From Milwaukee to Africa: An identity, a faithful purpose, and a welcome home
In 1997, God gave me a picture of an African village on a hill. There were clusters of small homes surrounded by children, running and laughing. Mothers were sitting on the steps of these houses interacting with one another. The church was in the centre. There were schools and a skills development center. I saw fields of vegetable gardens. He told me to build the village so that the orphan children will come to know Him as their Father; to create jobs for the rural communities so that they can sustain their families; and the Government will come and see why it works, and we can point them to the Cross.
– TICH SMITH, Founder
Milwaukee-native Christopher McIntyre Perceptions (C.M.P.) is known for his ability to inspire the community using fine art photography and spoken word. He recently had an opportunity to travel to South Africa on a ministry trip to serve and perform. The majority of his time was spent at LIV Village, a model for long term foster care, where orphaned and vulnerable children have a sense of belonging in a supportive community. Perceptions wrote about his travel experience for the Milwaukee Independent, and a selection of his images from the journey are included.
“I’m a long way from Uptown.” This is what I thought as I looked in the bathroom mirror. I was thousands of miles away from my wife, my family, and my city, and thousands of feet off the ground.
I was on an airplane with the world. Literally. A Muslim woman wearing a hijab checked me in before I boarded the flight from the United States to Frankfurt, Germany. A Jewish man sat in front of me. When I dropped my passport, I thought it was behind my seat and asked the woman behind me if she saw anything. She only spoke in German.
There was a white man, a black woman, and a beautiful mixed 7-month year old baby girl to the left of me. The woman on my right was a Quaker who meditated and watched a movie about a young man starting a homosexual relationship. How interesting to be a Christian who is an African American flying to Africa by way of Germany.
Not to mention the time jump. I saw the hour go from 12:18 a.m. to 6:31 a.m. in a matter of seconds. I remember time jumps like that occurring as days blurred into night in my dad’s old “trap house,” the place where drugs were sold. I remembered so much trauma occurring in that house, but I also saw knots of money stashed everywhere.
As I had the flashback on the plane, I counted the singles from my worn, brown leather wallet to determine if I have enough cash to make the currency exchange worth my while. Something is always lost when trading in my U.S. Dollars for Euros and then the South African Rand.
The parallels in my life have always existed, but these days they have become more positive than negative. I wear my past on my face, in my skin, and on my DNA. The greatness, the slavery, the future.
The flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg felt very long. I passed the time watching the superhero movie “Black Panther.” I sat next to a man from Denmark who spoke with me about Trump, Lake Michigan, Denmark financial issues, and how he could not imagine growing up in an urban war zone. The world watches and laughs at America due to our President.
I remember when the plane crossed over to the African continent. It happened at night and I saw the motherland outlined like a power grid, lit up in quadrants then vast spaces of darkness. When daylight hit, my eyes opened from sleep to see a new world. Landing in Johannesburg (also known as Joburg) was swift. I met with my contact whose name was Len Hopkins of Ternion Group International. Len, along with his director of communications whose name is Rod, greeted me. I asked Len what he wished to accomplish as we walked to catch a flight to Durban. Len looked at me and said, “To serve. We’re here to serve.”
As we jumped on a flight to Durban, I rehearsed some of my songs that I would be performing. But I eventually slept for a good portion of the trip. When a flight attendant woke me, I saw mansions atop red soil right at the edge of the ocean. It was what I imagined paradise on earth would look like. Americans have been fooled by too much propaganda. Africa has vast opulence as well as vast poverty, vast dangers yet vast opportunities, vast problems and vast efforts working to change the status quo.
In my opinion, America has nothing on Africa. My counselor told me to make sure I touch the soil as soon as I could. I did. Upon contact with that earth, I thought about how my people crossed the Atlantic on ships by force, and I crossed the Atlantic on a plane by choice. Lyrics from my song “Call It What It Is” makes mention of this in the line: “My ancestors dreamed of me while they swayed and hanged.”
It was such a surreal feeling to know that my race encompassed a diversity of descendants that were kings, prophets, princes, queens, barons, criminals, slaves, pimps, gangsters, bootleggers and entrepreneurs who all had a connection to this land. I believe that the world forgets that Africa was the cradle of humanity.
As I considered these many thoughts and feelings, we were picked up at the airport by a person who works with LIV Village, the goal of my journey and purpose of my trip. I looked out the window as we drove to LIV Village, at first startled from my American reality that the passenger side of the vehicle here was the driver’s side. And instead of using the right side of the road, everyone drove on the opposite left side.
After I accepted this, I was mesmerized by the beauty that we drove past and savored my new reality. Eventually we made a turn and arrived at a large land site that is built on a hill. It was gated and had security gate, along with a huge white cross on the top of the hill. Upon us parking and gathering my things, I saw a man approach us and embrace Len. As I was introduced to Tich Smith, it was explained that he was the founder of LIV Village.
Tich is a man who radiates nothing but love from his heart, and this is apparent at first glance. It was refreshing to see an older gentleman with so much kindness in his heart that was authentic. We were given a tour of the expansive LIV Village compound. They own the land, they create businesses, they train adults, they give jobs, they teach youth, they have their own medical facilities, they are like a city unto themselves. I was blown away at how much they did with having an army of staff to manage a small town of youth. The children ranged in age from pre-school to high school. Some had physical scars or what we would consider slight birth defects, but all of them expressed only smiles.
Many of the youth who were taken from environments where people with AIDS or HIV were filled with superstitions about cures. As a result, the kids had been exposed to trauma, abuse, and sexual exploitation while growing up. At LIV Village, I found them laughing, playing, growing healthy, and sharing in a loving community. I performed my songs and spoken word, and then talked with the youth. It was a greatest honor for me to interact with this future generation, so hungry for knowledge and the desire to thrive.
Tich told us the background stories of children as they passed by. Eventually we retired from the village to the space where we were staying, the home of Tich & his wife Joan. Tich spoke about how he had a vision in 1997 for LIV Village, and today that dream remains alive and well. He takes no credit for its success.
I asked him, “What do you want America to know about LIV Village?” He explained, as tears began to form in his eyes that, “we need to take care of God’s children.”
Anytime we came to the village with Tich, I saw joy enter the hearts of the children as they ran up and hugged him so hard it seemed like they would be tackling him. They called Tich “Baba” and Joan “Gogo,” which translate to “father” and “grandmother.” We served all day and fellowshipped into the the late night. My days were spent laboring on the liv-village.com website.
Tich and Joan planned to visit the United States and then Canada from June to August 2018, for the purpose of spreading awareness about LIV Village. I was honored to be able to assist them in getting their United States web page running, which would allow U.S. residents to give tax deductible donations to the LIV Fund via the National Christian Foundation. My new company, Broken Genius LLC., will also be creating the LIV Village app, powered by Ternion Group International.
Africa has a living history, with the future unfolding in the daily lives of people across the land. The residue of Apartheid is still visible. That reality flooded my awareness in realtime, through the politics I saw acted out and the oral history of people who lived through it. The forefathers of Apartheid came to Alabama to learn about the State’s Jim Crow program for segregation. In Afrikaans, Apartheid means “being apart from.”
As Len and Tich shared more stories with me, South Africa’s Apartheid makes Milwaukee’s segregation look mild by comparison. Whites and people of color make up most of the South African population. Colored does not have the same connotation in South Africa as it does in America. If I were a resident of South Africa filing out paperwork and it requested my ethnicity, based on my skin tone, I would check the box that says “Colored.”
In America, white people called black people “colored” as a derogatory term. History like this came to me from white people and black people in South Africa. I was thankful for the new shift that was taking place due to what I call “Kingdom operations.”
As our time in Durban came to a close, Tich dropped us off at the airport. We embraced and spoke of love and peace, as well as safe travels to one another. Tich was flying to Cape Town, then back to Durban, then to America to connect with Len almost immediately after we returned to the States.
We then flew to Joburg to serve with Len’s church in South Africa called “Kingdom Life Embassy.” We were picked up and delivered to where we would be staying by a man of faith who came from an Islamic household. He was touched by Jesus and gave his life to Him. The next day, we went to church on Pentecost Sunday. The pastor of Kingdom Life Embassy is a man named Apostle Max. I forged deep bonds with him and his wife, Pastor Zee. They were so kind and had a powerfully dynamic ministry. Later in the week we went to a massive shopping mall to eat at a restaurant in Nelson Mandela Square. As I stood under his gigantic statue, it made me wonder if I would ever be able to create a social impact that would be long lasting.
Growing up, I was often told that being an artist was not a real job. I have been homeless for a time in my life. I have also had to stall demands from bill collectors to pay overdue accounts, explaining that I was late because too many times clients did not pay me on time. I have done a lot that required grit and faith all my life, so I expect miracles due to my very existence being one. But it is not common for people in the Milwaukee neighborhood where I grew up to even have a passport. Having a driver’s license is often a challenge. The trip to Africa was a deep spiritual journey for me. It gave me another glimpse of what God can do with my life.
Before I left Joburg, a couple residency opportunities developed for my wife and I to return and teach and serve. The proposals filled me with absolute excitement, and occupied my thoughts upon departure. From the airport I left paradise to return back to the United States. After two flights that totaled 22 hours of travel time with a rude American customs agent included, I was back in Milwaukee.
With all of the experiences I had collected and the journey’s process, I needed time to decompress from everything. I have recovered, including a mild culture shock from seeing the old world of my hometown with new eyes and expanded view.
I have created an exhibit collection of my photographs from South Africa, and they will be on display at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, as they present the Soweto Gospel Choir in November 2018. All of the proceeds – 100% – from the photographic exhibition will go towards supporting LIV Village.
This will be our last summer in Milwaukee for a while. In August, my wife and I will be making the final preparations for moving to Durban, South Africa to serve with LIV Village. We are currently undergoing that amazing transition, and feel blessed for the chance of serving there.
In my journey as an African America going from Milwaukee to Africa and back, I thought about the simple words that Apostle Max said to me on Pentecost Sunday. He said, “Welcome home.” Africa will not just be an ancestral connection, but the place I spend my daily life. Africa will indeed be my home.
Christopher McIntyre Perceptions