“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!

 

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.