Jan Paron / June 17, 2012
From the Living in Brotherhood series
Looking back in time, I realize I learned about ubuntu in Taos, New Mexico. The city long holds a special place in my heart. It was here I discovered myself as a person among its eclectic mix. It was here that Christ revealed my identity in Him through a circle of women knit together in the spirit of ubuntu. And, it was here that He taught me how He dwells within community, reconciling the lost to Himself and transforming their lives.
So, what then is ubuntu? How did ubuntu impact my faith?
In the early part of this decade, having turned from God, I heard Christ’s call and returned. I didn’t understand my new identity at the time. Wanting to learn who I was in Christ, I decided to go to Taos for solitude and meditation in Him. While there, I studied under a famed Taos micaceous potter, Juanita Suazo-DuBray, and worked along side four other women. Juanita considered her craft a calling, and would say “I want my potteries to be a blessing in the lives of those people who own them.” I wonder if she realizes how much she blessed me. Though not familiar with the term ubuntu then, I saw it in action as Juanita modeled it.
The Spirit of Ubuntu
Ubuntu is a South African term that describes the self as defined by the community. Nikio Koopman relates that the etymological explanation of ubuntu’s Nguni formation, umuntu ungumtu ngabanye abantu, literally translates “as one person is a person through other persons” (2005, p. 195). Desmond Tutu, in No Future Without Forgiveness, explains that “ubuntu has to do with relationality, reciprocity, communion, care, responsibility and hospitality” (1999, p. 51). Tutu also says that when an individual has Ubuntu, that person embraces others, showing generosity and compassion (2009).
Battle and Campolo explain that unlike the Western viewpoint of the self that emphasizes competition, individualism and consumerism, South African ubuntu embodies a contrary perspective (2005). Michael Battle, a South African scholar studied Ubuntu with Dr. Desmond Tutu. Battle (2009) says that Ubuntu supports a basic connectness between all human beings that crosses race and class lines. This connectedness, then, shapes a person’s identity and expresses humanity in relationship with others. Other cultures embrace the concept of ubuntu. An example shared by Koopman, is the Japanese philosophy of Amaeru, which values intimate dependency-relationships (2009). Juana Bordas shares Ada Deer’s thoughts that Indian people, “see themselves as connected, as one community, and as relatives” (2012).
Not only did I not have Ubuntu, but also did not grasp Christian brotherhood’s intent. The Holy Spirit taught me about the meaning of brotherhood through the spirit of Ubuntu in others that week in Taos. Each member’s participation in class depended on living in brotherhood within community. In my opinion, the traditional process of working with clay requires commonality, mutuality and interdependence among participants. It’s communal by nature. From start to finish, I learned about the relationship of kinship to pottery making under Juanita DuBray’s tutelage.
A Storyteller’s Tale
One of the last pieces everyone made in class was a storyteller. Mine carries a cross. I remember thinking that one day my storyteller would narrate my journey during that special week in Taos. And now, embracing the cross, I tell the tale of my path to brotherhood. Once, there was a time when I thought life was about my own ambitions. I soon learned otherwise…
My first exposure to pottery revealed that the process is labor intensive. Everyone had to work together in some way. We had to gather the material, prepare it into usable form, ready it for shape and then mold it. To my surprise, the clay was not waiting for me on a table all snug in a plastic package. My first introduction was under the hot New Mexican sun, with wind drifts of burnt timber from a local forest fire. Before we could work on a potter piece, we had to find suitable material from the clay pit. Our tools consisted of a few shovels, our hands and buckets. After locating and removing the right type of clay, we loaded the material to her truck. I dressed for the occasion in urban chic: skirt, expensive straw hat and acrylic nails. Hardly the right attire, nevertheless my colleagues lovingly lent me their gloves and patiently brought me into the fold. As I went about the task, I secretly fretted over getting dirty or breaking a nail. I didn’t mention that Juanita prayed a Taos blessing over the clay. While I was hesitant to lend a hand, I was quick to offer a Christian prayer. Juanita never showed anything but love and graciousness when I asked to bless the earthen mixture in the name of Jesus. Of course, the Holy Spirit quickened me and brought all my poor behavior to my attention. I confessed my lack of caring, responsibility and sensitivity to others in prayer on the way home. I tried to be more serving of the team when we prepared the mixture, but still felt uncomfortable with the process of the communal work. As I worked I began to understand the importance of relationship, care, responsibility and commonality functioned as a whole. I saw no I, but we.
“By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another” (John 13:35 KJV).
I prayed that God would sift the impurities out of me, just as we raked out the same from the clay. How could I show the love of Christ when I was so self-centered.
Once the clay mixture was ready, I thought the next part would prove easy. It was not. Since I was used to working in a different medium, I found that I lacked a pre-learned skill set for pottery. Also, I missed some key tools in my art box. As I struggled to build two coils, many of my colleagues started their second pot. Frequently, either my teacher or another student stopped their work and showed me how to shape the clay. They lent me their tools. One day, I smashed my pot in frustration with a flash of anger. But, my teacher encouraged me to keep going and try again. The other students consoled me. As one, they helped me get back on course.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13:4-7).
The Master Potter spoke to me through the clay coils. I believe I heard God say that He’d shape me if I opened myself to Him.
Finally, the last piece, our storyteller. With the help of my colleagues, I thought my work looked good. We all oohed and aahed over each other’s pottery, admiring its different qualities before going the pottery went into the kiln for firing. It was a time of mutual celebration. During the week we also took side trips together. Once, Juanita took us to her friend’s home, fellow potter, Felipe Ortega. He opened his home to us as if we were family, took the time to share his expertise with micaceous clay and fed us a delicious meal of New Mexican cuisine. I saw openness and humility that day. Finally, we ended our time at Juanita home, where she fired our pieces in a hand-made kiln and shared her home. We felt like family sitting down a meal, bonded together in kinship of community.
“Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:” (1 Pet 3:8).
If ubuntu means “as one person is a person through other persons,” then what does it signify for Christians in relationships with fellow brethren and neighbors. John 3:30 says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Oh, that I always have a servant’s heart for God’s people, His beloved.
The storyteller’s tale ends with a postcard.
To the Most High, Jesus Who lives within me. “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17:23). May I always live out You in me in the brotherhood of humanity, so that the world would see and know Your love.
To Juanita Suazo-DuBray. Each time I look at your vase in my cupboard I am reminded of the lessons you taught me that week. Thank you for your love and patience.
To my fellow potters. You each imparted a bit of yourselves into this Chicago girl. I treasure how you made me a better person.
To Felipe Ortega and other artists I met along the say. Thank you for welcoming me into your family.
Juanita and my dear friends, may the God of peace and love be with you always.
(Living in Brotherhood: Ubuntu in Taos, New Mexico)
Agree or disagree and why?
“In mainstream society, leaders may espouse Christian brotherhood and have good intentions for others. However, this doesn’t mean that they see themselves as responsible for other people’s well-being. The emphasis on individualism may even lead to people being blamed for bringing on their own plight” (Bordas, loc. 2922).
- Anderson, D. (1999). All that glitters: The emergence of micaceous art pottery in Northern New Mexico. Santa Fe: NM: School of American Research.
- Battle, M. (2009). Ubuntu: I in you and you in me. New York, NY: Seabury Books.
- Battle, M. (2010). Ubuntu: Learning from the African worldview. Sewanee Theological Review. 4 (53) 404-417.
- Bordas, J. (2007). Salsa, soul, and spirit:Leadership for a multicultural age. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
- Campolo, T. & Battle, M. (2005). The Church enslaved: A spirituality for the racial reconciliation. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press
- Indigenous Art Inc. (2006). Juanita Suazo-Dubray. Retrieved on June 17, 2012, from http://www.indigenous-art.com/juanitasuazodubray.html
- Koopman, N. (2005, August). Bonhoeffer’s anthropology and the African anthropology of ubuntu. NTT. 3 (59) 195-226.
- Lipman, F. (n.d.). Dr. Frank Lipman Interviews Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Retrieved on June 15, 2012, from http://www.drfranklipman.com/archbishop-desmond-tutu/
- Ortega, F. (2012). Felipe Ortega: Micaceous clay. Retrieved on June 17, 2012 at http://felipeortega.com/
- Tutu, D. (2004). God has a dream: A vision of hope for our time. New York, NY: Doubleday.
- Tutu, D. (2000). No future without forgiveness. New York, NY: Doubleday.
- Tutu, . (2007, November). The Spirituality of Ubuntu: Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu Address Washington National Cathedral. Retrieved on June 15, 2012, from http://www.nationalcathedral.org/learn/lectureTexts/MED-42RJ8-BH0004.shtml