by Joanna Augsburger
As we brought in the bucket of groceries and set it carefully on the only table in the room, she brought her hands to her face. Her AIDS-aged body mildly trembled with shock as we withdrew sugar, tea, flour, rice, and other basic items. A contagious smile saturated the room as her expressions of joy covered the overwhelming stench of unwashed bodies and abundant refuse. Tears streaming down her face, she threw her hands into the air and danced around the room. “Praise and thanks be to Jesus!” she exclaimed. “Thank You, Jesus!”
This was not an isolated case. While the oppressive forces of extreme poverty attacked and numbed every one of our senses, we encountered multiple heart-wrenching situations: An eight-month pregnant 14-year-old providing constant care for her bedridden grandmother; an orphaned, single 18-year-old raising her sister’s young orphaned children; an elderly woman running a makeshift orphanage for nine children; numerous individuals taking permanent shelter within tin structures smaller than backyard sheds. Within this low-income community, hundreds of families, individuals, and children exist in desperate need of spiritual and physical care.
Without being there in person, it may be hard to completely comprehend the severity of the circumstances. Having been there, having seen in person the severity of the circumstances, it is still too much to comprehend. For instance, the buckets of food we delivered contained more food than these homes had seen in weeks and would receive for weeks to come. Yet one bucket would have been a mere fraction of an average American’s groceries. To make the examples a little more tangible, think briefly about the high school freshmen at your church, the 14-year-old girls with whom you sing at church on Sunday mornings. Consider your backyard shed. Place yourself in the tattered shoes of an 18-year-old girl, completely alone, practically disabled by the pressure of raising two young children and painfully aware of the lack of food, the lack of income, the lack of help, the lack of hope. Impossibly sad; impossibly real.
South Africa Team 2009, a committed and passionate group of young adults from Baptist Bible College and Faith Baptist Bible College, had the incredible opportunity of ministering together in South Africa May 10-29. Seventeen members of the team spent their trip with missionaries and pastors in Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Cape Town. The remaining 15 members, of which I was one, ministered in Kokstad and Durban. We had the privilege of working alongside our South African brothers and sisters in Christ in a variety of ministries that included teaching Bible stories, sharing the gospel, completing manual labor projects, preparing Vacation Bible School materials, leading youth rallies, presenting skits, doing special music, directing church services, and encouraging fellow believers.
Before the trip, a question arose as to why college students, laden with bills and debts, would pursue a missions trip, ultimately costing them thousands of dollars and crucial time from their summer jobs. Some of the members may have replied that they were considering international missions but had no experience. This trip would provide an opportunity to work with missionaries, get a taste of international ministry, and apply their respective gifts. Others may have expressed a desire to meet the individuals about whom they had heard much from members of previous trips. They would be able to interact with the South Africans who had so greatly impacted their friends’ lives for service to the Lord and would, hopefully, grow in their own walks with Christ. Just as each individual had a different reason for committing to a ministry that would potentially drain his or her bank account, each individual arrived home having grown and changed in a different way.
Poverty and plenty
The low-income community we visited is one of many, but it does not completely represent South Africa. It would be difficult for anyone to portray the feel of a nation in a few paragraphs. South Africa is a diverse country of about 49 million people, with 11 national languages. However, the fact that a simple wooden fence separates the poor community from what could be identified as typical American suburbia completes a more accurate portrayal of what we encountered over and over again. This juxtaposition of poverty and plenty, of absence and affluence, can be seen not only in a literal embodiment of “the grass is always greener on the other side,” but in general social interaction. A mother strolls down the street with a baby on her back and a basket on her head and is passed by a mom driving her son home from school in her Mercedes. Children arrive for class in the morning wearing the same uniform, but some will go home daily to a good meal and time with their parents, while others will go home at the end of each month to chores and other work-related responsibilities.
It is this unity of distinction, this paradoxical truth, that creates South Africa’s identity and beauty. Not that the living conditions of those in extreme poverty are beautiful, but they are a contributing part to the nation within which South Africa Team 2009 had the joy of ministering for 19 days.
One Lord, one faith . . .
Working with the believers in all of our various ministries in the context of South Africa became a fascinating comparison to the “unity of distinction” in the surrounding culture. While there is a beauty and unique unity to the balance of cultural differences in South Africa, another form of unity became apparent as we ministered. The unifying force that bonded our team, believers from America, to the believers from South Africa contained a splendor far surpassing that which we observed around us in the community. Despite diverse families, jobs, ages, and countries, we were all unified under one God, one redeeming sacrifice, one purpose. Not to say that this concept is true of interaction only with international believers, because it is found among American believers as well-those with whom we teach Sunday School, make VBS crafts, play softball, meet for Bible study, go on missions trips. No unifying force between humans is greater and more magnificent than the bond between believers in the Body of Christ. Although most of us interact with Christians on a daily basis, it was such a blessing to meet believers with entirely different backgrounds on the other side of the world, individuals from a dissimilar culture who were brought by the Holy Spirit to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. The chance to minister alongside these individuals for the furthering of the gospel and the greater glorification of God was one for which I, and the rest of the team, will be forever grateful.
Our team leaders introduced us to an initialism and phrase that came to represent most of our experiences, aggravations, fascinations, and observations: “TIA”-“This is Africa.” In other words, some things wouldn’t have an explanation, and we should expect the unexpected. Much of ministry, as we were informed previously and learned personally during the trip, involves flexibility. So when 15 of us needed to visit the supermarket and we had a seven-passenger minivan to use, we all became very flexible (literally) and smashed 15 people into the space for seven. “This is Africa!” Driving down the road, many South African vehicles have incredible numbers of individuals crammed in the back. But, as we discovered by the surprise on bystanders’ faces, this was apparently not a common occurrence for visiting Americans. On the tropical coast of Durban, small gray monkeys replaced squirrels, and all we could say was, “TIA.” Whether we were preserving the wood on huts with Carbolineum and absolutely reeking for days; terrified of heights but still climbing onto a tin roof to scrape rust; placing a hand into a work glove to discover a huge, fuzzy caterpillar in one of the fingers; or giving a devotional or Bible lesson on the fly, our response became, “This is Africa.”
A few months beyond the trip, it is interesting to look back and see how “This is Africa” really became “This is ministry.” The reply that encouraged flexibility and servant-heartedness among the team members during the trip was also a life lesson in serving the Lord. “This is ministry” means living each day in submission and devotion to, and accepting the unexpected from a personal, sovereign God Who ordains and organizes all. In our case, taking the excellent food, the dirty clothes, the amusing monkeys, the stinky Carbolineum, the gross caterpillars, the edifying fellowship, and the teaching opportunities and praising God for them all. While none of us can claim to be an expert, or even a beginner, concerning our ability to minister, God allowed us to learn from “This is Africa” and have a better understanding of Himself, of service to Him, and of His plan for our lives.
From the beginning, the team was challenged to grow and to know the character of God more fully. However, those months proved to be the time frame for a challenging course in God’s provision and faithfulness because, regardless of every member’s confident desire to go to South Africa and his or her fairly certain sense of God’s will, the price tag attached to the trip contained a daunting, eye-blurring, head-spinning figure. Despite the initial fears and trepidations, however, God brought us each through every deadline. What had originally looked like months of financial angst turned into spiritual blessing as we shared with each other the unbelievable means through which God met each deadline. Some provision occurred through generous and kind gifts from relatives and friends; other provision was a result of a sacrificial love offering from a student’s home church. While each was deeply appreciated and a valuable contribution, the provision around which we had an especially hard time wrapping our minds was the kind that arrived anonymously for the exact amount down to the cent. Our minds were transformed by a physical affirmation of God’s provision and faithfulness, and we left for the mission field not doubting but knowing that “if God can provide the money for the trip, He can (fill in the blank).”
Having ministered together and observed firsthand God’s powerful work, we shed profuse tears and gave generous hugs the day our group departed Kokstad to begin ministry in the Durban area. We laughed together through shared experiences but wept as we gradually parted ways, painfully considering that our paths may never cross again. However, as reminded by our greatly missed South African brothers and sisters in Christ, we could leave knowing with confidence as believers that this wasn’t the end. We would see each other again, either “here, there, or in the air.”
For all the perspectives gained, lessons learned, lives changed, hearts transformed, funds provided, and futures confirmed, South Africa Team 2009 gives God the glory. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).
Joanna Augsburger is an editorial intern at Regular Baptist Press. She is a junior at Faith Baptist Bible College and a member of First Baptist Church, Arlington Heights, Ill.