Stephen learns from the man who brings the milk that James Jarvis’ wife has just died. Stephen wishes to go pay his and the community’s respects at James’s home, but knows that this is not “according to custom.” He decides to send a note instead. After he writes the note, however, he wrestles with the fact that James’s wife probably died of the sorrow of losing her son, and that would make his note to James cruel. He debates this for a while, then decides that it is the right thing to do, and sends it with a young boy.
So many of South Africa’s problems stem from the country’s adherence to “custom.” Stephen ultimately decides to ignore custom, and instead to truly express compassion. He chooses care for others, for a white man, over allowing “custom” to separate him from another man based on the color of his skin and the facts of their past.
That same day, a storm starts during the religious service, and as the children are confirmed, rain pours through the roof. After it’s over, everyone goes to Stephen’s house to eat the communal meal. Afterwards, the bishop tells Stephen that he has heard about his many troubles, and thinks that perhaps, for his own well-being, Stephen should leave Ndotsheni. He says that Stephen is not well enough to deal with the state of the community, nor the state of the broken church. As he is talking to him, the young boy whom Stephen had sent with the message returns with a note from James. The note thanks Stephen for his kindness, and says that it was Margaret’s will to build them a new church. He also says that his wife was sick before their son’s death.
The bishop—like Stephen himself—sees Stephen’s failures as making him unfit to deal with the troubles of Ndotsheni. But the note that he receives from James suggests otherwise—it suggests that Stephen’s failures have made him more fit to help Ndotsheni. His experience has made him someone who can reach past “custom” and create true bonds with others. Note how Stephen’s fears that Margaret died of grief were incorrect. But he would never have known that had he not ignored custom and written to James. He would have felt guilt about her death, and that would have poisoned his relationship and perhaps destroyed the opportunity to build a new Church. By white and blacks working together, positive change can come to South Africa.
Stephen is overjoyed, and explains that the note is from God. The bishop is skeptical at first, but when he reads it, and hears about the milk and the dam and Napoleon, declares that it is not God’s will that Stephen leave Ndotsheni. When he goes back inside, Stephen finds his wife and some other women making a simple but beautiful wreath for James.
The bishop sees the hand of God at work—and he’s not wrong. It is the hand of God at work, in the sense that it is Stephen’s religious faith and compassion that allowed him to build this bond with James. Now the town and James have created a new cycle, one not of destruction but of giving each other gifts.