Updated: Jan 12
By Annie Newcomer:
"One day I hope to connect with people in South Africa.
I want to understand different cultures, and maybe I can help others make a positive difference there, if even in a small way."
I am not sure what prompted me to speak up that morning in Sunday School class in a new church that I had recently joined after marrying my husband. But I did.
This was approximately forty years ago. A gentleman in the class responded directly to my comment. While I can't remember his exact words, it felt as though he said, "Annie, this is never going to happen. I know that you have a big heart, but you need to face reality. Perhaps setting more reasonable goals closer to home might be more appropriate."
I considered what he said and realized he made sense. I felt ridiculous. Where had this idea come from? Why had I bothered to share? Was I trying to impress my husband's friends, I wondered? I started to doubt myself. I wasn't upset with the gentleman because he was then and still is one of the kindest people I know.
But neither he nor I understood in the '80s how the birth of the internet and the flux of travel were to connect our Earth in heretofore unimaginable ways, making global communities possible. Fast forward four decades, and my dream is now my reality. Friends and family from South Africa throughout the U.S. (New York, Missouri, Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, and New Mexico) and in South America (Uruguay) participate in a group that we call Prayer Walkers Without Borders. One member in this group is Thembi Mdluli, and she is the soul sister in South Africa who I imagined and longed for so many years ago and is now in my life.
Briefly, Prayer Walkers Without Borders is modeled on Doctors without Borders. I learned about this medical organization from the surgeon who treated my melanoma six years ago. During my procedure, I shared about my involvement in poetry (he'd never had a poet as a patient before), and he shared about his ministry with DWB. Imagining his work inspired me to invite friends from all over the world to receive a written message I'd create once a month and send through email. They also committed to walking once a week. During their walk, I ask that the members pray for one another and their families and friends, thus expanding the circle. For those who cannot walk, any type of exercise counts. Members are invited to share their responses to my monthly messages when/if they like, and then I pass them on to the group.
Thembi Mdluli's response to my November message, which she has given me permission to share, took my breath away. In Part 1 of this series, I have included my message and her response as well as her video clip of children from a pre-school in Mpumalanga, South Africa, that she founded.
In Part 2 of this series, I will share more about my friendship with Thembi, how we met in South Africa, and why I feel so fortunate to be her friend. In addition, I will walk you through the various ministries she has developed in South Africa and include a flash interview with her. I hope you will enjoy meeting this lovely woman.
Original Message from Annie
Dear Prayer Walkers, November, 2021 Message
There is a quote that I love and try to live by. This is not exact but rather I will share my version of the verse.
“There can be no true happiness when the things we say that we believe in are not in line with how we are actually living.”
Years ago, I was in a writing workshop where the participants were much older than I. Sometimes someone from the assisted living facility, not in the actual class, would pop into the classroom and ask me with a wink and a smile, “Are you lost?” The seniors seemed to love having me and always made a fuss over me. I must confess that as one who grew up in a family of 9 children, I was not used to a lot of attention, and I absolutely loved feeling so special!
So I ❤️ this class. I think it was also because, in my estimation, the air was full of wisdom and vulnerability at the same time. These people had lived so many years longer than I, and they had experienced life in so many different and interesting ways. I was eager to hear their stories and [was] fascinated by them. Even though their bodies were often aching, they were happy just to have a seat at the table.
During those 2 years, instinctively I understood that I was being offered a gift of a lifetime. I often replay memories of those experiences from this time again and again in my head.
A prominent memory: One day an older veteran joined the class who had AMAZING stories of wartime. He was asking for technical help with his spelling and other literary & writing skills. I know that the teacher was in emotional and physical pain after living a full but challenging life, but this gentleman and his journey to share his stories brought the worst out in this retired professor. She was exceptionally rude to him one class, surpassing even her usual putdowns, and I kept silent. I remember thinking, “Why do I always feel the need to SAVE the world? This really isn’t my problem. And finally at nearly 60 years I am a teacher's pet!”
And then the next week he was absent. Months passed, and he never came back. I hadn’t spoken up at the time. I hadn’t been the person who I professed to be or who I believed myself to be.
I couldn't ignore that when I had a chance, I didn’t live in the way I announce myself to the world to be. I felt such immense disappointment in myself that my heart truly ached.
Finally, I went to the teacher and told her that her constant demeaning of this writer was wrong. I traded in my exciting “Teacher’s Pet” status in this class to tell her what I believed from my perspective to be true. It was never quite the same between us.
A year later, I gave one of my first poetry readings at the local library. This veteran and his wife were the first people to come—nearly an hour early. I was SHOCKED to see him and so GRATEFUL.
There is more to the story, of course, with a second chapter with this veteran in my life, a story for another time.
I believe that all our personal stories belong to us, and often we are the hero or heroine of our OWN stories. But we have to be careful about that tactic.
What I learned from this experience, though, was that NOTHING on this Earth matters to me as much as trying, even though I fail again and again to be the person with all the potential God gifted me. I believe this starts with no frills & just being a decent human being.
Why am I telling you this long story? Something happened recently that made me realize yet again how extremely important it is to have a motto or commitment to a path that we hope to faithfully walk on this Earth.
Whether you walk or exercise another way this month, in prayer, which is lifting our hearts and minds to God, let's support one another.
This is amazing! I read your email over and over, and each time I read it, it sounded like some of my past experiences.
To share one of them with you:
In 2005, the owners of the Private Game Lodges in Sabi Sands were concerned about the number of death and sick staff members within their establishment. It was clear without a medical doctor's diagnosis that it was because of HIV-related illnesses. So, Sir Richard Branson (the owner of Virgin Airlines, entrepreneur, and owner of Ulusaba Game Lodge) invited a Dutch medical doctor who eventually became my employer when I worked as the Projects Coordinator for his AIDS Awareness project to assist.
Unfortunately, the late owner of Lion Sands, who supported my community projects, had no idea what HIV meant. He then invited me to join him and to answer any questions on behalf of his Lodge. Getting there, I was the only woman in the meeting, the only Black person. To add on top of this, everyone there was a lodge owner/Operations Director or General Manager.
As I walked in, I heard some of them whispering that I was lost. Towards the end of the presentation, just to put everyone at ease, the medical doctor (Dr. Hugo Tempelman) asked me to come to the front to present myself. I gave the best presentation ever! The doctor appointed me before I could sign a contract.
As you said, I am the heroine of my own story.
When you sponsored me to attend the AIDS conference, it was so special. Something that will stay in my heart forever!
Like you, I am not used to getting a lot of attention 😊. At the end, Sir Richard Branson asked me to join him for a drink and bar snacks. Everyone was surprised! A few of them shook my hand as I was leaving and asked me how I managed to have a drink with Branson,
Annie, you are an inspiration to me.
P.S. Enjoy the video of the children at Henna pre-school wishing you and all our sponsors a Merry Christmas.
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing. Annie also helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to write poetry!