Stephan DeBeer - Pretoria, SOUTH AFRICA

Learning From The Little Ones: The experience which probably most influenced my life, ministry and theology, was my involvement with street children in Pretoria, South Africa. I became involved without realizing the complexities of working with these kids. They were not only small, black children on the streets of a big city. Rather, they were the most vulnerable in the traditional bastion of apartheid. They were harassed and assaulted by those who were supposed to protect them, those in the police, the families they were coming from. They were exploited by business people. They were sexually and physically abused by community people. And suddenly, in trying to be involved with them, I've been stripped of all naive dreams. Solidarity with these children brought us in direct opposition with the powerful ones of the city.

It is ironic. These are the smallest, most vulnerable ones in the community. Yet, they were the ones who brought about violent reactions, they were the ones which made the middleclass citizens and the authorities most uncomfortable. In a way they were the ones used by God to expose the distorted values, the sickness, the captivity of the community.

In 1991 we became involved with street children in Pretoria. Youth Initiative, the name of our group, turned the old Elim church into a shelter which housed twenty children and where we've been developing workshop areas, educational and training programs, recreational opportunities and a space in which the boys could be empowered spiritually and emotionally. Over twenty months we've experienced marvelous growth amongst the boys and in the ministry.

We have started with dreams of how the boys would change and how much we were going to offer. Soon we realized that we learned most and that the children were our teachers. They were used by God to challenge our values, our theologies, our view of God, of possessions, of lifestyle, of church, of virtually everything. Solidarity with the children raised hard and new questions we've never asked before.

The church in general was not ready to touch them or accommodate them in their closed structures. The community and business people saw them as a threat, as the first signs of a changing community and of black influx into a traditional white inner city. The police used violence to scare the children away. Our involvement with the children in many ways have put us on the margins.

Many experiences of injustice, corruption and abuse in those months, have helped me for the first time to experience what black South Africans had to experience for years. In March of 1992 the shelter was torched. 8 children died. Inside of me something broke. The very next day a police officer commanded that the building should be demolished. That was even before any proper investigation. In November 1994, two years after the fire, the inquest was still dragging on and no justice to be found. Evidence was too well coveredup by the police. And in all of this, there was an absence of the institutional church. We still feel comfortable with serving people, with handouts, with caring. But we don't care enough to fight for justice, to enter the pain of marginalisation, to become powerless ourselves.

And today, even with a new government and even in postapartheid South Africa, street children still face the same attitudes and actions against them. Yet, Jesus called for the little children, and he warned against those who will hinder them. He even promised judgment for those who caused little ones to stumble.

The children on our streets were used by God in unique ways in my own life. They helped me to ask hard questions about ministry with the urban poor. And God is still using them to challenge many people, to cause discomfort for the comfortable ones, and to stir the conscience of a passive society.

ThandananiVoices From The Streets: For the last two years we've tried to establish a presence in Marabastad, a community on the edge of Pretoria's central business district. It's a business community, but there is a growing number of people living in this area, on the streets, in shacks, in cardbox houses. More than 300 people live in a very small area. More than 3,000 hawkers have informal businesses in this community. Many of them also sleep here at night, right with their goods. They have to protect their goods, for there is no other infra-structure for informal business in the area.

Homelessness is growing in the streets of Pretoria. Over months, we've been able to befriend many street people. They've often had meals with us, they've taken baths in our facilities, they've used our second-hand clothing store and they've attended our Tuesday night coffee shop.

Almost three months ago some of the homeless people asked for support one night at the coffee shop. We've told them that we did not have money or jobs to offer. But we had facilities which they could use, if they wanted to organize themselves. A few of these people saw this as a challenge, the ball was in their hands, and they have started to dream about alternatives. A core group of homeless people have organized themselves. They have called their group "Thandanani" which means unity.

These homeless are committed to this group and each other. Working together, we are able to make a difference, to negotiate, to make a new beginning. Isolated or on our own, we're just too weak. In partnership, in unity, we are able to reach out with bold vision, for renewal on our streets, for transforming our communities.

Every Monday night Thandanani meets at the community house. The sight of these people gathering brings tears, tears of excitement and happiness, because I see something of God's intention, of God's image in them. And they are rediscovering it for themselves. But also tears of sadness--another day without finding jobs, they're tired and struggling, they have had to endure so much in their lives before. Tears of joy, because God is using these very people to teach me about ministry in the city, about community organizing, about empowerment, about all the big themes that we have good theories about. Thandanani is real people, homeless people, taking responsibility for changing the face of homelessness in Pretoria's inner city.

The three main items on their agenda are prayer, housing and jobs. They've developed objectives for their own lives and for improving their own situations. They've selected a delegation to go to city council. And they have met the provincial minister of welfare, not asking hand-outs but asking partnership.

Future, Lucky and David are the leaders of the group. It is encouraging to see how they develop into leaders, how they regain their dignity, how they take responsibility. It is humbling to see what happens when we, the care-givers, the ministers, the developers move to the background. Suddenly the group explodes. They grow, they share, they lead, they move from old places of dependency and captivity to new places of hope, liberation, and empowerment.

I value the creation of a space where everybody is equal. I am just one of the group in Thandanani. A space is created in which we are able to learn from each other. We come to the table with different perspectives, life experiences, skills and knowledge. But every single person in Thandanani has something to offer. In the creation of such a space, God is touching people, God is affirming people, God breaks down barriers and he brings healing in brokenness. If only we would leave our comfortable places of captivity and venture into new and unknown places, where we would meet God in new ways.

Seeking For A Healing Community: In South Africa racial separation is deeply rooted and a new government won't change that overnight. In our community in Pretoria's inner city we work hard on being a community of healing, where God's people from different races, classes and genders, could really live in solidarity and fellowship.

We've managed an affordable housing facility for the past two years. When we took over management it was the first time people from all races had to live together. Even more, people had to share bathrooms. The first months were the hardest months of our lives. Every domestic quarrel turned into a racial fight. Prejudice was exposed on a daily basis. Both white and black people who moved into this facility had to adjust and it wasn't always easy. Doors were slammed in our faces more than once. We had to keep a middle position and weren't very popular.

But God has done miracles in the lives of many people as He changed them in their minds, thinking and attitudes. Close relationships have developed over the past two years between people who would never have been friends before. On April 27, the morning of South Africa's first democratic election, we had a prayer breakfast in our community. We were 60 people together, coming from different racial and language backgrounds, and voting for 5 different political parties that morning. Yet, the oneness as we prayed and shared breakfast, the unity as we walked to the polls to the vote, the crossing of barriers and the deep fellowship, just showed signs of God's gracious presence where people meet across barriers.

The Potter's House is a community of women who find themselves in crisis in the city. Together they work towards alternatives for their lives. This is a small facility where 10 women could live together at any given time. Here God has erected many signs of hope. When a white woman coming from a farming background and a black woman who have been a domestic worker with white people all her life, suddenly have to share a room and become friends at a very deep level, I see signs of God being involved.

It's not easy. We have to adjust in every area of our ministry and community life. We have to learn about music, about games, about the use of language, about the style and content of group work, and in every area we lack experience and knowledge. Because where white and black people in the South African society suddenly have to live together, there aren't recipes for success. There are big gaps in understanding and acceptance. There are obvious and subtle forms of racism. But God's grace is creating opportunities to learn afresh. And in community we are able to struggle with the racial and cultural issues, we've able to be cross barriers, first small and later big ones. And in crossing the barriers, God is healing people from wounds of the past, He is challenging us in terms of our prejudice, and He is building us into a new community which reflects the reconciliation which is his vision.

We value the example of Jesus, crossing barriers to sit with the woman at the well. In our community we experience Jesus calling us to do similarly. He calls people in urban ministry to sit at the well, to be channels of living water, which will refresh a divided people and will make them one.