PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa (BP)–It’s one of those moments where you can almost hear crickets chirping. Two International Mission Board short-term missionaries are trying to get a room full of high school students to open up about issues they face at home.
A sea of blue and white uniforms begins to move as the teens fidget and squirm. Jay Dannelley and Chris Reasner wait for someone -– anyone -– to bail them out. Just as they’re about to toss this exchange into the hall of fame of awkward moments, some of the students at this school in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, start talking.
“Drugs,” says one. “Abuse,” says another. “Anger.”
Slightly stunned by the response, Dannelley and Reasner encourage the class to share their struggles with others. They also discuss how faith in God can change lives.
“They come to school having a lot of baggage with them,” says Dannelley, wearing a Texas Tech baseball cap from the school he attends and a T-shirt with the words “Jesus Christ: King of Kings” on the front.
“We try to tell them, ‘You can change your school. You can make it better … if you are on fire for the Lord.'”
During a four-month stint with the IMB’s short-term “Hands On” missions effort, Dannelley, a member of First Baptist Church in Pecos, Texas, and Reasner, a member of Easthaven Baptist Church in Kalispell, Mont., worked in several high schools in Port Elizabeth. They taught classes on self-esteem and shared their Christian faith during sports clinics. At the end of each day, they hoped to have influenced young lives and learned something more about missions.
They are two of 44 college and seminary student participants in Hands On throughout Africa. Dannelley and Reasner recently completed their assignment and a new team will arrive on the field this fall.
Others are working in Tanzania, Niger, Senegal and the Ivory Coast. In 2009, opportunities to serve will be available around the world.
A TASTE OF MISSIONS
Hands On is designed to give young people a taste of life on the mission field by spending a semester or two overseas working alongside missionaries sharing the love of Christ. Various Baptist seminaries and colleges are working with the International Mission Board to offer bachelor-level missions studies that include participation in Hands On.
“I think with coming for a longer period of time you really get to experience the culture,” says Reasner, a student at the University of Montana.
“You really get to see what life is like because it becomes your lifestyle.”
With its scenic beaches and warm temperatures, Port Elizabeth attracts tourists, but Reasner and Dannelley saw a darker side.
They worked with the Cape Malay, a people of mixed races who trace their ancestry to Malaysian slaves of Dutch settlers. The slaves intermarried among a group of South Africans, now known as the “bushmen.” The Cape Malay live in some of the roughest areas, where 70 percent of the city’s crime is reported.
“The schools are the most dangerous [areas] of all,” says Wayne Barros, a Cape Malay and local Baptist pastor who has been working in high schools for the past 12 years.
“There have been a lot of cases of stabbing, getting guns into school.”
One evening while riding on a street near his church, Barros spots a couple of young people behind a bush lighting what looks like a cigarette. Barros says they’re not smoking tobacco.
“Dagga,” he says, pronouncing it da-ha. It’s what Americans know as marijuana.
Gangs also are a problem, says missionary Boyd Hall, who works with Barros and helped supervise Dannelley and Reasner. Hall scans some recent photos of students, looking closely for gang signs and their signature colors.
“I didn’t see any of them flashing gang signs with their fingers,” he says, but adds, “If you [had] known what you are looking for, you would have seen their tag markings in the schools. Those schools are rough. There are a lot of [gangs] there.”
Suicide is another major issue. There is a bridge at the edge of the city where many people have jumped to their death — so many that the city installed a video camera and an emergency phone.
In a city of 1 million people, Hall knows he and his team are up against a mighty challenge.
“I had a professor who told me to celebrate the day of small beginnings,” he says.
Hall’s two Hands On missionaries are part of that small beginning. “They’re doing the jobs that I was doing in my second year as a journeyman [missionary],” he says.
One afternoon, students crowd into a classroom. Some stand on desks. Some sing and dance. Others nibble on their lunch. To an outsider, the situation appears to be bordering on chaos.
For those in the room it’s a typical monthly Christian club meeting of praise and worship.
A Muslim boy walks in wearing a traditional hat. He asks Dannelley if he needs to take it off. He’s allowed to wear it and is welcomed into the meeting. Before long, he’s singing praise songs with the others.
Of Dannelley and Reasner’s presence in the school, Hall says: “You see two guys that just really love the Lord and really love young people.”
Shawn Hendricks is a writer for the International Mission Board. Call the IMB’s student mobilization team at 1-800-999-3113, ext. 1434, or visit the Hands On website, www.hands-on-africa.com, for more information about opportunities for students to spend a semester or two overseas working alongside missionaries. Information also is available about Baptist seminaries and colleges that have partnered with the IMB to offer bachelor-level missions studies that include Hands On participation.