As some may know, I just recently went to South Africa for a two week missions trip in Capetown. There we worked with two primary townships: Langa and Gughletu. Despite being a rather short trip of only two weeks, those two weeks truly turned my view of the world a whole 180 degrees. I hope to be able to discuss some of the lessons and memories gained from that trip here. Unfortunately, I cannot post any pictures of the children that we worked for their personal safety. But I hope the words written here can tell the same story as the pictures would.
Week 1: Landing and Holiday Club
As we prepared to leave Dulles Airport in DC, none of us truly knew what to expect from this trip. We had little idea of what was planned, what we were going to do, and how things were going to operate. Our flight pattern had one layover in Paris, from DC to Paris, and from Paris to Capetown. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
On the way to Capetown, our flight had struggled to land in the intense fog that set down on the Capetown airport, causing us to stay for another 2 hours and fly to the nearest international airport in Johannesburg. There we stayed the night (and morning, noon and afternoon) until our flight the next day at 8:00pm. We finally reached Capetown, a wholly 24 hours later than expected.
After we had safely landed and had a day to tour around and to get to know the city, we sat down to be briefed on our first week of activities: the Holiday Club, an event that would open my eyes to the intense desolation, but also the enormous content found in children living in Langa.
The holiday club was simple, for one week, we would hang out with the kids, teach them numerices, sing songs with them, play games with them, and to teach them how they were never alone. But as much as it was a challenge to keep the kids from fighting, getting too loud, or just becoming a total wreck, it was just as much a challenge for the team members to bear witness to the extremities of the poverty in which these children lived. As the week progressed, I continued to think of the children’s lives, each having to care for their younger siblings because their parents were off working, or doing drugs, or simply absent. One of the children wrote for an activity of why they felt alone, “Help me”, “Parental abuse”, “No friends”. The children we worked with saw school not as simply a place to learn, but a safe haven to protect oneself from the horrors of modern day familial life.
Yet through all of this background and pain, the kids played as if there was nothing wrong, laughed as if they had never been abused, and studied with eager hearts and hungry minds. A lesson that we can all take away: that a person is not judged by his circumstances, but by his character.
But the best time of the holiday club was singing with all the children every morning before class began. As we sang songs of worship, I fell in love with the music, the lyrics. But I fell more in love with the passion of which the children sang. The tears from which some children cried, and the voices that the children used to sing. Standing at the front and leading the children in worship was a sight like no other and one that I cherish greatly.
As the time we had with them came to a close, it was hard to grapple with the idea that their lives may gravitate back to the normal abuse, search for food, and life pain. But through the holiday club, we brought them a gift like no other, the gift of hope.
Week 2: Gughletu and Barcelona
The second week, we headed out to another township called Gughletu. At first I thought Langa was the worst poverty could get, and then I saw Gughletu. Rather than having brick walls and paved roads, Gughletu had metal shacks, pieced together by scrap metal found from the junkyard and muddy roads that flooded every time there was rain. We were working with a little orphanage found in the hearth of Gughletu called Barcelona, where children of all ages were left by their parents at a young age, unable to raise and feed them. It was an orphanage where the children played with tire swings and little red bicycles with almost no room to ride them. It was an orphanage stricken by poverty surrounded by nothing but metal and mud. And yet the children played, the children laughed, the children smiled. The children loved individuals and realized that they were never alone.
We took the older kids to do some cool running (bobsledding but on concrete), having fun like they never could have imagined. They were overjoyed, laughing hysterically and bragging to each other how fast they went. We provided them hot dogs for lunch as they played in the sand and enjoyed the time with us in a beautiful park in the heart of Cape Town. But it was sad to be reminded of the meager fact that these children had to go back and live at an orphanage, a place where they called home.
The next day, we took the younger kids to the park, playing on the playground, and riding down the slides. It was memorable to see the youthful joy, and happiness where the kids played, each with fervent joy, never ceasing to rest, and always looking for more things to play. I watched a kid make a makeshift kite, from a plastic bag with two wooden sticks pieced together, running with unspeakable joy, even with the kite simply flopping behind him. These children had hope like no other, and a joy that could not have come from simply the circumstances around them. They had a purpose that was beyond themselves and found ways to remember that purpose without looking at the world around them.
As much as I’d like to say that I learned how the children felt and the lives they lived were, I simply can’t. These children live in extreme conditions, while I have lived my entire life in affluence. As much as I’d like to empathize, I can only sympathize. I can only instill in these children a hope that can be found somewhere else, a living hope that lives inside of them from day to day. But I have learned that the same hope we instill in those children is the same hope that we must all as humanity have together. I believe that hope is what binds all of us together, provides us a sense of purpose beyond simply ourselves. It is what makes us human, the capacity to hope and to discover meaning beyond simply the physical. I have also learned that one must always leave to serve. As people of affluence, we must not sit idle and wade in the joys that we may possess, but rather go out to the world and make a difference. We must learn, but we must also serve. We cannot and should not seek to grow a personal fortune of wealth, but rather grow a personal fortune of giving. We must put giving as a priority in our lives and altruism at the forefront. This world is wholly unfair, and we truly do all recognize it. But no matter the odds and no matter how unfair it may be, it is still our world. And I truly believe that it is our responsibility to make the difference we can with things we have. Nelson Mandela once said that “It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another. May we take those words into heart as we live out our lives.
To close, I’d like to leave with you an excerpt that I wrote about South Africa.
Have as much fun as you can, remember the places, remember the moments. Remember all the caps games and all the kemps games. Remember the late night pow wows and the cozy safari night. Remember the giraffes, the wildebeests. Remember the mountains and the beauty of Capetown. Remember the children you worked with: the ones you held, the ones you laughed with, smiled because of, cried because of. Remember all those children you comforted when they were sad, taught them when they were eager to learn and loved them because they were never alone. Remember the poverty, the horrifying picture of desolation and hopelessness found in the muddy streets of Langa and Gughletu. But most of all, remember that God is good, that a true living Hope lives among us and thrives through us. Remember that he is always at work, never stopping, never failing. Remember how God used you as a broken vessel as a tell tale ministry. Remember that God is good through all the days. Cry tears of joy, cry tears of hope, not tears of regret, of pain, of hurt. Cry for the children, cry for the people, may your heart forever show the love you have for the world and may the work by your hands show the grace of God upon this earth.
Thank you South Africa.