Monday, May 31, 2010

God is Real in Red Hill

This is a story about how God brings people together from all walks of life and uses them to build His kingdom on earth.

When Mzo Bayeni began work as a life skills educator in Red Hill two years ago, he needed a way to call children to order when it was time to be quiet and listen. So he came up with a call-and-response routine that goes like this (call in lower case, response in caps):

Red Hill … KIDS CLUB!
Red Hill … KIDS CLUB!
God is … REAL! In Red … HILL!
God is … REAL! In Red … HILL!

Fast-forward to March of this year, when a team from Rolling Hills Community Church in Nashville came to work in Red Hill for a week. One of the team members, Brett James, is a professional songwriter with a string of No. 1 hits to his credit, including co-writing the Carrie Underwood blockbuster, Jesus Take the Wheel.

After Brett heard the chant, he showed up the next day with his guitar and a catchy tune he had written:  “Jesus loves me in Red Hill … And I want to do His will … For God is real … in Red Hill …God is real … in Red Hill.” Then he took it a step further: After returning home to Nashville, he recorded the song with an infectious Caribbean-inspired keyboard backing and sent it back to us as an mp3 file.

The kids absolutely love it. They walk around singing it all the time, and it’s a regular part of our praise-and-worship segment at the afternoon Kids Club. Here’s a big shout-out to Mzo and Brett (that’s him on the left in the photo) for allowing God to use them in blessing the Red Hill community.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Into the Wild

The Otter Trail is part of Tsitsikamma National Park, located about seven hours east of Cape Town along South Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline. The trail spans 42 kilometers and includes four camps along the way, with two huts at each site accommodating up to 12 hikers.

Those are the basic facts. But facts alone can’t begin to describe the beauty of this pristine wilderness. For five days I marveled at the sights around me: sheer cliff faces rising 600 feet out of the sea; massive waves crashing onto jagged rocks; boulders as big as my house; pods of dolphins playing in the surf. About the only thing I didn’t see was the trail’s namesake, the reclusive Cape Clawless Otter.

Then there was the physical aspect: This landscape is not only seen; it is very much felt. The trail traverses slippery rocks along the shore, where there is rarely level or stable footing; it’s replete with more lung-busting and leg-burning ascents than I could count; it features eight river crossings, including a rather treacherous one at the Bloukrans River that requires a swim followed by a climb up a near-vertical rock face using a series of fixed ropes.

Wilderness treks are made all the more memorable by the company one keeps, and this one was no exception. Besides me, our six-person party included my friend Nadine and her 12-year-old son Matthew; Fred and Angie, a couple from the Cape Town suburb of Somerset West; and Clarissa, a 19-year-old first-time backpacker who bravely overcame every challenge thrown at her. We shared our camp each night with two other parties: a young lesbian couple, and a suave Frenchman hiking with three ladies (typical Frenchman, right?). As I said, the company was memorable.

Rather than drone on endlessly about something that words really don’t do justice to, I’ll just conclude with a few bullet-point highlights and let the photos that follow tell the rest. Let’s call it Al’s Top-10 List of Otter Trail Memories:

10) Being lulled to sleep by the roar of the Indian Ocean each night
9) Eating fresh fish that Matthew and his mom bought in an impromptu transaction with local fisherman (who may or may not have been illegally trespassing on national park land)
8) The look of surprise on Clarissa’s face upon realizing the overnight huts had no electricity with which to charge her cell phone
7) Walking along exposed clifftops with nothing but ocean extending to the horizon
6) Not encountering any deadly venomous snakes (of which there are many in this country)
5) Enjoying the warmth of a good fire and the company of good friends each night
4) Al, seeking help to swim upriver in search of fresh water: “You don’t have to go if you’re not comfortable.” Clarissa: “Nothing about this trip has been comfortable. I will go.”
3) Successfully swimming the ice-cold Bloukrans River at high tide
2) Watching dozens of dolphins riding the waves at the Lottering River mouth
1) The feeling of satisfaction in walking off of Nature’s Valley Beach at the end of the hike, knowing something substantial was achieved

Trail Gazing

This is the hut at our first night’s campsite.

  And this is the view from the hut.

Me, Matthew and Clarissa enjoying a snack break.
  South Africa’s coastline reminds me of the California or Oregon coasts – mountainous and rocky, nothing like the Georgia/South Carolina LowCountry where I’m from.

That’s a pod of dolphins in the center of this image. As I watched them play in the surf, and as I looked at the surrounding mountains and ocean, I was reminded of Psalm 148: “Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths … you mountains and all hills” (vv. 7, 9). God’s creation is constantly offering up praise to Him.

  Sunset at Oakhurst Camp on the Lottering River mouth.

Looking down on the Bloukrans River mouth. Just to the left of the large cave is where we had to swim to and then haul ourselves up the cliff face using fixed ropes.

Oh whatever …

  Nadine and Matthew leading the way across the Bloukrans.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

South African Splendor

I just returned from a five-day backpacking trip on the Otter Trail, a 42-kilometer (26-mile) route along South Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline. The above image was taken at the mouth of the Lottering River, where the third night’s campsite is located. Bookings for the trail are in high demand. After hiking it, I can see why – it’s some of the most spectacular terrain I’ve ever traveled over. I’ll post more photos and details soon.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The One Who Needs No Introduction

On Monday at our staff devotion time, someone showed a video clip of comedian Steve Harvey, speaking as if he were introducing Jesus at a public gathering. It’s a powerful piece of oratory. Here's the link:

Monday, May 17, 2010

Big Day Out

Many of the children and teenagers I work with have never seen some of the sights that make Cape Town such a popular travel destination. So this past Saturday, four of my colleagues and I led a hiking trip up Lion’s Head, one of the prominent peaks that overlooks the city.

It couldn’t have been a better day. After a week of heavy rain and cold, the sun shined brightly. Ten of the 11 kids (mostly adolescents) made it all the way to the top – 2, 200 feet above sea level – and mostly without complaining. One girl even did it barefoot after realizing sandals weren’t conducive to hiking. I was so proud of them for meeting the challenge.

Early into the hike, one of the boys pointed at the jagged summit and said, “Al, who made it like that?” as if, perhaps, the city planners had designed and constructed it. Afterward we enjoyed lunch at a nearby picnic area and discussed the answer to that question, pointing out the wonders of God’s creation around us.

We read from Psalm 148, which speaks of the natural world offering praise to God. “Praise the Lord from the earth,” it says, “… all ocean depths … you mountains and hills … Let them praise the name of the Lord, for His name alone is exalted; His splendor is above the earth and the heavens” (vv. 7, 9, 13).

Below are more images from the outing.

Kodak Moments

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Star Student

Emihle and Eletu are surely two of the most adorable girls ever. I’ve written about them on this blog before (see “Children of Faith,” January 20, 2010), but I just have to share this latest story.

Because they are two of Red Hill’s most faithful students at the afternoon Children’s Club, I’m including them in a book I’m writing about Living Hope. Yesterday I wanted to get a comment from Eletu (she’s the one on the right in the photo) for the piece, so I asked what her favorite part of the club is.

She paused, then said, “My favorite part of the club is … .” Then she paused again and appeared to be thinking really hard. After a few seconds, her eyes widened, a big smile broke across her face, and she said … “Jesus!”

Praise God – Eletu “gets it.”

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Few Good Men

Last year when I was considering a return to South Africa, part of my vision was to help teach the Bible to men in Red Hill. The biggest obstacles to that have been identifying people to attend and figuring out a way around the language barrier (because the men are much stronger in their native Xhosa than English).

Now, with my colleague Mzo living in Red Hill, both challenges have been met. Mzo has built relationships with his neighbors and invited a number of men to be part of the study, and we are able to co-teach the material, with him translating anytime I speak. The curriculum, Men of the Banner, was developed at LowCountry Community Church in Bluffton, South Carolina and helps men realize the freedom and identity they have as followers of Jesus Christ.

Last week we held our first session, with two men, Lennox and Zweloke, present.Two is not a lot, but it’s not about numbers, it’s about hearts that God can speak to. Both guys returned for the second session this week, which we took as an encouraging sign that they’re interested in the teaching. Neither one seems to know Jesus as his personal savior yet, but they are hearing about Him in this study every week and we are trusting the Holy Spirit to move in their hearts and bring them to know Him.

So, if you are the praying type, please lift up Lennox and Zweloke – for them to enter into a growing relationship with God and to become part of the male leadership that their community so desperately needs. Also, two other men, Siya and Loyiso, have indicated interest in the study, so we’re praying that they’ll show up as well.

Hands-on Lesson

On Wednesday this week, we had our first-ever “Hygiene Day” at Red Hill. Kids were shown how to properly brush their teeth and taught the importance of keeping their hands clean, then enjoyed a cushy treatment of hand washing, nail clipping and moisturizing lotion. We decided to forego foot washing because so many of them run around in their bare feet - it would have been an exercise in futility. (Or would that be foot-ility?)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Battle with the Bottle

Part of the teaching at our after-school children’s clubs this week is on the dangers of alcohol abuse. You might wonder why it’s necessary to share such information with kids as young as 4 and 5 years old. It’s because, sadly, the younger ones are just as vulnerable as the teenagers who are more typically tempted by drink.

Beer and liquor is sold in the community bars (known as “shabeens”). Parents will send their kids on errands to bring back drink from these places. Empty bottles litter the area. Kids can see alcohol abuse is a way of life among the adults. They grow up thinking it’s normal and acceptable.

We’ve even heard reports of 7- and 8-year-olds drinking beer themselves. And if the kids aren’t using it yet, many are still suffering the consequences at home, in the form of domestic abuse from and among their parents.

How do you combat that? There are no clear solutions. All we know to do is pray, share God’s word and be available to kids who are willing to talk about their fears, doubts and insecurities.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Pig Lice and Boils

There’s a big four-way intersection that I pass through on the way to work every day. Often there’s someone handing out promotional fliers here. It’s mostly ordinary stuff – gym memberships, storm shutters, restaurant openings, that sort of thing.

But the one I was handed this morning was way out of the ordinary. It advertises the Fish Hoek Herbal Medicine Centre, which promises to fix the “things that hold you and your progress back” and to help you “explore why you and your family are always in tears. Now you have the solutions to all your problems.”

The flier then goes on to list the various problems the clinic will fix: Everything from sore throats, coughing and skin problems to more serious matters, including, and I quote, “incurable diseases, broken relationships, bad luck, pig lice, witchcraft, looking for the right partner, people hate you, sentimental problems, owing cash loans, children with bad friends,” and last but not least, “boils.”

It’s tempting to laugh all this off as nonsense, but there’s an element of danger at work here. Many native Africans worship their ancestors and depend on ancient healing practices, even in an urban area like Cape Town. From a Biblical perspective, these practices stem from “the powers of this dark world” and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” that Paul wrote about in Ephesians 6:12. Such things lead people away from God and into spiritual darkness. There’s good reason Africa is known as the Dark Continent.