So, in the midst of this week of mourning the passing of Tata Nelson Mandela, we at iThemba packed up and headed down to the beach for three days for iThemba teens camp. Which I think Madiba would have liked.
We spend weeks and weeks preparing for camp. We spend time praying. We cut, and stick, and make decorations, and google fun games, and pack, and pray, and hope all the teens get sponsored, and go shopping for tons of supplies, and pray, and then… we show up and hope that God shows up, too.
And God did show up this camp. (Well, I mean, he’s always with us, but sometimes we can’t see it or feel it and camp is one of those times where you really want everyone to know he’s there). And he was. He was present in the big things and the small things– like tie-dye shirts.
It was my idea, and I’d done it a few times before. With a KIT that had easy pre-mixed dyes and step-by-step instructions that made, like, one shirt. But Google told me it is very easy to tie-dye and I was a sucker and believed it, and thought it would be the perfect idea for a teen craft. Then we get to camp and I read the dye packets we bought, and they told me that we need 7 liters of boiling water per item of clothing and each packet could only dye one shirt (and being the maths genius that I am I realized we only had 10 packets and 50 teens and so I started to freak out a little. Okay a lot. Internally. )
But we mixed up the dye, the teens dyed them and we let them sit overnight. None of the teens had ever tie-dyed before. Which was great because they didn’t know how it was supposed to end up, but horrible because if their first and only tie-dye experience was an epic fail their whole concept of tie-dying would be forever ruined. You think I’m making a mountain out of a mole-hill, but when I explained to the teens we’d put the shirts in bags overnight, then rinse them out and take them home in the morning, one teen looked up from where he was dipping his shirt in some dye. “What? You mean we get to take these home?” I nodded. “Oh THANK YOU Auntie Steph!! Wow!! This is so great!!” (see what I mean? Pressure, people. I don’t want to be responsible for crushing this poor teen’s joy when all the dye just rinses out of his shirt).
The moment of truth came the next morning. The teens scattered across the campsite to find taps to rinse out their shirts. Here’s how they looked:
It worked! I was SO happy! And relieved! And it was just MAGICAL seeing the teens unwrap the rubber bands and open their shirts, then exclaim excitedly at how they looked. The teens were laughing and comparing patterns and colors, so, so proud of what they’d made. (One teen said hers looked like it came straight from a Mr Price clothing store). Standing there in the sunshine (after two rainy days of camp) seeing the teens in their bright, happy, hippie shirts, hi-fiving each other and complimenting their work, and just having fun being teens (knowing that some of their lives are really, really hard at home) made me sniffle a little and send up a quick, “Thank you God!” prayer.
And if I can start sniffling over the fact that the tie-dye shirt craft worked out, don’t even get me started on 50 teens belting out worship songs, or having the opportunity to pray with teens whose hearts needed God’s healing love, or the small groups leaders who gave 110% to their groups, or the teen who wants to meet with Thulani today so he can understand more about how Shembe* is different to Jesus, or the fact that on this camp we had teens we’ve worked with for years finally open up about the trauma, abuse, and difficult home lives they have… and it was just three days.
It’s Advent. The time we sit in waiting, thinking about the day when Christ will come. And it’s been a great but sometimes a long year for us at iThemba. Other people handle it better than I do (and I’m not even working directly with these kids!) but sometimes the corruption and rottenness in the economic and social system, the spiritual darkness, the horrible pain and suffering that these kids and teens experience really just weighs us down. We know God is with us, that he’s always present, but sometimes we just want him to really show up and make all things new right now…
This camp I was reminded of the privilege I have of serving a God who is real, and listens to our prayers and groans, and shows up where we least expect it (but have secretly been longing for)–in tie-dye shirts and beach camps and mangers.
*Shembe is a Zulu cult with a strong presence in Sweetwaters. They belive a man named Isaiah Shembe was the Zulu Jesus.