Just weeks after the 2016-2017 school year ended, the South Africa Mission team, led by Elizabeth Ables, Whitney Panetta, Greg Lisson, Andrea Shupert and Emily Zavitz, embarked on their 15-hour-journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Johannesburg, South Africa. Upon arrival, they were greeted by the welcoming staff of Godfirst City Church, their host for the week. After a long bus ride to Hoopoe Haven, a local bed and breakfast where the team stayed throughout the week, they unpacked and settled in. Jet-lagged yet excited, the team was ready to serve.
From day one, the team was put to work making maternity packs with the Grace Project, writing encouraging notes and packaging supplies for mothers who might not have anything. The following day, the team visited the township, Zandspruit, and partnered with Impact Africa, participating in door-to-door evangelism throughout the town. In South Africa, townships are informal settlements consisting mostly of shacks without running water, plumbing or any of the basic American amenities we take for granted. For many students, this experience was the most powerful of the entire trip.
Emily Willis recalled one of the most powerful moments of the trip. “We only had time to visit a few houses because of the conversations we had, but I got to lead one lady in a salvation prayer, and share my testimony with another woman who dealt with similar things that I do. We also got to see two incredible healings of different types – one of arthritis and one of a crippled hand from epilepsy. I was holding this little boy’s hand, that he didn’t have use of, while we prayed, and I got to physically feel him squeeze my hand as all of us prayed with his mom over him. I certainly won’t forget the look of joy I was able to witness this little boy have, and won’t forget the way I saw God move.”
Students and leaders also had the opportunity to lead a Vacation Bible School for underprivileged children. Both teams split up to serve different schools, with one team going into the city and the other team journeying to a township. Despite being miles away from each other, both of these groups were able to see firsthand the power of service as the children in these schools showed overwhelming appreciation and joy at the mere presence of these students and teachers. Crafts were made and songs were sung, but the relationships that were made, even in the short window of time at those places, would last far longer. Junior Jack Norris said, “the most powerful thing I saw on the trip was the joyfulness of the children who had absolutely nothing. They were super happy and energetic and it showed me how to be joyful in the hard times.”
Later in the week, the Wesleyan team assisted in the demolition of an old building in preparation for the construction of the new City Green offices for Godfirst City Church. Here, as walls were torn down and trees were planted, the metaphor of “building the kingdom of God” truly came to life. After working hard, the team experienced more of the South African culture as they were introduced to one of the country’s favorite sports, rugby. They took a trip to St. Johns, an all-boys private school in the city, to watch a rugby match. Elise Harper said, “St. Johns looked exactly like the school in Harry Potter. We watched a rugby match there between rival schools, much like GAC vs. Wesleyan. At the game, the boys dress up in something like a chapel uniform with straw hats and do cheers throughout the game, and because they don’t have cheerleaders, the whole school recites these chants.”
Later that day, as the girls convened at the church for a women’s conference, the guys learned how to play rugby and even got to watch South Africa’s team, the Springboks, defeat France. Annie Cowart said, “the women’s conference was incredible. There definitely wasn’t just one age group, but connecting with girls our age from the other side of the world was a really, really cool experience. We were in small groups for a lot of the time and we all had a lot more in common than we thought we would. But the most memorable part of the conference was definitely writing letters. There is a non-profit that provides bags of basic necessities for new mothers who have absolutely nothing. Many of these women will leave the hospital with their children wrapped in newspapers or simply give up and abandon the newborns. Our job was to write letters of encouragement and hope to the moms. At the conference, we were all given a card to write on and all of them have (or will) end up in the bags. It was amazing writing the letter knowing that it’s going to someone who truly needs it.”
The team also participated in the church’s youth group the following day and got to hear from Glenn Campbell, famed freshman retreat speaker and pastor of Godfirst City Church in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the evening service. As the service portion of the trip came to an end, the culture immersion continued. As part of their “rest and relaxation,” the group ventured to Bakubung for a game drive safari, where they spotted many indigenous animals such as elephants, rhinoceroses and giraffes. That night they enjoyed a braai, a massive cookout of all different kinds of South African meat, beneath the starry sky. They even got to visit a lion park, feed giraffes and interact with baby lion cubs. On the final day of the trip, the team paid tribute to South African history by visiting an Apartheid Museum and former president Nelson Mandela’s home in the township neighborhood of Soweto.
Over eight thousand miles away from home, God transformed the hearts of these students and teachers. Junior, Elise Harper said, “I encourage everyone to try and go to South Africa in their lifetime. It is so cool that the city looks exactly like Atlanta but if you drive even five minutes out, there are people living in poverty and squatter camps. But there is so much love in South Africa and the people there.”