World Aids Day, (Monday, first week in Advent)

Ok folks, I won’t post all the Advent reflections on here. But it’s World AIDS day. I had to say something. 🙂 Then I promise I won’t spam you with any more unless you ask. 🙂 

The boots of all those invading troops,

    along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood,

Will be piled in a heap and burned,

    a fire that will burn for days!

Isaiah 9:5 (MSG)

We all live in the shadow of death. He doesn’t leave any of us alone, of course, but his shadow is very deep and dark right here. If I was a 24-year-old female living in Sweetwaters, I would be HIV+, since 60% of women in my age group are positive. It’s not as bad as it used to be—you don’t see a bulldozer sitting at the cemetery on a Saturday, ready to cover over graves quickly and move people along for the next funeral like you did maybe ten years ago. We’re not dying as fast as we used to. But we’re still dying.

There are those that have already been swallowed up by the Death, and those who are left behind, the long shadow falling back over us. The orphans. The widows. The Grandmothers. The brothers and sisters.

It’s war, but even if we get transmission rates to drop, even if we get prevalence down to the single digits, we’re all going to die of something. If it’s not AIDS, it’s cancer, or TB, or a gunshot, or a car. It’s a war, and so far Death has won every battle.

Well… almost every battle. There was that one time, in Jerusalem, with that one guy, named Jesus. And they say that wasn’t just a once off thing. They say that his coming to life again was the start of putting death to death, and that one day all the sad things will come untrue, and all the broken things will be made new, and death will be no more, because death himself will die.

So I’m striking another match today. This one is lighting the fire that will burn all of death’s bloodstained boots, and broken weapons. Because a Son has been born that is going to put death to death.

Today is World AIDS Day. Light a match with me. Consider donating to an organization that is working to help end the AIDS Crisis—not just by dropping transmission rates, but helping young people know how to find true life that lasts forever.

IThemba Projects is a great one: http://www.ithembaprojects.org.za

But there are others: http://www.reachforlifenoregrets.co.za

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Healed beggars and other delightfully compelling acts of God that people can’t ignore.

HEALED BEGGARSI’m still thinking about that shriveled, old, beggar. That moment when Peter stretched out his hand, helped the man to his feet, and the thin, crooked legs became strong and the twisted angles straightened, and even though the man was still as thin as a rail, he gasped with astonishment and slowly, shakily at first took a few steps, then laughed, and took a few more steps, then gave a little hop, then laughed some more.

And a crowd started to gather. And murmurs rushed through them, like the rustling of leaves, “Is that him? Isn’t that the beggar? Can he really walk? Is that him?” And the beggar shouts, “Yes, it’s me!” And he runs, and laughs again, still so astonished that it’s really his own legs holding him up. “I’m healed!” he calls out, and then he repeats himself, jumping on each word for emphasis. “I! (Jump) Am! (Jump) Healed!” (Jump, jump, jump!) And then he sees Peter and John over by Solomon’s colonnade, and rushes over to them, now eye level (now no longer looking up at them) and he gives them a huge sweaty, smelly hug, and starts blubbering with joy and won’t let go.

 

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ISHIBOBO Holiday Club

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Fun with parachutes!

“What are some hopes and goals you’re setting for yourself as you go into this week?” Sizwe asked all the volunteers from Hilton and Pietermaritzburg gathered for Holiday Club Training this past Monday. As I’m now a “one-day-a-weeker” at the moment with iThemba, David and I were thrilled with the chance to get to help out with the 3-day ISHIBOBO Holiday Club in Sweetwaters. YAY! Playing with kids, my favorite! (*Ishibobo- a Zulu word for the soccer move when you kick a ball between someone else’s legs).

A few people shared really good things. Then there was that awkward pause and, because I can’t stand those, I tried to think of something quickly. “Um, I’d like to notice the kids on the edge who are shy or not really involved in the games and try and include them.” Woah. I impress myself sometimes with how fast I can think. That’s why I did so well in school. 🙂

I know I said that was my goal, but it’s sometimes fun to see how God holds you to what you say, even when you say it flippantly. When we got to our venue (iThemba ran the club simultaneously at two different venues this year), there were over 350 kids. Crazy. Fun. Exhausting. Did I say crazy?

The soccer-themed games worked really well, though and while it’s a challenge to get 350+ kids to sit and listen, they were pretty well-behaved for the messages about “being chosen for God’s team” and “following Jesus as our coach” and “using your gifts for God’s team.”

 

Kids sitting in their four groups to play a ball game

Kids sitting in their four groups to play a ball game

 

But God kept reminding me to “look out” for those on the edges. I guess I thought I would be like Jesus or something, noticing those being left out… you know, be a blessing and all that. But of course, the person sitting on the edge was more of a Jesus to me than I was to him.

I’ll call him “Sam”– he has cerebral palsy, so he can’t do the active games like all the other children can. He would come and sit next to me and help hold the camera, or give hi-fives to the kids who finished their relays. He attends a school down in Pietermaritzburg, so we only ever see him at Holiday Club events. I knew who he was, but I had never spent that much time with him. I’d heard from other volunteers and staff members about what a light he was to them, and now I’ve experienced it myself! His huge smile, and the way he brought out the best in the other kids was so inspiring. Kids would slow down to help him, or pause to give him a high-five, or wave hello as they ran past. Everyone knows him. Everyone smiles when they see him. And I got to spend 3 days hanging out with him.

I don’t know if Sam knows Jesus. I hope he does. But he really showed Jesus to me.

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Pray for the new Saturday Kids Club that is starting up at this Holiday Club Venue, where kids can come every week to hear about Jesus and have fun together! 

 

Skills

Rachel and David are coming to help iThemba. If you want to contribute to their fundraising, you can go to: http://www.gofundme.com/3jwf2w

Rachel and David are coming to help iThemba. If you want to contribute to their fundraising, you can go to: http://www.gofundme.com/3jwf2w

So, I want to tell you about some volunteers that are coming to iThemba that I am super excited about! Firstly, I’m excited because I know them– Rachel and David are two friends from Taylor University where I attended. Secondly, I’m excited because they are volunteering their awesome photography and video skills to iThemba. For two weeks they will shadow our staff, capturing images that we can use in the future.

Sometimes I think in the Christian community there is this idea that if you are going to go on a short-term missions trip the  purpose should be some form of evangelism so you can go back and tell your church how many souls you saved. (Maybe the same goes for long-term missionaries as well?) And while I think that evangelism is so, so important and I don’t want to undermine that, God has not given everyone that spiritual gift. Besides that, evangelism in a cross-cultural context is quite tricky, especially if you’re just there for two weeks. But that’s okay, because the whole world belongs to God and there are so many gifts and talents that God can use all over the world to share his good news. 

Rachel and David are only here for two weeks, but their contribution to the long-term sustainability of iThemba will be huge. By donating their time and their photography/video skills, they are going to leave behind images and videos that we can use in the coming years as we try to share the story of what God is doing through iThemba. These professional-looking images will be used in donor reports, in presentations to corporate funders, churches, individuals, on the website… and all of that will hopefully raise funds for more staff to join iThemba and more children can be reached.

Let’s be honest. If Rachel and David were just coming for two weeks to play with kids in Sweetwaters and tell them about Jesus, the biggest impact would probably be… on themselves. Your impact working cross-cultrually increases with the amount of time spent learning a culture and a language. You can’t learn enough to be super-effective in two weeks. So, you might have a life-changing experience seeing a foreign country for two weeks, but the actual impact made on the community would be quite small. But because Rachel and David are bringing their mad photography skills for these two weeks, the impact they are going to make on this community will continue on for years.

So I want to challenge you… do you have some skills you think aren’t “spiritual” enough to be used by God overseas (or in your own community)? Maybe you do finances (uh, I know plenty of organisations that need good bookkeepers), maybe you’re a graphic designer (ever consider volunteering your skills to put out a quarterly newsletter for a nonprofit?), maybe you work with computers (soooo much you could do for others with that skill)…. maybe you’re like my awesome mother-in-law who has the gift of organizing things, and you’re able to help missionaries overseas with basic admin tasks like sending out prayer letters.

“There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!'” – Abraham B. Kuyper

How about offering up your skills to God and seeing where he leads you? 

I’m proud of You

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Photo credit: Emily Bak Toldam, iThemba Denmark Team

Sometimes encouragement comes from the most unlikely of places. I probably would have shooed him away. He was drunk. Not drunk enough to be aggresive, just drunk enough to be honest. He decided to join in on Sizwe’s Life Group last Friday. He had seen my car (and the car of the Restoration Hope team), and figured it was about time he visited. The teenage boys had gathered on the back porch of our host’s home, and we were all discussing the journey of faith, and the story of Peter walking on water with Jesus. The topic turned to the fact that these young men could make the journey of faith easier for their own children one day, through their example as good fathers and good husbands. The whole reason Sizwe and the other discipleship field workers spend so much time with kids and youth in the community is to be role models for them, to build relationships with them and give them the support they need to make wiser choices.

Then he (this unknown drunk man) showed up and sat down in the circle with us. He had plenty to say. “I am just so frustrated.” He repeated over and over (in English, since there were a lot of us umlungus there). “I have four children, all from different mothers. I don’t have a job. I am just so frustrated. I need counselling.” He was about thirty, maybe a bit younger. He was pretty well dressed, but he never smiled.

Sizwe very skillfully explained the teen boys had homework, so we would talk with him after we wrapped up the lesson. The lesson finished and we all left, but Sizwe stayed to talk with the newcomer.

We are told stories in the Bible of entertaining angels unawares, of welcoming the “least of these” and really welcoming Christ himself. I think maybe one reason is not that we will be rewarded with a good feeling for helping them, but that these people actually have the ability to bless and encourage us. Our iThemba team has been pretty discouraged lately with some very serious situations in Sweetwaters/Mpumuza with the kids/teens we work with relating to suicides, AIDS and poor choices. Everyone has been running low on energy, and on hope.

Our new (slightly drunk) friend sat Sizwe down and explained, “You know, you guys are making a difference. I have seen you come here to this road to meet with these boys every day for the past three years. And I told myself, one day I will visit. You know, even though we parents don’t really speak much with you, we do appreciate what you are doing. And it is impacting even us at home. My child always stops me now to pray before we start eating. That is from learning about God with you.” Then he said something which has been ringing in Sizwe’s ears all week. A message from the God on high who sees the work iThemba is doing, who understands the long, hard road it can sometimes be, an echo of what will be said one day at the end of time: “You know what?” the man said. “I am proud of you. I am so proud of you.” 

Well done, good and faithful servant.

Farther Together

Nompilo competing during a race. She was NOT running this fast when she was helping me. :)

Nompilo competing during a race. She was NOT running this fast when she was helping me. 🙂

When we have a team visiting us, it means I get to go be involved with every aspect of iThemba’s work for a few days. This week, that meant I visited running club for the first time since I got over my mono (glandular fever). I have posted about running club in the past, but for those who don’t like hyperlinks, running club is a group of students from a local high-school coached by Thulani, one of our discipleship fieldworkers. There are about 40 of them, and this term they are competing (and winning) against super-priviledged schools in the area.

I took the team to meet the club and join in with the practice– and hopefully encourage the kids to keep going and be dedicated. Thulani had us start by running a few warm-up laps around the stadium (which also doubles as a cow pasture). Since I didn’t want to be lazy, and I wanted to set the example by participating, I decided to run one lap. My friend Nompilo, a student in running club who also was in art club last term (and is one of the fastest on the team), was very kind and slowed pratically to a walk so she could jog with me. Then, as we approached the end of the first lap, I was going to stop, when she wrapped both her arms around me and said, “No, it’s okay, I’ll be with you, you can do it! Keep going.” And so I kept going. 

On my own, I would have done just one lap, but with Nompilo  I was able to do two. 🙂 What a beautiful picture of encouragement, teamwork, and the fact that we really do go farther together. We really do need each other. 

Many of the discipleship fieldworkers have been facing very serious situations in the community with the kids they work with: suicides, abuse, death from AIDS– and all of this has been taking a toll on them. Thankfully, this team we recently had from Restroation Hope was able to pray for them and encourage them to keep going. To see the American church come hold hands and gather around the South African church, praying for the Spirit help them finish strong was a beautiful picture of Christ’s body at work.

  • Pray that the discipleship fieldworkers will continue to be encouraged. 
  • Pray that the running club will become a group of students who support each other in making wise choices. 

Art Shows and Running Clubs

In Sweetwaters there are no organized after-school activities for children or teens. The schools do not have sports teams that compete against each other, and there are no after-school cultural activities. Here’s two cool after-school clubs that iThemba has been involved with lately. These after-school clubs not only keep kids off the street and doing something productive, but they also give children a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. Both of these programmes also help to link the community of Sweetwaters/Mpumuza with the community of Hilton. Ever wonder what hope really looks like? Here are two tangible examples:

Running Club: In a partnership with the JAG foundation, Thulani, one of our discipleship fieldworkers, has a running club with some students from Mashaka school. This club meets after school for training and this term they are competing against other high-schools in the area. Many of these schools are very privileged– they are some of the best schools in our country! It is so much fun to give these students a chance to compete (and do REALLY WELL!) in this context. At their recent meet at Maritzburg College, many of the students placed within the top 15 in their section (each section had up to 150 runners). This week, the students are competing at Michael House boys boarding school.

Warming up and ready to go!

Warming up and ready to go!

Time to stretch

Time to stretch

Nompilo running hard

Nompilo running hard

The team

The team

Art Club: Anna has been running an after-school art club for eighth grade students at Mashaka. Every week for the past 3 months, these 24 students have faithfully come and done art-projects. Anna just arranged  an art exhibition so the students could show their work to their parents and the community. Members of the Hilton community also attended. The students received awards for their participation,  and the school choir sang and danced. It was great to see students so proud of the work they had done.

Students proud of their work!

Students proud of their work!

Anna with some of her students, and their certificates

Anna with some of her students, and their certificates

Visitors from the Hilton community also came to see the art.

Visitors from the Hilton community also came to see the art.

some of the artwork done by the gr8 after-school club

some of the artwork done by the gr8 after-school club

Some students showing off their work.

Some students showing off their work.

Anna and the Mashaka art teacher, who teaches during the week.

Anna and the Mashaka art teacher, who teaches during the week.

Holding up their Arms

IMG_1227These past two weeks, I’ve been working with 6 Azusa Pacific University students in Sweetwaters. This team has really stood out because of their hard work, great preparation, and initiative. They’ve been able to partner at a creche, organize a fun day to say thanks to our Sweetwaters teenagers who volunteer with us in the community, and have led Life Group Bibles studies. This week, they are running a 3-day holiday club in Sweetwaters (which they planned, along with our staff).

The APU team designed an Amazing Race (Sweetwaters style) for the Kids Crew (teens from Sweetwaters community who help with our weekly kids club). The teens had an awesome time! At one station, everyone had to kiss a chicken! :)

The APU team designed an Amazing Race (Sweetwaters style) for the Kids Crew (teens from Sweetwaters community who help with our weekly kids club). The teens had an awesome time! At one station, everyone had to kiss a chicken! 🙂

The story the APUers used for their Life Group lessons was one from the Old Testament, and I think it serves as a good picture of what this team has done for us. The story is of Moses and the Israelites battling against their enemies. As long as Moses raised his staff above his head, the Israelites continued winning. If the staff was ever lowered, the Israelites began losing. Keeping your arms upraised for a short while is easy, but doing it for a long time is very difficult. Moses grew weak holding the staff and the Israelites began losing until two friends came and supported his arms, enabling Moses to continue his God-given task. The APU team challenged the Life Groups to support each other with their God-given callings, and to keep on following God when life is difficult.

Life Group with the APU team. Even the craft related to the lesson of "holding up each other" and supporting what God has called our friends to do.

Life Group with the APU team. Even the craft related to the lesson of “holding up each other” and supporting what God has called our friends to do.

This APU team (as well as the team from iThemba Denmark board that just came to visit) have been “arm-raisers” for the full-time staff at iThemba. Their enthusiasm, their new ideas, their willingness to jump in and help where needed, their prayer and encouragement have given new strength to our staff. Doing short term trips is easy, but working in the same community day in and day out can be tiring, as our staff well know. These teams have been able to support our long-term staff, and have given them the extra support they need to keep going. It is also exciting to think about the people all over the world (like you!) who are praying for iThemba and the community of Sweetwaters, or who are giving financially to the work. You are also “holding up our arms” by helping us continue to accomplish God’s will in this area.

  • Pray for God to continue to work through the APU team this week as they run their holiday club. On the first day they had over 200 kids, and over 70 teens.
  • Pray that God would use this trip in the lives of these APUers long-term.
  • Pray for the team of 8 from Leek Pentacostal, who are here with us for 2 weeks. They are running a Holiday Club this week, as well as working in creches next week.
  • Pray for health, energy, and good team work.
  • Pray that God would use these 2 holiday clubs in the lives of kids and teens in Sweetwaters.

Development: Getting to the Root Causes

I joined the APU lectures on Community Development this week. Even though it was the second time hearing them, they were still very inspiring. We were given permission to take some videos to use in preparing teams to come out and serve with iThemba. Here is the famous “Drowning Babies” story that I wrote about last year. Dr. Francis Njoroge is an amazing story-teller, and has years of experience doing development with World Vision and TEAR fund. It is such a privilege to hear him share. Here is a quote that was also shared at the lectures:

“May those of us involved in the peaceful struggle for human promotion bear this in mind always:

 it is good that our hands help the flight of the poor,

but may we never dare to take the place of their wings” 

Dom Helder Camaro

Meet Gugu!

Gugu!

Gugu!

Gugu, which means “precious” in Zulu, is very precious to the iThemba team! One of our new discipleship field workers, Gugu has a passion to see people’s lives changed. Her life was changed by Christ at her uncle’s funeral. Gugu had helped out in her church for many years before this. “I liked to go and help clean at church. I used to take my sisters and cousins with me to help me clean.” She laughs when she thinks about it. “But even though I went to church, I didn’t know God personally.” It took the death of her uncle to bring her to that point. “I loved my uncle, he was like my father, so at his funeral I gave my life to Christ. I didn’t say it publicly then, because I didn’t want to embarrass my boyfriend, but later on I did tell people openly.”

Gugu has always had a passion for kids and teenagers. “I kept serving in church, and started Bible Studies on Saturdays. I would gather teenagers to tell them my testimony. Because I had a child at age 16, I wanted them to make better choices.” Gugu’s pastor saw God had put something special in her, and he gave her chances to share with teens and the whole congregation.

In 2010, Gugu went to Union Bible Institute to learn more about the Bible. “I wanted to improve my skills teaching about the Bible,” she says.

Gugu volunteered with an iThemba teens camp while at UBI “I loved it!” she said. “I kept hoping they would need me for another camp!” When a position at iThemba opened up, she applied.

As a discipleship fieldworker, Gugu teaches Life Skills in schools in the community, she leads Life Group bible studies in the afternoons, and visits children in their homes.

“I love doing Bible studies, teaching kids about Christ and how to live for him. I also love the mentoring. When you do home visits, you get to know the kids and youth, and can see their problems and help them. To help even one person, and to see them reach their goals really inspires me.”

It’s very exciting to have a female discipleship field worker, since there are many teen girls in the community that need mentoring.

Gugu loves cooking, baking and reading, especially Christian books. She would love prayer for God’s wisdom as she helps kids and teens with their problems, and wisdom on how to discipline the unruly kids she gets in some of her Life Groups. 🙂