During my year of teaching at the College of the Transfiguration (COTT) in Grahamstown, South Africa, two words emerged that are central to the teaching and learning at that institution: context and ethos. COTT is the only residential seminary training Anglican priests in Southern Africa.
Students and lecturers come from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Haiti, Scotland and the United States. While English is the official language of South Africa and COTT, students are more fluent in one of the 11 tribal languages of South Africa, Afrikaans, Shona (Zimbabwe) or Portuguese (Mozambique).
In this setting context is a significant concern. The way we teach and learn has to embrace the experiences and teachings of many different cultures and traditions. COTT’s Xhosa students and staff, for example, combine Christian teaching with tribal traditions of ancestor veneration in a way that results in a richness that is difficult to explain but powerful to experience.
As a community we learn to respect ideas foreign to our experience not only in the classroom, but also in the dining room, the dorm blocks, and in casual conversations in Freedom Square, the central gathering point of the college. We learn to spend more time listening than speaking, looking for commonalities rather than highlighting differences.
It is not surprising that ethos, a Greek word that means character, is closely linked with context. Ethos is the guiding beliefs or ideals that distinguish a community or ideology. The continuing influence of the apartheid years and the struggle that led to freedom along with the relatively new experience of democracy has shaped a new ethos for the people of South Africa. The power of forgiveness and reconciliation that transformed a nation continues to transform its people.
How do these concepts play out in the life of the college? It is a place of incredible learning, both in the classroom and in the places where students and staff live and work together. Old tensions between races, tribes and genders don’t simply disappear: sometimes they fester, sometimes they erupt in anger, but other times new understandings create unexpected relationships and a melding of ideas, traditions and cultures.
My most memorable moment occurred in the classroom during a discussion about postmodernism. A Zulu student and I, who had held each other at a distance for most of the year, suddenly had a meeting of our minds that transcended our differences and forged a friendship to be cherished.
As I return to Virginia Seminary, I hope to bring the listening habits I learned at COTT that grew out of the concepts of context and ethos. A strength of our Anglican heritage is a deeper understanding of our faith through global interaction.
Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum), instructor for the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, spent a year teaching Christian education at the College of the Transfiguration in South Africa. This experience was supported by Virginia Seminary and the Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church.