The sun rises early in the morning with rays of brilliant red, yellow and orange. It is bright and hot on a summer’s day in South Africa. By half past six, the streets are busy with people walking, taxis are full, and bicycles are on the move. Most people are on their way to work or in search of work for the day. There are men, women and children included in this mass. Babies are often seen on their mother backs or at their mother’s breast on this morning journey. And you see uniform after uniform as all the children head off to school. In the rural areas, you see women busy with their days washing, preparing for meals and taking care of the children. You often see men sitting around, joking and chatting. This is a typical day in the lives of so many South Africans.
We have been in South Africa for almost three years now. The unemployment rate continues to be unfathomably high. Because of the history of Apartheid there are so many uneducated, so many unskilled. However, even the educated have difficulty in finding jobs. The older population receives a meager pension of about $100 per month and they are usually raising all of their grandchildren. School fees are also a problem. Many children are not getting an education because their families cannot afford the cost of attending school. The youth of South Africa are leaving their rural homes to go to the cities in search of jobs only to find more hardships, leading to the growth of large shanty- towns and informal settlements. Hunger, poverty, unemployment, HIV/AIDS, healthcare…….these are all issues that the people of South Africa face…day in and day out.
And as Global Ministries missionaries we are here as development workers with the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. It is our job to assist churches to become sustainable and to assist church members and the surrounding communities in developing projects to alleviate poverty, provide job opportunities, reduce the risk and implications of HIV/AIDS, and to lift up the churches spiritually.
One of the projects that we are working with is a hospice, the Samaritan Care Centre, in a township of East London. There are 11 volunteers who are caring for those that are terminally ill. This is an ecumenical project where all of the volunteers are from churches in the area. They are mainly caring for those who are infected with HIV. Just today I was there to assist in picking up a patient from the hospital and bring her “home” to the hospice. This was a typical scene where the patient was to be discharged but no one knew who discharged her or what exactly the orders were. We sat and waited for the doctor to arrive, then the nutritionist and then the nurses to show us how to use the feeding tube for the patient. But as we waited I had time to talk to one of the volunteers and to try to connect with the patient.
Thembo is her name. She has beautiful dark skin and is in her mid-twenties. She is eating through a feeding tube and has a catheter. Her mouth has open sores on the inside and out. She weighs no more than 50 pounds and she is not responding or talking. The doctor is sending her “home” because there is nothing more that they can do for her, she is in the final stages of AIDS. Thembo has family, but they cannot or will not care for her. So she will spend her last days with a wonderful, loving and caring group of volunteers at the Samaritan Care Centre.
As I helped Thembo into the wheelchair and then into my car, I felt such compassion for her. She simply needs the love and healing touch of God, nothing more and nothing less. And that is what I gave her today and what the volunteers will give to her up to her last breath. Because it is inevitable that she will die. But, with all of Thembo’s problems and all the issues of South Africa, I took refuge in a comment that one of the volunteers, Vera, said to me at the hospital as we waited. Vera was telling one of the nurses about the centre and the nurse asked how much does the centre pay and Vera responded, “Nothing, we are all volunteers.” And the nurse simply said, “Hayi (NO) man, we must get paid!” Vera turned to me and said, “But, if we all felt that way, then no one would care for our patients, no one would care for Thembo.”
As we are writing this we are entering the season of Lent, that time leading up to the death of Jesus … of Jesus showing us what it means to love unconditionally. During Lent, Christians are usually asked to give up something in their lives. Some give up eating certain food, such as meat or chocolate. Others will give up a luxury they usually enjoy. But instead of just giving up one small luxury, why don’t we look at our own lives to seek out ways to give. Is there a hospice in your town? Go and volunteer. Is there a Habitat for Humanity project? Grab a hammer and help someone build a house. Does your church work with a local soup kitchen? Fix food and go and serve. No matter who we are or where we live, whether in Africa or the United States, God has given us abilities and talents to use. As we remember Jesus and his example of ultimate and unconditional love, let us seek out ways to share that love with others – to be Christ’s hands and feet. In our world where so many suffer, there can never be too many Vera’s.
Revs. Dawn and Jon Barnes
Jonathan and Dawn Barnes are missionaries with the Kei Regional Council of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, South Africa. Jonathan serves in pastoral ministries among the churches in the region. Dawn serves in pastoral ministries and social work.