"There is nothing quite like the African bush to soothe and rejuvenate." That experience was conveyed to me by a South African church leader who has been helping plan the speaking tour I just arrived for here in this beloved country.
My wife, Joy, and I decided to use this wonderful speaking invitation to South Africa as an opportunity to take our annual August family vacation here. We arrived for a week of rest before the tour began and spent a few beautiful days on the lovely beaches of the Indian Ocean, still warm even for this end-of-winter period. But then the last two days, our Washington, D.C.-based family did something we have never done before -- visited the game park and wetland reserve to see some of God's most extraordinary creatures. Of course we've seen these animals in zoos before, but we now had the opportunity to see them roam freely in their natural habitat. For a bunch of city kids like us, it was truly amazing.
In Hluhluwe Game Reserve, beautiful zebras slowly grazed with a South African sunset behind them over the mountains. There are no more graceful creatures than giraffes, elegantly tasting the leaves on the tallest trees as they wander together at peace. Buffalos with great horns shared the terrain with antelopes that showed us their speed when they decided to run. And hyenas really do laugh off in the distance.
The greatest moment was when a herd of 50 elephants appeared up ahead moving quickly toward our safari vehicle, but then veered right in front of us -- no more than 10 feet away! Joy asked our young tour guide, "Is this dangerous?!" to which she replied "Ya Ma." It was one of the most extraordinary sights any of us in the Jeep had ever seen. White rhinos seemed the most menacing of all; we watched them quietly and stayed very clear. Just at dusk and early in the morning are the best times to go into the bush and spot the animals, as the cooler temperatures bring them out of their hiding places from the sun. The talented guides look for the animals eyes in the night. One of them, a young man named Sumora, stopped us when he saw something in a tree up that no one else did; it turned out to be a cute little two-inch long chameleon, which eventually crawled into his hand.
The day before we took a river cruise in the iSImangaliso Wetland Park in St. Lucia and saw dozens of hippos swimming while a crocodile lazed on the bank! Beautiful birds were everywhere, including the kingfishers and the most beautiful "goliath herons" standing to the sky on the river bank looking utterly majestic. Given the politics in Washington I had just come from, I just couldn't help but compare one group of hippos to members of Congress -- who had just begun their August recess -- as one of them opened his huge mouth to yawn and likely yap some ugly rhetoric while the others just sat around in the mud doing nothing. (Sorry for that -- still decompressing from D.C.)
It was the trips themselves that were "soothing" and "rejuvenating," and not just from being in the presence of these extraordinary animals. Just slowly boating down that wide, long river, glancing from side to side on the first day and driving through the African bush on the second with unique trees springing up in the vast and beautiful expanses, made us all slowly feel relaxed. The boys said that just spending those hours watching and listening made their souls feel better.
All this is a far cry from the global panic the American media is sweeping us into as the Ebola outbreak continues spreading north of us in West Africa, even as all eyes center westward on the Americans affected. Life is happening here amid God's creation, as commentary on public life and sensationalization of human suffering infects too many of our daily moments at home.
As Wendell Berry writes in "The Peace of Wild Things" (emphasis mine):
"When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."
"I don't feel so important out here," said Luke, as he and Jack looked everywhere and heard these seasoned African companions explain the complicated eco-systems that they so clearly feel a part of. Seeing life so big and so real in this cradle of civilization was just what we needed -- and it all felt so far away from Washington, D.C. Sabbath should change our perspective and restore us again.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided , the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.