I set out on foot for the “church by the lake” at dawn, but impending rain bent the early light into gloom. Johannesburg is a city for drivers despite the rampant poverty. The sidewalks are broken, disintegrating, or nonexistent, especially along the walls of the wealthy Afrikaaner neighborhood I was walking through. A Rotarian from a club I had given a lunch presentation to invited me to help with the Operation Relief Program at St. Peter’s Church. After a forty-minute walk, I arrive early so I cross the street to Zoo Lake. Weeping willows sway over the edges of the water, where swans and ducks float. A South African told me that Johannesburg has more trees than almost any other city in the world. And I am surprised in even the most urban of spaces how trees hang over streets or short cuts are overgrown with bushes and grasses—beautiful reminders of nature reclaiming the area, shady shelter for the homeless. I leave Zoo Lake for the church. People are already waiting outside the gate. A little boy with sores on his head tries hard to slide open the gate for me, his mother sitting nearby. She is heavy with heavier makeup—“an alcoholic,” one of the volunteers will comment to me later. “Fat and drunk while her child starves; look at his head.” I don’t notice the head until she points it out. I just laugh at the boy trying to open the gate. The Rotarian sees me and presses a button; the boy jumps back as the gate opens.
Far from early, I am late. A group of school children from across the street are busy in a multipurpose room next to the church, filling plastic bags with corn meal and powdered milk, dusting their dark uniforms with white. At 8:00, their teacher leads them away to school, the Rotarian throwing last minute rugby passes as they cross the street. Then the old guard files in: a team of older women, one nearing a hundred years. They work even faster than the boys, expertly organizing packets of tea, powdered milk, sugar, corn meal, and a soup mix. The gates are open now, and people mill about the church parking lot. Today, they will not only get the packets of food and soap to take with them, they will also receive a hot meal that is cooking in the church kitchen. The Rotarian explains to me that between 120 and 150 people in need come to St. Peter’s every Wednesday for the hot meal and supplies for the rest of the week, a few more during the winter months. While an association of local churches of different denominations donate money for the operation now, the Rotarian hopes the project will become self-sustaining within a year. He is organizing several endeavors, including a used clothing store and a small farm, but they need funds for the next phase.
I wander among the people waiting, curious where they are from since my studies are on migration. The first few people I try to talk to are reluctant to speak with me, especially when they see a camera in my hand. “I don’t have to take your picture; I just want to talk to you.” Why? “Well, maybe if someone who has money knows your story, they might want to help the project.” I regret saying that; everyone wanted help. Right now. One man explains that he had lost his national ID card. No one would hire him without it. He needs a job to make money to get another one. Could I get him a card? Another man wants only a dollar—knowing I am American. A skinny old man with no teeth complains that his daughter had to give him money. “It shouldn’t be that way,” he tells me. He is ashamed. So is the man who needs a new ID and a job. They don’t want their picture taken. Only from the back. So no one will recognize them. They want work. The Rotarian’s vision of farming and selling clothes would provide jobs for some of the people sitting in line.
I go back to the multipurpose room to help the women finish packing. A man comes to the door and points to me. I come out. “I heard you could help people.” I try to explain that I am writing a blog and will tell other people about the operation, other people who might help. He nods, then says his name and where he comes from. He says he was robbed and needs help now, and he walks away.