My friend Veronica runs a school for 3-5 year olds in a run-down, difficult community. Appropriately named "iThemba," which means "Hope," this school in Capricorn (part of the Vryground community) is across the street from a drug house and few houses down from a shabeen. There is no sense in trying to protect the children that attend her school from what comes alongside such settings: they already know. By the time the children (ages 4-5) reach her classroom, they’ve seen it all. They know more about life and its hard lessons than most pre-teens. Or at least more than I did when I was that age.
For example: one morning this week, they had a discussion about how things were going for them at home. As they sat innocently in a circle on the carpet, two of her pupils (again, 4-5 years old) told a story of how they’d accidentally lit a bush on fire: while smoking cigarettes. Last week, she reports, they had a conversation about condoms and what they’re used for, because one of her students brought one and asked, and other students snickered in disbelief that they didn’t know. If she doesn’t talk to them, Veronica says to me, someone else will. It may as well be a conversation in a safe, controlled environment.
I will never be one to tell you that I had an easy childhood. I didn’t. From a young age, I too saw and experienced things no young child should ever have to. And yet, I cannot even begin to imagine what life is like for these children.
So today, I asked if I could just come and spend the day with them. I had no agenda except to support my friend who has a very, very difficult job. After being shown around the school, I made my way the the playground where the children were carrying on doing what these children should do often but seldom get the chance to: play. I ran races, spun in circles, pushed swings, climbed on a jungle gym cheered as they took turns on a slide.
I saw and experienced what I was told to expect, but how it felt cannot be so easily described. The pain, the distress, and the need to be loved was more evident in this group of 50 children than in any other group I have ever encountered. It was heartbreaking.
and yet… while it may be selfish, it also absolutely made my day. Not to see the hurt and the pain and the need, but to be able to see them be loved and cared for. Not by me! Good heavens, I hope I was able to love them a bit, but they need more than an afternoon. They need consistency and discipline and structure: these too are forms of great love. At this school, I know they have that.
They have that because my friend Veronica and her colleagues are the most committed, hard working, loving people I have ever seen at work.
Others told me what a strong, wonderful woman Veronica was and that maybe a visit would be an opportunity to encourage her. No doubt this was true, but it also served as something more: an opportunity for me to see the hands and feet of Jesus hard at work in the form of a beautiful woman who knows nothing less than how to love people well.
I pray that my own ministry can one day be even a remote reflection of what hers looks like. and I pray for Veronica’s continued courage and passion as she works to share the love of Christ with the children of her school in Capricorn.