Bet Sheekoom is a Hebrew phrase meaning “House of Restoration”. And for hundreds and hundreds of women who have been set free from drug addiction and prostitution, that is exactly what the Bet Sheekoom ministry in Port Elizabeth has been over the past 10 years.
For the current “mom and dad” of Bet Sheekoom, Gary and Shelley Koekemoer, it has been an amazing and humbling journey with God since 2004, when they first felt a call to reach out to prostitutes walking the streets of Central and the city centre.
The heart of Bet Sheekoom, which they have headed up since 2007, is to be a place of refuge and restoration for women in crisis who have nowhere to go and nobody to help them. Women of any age, race, socio-economic background or faith are welcome to stay at the safe house as long as it takes to restore them and equip them to start viable, new lives of their own. This may be up to two years. There is no charge for the board, lodging, training, and intensive care and support that the women receive. And the ministry relies totally on God for every cent of its running costs.
The job is not over when the women are recovered. There are funds to be raised so that women can be trained in skills. There is the business of finding suitable employment for them. Many also spend time at a Bet Sheekoom halfway house in Walmer when they first start working and start adjusting to a normal way of life that is strange to them. And the door is always open for women to seek any kind of help in the future.
“We really give all the glory to God. There is no way we could have done it without Him guiding us and leading us and the Holy Spirit working with us,” said Gary.
He said that he and Shelley’s ultimate vision was to hand over the PE ministry to somebody and to set up similar houses of restoration all over South Africa.
Moved with compassion
Thinking back to when their amazing ministry journey with God began, Shelley recalled how she and Gary were both moved with compassion when they drove past young prostitutes on the streets after midnight one day. At the time Gary was a security manager and she was a nursing sister and they were often driving in the city together late at night. They had seen girls on the streets many times before but that night they both knew they had to do something about it. Gary and Shelly, had only been married for a short while, and had both recently come to a deeper faith after returning to PE from working stints in East London.
“During the time we were away there was a big increase in the number of girls on the streets. There were more young girls and they were in your face,”said Gary.
Before long the couple took a girl into their garden flat in Newton Park. Then it was two girls and then the need to take in more grew. They consulted their leaders at Harvest Christian Church and before long the church provided them with a 3-bedroomed house in Walmer where they were able to take in more girls. Later the church linked them up with Shelly Goddard who had esablished Bet Sheekoom in 2001 after working in China with Jackie Pulinger of Chasing The Dragon fame. After Shelly returned to China and India, Gary and Shelley took over Bet Sheekoom under the oversight of Harvest.
“In the beginning we had to get to know a whole new world,” said Shelley.
At first the couple approached street prostitutes trying to start conversations with them.
“They were very wary at first. They thought we were a couple trying to pick up a girl,” said Shelley.
She said they tried giving the girls business cards with their contact details and scriptures. But they had to stop this as the girls’ Nigerian pimps beat them up if they found the cards on them.
“One night as we were driving in Central we offered to pray with two girls. One of them said that if Jesus loved her so much, she would be in the car and we would be on the street. But three months later she came to us for help,” said Gary.
Gary and Shelley persevered, bringing the girls food and drink and gifts at Christmas and Easter. Gradually they had opportunities to talk with girls and pray with them. The Nigerians, who locked up the girls during the day and released them at night, watched and amazingly there were times when they brought sick or over-drugged girls to the Koekemoers for help.
In 2009 Bet Sheekoom moved to their current premises on a spacious semi-rural property at Southdene, administered by Maranatha Mission. Gary said they were grateful to Albie and Trudie Basson of Maranatha who had recognised their need for more space and had invited Bet Sheekoom to occupy a recently vacated wing of their complex.
On average they accommodate 12 women together with any children with them. Gary and Shelley also live at the mission, and as they share their lives with the women and children, they try to give them a positive experience of a Christian couple and family values and to introduce them to “the father heart of God”. All of the women off the street have been abused at some time and have never been treated with respect by men.
Gary said that when women who followed other faiths arrived they were told that Bet Sheekoom was run on Christian principles and included a Bible-based recovery programme, but that they were welcome and under no obligation to convert to Christianity. In fact, some Muslim and Jehovah’s Witnesses women had chosen to accept Jesus during their time at the mission.
Many of the girls arrived addicted to heavy drugs like heroin and crack cocaine and were free of them by the time they left. These broken addicts came from poor backgrounds and from wealthy families, confirming that the drug problem in South Africa cut across every sector of society. In a very few cases girls were sent to hospital for detoxification. But if the girls were willing to hang in, the Koekemoers were prepared to pray with them and care for them until they were free. They said their success rate was directly proportional to the girls’ determination to overcome their problems.
“We’ve had girls come here as they are coming down off heroin, who said they had their best sleep ever — and that was on their first night, ” said Shelley, whose nursing background is put to good use. She gives the girls vitamin B injections and hot baths for muscle cramps. Girls coming off heavy drugs are put on a 24 hour prayer watch in case they go into shock or kidney failure and need hospital treatment.
“God has given us wisdom and He also gave us doctors. So it would be stupid to say we are not going to use them and will only rely on prayer. But we can say we have found prayer to be the most powerful,” he said.
Looking back at the road they have traveled Gary and Shelley can see God’s hand at every step. For instance, His hand of protection when Gary went in to a notorious crack house to recover a girl who had left the mission.
“When girls ran away we used to go and look for them to try and bring them back – like a shepherd,” he said.
He went into the crack house while Shelley parked outside as the “getaway wheelman”. Inside he found the Nigerians had partitioned rooms into bed-sized cubicles with padlocks on the outside. Somehow he managed to get the girl out and get away unscathed.
More recently he and Shelley had experienced God’s hand in helping two victims of human trafficking: they assisted in getting a Lesotho woman home without papers against all odds, and in recovering a Zimbabwean woman’s baby from kidnappers.
They also acknowledged God’s answer to Shelley’s prayers for help with her counselling load. Out of the blue they received an email from a suitably qualified American woman who offered to come and work for them for three years, paid for by a supporter she had raised. The woman, Kim Grayson is now a valued member of the Bet Sheekoom team.
Asked about their current needs, Gary said they urgently needed to replace their badly rusted roof. They had the building materials but they still had to pay R10 000 before the end of the month. They also needed volunteers to help them to provide all kinds of daily practical support to the girls: such as lifts to clinics for HIV treatment.