GEORGE, South Africa — In the fleeting warmth of the early afternoon sun, he sat facing the campsite teeming with youth — 61 of them — from all walks of life. Making their way to the dining hall, they crowded behind the thin glass of the windowpanes, a cloud of different colors and dialects — fitting for a project based in the Republic of South Africa, a self-described “Rainbow Nation.”
From his chair in the lawn, International World Changers crew leader D. Ray Davis turned his gaze from the building below.
“There’s an African proverb that says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone,’“ he said. “‘If you want to go far, go together.’
“I think the IMB and missionaries have realized we can’t do this job alone.”
The occasion was International World Changers in George, South Africa, where Davis, International Mission Board (IMB) associate vice president of church and partner connections, served as crew leader. International World Changers (IWC) is an IMB-sponsored ministry that sends out teams of students to locations all over the world during their holidays from school.
However, this 11-day project in July took a new approach to mission work by halving the number of American students usually admitted and partnering them with an equal number of South African youth, an idea that was the brainchild of IMB missionaries Jeff and Lynne Holder, who hosted the event.
“We really wanted to help strengthen the work of the existing churches … instead of just doing our own thing,” Jeff said. “(We wanted) to come alongside our Baptist partners and assist them in training and church planting.”
And while the Americans were assisting the local churches, nationals were able to provide the team with cultural know-how and act as translators when necessary.
How the two groups would actually interact, however, no one knew.
“We had never done this before. … It’s winter in George and we thought it might rain — and I think today’s the first day it hasn’t,” Lynne said, laughing. “(There were) questions of whether everyone would get along or (whether) the language would be an issue.”
Their prayer from the beginning was to be as people who’ve met before. What they didn’t know was how fully their request would be satisfied. Within a day, the team was tighter than old friends, bonding over tea as they exchanged traditions and different turns of phrase. Always offering a smile or a hand to hold, they called themselves a family — though, from the world’s perspective, they looked anything but the same. Not only were there Americans alongside Africans, but there were representatives of many ethnic groups in the still somewhat separate society of South Africa: Coloured, Xhosa, White, Indian and Afrikaner.
“Children of God always fit in perfectly …” said Octavia Skippers, a 20-year-old IWC participant from Cape Town, South Africa. “If two things fit together, it would be the family of Christ: many parts, one body. And that’s what we are.”
No longer simply Jeff or Lynne, the whole camp adopted new titles — uncle or aunt, brother or sister.
The team split into four subgroups, the focus of which was to reach out to young adults in different struggling communities in and around George. A local church from each area partnered with a team of about 15 World Changers to engage the youth through fun activities like bead work and nail painting for the girls and sports ministry for the boys, who flocked to the sound of the constant thud and punt of a pickup soccer match.
Each subgroup continued to visit the same community throughout the week to build relationships and minister to the new friends they found there. And while much progress was made through their work, with many new or renewed commitments to Christ counted in every community, these World Changers ministered to one another as well.
“A lot of the South African team members are people God is using in my life and it’s because they’re trying to live like Jesus did …” said Brandon Stotts, 17, from Longview, Wash.
“They’ll never know how grateful I am for them.”
Even when times got rough — the first few rainy days flooded the tents where they were staying and made the cool weather that much colder, not to mention gave everyone the sniffles or worse — the team’s affirming attitudes were unaffected. Back at the camp, each night was brought to a close with devotions and a time for the students to share both their successes and struggles. Whether it was issues of addiction or abuse, divorce or disease, color and culture made no difference. They shared in their brokenness and together were healed.
“It was amazing to know that I’m not the only one (going through these things),” Skippers said. “We can shed tears together, we can overcome things together.”
Lynne said: “Even though they live in different parts of the world, they still face the same struggles and issues and heartaches. And I think it’s been good for both sides to see that.”
On the last day, leadership from the South African side announced plans to continue their ministry in George through short return trips on a six-month schedule. “We can’t just leave this place and not come back. We want to see the fruits of the seeds we laid for these people,” said Julia October, 19, a South African student from Cape Town.
Bronwin Robertson, 19, who hailed from one of the communities where the IWC team had been working, took it as a call to action. “I’m going to fight for God in my area,” he said. “My work starts now.”
Goodbyes had already begun and the American team was packing their bags, possibly never to return again, but through the relationships that were built with local believers, their work would live on.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Beaufain is a writing intern for the International Mission Board’s global communication team.)