perhaps most importantly) the impoverished theology of the prosperity gospel. In the months and years to come, I predict we will be one another’s refuge as we seek transformation for our local communities against the any different bonds of oppression.

When I look back on my weeks at VYLTP, I ask myself how such an experience could have happened. Most of the things I expected to learn were not even really addressed in the program (though I did get to shake hands with Desmond Tutu twice!). I did not intend to receive healing, acceptance, or forgiveness in this program. And yet, because of these very gifts, I feel restored and ready to face my last year of seminary, my commissioning paperwork, and the community activism required of me in my home state of South Carolina.

For anyone wanting to embark on the Volmoed Experience, know that you have been warned: you may get more than you bargained for when you live in this community bent on cultivating leaders. All that is required of you is courage and hope.

Top photo: Hillary (far right) and VYLTP participants with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah Tutu.