Friday, 26 February 2010

An appreciation of Steve de Gruchy from Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

The following extracts come from an email sent to friends of Steve de Gruchy by Tinyiko Sam Maluleke, president of the South African Council of Churches. Tinyiko has his own blog here but has said we're free to repost his words, which spoke to many of us very powefully given Steve's strong commitment to water, development and green issues.
We will cross post on Monday to the Ecumenical Water Network. Tomorrow family, friends, students and colleagues will gather for Steve's memorial. We remember them as we celebrate Steve's life and try to understand how to go on with his work and our work without him. The paper by Steve mentioned here is one I'm currently preparing for publication in Ecumenical Review.
I will be at the funeral as well. I also spoke to John and Isobel just before they left Volmoed to go join the search for Steve’s body at Mooi River and I have been in touch with colleagues in Pietermaritzburg. Some of you may know that I left Pietermaritzburg where I taught just before Steve joined the department. I was in the committee that interviewed Steve for the job. The rest is history. We have worked together in the Journal for Theology in Southern Africa ever since he took over its editorship. He addressed the SACC conference in ‘Green Theology’ three years ago when I was elected president. Like him, I was theologically brought up by John de Gruchy.
When I saw, early on Monday morning an email message speaking of Steve having been involved in an accident in Mooi River (literally the beautiful river) my reaction was to write back to all recipients saying something like; ‘I hate hoax emails but I sincerely hope that this one is a hoax email’. How wrong I was! Sensing my knee-jerk denialism and the pain behind it, Rev Edwin Arisson, author of that email, wrote back to me separately to confirm its contents.
Several things strike me about some of the last words and gestures left by Steve’s departure and there is neither time, space nor energy to go into details here – and I have shared in brief, with some of you, some of my sentiments.
Steve was bumped off (the life) boat unaware that that would be his last ride. Steve was a lively person who loved life. He died riding the boat of life and riding it with joy and zest. His family informs us that shortly after being bumped off the life boat, he emerged and signaled to his son David to ride on, gesturing that he (Steve) would be okay. It seems therefore that Steve’s last ‘message’ to his son is instructive; instructive to his son and instructive to all of us. The signal is first and foremost one that says ‘ride on’. The second element is a gesture that says ‘ I will be ok’. A moment later, Steve was nowhere to be seen. Several hours later, he was nowhere to be found. Four days later, his lifeless body was found. Clearly, we are not Ok with this. We are not fine with this loss. Truth is; we are broken. But Steve’s last sign was that he would be fine. Do we have it within us to see the truth of Steve’s gesture? Maybe not now, but going forward, can we embrace the suggestion that Steve is Ok where he is now? Is that suggestion, in fact, not in keeping with our faith? The other piece of that gesture Steve gave was ‘ride on’. We ask, how can we go on? How can we go on without you, Steve? How do we go on doing what only Steve could do? How do we go on being what only Steve could be? And how do we go on doing the things Steve helped and made us do? But the gesture from Steve is: Ride on. Go on. What shall do with this suggestion? Can we find it in us to mourn Steve not only with tears but by going on riding the boat of life with zest and joy? Can we find it in the depths of our pained hearts to go on riding the theological life-boat with Steve-like zest and honesty? It seems to me that Steve’s last gestures bequeath us seeds of how best to remember his legacy.
In one of his last papers, read in Belem, Brazil in January 2009, Steve wrote and spoke about water. It was titled: Dealing with our own sewage: Spirituality and Ethics in the Sustainability Agenda” Typically, it was not an abstract theological treatise about water. He wrote about the South African government’s fifteen year old quest to get rid of the bucket toilet system – a system designed for black people living is areas where there is no running water. He wrote about a scientist dismissed from his work for writing a paper suggesting that South Africa was not managing its water resources prudently and that a water crisis was looming. In that paper he wrote about the tragic outbreak of the water-born disease Cholera in Zimbabwe during 2008. He wrote about the dogged human problem of how to deal with our own sewage and waste – and how we have always turned to water to help us. But what if there is little or no water? In that article Steve introduced what he called the ‘River Jordan Motif’ and the ‘River Jordan Ethics’. It brings to mind the river Jordan spiritualities that have sustained the township churches. These songs we sing about the crossing of the river Jordan. These songs we sing about water and the Samaritan woman. But Steve is very much alive to the life-giving and death-dealing possibilities inherent in the water. Thus he speaks of the living waters of the Jordan flowing into the dead water of the dead sea.
It is clear that water was an important pole around which Steve’s theology revolved. Here is someone who loved and respected water. He was happiest in the midst of water. He made water his theological motif. And the water he loved took him in and refused to give him back to us. Can a man die better? Was this why Steve signaled that, in water, with water, he would be fine? Without water our world will not be fine. What a rich theological legacy, Steve has left us!
Rejoice oh waters of Mooi River. The one whom you have taken is a lot more beautiful even than the river in which you flow!
Tinyiko Sam Maluleke
University of South Africa