After two long days of travel, we finally arrived at our new home — a farm near Sutherland, a remote town in South Africa. We entered the small white dwelling to familiarize ourselves with our new surroundings. By now, it was starting to become dark and we were cold and tired. To our dismay, there was no electricity and no warm water.
I was so excited about our new adventure that I only noticed my parents’ fatigue and skepticism when my mom said, “Let us pray and thank the Lord, things will seem better tomorrow.” In my 10-year-old mind, there was no room for doubt at that moment. We were going to be missionaries, and that thrilled every fiber of my being.
The next morning, we were greeted by the rugged beauty of the semi-desert Roggeveld. Except for a few small hills and a dormant volcano called Salpeterkop in the distance, the countryside was flat and dry, dotted with bushes and sheep that were accustomed to this rugged area. We drove the 17 miles to town to find a place where we could hold activities for the children of the community. Through God’s leading, we met a kind old pastor, which in South Africa would be called a dominee. He introduced himself as Dominee Farao (Afrikaans for Pharoah) and gladly offered us his little hall, which was nothing more than a small, one-room building with old wooden floors and grey-yellow walls, to hold meetings in for the children.
Two days later, my sister and I, as well as our two best friends, sat with 12 wide-eyed children who quietly listened to the Bible stories and songs. Their shyness and bewilderment quickly disappeared when we shared juice and popcorn with them afterward. That was the beauty of these kids — although quiet and shy at first, after just a little bit of kindness, they would relax and start chattering among each other in the familiar, cute accent native to them. We often laughed upon hearing their witty little sayings and the nicknames they had for each other.
This was the humble beginning of our mission work amongst the forgotten children of Sutherland. The numbers quickly grew to more than 50 children, and with the children came their extraordinary needs. All of them lived in extreme poverty, most living in a home where one or both parents were alcoholics. Many of them suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, and some were orphans who lived with family members. Only a very few were well cared for.
At first, I didn’t notice all the differences between my life and the lives of these children. We played tag and hopscotch together, we laughed and enjoyed carefree moments that should belong to children. They were just friends. I didn’t fully comprehend the enormity of the needs of my new friends nor the challenges they faced. I didn’t know what it felt like to have parents who were under the influence of alcohol all weekend and didn’t care whether you had food or even where you were.
It was when we began classes to help them with their schoolwork that the brutality of life hit me hardest. I became a 10-year-old tutor to students my age and a few years younger. For many, it seemed impossible to do the simplest subtraction sums. Ten minus four might just as well be a problem from a calculus textbook. The uncomplicated reading lessons seemed as challenging as a piece of Shakespeare. The sad reality was that these children attended school but could never reach much academic success because of the damage caused by the alcohol their mothers consumed while expecting them. This same fate was true for many of their mothers. It was a harsh circle.
Despite the many challenges and heartaches these children faced, they knew how to make the best of their circumstances. Whether they knew it or not, they were living out Philippians 4:11, which says, “for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.” Looking in from the outside, one would think that they had very little to be happy about, yet they would always come to Sabbath school with big smiles on their faces, eager to hear the Bible stories and learn new songs, sometimes even teaching us a new song or game. What a great lesson for us to learn from these children! How often we complain about the slightest discomfort experienced or sacrifice made.
If there’s only one thing these children learned from the time we spent with them, then I hope it is this: that they learned to allow God to be their source of happiness and peace. It is only by doing this that we can fully be content in whatever state we are. Life on this earth can be very harsh and heartbreaking, but as long as we allow God to be our source of happiness, then no circumstance or tragedy can steal the peace and joy that we find in Him. Ecclesiastes 5:20 puts it so well: “For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart.”
We poured our hearts into these children, my friends, for two years, hoping and praying that somehow, they would grow up to change the vicious cycle of alcoholism that plagued them for generations. We hoped to teach them something, but in reality, they were the ones who taught me. They taught me to smile through the pain, to be content under all circumstances, to love unconditionally, and to live life fully today — tomorrow will worry about itself.