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FIRST-PERSON: Beyond the facade

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (BP)–I’ve read hundreds of compelling stories from across the African continent as an editor who works with international issues and events. So I thought I was prepared for a two-week trip to South Africa, the focus of global attention as host of the World Cup competition.

I was wrong.

Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, looks like a U.S. metropolis. Gleaming glass buildings and upscale malls dominate the skyline. BMWs, Mercedes and Audis crowd the highways. About 15 miles outside Johannesburg sits Soweto, formerly a black township under South Africa’s apartheid government. A few of its neighborhoods showcase exquisite homes with beautiful architecture, immaculate landscaping and luxury pools.

But around the corner is the worst poverty I’ve ever seen.

Families live in tin shacks and cardboard houses, with tires and bricks on top to keep the “roofs” — plastic tarps stretched across two pieces of wood — from blowing away. Mothers sit in their front yards — patches of concrete or dirt surrounded by razor wire — looking worn out by life.

Women stoop over plastic and metal tubs in an overgrown field to do their wash at an outdoor spigot. A few feet away, a man works at a rickety wooden table carving the meat off a cow’s head — the best meat on the cow, he insists. Two young men standing beside me make small talk as we watch the butcher work. Growing between them is a mature marijuana plant. I glance at the plant and back at the young men.

“This is what helps people in the slums forget their troubles,” one says, matter-of-factly.

Children grab my hand and won’t let go. They wanted to touch my skin, stroke my arm and feel my hair. They wanted to be swung around or to play ring-around-the-rosy. Before I left, several girls gathered around and sang the South African national anthem in perfect harmony. I agonized over how few of these children would have a chance in life.


But it was an encounter a few days later that continues to smolder in my heart, when a 23-year-old woman named Charntel exposed me to the underbelly of South Africa. Charntel runs a ministry on a shoestring budget for homeless people, street kids and victims of human trafficking. She is driven to save young women who have been caught in a web of deception and forced prostitution, who see no way out.

These women’s stories were different from mine, but they were somehow familiar. I’d been asking God for years how He wanted to use the abuse I suffered in my own past to help others, and I immediately felt a connection with Charntel and the women she’s committed to helping.

As a “born-in-the-womb” Southern Baptist, I had heard similar stories throughout my years in church. I’d been a Sunbeam, a GA and had positions in churches that ministered to those in need. And I’d certainly read missionary accounts of ministering to prostitutes.

But this was different — it was in my face. It was as if God was saying, “This is what I’ve prepared you for.” When Charntel told me about a nearby park where pimps hang out while their prostitutes work, I felt compelled to see it for myself. As I walked through the park taking photographs, emotions rubbed my heart raw. I felt empowered as a woman when I glared at several pimps until they finally turned their faces from me. I became angry. Old feelings bubbled to the surface as I watched young women being abused and manipulated.

Most of the women avoided eye contact, but a few bravely held my gaze for a few seconds. I’d seen that haunting look before — in a mirror as I’d stared at my own reflection: scared, ashamed, vulnerable, forsaken.

It sounds strange, but I left the park that day feeling hopeful. I knew I could help. I could be Charntel’s voice back in the States. I couldn’t save all the abused women in the world, but I could help Charntel minister to these. I could help make a difference. I hope to return to South Africa one day soon to do just that.

There are so many opportunities to minister in this beautiful land. Despite all the advances South Africa has made, the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has devastated the country for years has shown little improvement. An estimated 5.7 million people were living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa in 2009, more than in any other country. More than 250,000 died of the disease in 2008. Ignorance and denial about how the disease is transmitted — and the influence of traditional healers — compound the problem.

I watched a TV comedy show in South Africa about HIV/AIDS where the two main characters discussed a “miracle potion.” Both young men laughed about dying from the disease and one said, “Oh, well, I gotta die from something.”

These South Africans are looking for healing but they seek the advice of witchdoctors who tell them to sleep with virgins to cure AIDS. They are looking for hope but seek it by worshipping their ancestors.

Scripture tells us in 1 John 3:17-18: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

I pray that you’ll go on a mission trip — and that God will rock your world, just as He did mine. I can no longer read the stories, shake my head, say a quick prayer and go back to business as usual.

God has forever redefined my “business as usual.”
Yvonne Carrington is a pseudonym used for security purposes. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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  • Yvonne Carrington