by Mervyn A. Coetzee
One of the most difficult things I encounter when I am asked to write about Camp South Africa (CSA) is the struggle to condense the multiple miracle stories that we have experienced since the camp’s inception in 2002. Most of the children we serve are growing up in circumstances that are very similar to those when I was a child in South Africa in the 70’s.
The South Africa that I opened my eyes to was one that was marred with racial conflict, violence, poverty and injustice. In fact, during a typical day at school in the 70’s and 80’s, one would encounter all these negative elements head-on. It was not unusual for the Apartheid government’s security forces to scour our streets with army tanks and police vehicles. They occasionally would shoot at us, many times without warning. My eldest brother Benito was struck in the back by a bullet from a security official’s weapon during an anti-Apartheid demonstration in our township called, Bonteheuwel. He survived, but one of his schoolmates who was shot did not.
My father passed away and left my mother to raise the six of us by herself. We were all under 17 years old at the time. So, my older sisters had to take care of us cleaning, cooking, etc. Today, almost 40 years later this is still a regular occurrence in many townships in South Africa: underage siblings caring for the younger ones while parents or guardians are out earning a living to survive.
Although there have been many positive changes in South Africa since the new democratic government was elected, these changes have yet to be felt by the vast majority of people, in particular the children who are growing up in the slums, squatter camps and townships. And then to add fuel to the flames, the AIDS epidemic hit South Africa and has wreaked havoc in the society.
With this backdrop, it is not difficult to see how I was moved to do something about the situation. I was always the “rebel” in the family and not happy with accepting things that were blatantly wrong. Because I can relate to the children, I had no choice but to intervene. Despite my vigor for change, my hands were tied politically and economically. It wasn’t until I realized who God is and accepted Him as Lord and Savior that I realized that there was hope.
When a white Christian choir from the US visited an area church, I was intrigued and hung out with choir members. I had never been so close to white people, at least in a peaceful and equal setting. Through an evangelist’s testimony, I learned that God is bigger than the prejudices and chaos around me. That day, as a teen, I asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior.
Although I trusted God and felt thankful for His provision, I was restless. I believed that education would enlighten me and broaden my horizons. I finished high school and graduated with honors from college. I am the only member of my family who was able to complete high school. I pay homage to my brothers and sisters and my mother who unknowingly sacrificed of themselves and created opportunities for me to succeed. I went on to teach at the Universities of Cape Town, a college previously for whites, and at Western Cape, a college for blacks.
While teaching at the university, I met my wife Abby, also a teacher and a Christian. She dreamed of hosting summer camps for youth and sought information from the United States. Abby’s inquiries eventually led us to Alliance Redwoods Christian Conference Grounds. We prayed and believed God was calling us to this ministry. We worked our way to full-time staff as we shared with the management our burden for the poverty stricken children of Cape Town. Today, our vision to minister in our home country is a reality.
Camp South Africa started in 2002 and we ministered to 200 under-privileged children. Last year, we brought the Gospel, counseling, meals, music, dance, games and crafts to over 2000 children. For the vast majority of these children, this is an experience beyond their wildest imaginations. Most of the children do not know about Camp South Africa. This is because if we were to advertise it ahead of time, we will be overwhelmed by the numbers of children. This growth gives one an idea of the tremendous need for ministries like these that provide a positive and lasting intervention in the lives of the children.
At least 50% of the children and adults each year indicate their desire to know Jesus personally. To date we have reached over 10,000 children. We have served many meals to these poor children many of whom do not know when or where their next meal will be coming from.
An aspect of CSA from that brings incredible personal joy and encouragement is to see the increase in the number of South African young people who return year after year (street kids who are poverty stricken; others live in tin shacks and care for even younger siblings, etc.). Now many of them are on our team each year ministering and serving among their own people and community. Jermaine Felixs is our prime example of God’s grace in changing the inner man. He still lives in a tin shack and yet is on fire for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not unusual to find Jermaine preaching to a crowd on an open field in the township areas close to where he lives.
One day we witnessed a real “fish and loaves” miracle unfold. We had prepared to serve lunch for about 600 children as part of our ministry in the poverty-stricken township of Pacaltzdorp. At the end of the day, we realized that we had served 1,100 children and adults all had received a meal and our staff had finished the leftovers. There was clearly no way we could have had enough food for everyone let alone have leftovers with the amount of food we started out with.
All of the children we serve will return to the impoverished surroundings after the CSA program. Most of them will leave after having received the “renewing of the mind” which comes only from accepting God’s free gift of love and salvation. This truth we have seen is crucial in transforming the communities that are stricken with violence, abuse and diseases, e.g. HIV/AIDS. The young children have become light-bearers in the homes, schools and communities. We know this because each year we return we see the changes in them and those they bring with them to camp.
A story that still moves me to the core is one about a young girl called Jenay. My wife, Abby had picked up the female campers while I was picking up the boys from a squatter farm called Knoppies Lekkerwater located about 20 minutes southwest of Cape Town. These children are among the poorest of the poor. Many times the only things they bring to camp are the clothes they’re wearing. Anyway, Jenay was one of these children and seemed particularly excited about going to camp. Her mom had approached her while she was in the camp van. My wife overheard the mother telling her daughter to not forget to take her medicines. When Abby inquired about it, she learned that Jenay is HIV-positive and had brought along a cocktail of retro-viral drugs which she was supposed to take at specific times during the day . Abby also realized that Jenay’s mother had the disease which explains how Jenay had contracted it.
One evening during a break in our Program, we had served the campers popcorn while they were watching a movie. I noticed Jenay and her South African counselor, Alvinia, walking off toward their cabin. I caught up with them and asked where they were going. Jenay mentioned that she and Alvinia had forgotten that it was time to take her meds. When I jokingly asked Jenay why she had forgotten, her reply was heart-wrenching, “Because I was having so much fun at camp Uncle Merv.” I am convinced that Jenay had the time of her life, a life which may not see many more months.
Yet, this is why God has sent us there… to bring real joy to the children of South Africa amid their socio-economic circumstances.
Three of the South African team members Alvinia, Caleb, and Romano shared their testimonies during the evening sessions of camp. The children were touched by God’s grace in the lives of these warriors for Christ. All three have experienced terrible hardships and trauma and have emerged victorious through Christ who is their strength. Due to their testimonies a majority of campers accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. This was a part of developing these young men and women, as they will continue to minister to the children after the CSA09 program ends.
Reality for the majority of South African children living in the ghetto townships is a dysfunctional upbringing. I believe that the first thing we need to share with them is that there is hope in Christ. What more powerful way to communicate this truth than through the local leaders sharing their stories of Christ’s love?
We do not mislead ourselves into thinking that we can solve the immense problems. In fact, that is not our assignment. But, if we can show at least one child that there is hope in Christ, then it would have been worth the time, energy and resources. Thousands have indicated that they need and want to accept this hope which is Christ. And we teach them that it is not about money and possessions even though God may use these to bless us. It starts with the inner person: the “renewing of our minds” (Rom. 12:2).
Born and raised in Bonteheuwel, a poverty stricken township just outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Accepted Christ in my life at age 14. Graduated from the University of the Western Cape with a graduate degree in English Literature. Moved to the US with my wife Abigail, and started full time work at Alliance Redwoods Christian Conference Grounds in northern California. Have been returning to South Africa since 2002 to run Camp South Africa: an outreach to the poor children and children affected by HIS/AIDS in South Africa: reached over 10,000 children through 2009. For more information, checkout:http://www.allianceredwoods.com/camp_south_africa.shtml or contact me at:[email protected] or call 707 874 3507 ext.188