It was a cold Sunday morning at the end of May when our team stepped into the YWAM (Youth With a Mission) van that would convey us to Canberra airport for our first leg on the trip to Worcester, South Africa to take our three students Helen (60), Nicole (32) and John (21), on their missions outreach. Steve (51) was the leader and myself (69) as support staff. We flew to Sydney, then Singapore Johannesburg Cape Town and a 2-hour bus trip to Worcester, altogether a 36hour journey.
Pappy, a young Congolese YWAMer in charge of our outreach activities welcomed us in Cape Town. On the way to Worcester the neat, white houses spoke of the Dutch influence in this region. After snaking through the 4km Huguenot Tunnel the landscape opened up to a magnificent alpine scenery through a wide valley, surrounded by high, blue-hazed mountains, and immediately I felt a liking for this country.
Rather tired, we finally arrived at the YWAM base in Worcester in a former hospital. At the YWAM Base were about 120 people, some of them living in nearby rented houses.
Via a very steep staircase Pappy showed us to our accommodation. I had expected a crowded dorm but was pleasantly surprised about the two large bedrooms allocated to us. Helen, Nicole and myself each had a comfortable bed but (as expected) only a bare mattress. We supplied our own bedding. I couldn't be bothered to lug a pillow across the world, so I just used a tiny reading pillow and my thick anorak as a pillow. From our window we could see the beautiful mountains. Being winter (June) the nights were cold and I used my long winter coat on top of the sleeping bag. Strange, after living in the Cook Islands for so long, now to get dressed for bed instead of getting undressed. For me that meant wearing socks and a jumper in addition to pajamas. There was a small heater attached under the window but it didn't help much.
South Africa is home to people from many nationalities and tribes: The Blacks, who have their roots in Africa, then the Coloureds whose ancestors can be Blacks and Whites, Malay, Indian or other coloured races, then the Whites. Whites of Dutch origin are called Afrikaners. Other than the tribal language (Xhosa in this region), Afrikaans and English are spoken officially. We ministered mainly to Coloureds and Xhosa.
Pappy kept us busy with many different assignments and sometimes quite short-term changes. YWAMers know that the keyword is FLEXIBILITY.
Our first assignment next day involved helping distribute a meals to children up to about 14 years of age. We had been allocated a van and Steve, with Pappy beside him, would drive us to all locations. This first one was a wrought-iron hall in the squatter region of Worcester. In this area at the edge of the town live several thousand Blacks, mostly Xhosa, in wooden or wrought iron shacks without toilet facilities (they use a nearby field with low-growing brush instead) and only here and there a community tap for cold water.
When we arrived there were about three hundred children gathered in a wrought iron hall. Because we got lost on the way we had actually missed the worship service and the food distribution, which is organised and paid for by a Korean YWAM group. The children were just leaving the hall, clutching an orange and eating warm soup from the container each child had brought. But we had opportunities on later days to assist here. Despite their extreme poverty most of the children were cleanly dressed but some had no shoes.
It was amazing and humbling to discover later that even though when they lose their closest relatives through AIDS, TB or other diseases, other poor families will take the children in.
During our two-weeks stay we attended other such food distributions several times a week, some with up to 900 children. Generally in all these events the children were well behaved and the older ones kept an eye on the little ones. A little boy cuddled up on my lap for quite a while until he grew restless and an older child took him out to go the 'toilet'. One YWAM group, called kinderbond, provides children with shoes and clothing on the spot if needed and also attends to sores and wounds; they had a small room at the back of the hall, where such children were attended to.
It is heartrending to be told that almost 50% of these children will probably not reach adulthood. Often there is no breadwinner in the family because much of the work in Worcester, a wine producing district, is seasonal. At the same time alcoholism is also a problem. In fact, one Xhosa woman told me that before the end of Apartheid they sometimes were paid in wine!
Through a local, coloured Christian lady by the name of Francis, Pappy organised for us a visit to some people in their homes. These small shacks, about 3m x 3m, with earthen floors and cement or wrought iron lean-to walls and roofs were kept clean and tidy. Some had tapped the electricity lines on the road to lead electricity to their place and frequent accidents from electrocution do occur.
Their furniture usually consists of a simple bedstead, a shelf and a cooker. In one such home lived five people, including two teenagers and a baby. They had taken in one teenage girl because both her parents had died and there was nobody to look after her. We prayed for one older woman who had recently been diagnosed with cancer and her mother had just died. Several very small boys followed us around urging us to come and see their mother. When we got there she said she had 'sent the children out to bring God to her'. She also had a baby and was afraid of the outcome of an AIDS test she was anxiously awaiting. Thank God, her husband has a steady job as a bus driver.
As we walked across this large place with all the shacks, some inquisitive eyes followed us and I was glad they all knew Francis. There is much violence and crime in this area.
Many people spoke only a little English but I can understand a fair bit of Afrikaans since it is similar to my German mother tongue. It was a bit more difficult for Steve and Nicole, who were with us. We had a chat with three old people, two men and a woman, who were keeping each other company in the sunshine on a bench outside their homes. Samuel had served in the Army overseas and had earned a medal. He is content to have a very quiet life now and receives a small pension. I pondered how he felt when, after serving his country as a soldier, he had to move back into this area because of Apartheid. The old woman had worked all her life in a vineyard packing grapes during the harvest season. Francis spoke to the other old man, Johnny (80) and then she asked me to pray with him because he wanted to receive Jesus into his heart. What a privilege for me, a stranger. When we walked away the old woman leaned her head against Johnny's shoulder. It was so touching to see. All these people are Christians and display quite a reverence for the name of the Lord but, just as here but for many it is more a ritual than a close walk with God. There are several Christian churches in this area of town and in one of them we each were given a personal interpreter who sat next to us interpreting the service to us from Afrikaans into English.
One evening we visited the Tuberculosis Hospital where patients with other infectious diseases, including AIDS, are also treated. A young Afrikaner, Luis, who visits there regularly with a group of local Whites, was our interpreter. As quite often happened, we had no idea what was expected of us. We were led into a men's ward, chairs were pulled into a wide circle and Luis asked us to share from our lives with these men. So I shared my life story and Luis translated into Afrikaans, which I really enjoyed because I could understand much of what he was saying. Because I was in my fifties when I came back to the Lord I used my example to tell the men that it is never too late to give your life over to God. Some of the other in our group also had a chance to share. Time went fast and I felt it was a blessing to all of us to visit these men.
In Worcester the criminal gangs are still active, although not as bad as years ago. We were invited to visit an organisation of former gang members, called Kibbutz El Shannei. Ivan, a bald, former gang member is one of the founders. Situated near a large housing estate, the government gave them some land and they have built vegetable gardens, workrooms for craft and small textile production, a crèche, a meeting hall for young people and accommodation for volunteers, who come for a few weeks or months to help. Adjacent is a small room with photos of former gang members and exhibits of their horrible weapons with which they attacked each other: huge knives, sharp edged broken bottles, machetes and other gruesome implements. The work proceeds slowly but now people can move freely from one section of this area to another without fear of reprisal by rival gang members. Again, Ivan could move to another part of Worcester but chooses to stay and work with the people there.
One of the most touching assignments was a visit to the Juvenile Prison. It was a cold, frosty morning when we drove in our little van to the prison on the outskirts of town. As we approached we noticed a number of windows were hung with pieces of clothing where the prisoners were drying their socks and pants. We had to pass a couple of security screenings and were only allowed to take two cameras inside. We were shown into the inner rooms of the prison building where young men walked about after their chores, very clean and tidy. They seemed to fear the grim-looking guards. We were led into a room that seemed to be used as a classroom. There were about a dozen prisoners who wanted to have contact with us under the eyes of two guards, and they were allowed to ask us questions about our lives. They told us also about their lives, most were there for breaking and entering or assault and one was a murderer. Two of them were to be released within the next two days and had no place to go to. We were allowed to pray with these young men and tell them about Jesus. Myself and another girl from our group gathered about five prisoners around us and talked with them. Four of the five were eager to give their live to Jesus and start a new life; one was undecided and we did not push him but he joined in the prayers. As we sat there, arms around each other, I am sure the Holy Spirit was in our midst and perhaps this was the first time in a while that someone had hugged these young men and shown them love. As we left, we were assured that those, who wanted, would receive further visits from the local pastor and his staff to minister to them.
During our outreach we spent several mornings at a school for Blacks and Coloureds. These were children from the nearby slums but all looked very neat in their school uniforms. Their teacher was a man who really cared for these children. We spent time with the oldest ones that would go to high school the next year. Many were eager to practice their English and we gave lessons to small groups of them. I quickly found myself in a group of six girls who were less interested in English but rather wanted to know all about myself. They were all very keen to learn a good trade or profession and had firm goals for their lives. We soon formed a close bond and I was looking forward to spend time with 'my' girls. Again, the Lord used my example because I grew up very poor, without my father, who had died in the War and without a home of our own. I knew what it meant to live in just one room. I had no high school but was able, later in life, to catch up on studies and go to university. So for these girls it was quite an encouragement to learn that it is possible to get out of poverty. On our final day, my girls surprised me with a beautiful bunch of yellow roses. They seem to be handpicked from one the gardens that some people have in front of their tiny places. I was very moved and I hope these girls will be able to keep close to the Lord and also fulfill their dreams.
My last assignment was teaching Bible study to a class of eight-year-olds in a local government school. I was not looking forward to that because I had reminiscences of unruly classes during my teacher training in Australia. I duly reported for my class on the given morning and was told to go to classroom number 3. I found the room and knocked. The teacher came to the door, asked me inside with the words: 'Here is your class. I'll see you in an hour.' And she was gone. There I was; I had not even been introduced. Thirty children, mostly blacks except for one white boy were looking at me expectantly, sitting quietly at their desks. So, after introducing myself and breaking the ice with a few words, I proceeded to tell them the story of Queen Esther and involving the children with their comments. I have never seen such an attentive class, they listened carefully, and when one boy tried to talk out of place, he was quickly reprimanded by the others. That hour was such a blessing because these children really want to learn. Later I was asked to come back to that school as a permanent teacher but I did not feel that I should accept that invitation.
Why do we go on short time outreach? Some people say it is a waste of time but we found that it was not just ourselves that were blessed but that we brought much encouragement to Christians and others in various parts of the world and to them the knowledge that they are cared for. The permanent missionaries know they are not alone and it is a renewal of the link to those that pray for them and support them.
Elisabeth Puruto lives on the East Coast of Australia. She is a born-again Christian of mature age and has taken part in a number of part time mission outreaches. At age 67 she obtained her PhD in Linguistics and is currently studying for a Master in Divinity.
Copyright E. Puruto 2013.