100 Paper hearts, answering emails, and other ordinary amazing things

So this is at Saturday Kids club, with my cutest ever friend...who knows she's so cute she can get away with anything.
So this is at Saturday Kids club, with my cutest ever friend…who knows she’s so cute she can get away with anything.

So, I thought I should tell you what I do with my life, when all the awesome people I work with are in Sweetwaters teaching Life Skills and being, well, awesome. (Read about the Life Skills program over at the iThemba blog).

Networking and Program support means I write a lot, I plan a lot, I sit at a desk a lot, and sometimes I get to go into Sweetwaters and have fun with kids. 🙂 Here’s an example of what a Tuesday might look like for me ( I have taken out the number of times a day I check my email, since that would get boring):

  • Get to the office and greet everyone personally before making tea. (It’s rude to just sit down and start working in this culture).
  •  Check emails. Correspond with upcoming teams and volunteers.
  • Write up a blog post for the iThemba blog (yes, the one I just told you to go read).
  • Design creative thank you letters for Running Club sponsors
  • Research articles and blogs on good development for our new up and coming interactive website.
  • Cut out 100 red paper hearts, print out 8 huge mazes, laminate 80 name tags for camp.
  • Laugh my head off at the funny things people in the office say.
  • Go to Mountain Home school in Sweetwaters to meet with the principal about our team coming in July from the UK. Judge the school’s 4th grade art competition to determine what mural will be painted by the team at their school. Visit Sbukisezwe creche to talk about the team’s visit with that teacher.
  •  Help with Thulani’s (huge!) Life Group in Sweetwaters: Play singing games with the kids, arm wrestle the tweens, then help with the review game as they go over all of the previous term’s lessons. Pour juice. Hand out chips.
  • Head home! 🙂

Some people have this idea that doing cross-cultural work overseas is some HUGELY amazing thing they could never do.They think people who end up working cross-culturally in a foreign country are some kind of sparkely angelic super-spiritual person they could never be like.


I’d love to say that’s true. But I think that pretty much everything on that list you’d probably be okay at. (Maybe cutting out paper hearts is a little tough for some of you). I will tell you it’s the BEST JOB IN THE WORLD, and I also work with the most inspiring, fun, crazy people (and sometimes I feel like I’m cheating or something because what I do is so fun, and my JOB is to be a part of this amazing organization, and aren’t people supposed to get stuck into boring desk jobs or something?) … but don’t put cross-cultural mission work on a pedistal and then claim you could never do it because you don’t have what it takes.

You probably do.

On the flip side, you may have noticed that every moment of my life is not holding hands with little children and playing in the rain and singing. A lot of it is pretty ordinary stuff that can get boring. Sometimes I don’t feel like answering a bajillion emails, or cutting ribbons or going shopping for food for visiting teams (my worst) or a bunch of other stuff that’s not my favorite. And this doesn’t cancel out what I just said about having the best job ever– it just one more reason that explains why I am normal, just like you.

And I am guessing that as much as I love iThemba there are probably other organizations and groups where you are that are caring for the poor, the widow and the orphan, and they are probably just as ordinary and just as amazing. So why are you sitting here reading this? You, too, could have an amazing, crazy, wonderful life serving God and doing life-changing things like cutting out 100 paper hearts…right where you live.


Spider-web Relationships


Photo Credit to Emilie Bak Toldam from the Front Class January Team.
Photo Credit to Emilie Bak Toldam from the Front Class January Team.

I heard a description in college about three different ways of viewing the world:

The Western way is atomic. It breaks things down into the tiniest parts and analyzes them. Our great big world is made of minuscule atoms, of individuals. The Eastern way is oceanic. It views everything as one whole. Every little drop is really one aspect of a great ocean that is everything. The African way is like a spiderweb. The world is a web of relationships. It is the relationships between things that are important. The world is not the tiny elements or the big whole, it’s the spider-thin threads that connect things to each other.

I like to think African and I think that’s why I am involved in faith-based community development work. As someone who follows Jesus, I believe all our relationships are really, really broken. The relationships of people in Sweetwaters towards the Hilton community are broken. The relationship between teachers and students towards education is broken. Their relationships towards material goods are broken. Their relationships towards each other that end up in abuse, AIDS, teen pregnancy are broken. The Hilton community is also broken. Their relationships towards each other, towards the poor, towards those who work for them, towards the environment– all these relationships are broken.

And I believe the reason all these relationships are broken is because our primary relationship– our relationship with God–is broken. When God, the creator, who created all things good, who created things in harmony, who created Shalom, is not central to our lives, we have no power to really set things right. We were created to image God, to reflect the joy and love of the Trinity in the way we interact with the world. We still carry the image of God, but rather than dancing through life in relationship with one another and the world, we trod and stomp and break and kick our way through. No matter how hard we work at it, there is no way for us to live in perfect relationship with everything in the universe.

But the beautiful thing is that God makes a way to restore all the brokenness, and it all revolves around Jesus. Jesus Christ, who was God, who showed us what God is like, spent his time bringing restoration to the broken relationships: healing the sick, comforting the downtrodden, and freeing people from the burden of law and from the weight of their sin. His death and resurrection mean that we can actually be made whole again– that everything that was dead and broken inside of us can be made new and whole and alive.

Once we have the life of Christ inside of us we have the power to be a part of God’s plan of restoring the world. It starts with Christ slowly repairing all the broken relationships in our own lives, and overflows as we get to join in the work of restoring all the other broken relationships in the world. Johns gospel uses pictures like being reborn, becoming a spring of never-ending life water, becoming a light in the darkness. These are all pictures of being a source of life to everything around us.

There are people who don’t think the way I do that still make a huge difference in the world through loving acts of service and compassion as they give their lives to repair broken social systems. It’s just that I believe they are missing a crucial element: the broken relationship with God which causes this mess. As we can see from the materialistic, self-indulgent Western-world, just having a good education and clean water and more stuff doesn’t make you a happier, more-fulfilled, better person. Alternatively, there are some Christians who think that God only wants to restore your soul then fly it away to heaven when you die. They, also, are missing the fact that God is the creator of all things and therefore wants to restore all things. Salvation isn’t some abstract disembodied event, it’s embedded in the mesh of relationships that all need to be salvaged and put right. (Romans 8, Colossians 1)

The other week a friend asked me if I’d still be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t follow Jesus. I’d like to say I might be involved in empowering poor communities through education and mentoring. I hope I would be a nice enough person to still do that. But my actual motivation to do what I do is not because I have noble humanitarian instincts. Most of the time I’m pretty selfish. The reason why I do what I do is because I have a relationship with Jesus, and with that comes the joyful mission of being a part of his work in restoring everything else.

So really, the question for all followers of Jesus is not “are you involved in social justice?” or “why are you involved in social justice?” it’s “how are you involved in social justice?” And the answer to that, of course, will look different for everyone.

A World Where Short Term Trips Aren’t Needed

“But when we are honest, too much of the time our service projects cover up the reality that our way of life is what makes the service project necessary to begin with. In that way service projects don’t function to change the status quo, or even push against it, they actually function to maintain it. They are what makes it possible for us to continue to live in consumptive patterns that are destroying the ecology, social fabric and other people’s lives while at the same time telling ourselves that we are good, generous, compassionate Christians.

The best service projects tell the unvarnished truth. They don’t manipulate folks out of guilt. They don’t sugar-coat the root causes of poverty. They let people experience the impact of their way of life on others. And they provide hope for a way forward. That way forward doesn’t involve more projects, it involves new ways of living! It involves people with power and wealth laying it down on behalf of the poor and marginalized. As followers of Jesus, we should be about making a world where the Mother Theresa’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s have nothing to do. To the degree that our service projects can help do that, I’m all for it. To the degree that they help to obscure reality and maintain the status quo, they aren’t helpful.

This is where we, in the church, could learn a thing or two about community development. Often times church leaders, and youth guys who lead these churches, have absolutely no training in what it takes to transform a community from the ground up. We do service projects without thinking more deeply about how time, energy and money could be best used to help solve grass-roots problems. Too often, youth pastors unwittingly play the role of facilitator in covering up the ways we maintain the status quo. We aren’t asking enough hard questions about the root causes of poverty, both locally and globally. Until we do, we will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

(Quote from Michael Danner’s blog post “no saint’s needed” on Provoke+Love.   Thanks Sam for passing it along!)

This quote is really challenging to me, as someone who helps bring teams on “service project trips”. iThemba, as a development organization, is always trying to think about how we can “work ourselves out of a job”. How can we help create a world where our job is not needed? So I wonder… can we apply that to teams? How can we structure our trips and outreaches with local and overseas volunteers in such a way that they are challenged to change their lifestyles so much that their outreach trip will no longer be needed? A major part of that has to come from the sending organization itself (church, school, or organization). But I am sure there are things we can do from our side to help people start a journey of re-thinking how they live.

Maybe you can challenge the groups you work with to start thinking about how they do outreach?

“I feel like a Queen in a palace now!” Gretta exclaimed after she saw her repainted kitchen at Sbukosezwe creche. The team of 8 from Leek, England, had spent the morning repainting it, and helping Gretta with the 67 three to five-year-olds that were attending the creche that day.

While iThemba doesn’t like to make manual work projects the focus of their work, helping someone improve their physical surroundings can encourage them. Gretta has tirelessly worked for many years with young children at her creche, and somehow she is able to keep them all learning something and not causing havoc! It was such a pleasure to get to be a part of encouraging her to keep going in her work.

This team from Leek has had hearts of service these past two weeks. They helped us with our Holiday Club (where we had about 100 kids and 30 teens), assisted with some gardening projects, helped to run Life Groups, and also repainted two kitchens at two different creches.

The majority of this team was past retirement age, and yet rather than spending their retirement traveling to South Africa’s tourist spots, they were here with us in Sweetwaters getting dirty, working hard, and playing with kids! They were a huge encouragement to our iThemba team as well.  iThemba has a very young staff, so it was great for us (as well as the kids and teens in the community) to meet people as old as their “gogo’s” who were taking time to invest in their lives and also knew how to have some fun! My co-worker Thulani said when they left, “Let me tell you, you have inspired me. When I am your age, I hope I am just as crazy as all of you!”

I can’t upload photos from home, but click here to see some pics of the Leek team and their work:

Thank you to all who have been praying for me and for these teams these past 3 weeks. My health is much improved, and even after going hard for 3 weeks, I don’t feel a relapse in energy at all. Praise God! I’m now taking a few days off, though, since I don’t want to push myself too hard. 🙂

Dance of Service

Fun games at the Bennetts where we had our starters. Find your partner!
Fun games at the Bennetts where we had our starters. Find your partner!

“Isn’t it awesome seeing the Church being the Church?” Sam commented to me, as we were discussing the Kids Crew Christmas thank you dinner. She didn’t mean this specific church–although Hilton Baptist played a huge part in providing volunteers to make the evening happen. She meant the Church—us, followers of Christ–actually being the body of Christ.

So often churches get caught up in themselves–the color of their carpet, the specific style of worship music, who’s doing the flowers–and often these petty grievances are framed with, “But we want to do all we can to accommodate those outside the church. What will they think?” However, when the Body stops being so introspective and starts doing what its meant to, starts using its hands, feet and heart to be a blessing to others, that’s pretty awesome.

Kids Crew is the name given to the teens from Sweetwaters who help out every Saturday at Jabulani Kids Club. They help play with the kids, lead worship, and then break the kids up into groups and teach a Bible lesson and memory verse. Not something many teens would want to do on a Saturday morning for 3 hours! To say thank you for their commitment we organized a progressive dinner (or traveling supper, or whatever people call it). Various friends of iThemba in Hilton hosted the different courses at their homes.

We were served by the home group!
We were served by the home group!

It was fun playing the silly games and eating the amazing food provided by the volunteers. But my favorite part was seeing the Body in Hilton serving the Body in Sweetwaters. The Trinity has been described by many Christian philosophers (Lewis, Plantinga and Tim Keller) as a dance of self-giving love. Each member in the godhead pouring out service, love and delight into the other. Each revolving around the other, not himself.

Our delicious main course, hosted by Hilton Baptist home group!
Our delicious main course, hosted by Hilton Baptist home group!

Hilton churches delighting to serve Sweetwaters teens, who delight to serve the kids in Sweetwaters who don’t know Christ. That’s how it should be. That’s what draws people to Christ, not the color of our carpets.

The incarnation is all about the body. God coming to us, in a body. God coming for us, breaking his body so we could be with him, so we could be included in the dance. This Christmas let’s all challenge the Church to really be the Church.

Thulani (iThemba fielder) and a Kids Crew leader.
Thulani (iThemba fielder) and a Kids Crew leader.

“In self-centredness we demand that others orbit around us. We will do things and give affection to others, as long as it helps us meet our personal goals and fulfils us. The inner life of the Triune God, however, is utterly different. The life of the Trinity is characterised not by self-centredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance, particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two. So it is, the Bible tells us. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.” [Tim Keller]

Praise God for an amazing Camp! We had great weather, a great speaker, and (we pray) real spiritual growth among the teens.  Pray for them these holidays, that they will continue to read their Bibles and grow.