Those aren’t my kids

Nothing like some tickle-tackle time at Life Group with iThemba mentor Mashinini
Nothing like some tickle-tackle time at Life Group with iThemba mentor Mashinini

“Your idea will never work,” the head of Child Protection Services said to David Anderson, “You will never be able to get people to voluntarily open their homes to kids on a temporary basis until they can get back with their families. It just won’t work.”

When David asked why, the CPS official explained, “Children are not valuable in our society.” 

That seems weird, right? In the West, it seems that it’s the children and youth that are idolized and the elderly who are forgotten. You can hardly get a small-group Bible study going, because parents are spending all their time shuttling their children between ballet class and soccer club and karate and extra math. In the US, parents will move to a different neighborhood to get into a different school district so their children can get into a better school. Children are encouraged to share their ideas, and the whole “be seen and not heard” thing died out in the Victorian era. How is it that children are not valuable in our society?

The CPS officer went on. “Our OWN children are valuable. We’ll do anything for them. We’d die for them. But children that are not our own– nope. That’s why adoption is so much more appealing to people– we’d rather take individual adoptable children and make them part of our tribe, make them our own. Then we’ll sacrifice and pour love and attention on them. But someone else’s kids? Someone else who is probably battling drug or alcohol addiction and that’s why their kids were removed by the State? No one wants those kids.”

David Anderson is the head of a movement called, ‘Safe Families‘. It’s got branches in the USA and in the UK. The goal of Safe Families is to give hope to parents and children in crisis. Rather than waiting until abuse or addiction forces the State to intervene and terminate parental rights, plunging their children into a dysfunctional foster-care system, Safe Families steps in before things get really bad. Volunteers take in kids until parents can get counseling and find their feet, and then reunite them with their parents. You should check it out.

But this idea that children are not valuable in our society is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The director of iThemba Projects brought it up a while ago as well, this time from a Christian perspective.

“Do you think God loves my child more than he loves the children in Sweetwaters?” he asked me. “Then why is it that we pray for God to bless our children, and pour money and energy into them, but never consider the thousands of children just a few kilometers away who don’t have parents?”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pouring money, energy and love into your own children. It makes sense (and I think it’s good and right) to care for your immediate family first. I’ve been around too many bitter missionary kids who feel like their parents would have paid more attention to them if they were an orphan in a township rather than part of their parent’s family to say otherwise.

But on the flip side– I think we idolize the nuclear family too much sometimes. God’s plan of redemption for this broken world will probably include us taking in orphaned and abandoned children into our nuclear families. But I think it also includes us thinking differently about what “family” means, and how far our care should extend. What would it look like to really love someone’s kid, knowing that they would never be “ours”? Could we do it? 

  • Could we put aside money to send a kid from Sweetwaters on camp every time we fork over money to send our own children on camp?
  • Could we put aside money to improve education for kids in Sweetwaters every time we pay our own child’s school fees?
  • Could we even say “no” to a few of the wants of the children in our nuclear family, so that we could say “yes” to some of the needs of children in Sweetwaters? Could we help the children in our nuclear family to understand that decision and be excited about it?
  • Rather than seeing our giving of time or money to kids in Sweetwaters as an “extra and above” whatever our nuclear family needs, could we see the kids in Sweetwaters as part of our family, and factor them into our budget in the way we do for our own children?
  • Could we give our time to children who are not in our nuclear family? Could we volunteer to visit children in hospital, even though they are not our own? And could we do this with commitment, not just dropping in and out when we feel like it, but being a consistent presence in the life of a lonely child?
  • Could we start to see the kids in Sweetwaters as part of our family, even if they’re not part of our nuclear family? Could we defend them, stick up for them, and sacrifice for them?

Jesus has a pretty wobbly definition of family by Western standards anyway. When his nuclear family came to visit, and everyone in the crowds was praising his biological mom, for being such a great mom, he said, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?” Then he pointed to the disciples and said, “These are! Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my mother and brother and sisters.”

In the Kingdom, blood ties and nuclear family don’t matter as much. When we’re following Jesus, anyone who ends up in that rag-tag band of followers is family.

I’m interested in hearing what you guys think of this idea– it’s something that has been bouncing around in my head, but isn’t fully formed. How do you care for kids that are not in your nuclear family? 

I’m going to swim a mile.

This is the team. We "trained" a bit more this year. This is us running this morning for 20 minutes at a local park.
This is the team. We “trained” a bit more this year. This is us running this morning for 20 minutes at a local park.

It’s a new year, and since I’ve been so great at blogging regularly in 2015 (and by great, I mean horrible) I’m rewarding myself by swimming a mile in the world’s largest competitive open-water swimming event. 

Let that sink in.

Open water. That means not a the smooth glass-like surface of a pool, but waves and wind and gross lake scum.

World’s largest. That means this is not a peaceful float on a lake to enjoy scenery. This is hundreds and hundreds of other people kicking you in the face with their killer breast-stroke kick.

Competitive. This means that even in the “family fun” section (the race that we’re swimming in) you get these hard-core competitive families who’ve travelled all the way down from Joburg (which is 6 hours away) and have arms like Michael Phelps and matching swimsuits. MATCHING. This is not a joke. This is a competition.

We did it last year (“we” being my husband, my Dad and me). We didn’t train at all, we just showed up (because, I mean “family swim“, guys. Even if it’s a mile, if a family can do it, we can do it, right?) Well, then the weather got bad and they banished everyone under the age of 12 from swimming, and we were left with the hard-core Joburg people and it was a bit depressing. Most of us finished. I won’t name names or anything, but I was pretty pleased that I was actually better at my husband in one small athletic area.

Here we are trying to look intimidating. Maybe if WE had matching swimsuits we'd be scarier.
Here we are trying to look intimidating. Maybe if WE had matching swimsuits we’d be scarier.

So we’re doing it again this year. And we decided there should be a purpose to this suffering, so we’re swimming it in honor of iThemba Kids Camp. You’ve heard about camp a lot on this blog– it comes up usually in June and then in December. But this year we’re doing the 2 camps back-to-back in July, so we’re starting to fundraise early.

It would be completely awesome if you gave any amount ($5, $25, $50, $100) towards helping us meet our goal of getting 30 kids sponsored through this swimming event. Click this link and click the “donate to this fundraiser” button. You don’t even have to read my schpeel on the website because you’ve read it here already. Just click the link. 

Just click it.

Why aren’t you clicking it?

Do you even know how to click?

(This is a reference to the movie Frozen if you think I’m just rudely repeating myself). 

Thanks guys! You rock! I’ll blog again after the swim (which is in just TEN DAYS!) because I hear that swimming long distances provides you with lots of time to think.

Yup, I’m still here.

I’m still here. Just kind of drowning in work for my masters. I really want to finish my series on white men who stood up against racism, but… that’s taking a back seat right now. 

In the mean time, I’d like to share with you three really cool stories about iThemba Projects that I wrote/created on exposure.co I absolutely love everything about exposure when it comes to telling stories in a visually beautiful way. I really think you’ll enjoy these (if I do say so myself!)… and then go get lost down a rabbit hole of other amazing photo stories. 

Hopefully in a few weeks I’ll be back in action with more on the blog. 

Let’s Play: The story of Asidlale. This is the story of our early childhood development work. Very cute kid pictures, you can’t go wrong!  

Watch us Run: How a Running Club is changing lives in Sweetwaters, South Africa. Who doesn’t love a good underdog story (that’s REAL, and isn’t a made up Disney movie)?? Be inspired. This team of teens face huge obstacles in life, but kick butt when it comes to running. 

A Building that’s all about People: The story of a building that’s not about a building. Environmentally friendly, empowering local community members with marketable skills… it’s just so cool. 

Can you tell I love the organization I work for? They don’t do everything right (who does?) But they’re trying. And learning. And if more people in the world were as thoughtful and intentional about the way they do “aid”/ “community development”/whatever… the world would be a much better place. 

A chance to be a kid: An iThemba camp story

IMG_3426“I’m surprised that we’re treated like little children here,” the nine-year old girl told one of the iThemba staff.

Uh oh. The kids think our camp is babyish.

We spend months getting ready for iThemba Kids camp- planning fun activities, thinking up new games, getting crafts donated. This year I wrote the curriculum for the small group times and morning devotions. Kids saying camp is for little kids is an Epic Fail.

But then, the girl went on:

I really like it! When I’m at home, I’m the one who is always responsible for everything, for cooking, for cleaning up, for putting my little brothers and sisters to bed. When I’m here, there are people who look after me, who clean up, and make sure I’m tucked in bed. This is really fun!

When I was nine, I said I never wanted to get any older, because nine was the perfect age (and once you’re ten, you’re practically a boring teenager).

When I was nine, I had a Mom and Dad who loved me, who put me to bed at night, who were there for me when I was scared of the dark (and taught me Jesus was there in the dark with me, too).

When I was nine, I spent all my time reading books in trees and talking to my imaginary friends.

When I was nine I complained about being overworked because I had to wash dishes and clean my room (and sometimes even vacuum under the bed!)

When I was nine, I went on my first overnight camp, and found out that Jesus had a plan for me (even as a nine-year-old) and he wanted to use me to share his love with others.

I’m so glad this nine-year-old girl from Sweetwaters was able to experience the love and care of someone else looking after her for a change. I’m so glad that the iThemba mentors had three whole days to pour the love of Jesus into her life through words and actions (and silly games!) Join me in praying that she’ll stay connected to a Life Group after camp, that the mentors will be able to have good camp follow-up, and that she’ll find out Jesus has a plan for her (even as a nine-year-old) and he wants to use her to share his love with others.

The two minute video showing some highlights of this year’s kids camp. (If you wonder what I do all day… things like this!) 

https://vimeo.com/100235886.

Bringing Gogo to Jesus

Kids at Camp
Kids at Camp

“Thulani, we need to take Gogo to Jesus!” the 5 year old triumphantly announced during story time at the NEW Jabulani Kids Club last Saturday. Jabulani Kids Club is a Saturday club where kids gather to play games, sing songs, have LOADS of fun, and learn about Jesus. It also gives them a safe, fun place to hang out on the weekends. For over seven years JKC has been running at a school in one part of Sweetwaters, and just this term, we’ve added a second club in a different part of Sweetwaters, to reach the kids there.

Thulani is in charge of the 0-6 year old group for story time, and they had just heard the story of the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof of his house by his friends, so that he could be healed by Jesus.

“Why do we need to take your Gogo (Grandmother) to Jesus?” Thulani asked.

“Well, she also can’t walk. And so she’s very angry all the time, because she asks us to bring her things, and if we take a long time to get her water, or get her food, or whatever she asks for, then she shouts at us.” The girl explained. “So, I think we should be like those friends and take her to Jesus so she stops being so angry all the time.” 

I love it.

This little 5-year old got it. She understood that where Jesus is, there’s healing. Where Jesus is, things change– angry, grumpy Gogos are filled with joy. She understood that she could play a part– just like the friends in the story. When Jesus healed the paralyzed man, the Bible says, “See their (the friends) faith” he healed the man. It was the action of the friends, their courageous faith that would rip through a roof that made it possible for the paralyzed man to be healed. 

Sure, this 5-year old has a bit of a ways to go, in understanding that today we can’t literally carry her grandmother to Jesus in the flesh where he can tell her to “take up her mat and walk”– but she understands a lot about who Jesus is…and that he changes things.

And that’s really what the fieldworkers are doing every day. Through the classes they teach, through the hugs and the hi-fives, and the silly games, through the hours and hours spent listening to the kids– they are trying to bring kids to Jesus. Trying to let them see for themselves the joy and hope that Jesus can bring. Trying to let the kids see that Jesus is the one who has the answers.

Sometimes I wonder if I have the faith of a five-year old. Do I really believe that it is enough just to take people to Jesus? 

Plug for Kids Camp 2014:

One of the ways we try to help “take kids to Jesus” is through kids camp every year. We take kids to the beach for 3 days, give them a chance to have the undivided attention of their group leader, play silly games, and feel safe and loved. We pray that God will use these camps to bring children one step closer to himself. If you want to be a part of making camp happen this year by sponsoring a child (you’ll get a picture of “your” kid, and updates from them after camp) then email same@ithembaprojects.org.za. Camp costs R900 or $100. There are still 29 kids left who need sponsors. 🙂

 

What do you say when it’s Friday all around?

Sometimes I wonder what to say and what to be silent about. I don’t often tell the sad stories. Not because there is not sadness, but because a sad story is a real story, about a real person. And I don’t want to make light of someone’s suffering by sharing it to make a sensation. I don’t want someone’s real pain to be something we can just sit back and consume along with our morning coffee. But there’s sadness in the world, and sometimes the sad stories need telling, too. 

Sometime’s it’s Friday all around.

There’s a teen on crutches, struggling to walk to school because he was stabbed at his high school. And there’s a boy who did the stabbing, and social workers say his home is not a safe place. And there’s a big brother breaking up a fight on his way to work, who’s now lying dead from a stab-wound. And there’s a little brother running up to a fieldworker, arms outstretched, tears streaming down his face,

“Uncle, Uncle, did they tell you? Do you know they stabbed my brother?” 

And the world spins back to that other one with arms outstretched crying out,“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

There’s sadness and darkness and the world rings with the hollow emptiness of death, and the question hangs in the air: Why? Why have you forsaken me? 

What do you say when it’s Friday all around? 

dancing
picture: Jabulani Kids Club Christmas Party 2012

When our eyes are still cloudy with tears, we cling to the fact that he is risen. When we feel alone we listen. We listen hard. He’s standing right next to us, saying our name. They haven’t taken him away. He’s here. He’s alive.

We grab on to this truth and don’t let go. We squeeze it until our knuckles are white and cramped. He IS alive. Death IS overthrown. And he IS here. And he IS making all things new. He is.

Quietly, bit by bit. All the dark bits will be rooted out. He hasn’t gone away to some cloudy place we must follow—he’s alive. The plan is not to scrap this world but to redeem it.  He’s risen, he’s risen indeed, that’s why we’re working,  joining him in the restoration of all things.

Until that final day when all the sad things will come untrue, and every tear is wiped, and his glory covers the world as the water covers the sea, we work and work and cry at the pain, and battle against the darkness, and stake out little corners where the light can shine brighter. We bandage the wounded and stand our ground, swearing our allegiance to the risen king who is coming back one day to reclaim his own. Even if we’re raggedy looking. Even if we don’t always know what to say. Even if our light flickers, it doesn’t go out.

This is a battle. On Fridays it looks like everything is over. But we cling to the hope that Sunday comes. 

And sometimes you’ve just got to say “Shut up devil, we’re going to dance anyway.”

 

Death

Death is the last weapon of the tyrant, and the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated. Resurrection is not the re-description of death; it is its overthrow and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it.

-NT Wright, Surprised by Hope.

ISHIBOBO Holiday Club

DSCF3258
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.

DSCF3312

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! 

 

The Kingdom of God is Like…

So, I read about this activity on Kathy Escobar’s blog, in her post “The Kingdom of God is Like…” You should go check it out. 

Jesus often talks about what the Kingdom of God is like. He’s trying to explain things using everyday, ordinary examples (yeast working through dough, finding a coin, gardening, buried treasure). And in all of these “ordinary” life events, we see pictures of the surprising,

grace-filled,

upside-down,

unexpected,

mysterious yet ordinary Kingdom of God.

So the challenge that Kathy put out to people was to share a story, or a moment, from their own lives, that was a picture of the Kingdom of God. I was on staff devotions at iThemba today…so that’s what we did! And, in contrast to my rather gloomy previous post, this one is FULL of joy!

Here’s some of the examples that the iThemba team gave. These are real stories of things that have happened in the past, which we feel illustrate to us something about what the Kingdom of God is like.

So, we present:

kingdom of god

The kingdom of God is like 32 boxes of Easter eggs. Boxes donated by Sunday School kids at Christ Church for the kids in Sweetwaters. Easter eggs that they earned themselves by doing chores, but instead of keeping them for themselves, they generously gave them away.

DSCF3187The Kingdom of God is like eating a delicious meal without any disturbance. A feast. A place of perfect peace.

The Kingdom of God is like a smile on a child’s face. I see the Kingdom of God every time I walk into one of the creches (preschools) in Sweetwaters.

The Kingdom of God is like a smile on a child's face...
The Kingdom of God is like a smile on a child’s face…

The Kingdom of God is like someone who decides to give away everything they get for their birthday so that others can have a better life.

 

 

The Kingdom of God is like a home visit in Sweetwaters. The unexpected joy that lights up the kids faces when they see that you’ve really come to visit them. The sitting and listening to a Gogo’s long story, or just being with a child who has been through abuse. It’s hope showing up in tangible form.

-The Kingdom of God is like the joyful expectation of children waiting in long lines outside the gate for Jabulani Kids Club on a Saturday– they’ve been waiting long before we arrive.

 

iThemba-6264

The Kingdom of God is like the big tree in-between Mashaka Highschool and Nobanda Primary. When I have to climb that steep, steep hill to get between Life Skills classes and Devotions at Assembly, I’m able to stop and take a rest under it’s shade. It’s big enough for everyone that’s with me to sit underneath and rest and refresh ourselves.

*(No picture, but imagine a hill that’s a 90 degree cliff, and you’re probably close to what that hill of terror is like!). 

The Kingdom of God is like Sizwe’s Life Group last week, where there were  Zulu teenage boys and their parents, Californian college students and English South Africans, all playing and laughing and learning together.

 

Sizwe's Life Group

 

The Kingdom of God is like a room full of South African businessmen who found the iThemba Kids Camp video online, bawled their eyes out while watching it, then were moved to donate some much needed equipment to iThemba.

 

 

The Kingdom of God is like the light in the children’s faces when I go to teach Life Skills, and I know that these kids who didn’t have anyone to talk to about what’s bothering them at home now have someone.

 

iThemba-6936

 

The Kingdom of God is like a child who doesn’t have a Father, finding a father-figure in Sizwe, Thulani, Nathi and Syv. 

iThemba-8331

 

What about you? Can you think of a moment or a story that “is like” the Kingdom of God from your own life?

“To Never Lose Hope”

Nathi M is greeted by a hug when he arrives at Life Group.
Nathi M is greeted by a hug when he arrives at Life Group.

Recently my co-worker Sizwe went around and visited the different iThemba Life Groups to find out how things were going. Life Groups are the home groups of about 20 – 40 kids who come each week to play games, sing songs, learn about Jesus and discuss life. They support each other in making wise choices, and the discipleship fieldworkers (iThemba staff) build long-term relationships with them, reinforced by home visits. 

Here are some things that the children shared with him:

“I have learned to trust.”

“People in this area didn’t know about God, but now they will start loving his words.”

“My family lets me come to Life Group and do my chores later.”  (that’s great!!)

But this is the one that stood out to me:

“I’ve learned to never lose hope.” 

The boy who said that went on to explain to Sizwe that the way he learned this was from the story of Blind Bartimaeus that they heard. For those of you who don’t know the story, it takes place during Jesus life.

There was a blind man who sat at the city gate day after day, begging for a living. He was probably poor. He had been blind for as long as he could remember. It probably felt like his life would be dark, poor, and lonely forever. It will always be this way,” the dark voices whisper. “Nothing will ever change. You’ll always be poor, blind Bartimeaus.”  It would have been easy to despair. But one day as he’s sitting at the city gate calling out “Alms, alms for the poor! Alms!” he hears that a man called Jesus is coming. Jesus is a teacher, he teaches like no one people have ever heard, and he can even heal people. Heal people? All of a sudden there is a glimpse of light for Bartimaeus, a possibility that things could change. Bartimaeus has hope.

When Jesus does come through Jericho, he’s surrounded by crowds of people. Bartimaeus can’t see, but he can hear, and he knows he has to cry loud enough for Jesus to take notice of him. “JESUS! SON OF DAVID! HAVE MERCY ON ME!”

And the crowd tries to shut him up. “Be quiet! Don’t bother him! You’re annoying us! It’s crazy old blind, Bartimaeus again!”

But he doesn’t care. Hope has taken hold of him. It’s so strong, he’s willing to push through any obstacles that come his way. He calls louder, “JESUS! SON OF DAVID! HAVE MERCY ON ME!”

And Jesus stopped. And he said, “Bring him over here.”

So the annoyed crowd helps the blind man up, and guides him to Jesus. I picture him walking with his hands outstretched, searching to touch the face of the one who has heard his cry.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.

“Rabbi, teacher, I want to see,” he says, speaking the words that have been his secret heart’s desire for so long, but he never dared to believe could ever happen.

“Go. Your faith has healed you.” Jesus said. And immediately– Bartimeaus could see.

For all those years, nothing in Bartimeaus’ life ever changed. But one day, Jesus came in and changed it.

With Jesus, comes hope.

For many of the kids in Sweetwaters, life seems pretty dark. There’s poverty, there’s not a strong education system, there’s high HIV prevalence rates. Everything is the same day after day. Nothing ever changes. “Your mom didn’t finish school?” the dark voices whisper. “You won’t. This is your life. You’ll always be stuck in this.”

But Jesus is coming. He’s here. He’s here in the body of Christ, his church, and he hears the cries of these kids. The very fact that Sizwe (and the other staff) knows these kids and loves them is a sign that Jesus noticed them. Things can be different. Things will be different. The impossible can happen.

With Jesus, there’s hope.

I’m so thankful to be part of a team that’s bringing Jesus hope to the kids in Sweetwaters, helping kids see that there is more to their stories and things can be different!