A secular sermon for a new age

2011-06-25 10:36

There is a danger that many of ­today’s youngsters will end up believing that the only way they can get ahead in life is through the intervention of some powerful institution, or the wholesale change of laws.

But Michelle Obama’s speech in ­Soweto this week suggests that there are other ways for young people to find meaning and ­purpose in their lives.

At the core of her message, Obama suggested that some of the most remarkable ­social achievements are brought about by strong, actionable, individual belief.

This is a very necessary and timely perspective ­because it reimagines the sources of success away from grandiose projects to smaller, ­personal ones.

It is appropriate that Obama’s message was one that centred so strongly on the power of personal belief because South Africa’s own struggle for freedom leveraged the power of belief to inspire young and old to bring down a rotten but powerful regime.

Sadly, today all one hears about are “resources, resources, resources” and it leads people to throw their hands up in despair, feeling that there is not much they can achieve without a big institution or huge infrastructure.

As Obama spoke of her own modest ­upbringing and how she had followed her heart, not her career, it was clear that she wanted to remind the youth that their own choices still mattered.

Of course, Obama did not come to ­Regina Mundi to preach; she came to speak to young African women leaders. But by the time she’d finished her rousing speech, it was clear that even though she had not come to preach, she had delivered a secular sermon for a new age.

Hers is a most important ­message because its power lies in the depth of her personal beliefs that the greatest change comes not from changing laws, but changing people.

It was truly remarkable to listen to the wife of the most powerful ­president in the world using not the language of institutional power, but that of personal power.

When Obama took to the podium, her speech was filled with the diction of one who is familiar with the power of the places of worship that also double up as the places of ­resistance and rejuvenation.

She placed this solidly built church in Soweto within the axis of those places that earn the right to be called “sacred”.

For those of us who forget or are urged to forget our own history, it was deeply moving to hear the US First Lady remind us that ­Regina Mundi is more than a church, but one of our most important sanctuaries.

She regaled us with the historic events of June 16 1976 with an enthusiasm that spoke of her own grasp of the rejuvenating powers of fresh memory.
But it was her ability to ­connect the struggles of her own country some 50 years ago to those in South Africa 35 years ago that uplifted so many in the ­audience.

In an era in which the mantra of the economy can often be deafening, drowning out all other impulses, especially those towards social justice, Obama revalidated the right of the young to fight for their own causes.

She was correct to point out that many of the victories that are available to today’s young leaders may not get their names ­emblazoned across the pages of history, but this does not make them any less valid.

Listening to her speak – with her powerful but sensitive voice that traced a trajectory of the highs and lows, the pain and joy, and the losses and triumphs – one was clearly in the presence of one who walks on the path of those who know that belief, especially powerful ­belief, moves people to action more quickly than anything else.

As each of us waited within the hallowed walls of Regina Mundi for the US First Lady, we had no clue what to ­expect.

But as she walked on to the podium after a glowing ­introduction by Graça Machel, we knew right away that we were in the presence of one ­worthy of all the high praise she receives.

Within a minute of her speech, Obama had managed to turn all of us seated in that church into highly attentive listeners, eagerly waiting for each word to drop from her lips.

She did this first by showing us her own clear grasp of the historic role that Regina Mundi has played in both the spiritual and political life of Sowetans.
For each of the young women to whom her words were aimed directly, and those of us lucky enough to see and hear her, her speech revealed truth after powerful truth from the moment she opened her mouth.

She reminded each of us that – armed with our beliefs – we can be caring, that we can do good, and that we can connect the dots ­between the heroic struggles of the past to today’s struggles. Our takeaway was a renewed sense of purpose.

In the end, Obama was right to call us to repeat that most rousing of actionable beliefs: “Yes We Can!” 

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