I spent my summer volunteering in Bolivia with ICS Tearfund, and now have a journal jam-packed with ten weeks’ worth of ramblings, anecdotes, thoughts and reflections. If you were to read this notebook, you would know all about a project in Cochabamba called Oeser, you’d be introduced to a team of incredible Bolivian and UK volunteers, and you’d hear about my experiences of living with a South American family, teaching English and learning how to sell a cereal bar in Spanish! I could probably write a whole book about my time in Bolivia, but to keep it brief I’m going to skip most of the details and just take this opportunity to share something that is particularly important to me. However, if you’d like to hear more about the ins and outs, you can either read a blog my good friend Ruth wrote, (https://tenweekswithtearfundoeser.wordpress.com) or ask me face-to-face!
The project Oeser provides grants for 15 children to leave the San Sebastian prison in the south of Cochabamba and come to a nursery in the Villa Candelaria each day. In Bolivia, if a mother is imprisoned for a crime, her child will stay with her in prison until the age of 6. I had no idea how to feel about this system. I still don’t claim to be able to judge what is best for these children; however, I do know without a doubt that it is important that they have the opportunity to go to the Nursery. As volunteers we rotated each week to pick up the children, entertain them on the long bus journey, and take them back again at the end of the day. They would bundle into the Trufi covered in snot, munching away on sweets, and normally shouting, crying or fighting. They were a lively bunch and if anything they were the ones entertaining me! I often felt unsure of what to do, due to both a lack of fluent Spanish, and a sense of hopelessness at the children’s exceptional situation. Each morning on the drive to collect the children I would pray for them, and God encouraged me that all He required of me in this situation, and beyond, was to love the people put in front of me.
I remember one of these mornings in particular because I was really questioning the importance of our role in this part of the project. Psyching myself up to be child-friendly at such an early hour was proving difficult already… then I was handed a screaming child. Thankfully, she calmed down over the course of the Trufi journey and she started to talk and play with me. Until we arrived at the nursery and she burst into tears all over again, pulling hard at my hand to go with her. I couldn’t stay, but the image of her face absolutely filled with fear stayed with me all day. I repeatedly felt stirred to pray for her. On the journey home she sat on my lap again, and this time there was a noticeable difference in her as she told me happy stories about her day.
I found out later that this was her first day at nursery. The first day she’d ever left the prison.
Sometimes God places people before us and simply asks us to love them. God loves this child immeasurably and unconditionally so I felt privileged that, despite my very apparent weakness and inability to change her situation, God could use me to show her His love that day. I feel honoured to have held her and taken her to the gates for her very first day of school, but it still breaks my heart that her mother couldn’t have taken my place, and that she had missed so much school already.
As a team we have plenty of other stories like this where we realised the extent to which these children are deprived a normal childhood as well as some of their basic rights.
Nearing the end of our time at Oeser, the UK girls went for a meeting with the director of the project. We were informed that a key donor had withdrawn funding so the charity would have to cut certain aspects of their work. Sadly, the grants for the children from the prison are the main cause for concern at the moment. We were actually shocked by the amount of money that is necessary to run this scheme for just one year. I’d never considered the cost of education before; I’d never really had to. Even though our target for one year is upwards of £13,000 I do believe that God can work miracles and there is no reason not to try to raise at least some of this money.
Before, I had been upset that the children were forced to go back to the prison every day, but then the reality hit that they might not be able to leave at all. On paper, the financial breakdown of the grant shows that Oeser offers these children: education, travel, healthcare, and food. But I have seen that Oeser gives the children so much more than this: they are loved by caring teachers that are dedicated to teaching them good values, and they have the opportunity to make friends and play in a playground. A chance to just be a child.
I want these children to have the opportunity to know freedom and not be confined to a prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
Thank you for reading this and thank you to everyone who donated to my fundraising for Tearfund or prayed for me while I was away. If anything in this article has impacted you in any way and you’d like to support the project, then there are several ways that you can respond:
-Pray! Prayer can connect us across the world and I believe there is power when we call upon the name of Jesus and cry out against injustice. Please pray for the ongoing work of Oeser, and specifically for wisdom and strength for the Director in this difficult season.
-Come along to our fundraising event and invite friends! There will be a quiz, music, cakes, and a short presentation about the project. This will be held in the hall at Holland Road Baptist Church on 20th November, 7pm-9pm. Each ticket costs £3 and teams can have a maximum of 6 members.
Topics: World Mission
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I have just finished my first term studying English Literature at the University of Kent, in Canterbury. My brother said recently that going to university gives you a chance to be an influence, be influenced and be under the influence… He may have been joking, but he has a point: university is without a doubt a poignant stage of life, where it is a challenge to make sure you are being an influence, rather than being influenced. Although I haven’t always got it right, God’s been teaching me about how to be an effective witness and influence the people He has placed around me.
At the start of November I went on a weekend away with the Christian Union. One of the speakers, Michael, gave a talk about living for God at university, focusing on the need to be in the world, but not of it. These words had become familiar to me and so had lost some of their meaning. You may have heard these words so often in church that you too have become desensitised to them, or perhaps you never really understood what they meant in the first place…
Michael summed it up with this catchy one liner: “We need contact with the world, but we need to be a contrast to the world.”
Contact and contrast
This is God’s plan for all of our lives; no matter what stage of life we are at. Whether you’re at school, college, or in the workplace, the Great Commission is for us. Jesus sent His disciples out into the nations to spread the good news. As Christians, Jesus has also sent us out into the world. He has a purpose for your life, and it is to make Him known. He has put you where He wants you and He has given you the opportunity to be a witness and influence on the lives of those around you. As your home is ultimately in Heaven, Jesus’ other desire for your life is holiness. That’s where the contrast bit comes in to play. We are called to be set apart, as His holy people. As a result, because you love Jesus your life starts to look a little different.
And herein lies the difficulty: living a life that is God-honouring, whilst being immersed in the world. If you’re anything like me, it doesn’t sound all that easy. The balance of contrast and contact is hard, and of the Christians I’ve met at university, I think they tend to choose one or the other. But I believe they are intended to work hand in hand. As always, Jesus is our perfect example: He spent most of His time with sinners, yet He never sinned. How’s that for contact and contrast?
As you can imagine, or may know from experience, university life is definitely not short of opportunities to be in contact with the world. You’re suddenly surrounded with an entirely new community of people, and by being a Christian you are immediately placed in the minority. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is also your experience at work or school. You may not just feel like the only Christian, you probably are. At university I quickly realised that it was going to be hard to live my life in contrast to that of my friends! But I also recognised this as a unique opportunity to be an influence. You may be the only Christian in your class, or in your office, but God has a plan for you being there. You may know the song about letting your light shine, well they’re not just nice words we sing, they’re a reality. Jesus has placed a light in you, so you can go to dark places and make them that bit brighter.
So what does this look like for me at University?
I think it involves just sharing life with the people I live with, my other friends and my course mates. Spending time with them (contact) and letting them see the difference Jesus makes in my life (contrast.) A few examples of the kinds of things that have been cause for conversation with my friends over the past few months include: the fact that I don’t swear, drink to excess, smoke or stay in the same room as my boyfriend, etc.
As a firm believer that Christianity isn’t a list of don’ts, I’ve tried to actively do things to show the difference Jesus makes in my life. For instance, I’m still the hard-working nerd I’ve always been, and people notice that I actually do all of the set course reading. I do go on nights out with my friends and have a good time. If they need me to, I take them home and make plenty of tea and toast. If they’re sick, I hold back their hair and mop it up. Sometimes I do the washing up or tidy the kitchen. I listen to their problems and am often a shoulder to cry on. I’m honest about my weaknesses and I tell them I’m praying for them. I invite them to CU and invite Christian friends over so they can meet other Christians and see we’re normal people, and even fun to be around! Things like this seem to have had the biggest impact on my friends’ lives and their perceptions of Christianity.
Clearly these are all really student specific- sorry! However, your relationship with Jesus does affect the way you behave and how you mark yourself as different to the people in your class or from your colleagues. You may be the only Christian your friends ever properly meet. Be an influence in your school and place of work. Be involved and be different. Don’t be ashamed to live a life that contradicts what society says is normal, whilst constantly moving towards people and loving them. Break down the stereotypical views of Christianity and show people what Jesus is really all about.
Topics: Students, Youth
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Before starting university Beka and others from Holland Road went to visit church members working with UNICEF in Rwanda. She writes: I have been asked to write an article about my time in Rwanda and I honestly don’t know where to begin. So I shall start where the journey did: Gatwick airport, Monday 26th August 2013. I arrived with Alex, Joel and Issy and collectively about 70kg worth of luggage. As we set off for our African adventure I really didn’t know what to expect. For the following two weeks we had the pleasure of staying with Rachel and Ricardo, who made us all feel so welcome at their home, church and house-group.
Do you have a highlight?
So far, every time I’ve been asked this question, it’s left me struggling for words. I don’t think one highlight could really do this trip justice, so I’ve narrowed it down to three!
Highlight 1: UCF
Visiting the Umubyeyi Community Foundation (UCF). UCF works to “join these children through their hard times and try to make a difference in their lives.” At present it helps give 111 children, aged 2-7 years old, access to basic pre-school education, health care and food. We spent a few days working with UCF; mostly hoeing, gardening and moving rocks, in order to clear a field, which can now be used to grow vegetables to help feed the children. I really enjoyed doing something so practical to help and serve the wonderful work UCF are doing.
Highlight 2: Cyimbili
A week at Cyimbili coffee plantation. Cyimbili is run by Christian charity ALARM. The project manager explained the lengthy coffee process to us and we even spent a morning alongside the workers picking coffee! We helped out teaching English in the secondary school and face painting/jewellery making at the primary school. However my highlight of this time was not part of our routine schedule, but rather an impromptu playtime in the rain with the children, who swarmed around Alex and I as we walked around this beautiful plantation. A few hours later, after a lot of games and laughter, we eventually made it back to the house! It was a really special time as it put a smile on the faces of the little ones and helped open up conversations with the older, secondary school children. Another highlight from Cyimbili was sharing my favourite verse (Zephaniah 3:17) at staff morning devotions – even if it was at 6:30am!
Highlight 3: The Genocide War Museum
My third highlight actually started as a lowlight. We were keen for this trip to expose us to mission work but also to help us experience various aspects of Rwandan life. Therefore, unavoidably, in our first few days we visited the Genocide War Museum and a church memorial site, untouched since 1994.* Horrific doesn’t cover it. One phrase I read in the museum stuck with me: ‘Rwanda stunk all over of death.’ My heart completely broke for what I saw and heard about in that museum, combined with the stories Rwandan friends shared with us. I cried to God a lot in those first few days. I felt really helpless and hopeless. But God taught me something I needed to learn: I can’t change the world…but He can! I’m so glad I took my journal with me because it gave me a forum for quiet reflection with God, so here is a short extract to finish:
“I’ve been thinking about the ‘stench of death’ left in Rwanda by the genocide and God reminded me of 2 Corinthians 2:15, ‘For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.’ I can’t un-do the past or take away the pain left in this land, but this is all God asks of me- to start to ‘smell’ more like Jesus.”
I feel like this trip gave me a renewed sense of purpose. We can’t change the world by our own strength. I believe that God breaks our hearts for what breaks His so that we will start being the sweet smell of Jesus to His broken people. Only through Him will lives be changed and nations healed. He’s the God of the immeasurably more and I’m confident that Rwanda’s struggles aren’t too great for Him.
*(If you don’t know about the Rwandan genocide of 1994, then do take a minute to read this)
Topics: World Mission
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