UBUNTU: An Invitation into Full Humanity

When I was 19 years old, I sensed a distinct call to full-time professional youth ministry. All of the seasoned youth workers in my life at that time were like superheroes to me. I wanted to be just like each of them. Good grief, if I am really honest, I still do. 

ubuntu - Kindred Youth Ministry

  • One couple launched Young Life in Florida and purchased property so kids of every ethnic variety could go to camp without being discriminated against. 
  • One of our professors was the first ordained woman in the entire history of the Presbyterian church. She graduated as the valedictorian of her seminary class. 
  • Another couple launched the youth ministry program at our college. He was our city’s first Young Life area director and eventually he became a repeat national championship collegiate tennis coach. She led the youth ministry program for 30 years. 
  • One area director went on to manage and develop Young Life properties. He eventually became the Vice President for all of Young Life’s properties. 
  • Another area director became the Chief Development Officer for Young Life. 

As you can see, I was surrounded by giants. Here’s the thing though. They did not even know it. They were not trying to be superheroes. They were each living out their respective calls from a place of quiet strength. They are people of epic humility. 

Bigger and Better

I am embarrassed to confess that I spent the better part of 15 exhausting years trying to become a superhero chasing the illusive carrot of “bigger and better.” Bigger crowds and better programming. Bigger budgets and better buildings. 

I chased after “bigger and better” until it revealed an underlying addiction…to affirmation. If I’m honest, I’m suspicious of why I even agreed to write this blog. 

Since childhood, I have lived with an accusatory voice in my ear reminding me that I am not enough. Not smart enough. Not creative enough. Not attractive enough. Not powerful enough. Not wise enough. Not wealthy enough. And somehow I believed the lie that “bigger and better” would slay the dragon of “not enough.” 

When I was 19, in the sweet spot of my formation as a young leader, God generously surrounded me with men and women who were so approachable, so honest and willing to express vulnerabilities, so authentically broken, so connected to one another, so willing to listen. 

I did not know that what they were actually offering me was quite simply permission to be human…to be myself, the truest version, to lay down striving, to rest in my inherent unearned value as a son deeply loved by the Father. This is what it means to be human. To be Ubuntu. 

Ubuntu Humanity

One South African proverb states, “Ubuntu ungamuntu ngabanye abantu. People are people through other people. In other words we need each other to be fully human and alive. It is in our interaction with others that our humanness flourishes.” 

Now, at 43, I am tempted, once again, to believe the lie that surfaces even as I craft these words. “You are not being human enough.” Thankfully I have continued to surround myself with men and women who help me hold onto what is the most true about me. 

These days, I am a professional counselor and a spiritual director. Most of my work is now done very slowly. One person at a time. One hour at a time. In an obscure office with the door closed. Bigger and better has no place in the work I am involved in now. One of our mottos is “We need a whole lot of slow to grow.” 

If 20+ years of youth ministry and client work has taught me anything, one of the greatest gifts we can offer one another is permission to be fully human. 

Permission to be fully human is simply permission to let our guard down, to allow another person to enter into the mess with us, to risk allowing another to feel with us. 

One of the greatest gifts we can offer one another is permission to be fully human.

Unfortunately, many people may never have the opportunity to experience this kind of full living. Why? Shame. 

Shame: Healthy or Toxic?

There are two kinds of shame. One we need. One we don’t. 

Healthy shame reminds us that we are human. It is, in other words, a much needed reminder that we are not God. It is lets us know that we are finite and possess the ability to make mistakes. Healthy shame allows us to feel guilt and therefore seek out forgiveness. 

Toxic shame, on the other hand, seeks to rob us of our humanity and the healing influences that we all need. Toxic shame whispers lies that are so seductive. It reinforces lies about who you really are. Not that you MADE a mistake, but that you ARE a mistake. 

When we are stuck in toxic shame, we need a way out. 

Ubuntu Undoes Shame

In certain regions of South Africa, when someone does something wrong, he is taken to the center of the village and surrounded by his tribe for two days while they speak of all the good he has done. They believe each person is good, yet sometimes we make mistakes, which is really a cry for help. They unite in this ritual to encourage the person to reconnect with his true nature. The belief is that unity and affirmation have more power to change behavior than shame and punishment. This is known as Ubuntu—humanity towards one another. 

What if we could adopt this ancient practice of restoring one another into wholeness? 

This actually seems to be purpose of community as I am understanding it. 

Jesus’ Invitation to Ubuntu 

Jesus cultivates raw and unfiltered feedback from his closest friends. It’s as if he invites his own community to practice Ubuntu with him, to speak to the essential nature of his truest identity. 

“Who do people say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13)
“Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)
“Why are you looking for me?” (Luke 2:49)
“Why are you trying to kill me?” (John 7:19)
“Have I been with you so long and still you do not know me?” (John 14:9)
“Do you love me?” (John 21:16) 

Maybe that is why I love this familiar beach scene where Jesus gathers his disciples for breakfast after a handful of major failures on their part. On that particular morning, Jesus zeroes in on his friend Peter. Jesus offers Peter something akin to Ubuntu around a home cooked meal to offer him his full humanity back. 

Little does Peter know that Jesus has gathered them with Ubuntu on his mind. He has a fire cooked. Soon they will gather all of the disciple in a circle around that fire, around a meal, and more specifically around Peter. 

Jesus: Peter, do you love me?
Peter: Yes, Lord, you know I do.
Jesus: Then practice Ubuntu. (i.e. feed my lambs)

We know that after Jesus was crucified, the disciples made the decision to gather in a home and essentially commit themselves to what I am coming to understand is the ancient practice of Ubuntu. Those were moments marked by learning to rest in their truest identity. 

Questions to help you consider the practice of Ubuntu

1) How can I first offer Ubuntu to myself? 

2) How can I begin or continue to cultivate a community of others around me who are committed to offering me and one another Ubuntu? 

3) To whom is it hardest for me to offer Ubuntu? 

4) How could I explore offering them Ubuntu and maintain a) a boundary of what is and is not acceptable that allows me to b) remain in my integrity (true self) while c) orienting myself generously toward that person with the assumption that they are doing the best they know how to do? 

5) When have I experienced even just small, subtle hints of Ubuntu in relationships with other adults (friends, family, God)? What did that feel like or stir in me? 

6) When I imagine a consistent rhythm of Ubuntu being more present in my life, what is different about me? What is different about other people in my life? 


About the Author: Hayne Steen

Hayne Steen - Kindred Youth MinistryHayne Steen is the Director of Counseling and Care at The SoulCare Project as well as a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice with Elbow Tree Christian Counseling. Hayne grew up on surfing on the northeast Florida coast where met his wife Ruth Ann while attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where they were both students and Young Life leaders together. Since then they both have been serving in full time ministry with Young Life and the local church all over the state of Florida, in Atlanta and most recently serving on the ministry staff of Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church and the Chattanooga Youth Network. Hayne and his wife continue to live on Signal Mountain with their three children where they enjoy living, playing and worshipping in an amazing community of family and friends.

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