Young children in some of Port Elizabeth’s most desperately poor and dysfunctional neighbourhoods get into gangs and drugs “because they want to belong”, says youth ministry worker Lana du Plessis, who heads an ambitious school-based discipleship programme that has been launched in the area.
“We know that these children need to belong to Jesus Christ and so we are praying that the discipleship programme will multiply in the schools and impact the community,” said Du Plessis who is Eastern Cape Coach for Gateway Youth Foundation (GYF) which is partnering with Youth For Christ (YFC) in the programme. The projects, funded by YFC, were introduced in Northern Areas neighbourhoods where community leaders and police have been calling for visible, sustained, church-led intervention to counter gangsters’ influence on young people.
Through the project, three youth mentors drawn from the local communities and with the backing of key local church leaders, have been assigned to six schools representing nearly 6 000 learners. The schools include 4 primary schools and two high schools in the Northern Areas and a primary school in the impoverished Walmer Township in the southern part of the city. The goal of project, which is scheduled to run until June 2012, is to implement the GYF programme of discipleship, prayer and projects in order to raise a corps of well-equipped disciples who will be able to disciple others and equip further disciplers.
Du Plessis, who has served on mission teams in many tough parts of the world said that when she first arrived in the poorest sections of the Northern Areas it was like arriving on the mission field. “It’s on our doorstep and we never knew it,” she said.
She said she had been challenged by the reality of the extreme poverty in the areas; the large number of hungry children who perhaps had one meal a day — from a project that fed them; the streets where it was “normal” to see two-year-olds walking around on their own; and the powerful influence of gangsters. At one of the schools druglords hid drugs on the school premises and used children to carry the drugs — a practice that was not opposed by their unemployed parents as it produced the sole household income.
She realised that the worldview in the area was foreign to her and that it was essential to recruit mentors who were from the community and who understood the local culture. She was confident that the mentors, Delmarie Jantjies, Albert Davids and Robert Ndlovo were “called” and up to the challenge.
The first two months of the project were spent securing the buy-in of schools, school governing bodies and local churches who were encouraged to be as involved as possible. Thereafter, as the schools were busy with examinations, it was decided to start the mentoring programme proper next year but to end the year with holiday clubs at the Bethvale and Hillcrest Primary Schools in Helenvale and the John Masiza Primary School in Walmer Township.
The holiday clubs were held from December 5 to December 8 with the goal of keeping children off the streets and having fun with them while sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The 200 to 300 children who attended each day were also given one meal per day. Some learners from Despatch High School, where a full-time GYF youth facilitator is in place, had assisted with one of the holiday clubs and were keen to continue their relationship with the Northern Areas school.
During 2012 the focus will switch to making disciples and identifying and “working with the champions who will find the next champions”, said Du Plessis.
“We won’t be able to reach all of the learners on a one-on-one basis. But as a few children are changed, eventually the whole community will change
“It is more important for us to make 10 genuine disciples than to just convert hundreds of learners,” said Du Plessis. “In the primary schools our goal is to ensure that disciples’ values will be intact before the time the reach high school.”
She also said that one of the programme goals was to systematically establish action teams at all of the sponsored schools. Christian teachers, parents and learners would be recruited into the action teams and assigned responsibilities such as coordinating prayer.
“We want people to take ownership so that the programme become sustainable, even when we eventually move on.”