I have been reflecting on my experiences in Soweto, Johannesburg, and South Africa as a whole. I have been thinking of what to write, how to share my experiences, and what I have learned. Every individual is unique; I have a different experience and perception of that experience than my coworkers and friends. A year seems so long and yet so short. Many things happened in 2012 and I am ever grateful for God’s grace and protection. This will be a series of four blogs, each on a quarter of the past year. I do not generally make new years resolutions, but if I am to have one this year it is to be more cognizant and dedicated to sharing my experiences through this blog. Therefore, in an effort to catch up with the benefit of hindsight, this blog series is titled a year in the life of this missionary.
The beginning of the year is somehow different than other months. It’s like a fresh start, even though only hours separate 2011 from 2012. January is a summer month in South Africa, something that feels very odd being from Washington State. My parents had just visited me for Christmas and flew back out on New Years Eve. Parting and knowing I would not see them for many more months was difficult and that feeling follows for a while. I can say I appreciate my amazing family and friends more than ever. Not having my support system down the road has vividly demonstrated how important they are in my life. Learning how to keep up communication by email and Skype is important, but its just not the same as having a coffee date.
Most of South Africa takes time off mid December to mid January, and because we work with the Lutheran Church this time is especially significant with Christmas services and remembrance. Being back to work in January is a time to begin the good work again, hopefully refreshed from the time with family and friends. January we worked especially hard on finding additional funders for the children’s after school program in the Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) Department. Providing food for the children twice a week strained the budget as our attendance numbers grow.
Working for the ELCA has brought people into my life that I would not have met otherwise. In January I met a lovely couple from a Minnesota congregation and attended a concert by a visiting orchestra in White City, Soweto. I also had the chance to speak with a student group from my alma mater Whitworth University. Whitworth is in Spokane, WA, and every two years a group of students and leaders come to South Africa to study during Jan Term. I was on the same study trip in 2004; that was my first visit to South Africa and a life changing experience. It was wonderful to see familiar professors and the students who were nearing the end of their study tour. Visitors are a blessing.
The after school program was back in full swing by February and attendance continued to increase. We had a visit from members of the Dulles-Leesburg Alumni Chapter (VA) of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity (www.kappaalphapsi1911.com, www.DLKapsi.org). The children enjoyed seeing our visitors. The after school program was operating every Tuesday and Thursday due to funding restrictions. This visit started a discussion regarding the needs of the children DAM serves in Soweto and the possibility of funding to expand the after school program. Many visitors come and are touched, but we do not often see what God does with that in the future. In this particular case God showed us what He produced in a concrete way.
March was a month of growth. As a foreigner it is often difficult to integrate into the local community and context. These things take time and it is a constant process. We began the after school program in August 2011 so the relationship with the children had been deepening for a while. This month several children opened up about their home circumstances. For example, a young boy came into my office to talk with me. He had not eaten the lunch we served at the program because he was saving it for dinner. There was no food at home. His parents had passed away and he lives with his granny, older brother, and 4 younger cousins. At the after school program children bring their own food container so when there is extra food we can pack dinner for the most needy. He was added to the dinner list.
An older boy came to us about shoes. All the children in South Africa wear school uniforms, which generally require black shoes. The only shoes he owned were school shoes. The sole of his shoe had split at the ball of the foot down the whole shoe, but that’s all he had to wear. We were able to find a special donation of black dress shoes which met the uniform requirements. I have never seen a pair of shoes so appreciated. The boy is the head of a child headed family and he cares for his younger brother. Another special donation of sandals was received in his size. I was going to take the sandals home to wash but when the boy came to the program he was wearing a pair of bed slippers with no sole with a hole in the bottom. I asked why he was wearing slippers when we had just given him shoes. He explained he was not wearing his school shoes because he only wears them at school to make them last. When looking at the situation it suddenly seemed not quite so important to wash the sandals, and we gave him a little soap to go with them instead. He thought the sandals were so nice. At that time I knew he needed other shoes as we head into winter, but we had been able to respond to his needs in some way.
These are just examples of the challenges children who attend the program face. I was encouraged we had created an environment where the children felt safe to talk about their concerns. I am saddened by the need in the community but hopeful at the ways God is working in the community.