Hometown Encounter in South Africa

Fr. John (left) with Dn. Michael Benedict, a member of the Indian District doing his internship with Fr. John, and Sr. Cathy Thomas

“We realized that we got far more than we bargained for when we casually decided to make a trip to Middelburg to meet an interesting man from my hometown,” wrote Barbara Tedrow.

On the suggestion of her mother, Tedrow, a Fulbright Scholar who was teaching and doing research at a university in South Africa, visited Fr. John Strittmatter, SCJ, an American who has devoted most of his life to ministry in and around Middelburg.

Fr. John and Barbara Tedrow share the same hometown: Indiana, Pa. Although Tedrow’s mother didn’t know Fr. John directly, his brother had sold insurance to the family. Strittmatter is a familiar name in Indiana; several of Fr. John’s descendants are buried in the town cemetery near Tedrow’s grandparents and great-grandparents. Fr. John’s home parish of St. Bernard Clairveaux continues to offer financial support to many of the ministries with which Fr. John is involved.

Tedrow’s mother thought that meeting Fr. John would be nice because “it is always good to know someone from home when you live in a far-away place.” And so Barbara and her husband, Bill, made the trip to Middelburg. It ended up being “one of the most unforgettable experiences of our years in South Africa,” she said.

Impressed by Fr. John and his work, Tedrow wrote a 15-page document about South Africa’s Karoo (where Middelburg is located), the needs of its people, the Church’s ministries there and Fr. John himself.

“We feel that his story is important to tell so that others will be encouraged to follow in his steps in Middelburg or other places,” she wrote. She isn’t necessarily on a mission to raise funds for the ministries of South Africa, but to inspire others to do similar work. Visiting with Fr. John “inadvertently worked in a mysterious, practical way to expand my view of social justice, the concept I actually came to study in higher education in South Africa.”

The statements above, and the excepts below, are from Tedrow’s booklet, Fr. John Strittmatter, a Karoo Priest; In Search of Social Justice. For more information about the booklet, or Tedrow’s experiences in South Africa, e-mail her at: bjteddrow@yahoo.com.

Excerpts from Fr. John Strittmatter, a Karoo Priest; In Search of Social Justice:

Meeting Fr. John
Fr. John is not easy to forget. He wears large, vintage aviator-style bifocal glasses that are out of proportion to his thin face. His blue eyes, enlarged by his glasses, provide the backdrop for his big smile and his not so subtle gold eyetooth. Inevitably, he will be wearing his work clothes: an old beige blazer, a faded golf shirt, khaki slacks and old running shoes. Upon talking to Fr. John, one quickly discovers he is a gifted and intelligent conversationalist current on world affairs and a man of deep humor. Because Fr. John speaks Afrikaans, and speaks English with a slight Afrikaans accent, few people suspect he is an American. He reads Xhosa, the local indigenous language, and can include Xhosa phrases in conversation for emphasis when appropriate. Moreover, he is intensely present to the people he interacts with.

He listens respectfully to all persons. In a compelling, low-key way, he explains the needs of the poor in the Karoo and his Middelburg projects and their importance to the empowerment of the people of the region. By the time he is finished explaining, those listening are convinced they want to help. I know this to be true because my husband said he felt a secret envy for Fr. John’s life with its sense of purpose, which he described as “free of glitz, competitiveness, mindless activity, and banal materialism.”

The Karoo
Fr. John’s life and work is best understood with some knowledge of the Karoo. The Karoo is a geographic region of South Africa that encompasses about a 400,000 square kilometer (about 250,000 square miles) area of semi-arid, rugged, sparsely populated land that spreads over several South African provinces in the center of the country. At first glance, one might compare the Karoo landscape to the semi-arid areas of the rural southwest in the United States. Yet, the Karoo is unique. On the horizon, large kopjes (high rock outcroppings) rise majestically in the platteland with distant mountains providing the backdrop. The arid platteland covered with scrubby herb brush that once fed roaming herds of antelopes and zebras now feed the sheep and cattle that produce the Karoo beef and mutton known for its distinct mild flavor.

The real magic of the Karoo begins in the evening. At night, clear, midnight blue skies radiate with the millions of bright stars of the Milky Way. Add the humming drone of crickets and the smell of the burning thorn bush in the air and you are in a paradise.

Unfortunately, in the Karoo, paradise also has endemic poverty and unemployment. Up to 80% of the people living in the region are often unemployed during at least part of the year and tens of thousands live at or below the poverty level.

Temperature extremes are characteristic in the Karoo. The sweltering summer heat and freezing winter cold aggravate the effects of poverty. On cold days, locals often dress in layers of inadequate clothing and tattered winter jackets insufficient to protect them from the cold. The best houses, which are small, cement block government-built homes in the townships have limited heating. The poorest live in informal settlements in makeshift dwellings outside the townships. The simple dirt floor shelters constructed from corrugated metal sheets and discarded boards, car fenders and hoods, leak profusely when it rains. These do-it-yourself shelters are usually without electricity and have only rudimentary heating and plumbing.

The availability of health care services and education for the poor is also a critical issue in the Karoo.

Strittmatter continued; click HERE to return to the first page

Education in a traditional sense is an unlikely route to erase poverty in these circumstances because the immediate goal is survival.

Religious groups in the remote areas are encouraged to apply for government grants from the African National Conference to administer partnership programs that provide health care and education.

Middelburg is located in the westernmost corner of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province at the geographic center of the Great Karoo. It was a cultural island in the apartheid era and so remains in post-apartheid South Africa. Under apartheid, Middelburg was geographically isolated, as well as socially isolated because of enforced legal barriers between the races. Whites lived in Middelburg proper, blacks and coloreds (a South African term referring to those of mixed race) on the outskirts of town. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, Middelburg has transformed into a more inclusive community with the removal of the racially biased laws, yet it in many ways it is still an island.

It is an economic hub in a remote, impoverished region. Social and economic forces continue the racial and economic separation once imposed by apartheid.

The mission
In the extraordinary and incongruous context of the Karoo, Fr. John balances several work roles. In alliance with other churches, civic groups and governmental agencies in and around Middelburg, Fr. John is a priest who operates as a non-profit entrepreneur, providing individual empowerment through job development in addition to being a micro economic lender, counselor, community advocate and networker.

For the multiple roles, his personal response is uncomplicated. He lives a simple, humble life with respect and generosity toward all.

Fr. John works with two colleagues, including Sr. Cathy Thomas, a nurse and hospice administrator. [Since Tedrow’s writing, Sr. Cathy was named superior of her religious community.] The team serves three churches in Middelburg and its suburbs. This team, along with many active volunteers, interacts with three, diverse groups: whites, blacks and those of mixed race.

Therefore, there are three churches. The few white worshippers in Middelburg attend Mass at a miniscule chapel located next to Fr. John’s home. The other two church sites serve the black and mixed-race parishioners who live in the segregated townships at the outskirts of town. This separateness is primarily due to the tradition of social segregation imposed during the apartheid era, which continues today because of habit, economic conditions, and limited transportation options. Fr. John celebrates daily Mass at one of the churches [rotating to each] and everyone is welcome. Since the end of apartheid, the three historically segregated Catholic congregations have come together for special church celebrations. Each community takes a turn hosting Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday Mass.

A trusted leader
Early each morning, Fr. John is in his bakkie, a small, battered pick-up truck, heading out to celebrate Mass. Inevitably, the bed of the truck will carry men whom he will drop off at various work projects along the way.

Forty years ago, Fr. John was a stranger viewed with suspicion. Today, people of all colors and religious denominations note his integrity, consistency, and his ability to facilitate resources for the poor in and around Middelburg. This type of trust-building took time.

Knowing three of the languages spoken in South Africa helps Fr. John relate to the people on a deeper level. He cultivates a caring and non-intrusive leadership style. He is adamant that no one in this kind of work can isolate himself with only one group. He says that the sure way to become biased is to affiliate yourself with only one group and isolate yourself from the concerns of other people’s lives.

Fr. John’s main counseling office is his front porch. Each day, late in the afternoon, he opens his front door to greet visitors. He starts with those on his porch and then moves further through the line that winds to the end of the block. He listens and considers all the requests of those who want a loan for a special need or have an idea that will help the individual or community. At the very least, Fr. John will contribute a few rand [South African currency] for a loaf of bread. Fr. John believes that small loans to bury a loved one, pay school tuition for a blind teenager, or buy a used car for job transportation, as well as making referrals for a person to get a job, or simply help someone get his next meal is a part of his mission.

Trust can be difficult. Fr. John does this work often at a significant risk. He has been a victim of attacks in his own house on two occasions. Friends and colleagues worry for his safety as other priests from this remote area have died in similar attacks. He acknowledges that it is important to be careful. He admits, “Sure, I’ve been afraid at times… so afraid that my knees shook.” However, he firmly believes his work requires trust in those he seeks to help so he assumes such risk in order to maintain accessibility.

Fr. John points to many examples of success. The HIV/AIDS clinic has been very successful in helping individuals and their families. He notes people he has helped. One young man became a high-ranking employee of an international corporation, another a police officer. A local artist whom he had design and paint a mural for the soup kitchen is now producing films about South Africa in Cape Town.
Helping people “is about doing the right thing for them so that they can move beyond survival, improve themselves and hopefully, develop a sense of their personal journey,” said Fr. John. “This is not always measurable.”

As a priest in South Africa he sees his role not just as one who celebrates Mass, though that is part of it. It is not about conversion, though conversions happen. It is about helping people to help themselves.

The future
As we sat around Fr. John’s old wooden desk, with piles of unread mail mixed among tools, statues, books and old magazines, Sr. Cathy explained her concerns for the future. There is a fragility to missionary work. She and Fr. John are feeling the pressures of age and their resources are wearing thin. They need a secretary, bookkeeper, newsletter writers, community developers, managers, nurses and grant writers.

They need a consistent internet connection.

Fr. John plans to spend his remaining years in South Africa unless “I become a burden to the community here, then I will return to the United States,” he said.

When my husband and I said our final good-bye to South Africa in 2005, we were still in awe at how our lives, Fr. John, social justice and Indiana, Pa., came together in Middelburg. By documenting Fr. John’s life and work, I began to better understand the subtleties of the choices we make. I realized that my response to my mother’s suggestion to visit Fr. John inadvertently worked in a mysterious, practical way to expand my view of social justice. Fr. John acts in ways to make his work and life more meaningful and it continues to benefit the greater good.

In the end, I realized we are also among those who benefited from knowing him.