“We spent this past weekend officiating a funeral, which is normal for our ministry team to do once - sometimes twice each month. It has even happened, a few times, where there's two in one weekend,” writes ITMI partner, Kelly Smith.
On the opposite side of South Africa, in Onseepkans - about a 14.5 hour drive west - ITMI’s Gerhard le Roux shares a similar observation,
“Funerals, it seems, had become part of the everyday life of the people of Onseepkans. It is not unusual to hear of two or three funerals a month, in an area where the local population probably counts not more than 4,000,” he said.
Kelly and Cherise Smith live and minister in Zulu Natal, one of the areas hardest hit by HIV/AIDS epidemic. They know their team has a shortened window to reach people.
“Life in developed countries can be prolonged because of, well, being developed. Generally speaking, life in undeveloped parts of the world are tough, life expectancy rates are lower,” Kelly observes.
So, what do you do?
You get involved. You share their grief. You show up.
Gerhard summarizes, “Ever since we came to Onseepkans we partook and helped where we could at these funeral weeks. Our involvement included contributing to and helping with meals, giving firewood and other help where we could, driving some of the people around and preaching the Gospel where we were allowed the opportunity.”
You also learn about the customs surrounding these ceremonies. Gerhard shares what he and his family have learned,
“After someone has died, it is custom among the people to have a week of evening services at the house of the deceased. The Friday evening, the last evening before the funeral the next morning, the corpse is brought in a coffin to be [stay] the night with the family, relatives and sympathizers. A white flag is raised at the house of the deceased and a cooking shed erected where they make fire and cook meals in between. The Friday evening a special cooking team cook right through the night to ensure that there is enough food the next day of the funeral to feed everyone who attends. These funeral weeks are a special time of mourning for the family and relatives and also a sober time for self reflection and more openness towards the Gospel.”
A funeral cooking shed is erected and team cooks through the night to feed mourners.
ITMI's Onseepkans Mission donating wood to help with the needs of a funeral.
Onseepkans Mission has been able to lend donated mattresses to grieving families.
ITMI supporters have provided Onseepkans Mission with funeral meals, which the le Roux family could give to the family of the deceased to relieve the financial strain of feeding all of the funeral guests.
This opened doors for the family to build relationships, and share their own hope in life after death.
The deceased is buried in the family's yard.
In Zulu Natal, the deceased is buried in the family’s yard, right next to the last person in the family who passed away.
“Zulu funerals are a big deal,” says ITMI partner, Fifi Smith, who serves in Zulu Natal on the Smiths’ team. Which means there’s lots to do - clean the yard, prepare meals, haul water over steep hills from the community spigot. The ladies carry buckets of grass to spread over the mud floor of the funeral tent.
Zulu women carry grass to cover the floor of the funeral tent.
ITMI's Kelly Smith and church members take a break while helping prepare for a funeral.
The Smith family and their church often show up to be a blessing to their community and the mourning family by helping with these tasks.
Doing what feels counterintuitive
In both cases, I am reminded of the first good thing that the Good Samaritan did for a beaten and suffering member of a people group who despised Samaritans on the road to Jericho.
By contrast to the priest and the Levite, who also encountered the man left for dead at the roadside, but “passed by on the other side,” (Luke 10:31) the Samaritan “came to where he (the beaten man) was.”
He didn’t move away, like the other two. He went closer to the suffering man. Moving away from someone who is hurting and suffering is the most tempting, often most safe thing to do.
Hurting people, hurt other people. So, by moving closer, you might get hurt. Or laughed at.
Kelly continues mournfully, “It was three days before their passing when we asked this person if they had considered the gospel message they had heard on several occasions. The response was laughter when it was implied that the end may be closer than this person was willing to admit. We hope and pray that God's gift of eternal life was reconsidered in their last hours.”
For our partners in South Africa, moving toward the hurting and suffering means participating in funerals is a wonderful opportunity to declare and demonstrate the Good News.
For us, maybe moving toward the hurting means donating the funds to help our partners gift a funeral meal. Maybe it means showing up at someone’s house with a meal.
Maybe it means sitting with someone who is hurting deeply in silent, tear-filled support, when there are no words left to say. Maybe it means opening an email and reading a story of someone’s pain with an unguarded heart.
Whatever it is, the story of the Good Samaritan is clear. To love our neighbor is Kingdom work. And it requires us to move in and get up close. To step out in faith that Jesus really is big enough to heal our wounds and theirs.