We met Thapelo Motsetse last March. Actually, Dylan met Thapelo and introduced him to us. Dylan had a developing passion for basketball, and since our house is next door to the only school with a decent court here in town, it’s an ideal place to hone one’s skills.
Thapelo was from another town. He had moved here to work as a public defender. Having just graduated from law school, Thapelo was studying for the bar exam while serving with Legal Aid. His contract was scheduled to keep him here through June 2016. He was at the school shooting hoops and the rest, as they say, is history...
There was an instant bond between Thapelo, Dylan and my brother Caleb. I won’t lie, I felt it too. Here was a young man with an infections personality, a contagious smile and an energy for life. Qualities that are in short supply around here sometimes. The first time I met Thapelo was on a rainy day, when a game of 2-on-2 broke out at the Welkom High courts. Dylan and I played vs Thapelo and Caleb. At first it was just a couple sprinkles, but then it turned into an outright downpour. Puddles started to appear on the court. But the rain couldn’t stop us, it could only hope to contain us. I don’t want to say who won, but let’s just say this old man felt pretty good that afternoon. But what really stood out to me was the character of this young man. No foul language, respectful of the two young women who were also at the court, a strong and confident approach to the game.
From that day our relationship only grew. Thapelo became friends with Dylan, Tolu, Teboho, Cathy, Neo, Paddy. He would join us every Thursday night for supper. Many Saturdays he would pop in for awhile after some hoops with the guys. He began attending church and Bible studies with us. On at least a couple occasions I had the opportunity to share the gospel with him and he professed agreement and joined in with spiritual discussions. His What’s App profile often quoted Scriptures or included prayers of thanksgiving for God’s grace.
You can tell something about a person by the way they relate to authority and to their peers. But you can tell even more by how they relate to those “beneath” them. Thapelo treated our children with such a wonderful affection, putting up with their nagging and often joining in their antics. As a public defender, he would refuse to take cases of domestic abuse. He couldn't stand the thought of defending someone who would beat their wife, girlfriend or child.
Always quick-witted, you had to watch what you said around him because he could make you look foolish fast...but always in an endearing and enjoyable way. He used to mimic Tolu’s Nigerian accent in a way that no matter how West African Tolu is, you could still see him blushing!
A strong competitor, we played lots of games. One of the most enjoyable memories I’ll ever have is when a game of touch rugby broke out at the Cheetah’s stadium in Bloemfontein. We had taken some of the guys down to watch a professional rugby match. After the game was over the boys went down to the field and started fooling around. Some prep school kids then challenged our guys to a game of touch rugby and it was on! Thapelo was one of those gifted athletes that moved like a cat. Since Caleb, Tolu and I had never played before, it was a learning experience for us. But we won that night and rode off into the sunset as pick-up, touch rugby champs!
Thapelo took the bar exam in August. He passed some sections, had to take re-examinations on others. Just last week he sent me a message that he had passed one of those re-exams. Only one left in February and he would finally get his license to practice law.
This past Sunday night Dylan received a text message from one of his friends. Thapelo had been visiting his mother over the weekend. On his return trip he was killed in a car accident.
We were shocked!
Of course, we’ve all experienced a death of someone close. But usually it’s due to prolonged illness or old age. It’s something that can be anticipated. This was a young man full of life - a life filled with potential, hopes and dreams. He had just bought his mother a car, even though he didn’t own one himself. He had plans of starting his own law firm (aptly named Not Guilty, Inc.).
We still haven’t learned the details of the accident. But yesterday there was a memorial service for him here in town (he’ll be laid to rest this Saturday in his hometown of Clocolan). The service was well attended, by both black and white people. His colleagues, magistrates, friends and even the chief prosecutor spoke highly of his character. The magistrate whose court he was assigned to was clearly struggling emotionally, speaking of how dear Thapelo had become to her. The final eulogy was given by the woman in charge of the Welkom Justice Centre. She struggled through her speech, often moved to tears (something I can empathise with). She spoke of how Thapelo had become a son to her. Their year-end awards are coming up. She opened a letter and announced that Thapelo would have won the award as the best defence attorney. She then produced the trophy that already had his named engraved on it. Then she read the speech she had already written about him to present the award. I watched the look on his mother's face as this all took place and it crushed me.
We've been back in South Africa about 3 weeks. In that time we had both tried to arrange times to see each other, but for one reason or another just hadn't been able to align schedules. One day I was in another discipleship meeting. One weekend he was out of town to visit his mother, another time at a session to help prepare him for his bar re-exams. Our last memory of Thapelo was our last Sunday before furlough in the States. July 19. I had just finished preaching. We needed to spend the afternoon packing, arranging things here at the house and getting ready to be away for 3 months. Thapelo comes to me after the service and greets me. Then he just kind of stands there. Thapelo was extremely well-mannered, so this seemed out of place. I asked what he was doing that afternoon.
He said "Nothing."
Then he asked me what we were doing. I said "Packing... (awkward pause) ...want to come over for lunch?"
"Yeah," he said, as he uncorked that smile.
"What is Amber going to say?" I remember thinking to myself. We've got so much to do and I've just invited people over for lunch. But my awesome wife didn't even bat an eyelash. So, we spent the afternoon trying to multi-task, visiting with the guys and getting stuff done. But, man, am I glad we did!
We were so looking forward to reconnecting with everyone when we got back to South Africa. I especially looked forward to seeing Thapelo. I had started adapting a Bible study from Chuck DeCleene that I could go through with him. We had plans. But God had other plans.
It hurts. I'm the missionary, but I find myself wishing I had done a better job. Dylan is hurting terribly. Amber and I are too. All three of us find ourselves thinking those thoughts that come when something like this happens - maybe it's a mistake. We'll get a message that it was somebody else. You see someone in town and think it's him. You wonder why a young man with such a high character, intelligence, potential and spiritual sensitivity would be taken. There's so many that don't deserve another breath. Why Thapelo?
But that's the point, isn't it? We stand in judgement of the murderers, rapists, molesters. There's no shortage of those here. In the 3 weeks we've been back we know of 4 different break-ins. One was a simple smash-and-grab. Two included children being held at gunpoint or knifepoint while the intruders robbed the house. One woman was raped twice and her son stabbed. And deep down inside, we all know that justice must be served, that these people deserve to be punished.
But then I read Romans 2 and realise that all of us stand guilty before God. The very fact that we think someone else deserves judgement proves that we also deserve judgement ourselves. Yet, we see the beauty of God's justice - that the mercy of God is meant to lead us to repentance (Rom 2:4). I can't answer the question as to why God took Thapelo now. But I know that God is good. I know that God is wise. I know that God is powerful. And so I trust God.
And I realise that I don't deserve that next breath any more than the murderer, rapist or molester. So why do I get it? Because God is gracious. He gave His own Son to take the wrath against sin, so that I could be clothed with His righteousness. And while part of me is jealous that I don't get to be with Jesus now, I also know that each day is a gift...not a gift for me to spend for myself, but for my Lord.
Let us give Him thanks be responding in obedience to His commission, and let us honour our fellow man by loving them enough to speak to them of our great hope!