Joy where I never expected
I watched my step as I moved through the thick, smelly mud. My red boots sunk into the mix of trash and slime. A few inches to my right was a channel cutting through the pathway, filled with human waste. To my left a woman, wearing a cast off t-shirt and long skirt sat in the doorway of a small shack, grilling corn for sale. At her feet a baby—no more than two-years-old—played with a stick in the dirt. Neither looked up when I passed. It’s as if they’d already lost hope.
My camera was tucked into my backpack, but I refused to take a photo. This woman and child weren’t a spectacle. They were people, just like me. A mother just like me. A child just like mine.
The stench rose, and I wished for a breeze to blow it away. I wondered how I’d gotten so lucky to live where I do, in a warm, clean home. How come I have so much and this woman has so little?
Dear Lord, the problem is so big. It’s on the other side of the world? What can I possibly do? How can I possibly help?
If I had a hundred thousand dollars I’d do my best to clean up this place. Maybe I could buy clothes or shoes. We could put in a sewer system, but how far could it go? The place where I walked was the Kibera Slum in Nairobi, Kenya—the largest slum in Africa. It’s estimated over 1 million people live in this place of filth and stench, most without a clean place to live, electricity, or running water.
Hundreds of thousands of children live here too. Children just like mine. Children who don’t know what the world is like outside of this maze of narrow passageways and poorly constructed structures.
Over the years the Kenyan government has worked to make inroads into the settlements in an attempt to facelift the housing and sanitary conditions, but there is too much to do in this composed of refuse and rubbish.
Our small group moves on—staff of Awana International, children’s pastors, my friend Rachel and I who are both writers and bloggers. We are led by Benard, an Awana missionary who knows every one of the 70 Awana clubs within the walls of this slum. We are also protected by policemen hired for the job. In addition to the unsanitary conditions, there is not much safety in Kibera.
My heart aches with pain. My American mind spins, thinking of what could be done here. If I would have truly understood how desperate the situation was I could have packed at least one suitcase with clothes and shoes to pass out to the children. Americans like to fix things, but in a place like this is that even possible?
We walk single-file past a group of young men who are eyeing us. I look away from their intense gazes and my fingers naturally tightened around the straps of the backpack. Dear Jesus, what can be done here?
Our group steps off the main walkway onto a narrower path. We step through a makeshift gate, and I find myself nearly straddling a wide sewer pit. Are they taking us into the toilets?
Then I hear something. The sound of voices. Of singing! My heartbeat quickens, this time with joy. Is it really … children?
Sure enough we are led into a small building make of sticks and dried mud. It’s not much bigger than my living room back home and two hundred children are lined up, from 2-years-old to 17-years-old.
Stacked small to tall, they smile as we visitors enter and their voices raise even louder in their songs of praise. Yes, here in this place, ten feet from open sewage, and twenty feet from the muddy path where others sit without hope, the children sing. Their faces are bright with joy like any I’ve ever seen. They sing of joy and of Jesus, Jesus and joy!
We are welcomed in, and we sit in plastic chairs that have been set up for us. The children have been waiting. They have much prepared. But first they start with a prayer, the Awana pledge and the Awana theme verse:
“2 Timothy 2:15,” the children say in unison. “It says: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
As we visitors sit and watch, the children share more Scripture verses. Their faces are bright and it is clear that God’s truth is hidden deep in their hearts.
A young woman named Mercy gets up and shares how Jesus has transformed her life. “Before coming here, and before Awana, my life was very bad. My family abused me. I had no hope, but now I understand that God is my Father. He’s given me so much. My life is changed …” The pure joy in her gaze accentuates her words.
As Mercy continues I realize that the change that I long to see in Kibera is already happening … here. The government is trying to clean up the slums in small ways, and there are wonderful organizations who are bringing in food, clothing, and medical care, but what the children of Kibera slums need most—knowledge of God’s Word and a relationship with Jesus Christ—is being provided through @Awana!
There are over 70 Awana clubs in the slums of Kimbera. Volunteer teachers are trained by Awana International on how to meet a child’s spiritual needs, and results are outstanding. In this place of filth and darkness there is hope. In small buildings made of branches and mud true joy is found.
As I sat there, cradling one young girl on my lap, I felt honored to be in their presence. I was also amazed to be connected with an organization like Awana who is going into places like Kibera with the commitment to make the hope of the gospel and long-term discipleship available to every child, everywhere.
Hours later, as we walked out of the school, my heart felt light and happy in my chest because of the smiles of the children. And it was then I knew why I was there.
I can’t bring in a sewer system or even enough suitcases of clothes and shoes to make a dent in their need. But I could share their story. I could tell my friends—all of you—where true joy in found.
I saw joy in the children’s faces. I heard it in their recited words of Scripture. Because Awana walked into this place and trained leaders, these children have the greatest gift possible: a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. To me their world looked hopeless, but because of Awana they found hope. Eternal hope. They also know that God has a good plan for their future, and they work hard to present themselves to God as one approved.
A smile filled my face as I exited through the slimy mud, for I had found joy there too, in the most unlikely of places. I also left with the knowledge that I could change the world by investing in those who were reaching children’s hearts in the darkest of place. And I walked away eager to do my part.
Friends, I never realized how much I had until I saw what little those in Kibera called their own. Won’t you help me make a difference in that place? In offering the Good News of Jesus to these little ones?
How You Can Help
If you’d like to help, go to: http://www.awana.org/donate
Then click on: Donate by Area of the World
If you too want to help the children of Kibera, choose Africa for region and Kenya for country. Your generous gift will help further the work of missionaries who train leaders in Kibera. With more funding it’s possible for 10xs or even 100xs the number of Awana clubs in the slums! What’s needed is the funding to train more leaders who will in turn lead and disciple more kids, just like the ones I met.
I can’t do everything, but giving is something I can do. And someday, because of Jesus, I will—and you will—get a chance in eternity to hear how these gifts made a difference.
I’m smiling just thinking about more joy being spread through the slums. Awana helps every child, everywhere, find their Savior, and find the joy that comes with knowing Him and trusting Him for their good future, too!
Mary Ellen Goodwin says
Thanks for telling us about visit to Kenya. I know you and your team were a blessing to these children. I can see the joy in their eyes. I have already contributed money earmarked for Kenya. Thanks for the privilege of being able to help out.
Thank you for your prayers and support, Mary Ellen!!
Alice C. says
My children have been in AWANA since they were Cubbies/Sparks and they are in the Journey program now. I didn’t know that there were mission opportunities like this. I’m so glad that you were able to go and witness it firsthand and tell us about it. I felt like I was there myself. You described it so well. I know your life has been changed by this experience and I’m so happy you were given the opportunity to go and make a difference. God Bless You!
Alice, I’m so glad that I can share! This is what we’re wanting people to know … that AWANA is doing wonderful things around the world! They are in 105 countries now. In fact, there are more AWANA clubs outside of the country than in it! God is good!