CAPE TOWN, South Africa (BP)–Crystal blue water and crowded buildings framed by rocky mountain peaks were the sights 17 students and faculty from Union University first noticed upon arriving in Cape Town, South Africa.
But the reality of Cape Town soon became painfully clear to the students from the Baptist-affiliated university’s social work and communication arts departments in Jackson, Tenn.
“A Third-World economy running alongside a first-world economy” became the slogan used to describe the social and economic climate of the Cape. Inside the city limits, people enjoy a lifestyle akin to any major metropolitan center in the developed world. Shopping malls four stories tall stand proudly beside office buildings and elegant family homes.
Less than five miles from Cape Town’s hustle and bustle, townships consume the landscape with dwellings of cardboard walls haphazardly pieced together and tarp roofs secured by bricks and scrap metal.
The Warehouse, an organization serving the impoverished, is where the Union social work students and professors spent the majority of their time while in Cape Town.
The Warehouse, as a literal structure, lives up to its name. Poised on the edge of the city, the building itself is nothing more than an oversized industrial site with a prayer room and four offices running along the front and a side. A platform built to hold two extra desks and jutting into the middle of the main floor, already stuffed with shelves of clothes, food and other necessities for people in the townships, is an ever-present illustration of God’s growth of the ministry but also of their need for more space.
Developed from the vision of several church members in Cape Town, the Warehouse is in its third year of serving the impoverished communities on its doorsteps. Overseen by Craig Stewart, the group of 11 fulltime staff and volunteers has gone beyond simply providing handouts to people. Classes on entrepreneurship and saving money as well as HIV/AIDS support groups meet regularly in local churches and occasionally at the Warehouse. Two of the Warehouse workers also run a prison ministry.
Elizabeth Clack, one of the social workers in the Warehouse, described the work as ministering to “my Jerusalem,” meaning they simply looked out their back door and are trying to meet the needs they saw “without doing harm” to the communities.
Kristen Shelley, a senior social work major at Union, said of the Warehouse, “No one is saying, ‘Hey, do this with me.’ It’s one person that said, ‘Why don’t I do this?’ It’s cool to see that someone actually cares in these communities.”
Julie Raynes, another senior social work major, said, “It’s been my dream to come to Africa. The focus on community development has brought to my attention how to do social work.”
Mary Anne Poe, director of Union’s social work department and organizer of the trip, said it gave students an overview of the dire situation surrounding Cape Town. And it helped open the students’ eyes to the extreme need, while teaching them how this need is beginning to be addressed, she said. The students participated in social work initiatives in townships around Cape Town and met with participants in an HIV-support group in Sweet Home Farm township.
Sweet Home Farm is built on a garbage dump. It has limited electricity and no sewer. An outdoor child-care facility uses sticks for toys amid goats roaming the surrounding dirt roads instead of dogs.
Lindsay Wallach, a senior social work major, described the people she interacted with in the various townships as “real people dealing with these situations right now. It’s good to see different aspects of social work in a different country and what they’re doing to help the needs of people.”
On the final day of the trip, Warehouse director Craig Stewart invited the Union students to reflect on what they had learned and discuss ways they could apply their new knowledge to their work in the United States. A theme throughout the trip was finding God at work in every situation.
“There are many ways of serving God and God can call you into a diverse range of things,” Stewart reminded the students.
After each trip to the different townships, the workers at the Warehouse asked the students to recount what they had heard from God. From older siblings caring for younger ones to a toy library in the heart of a gang-ridden community, the Union students were stirred to stretch their perception of hope, peace and God’s plan.
“I would encourage anyone to come here and have this experience,” said Lauren Goley, a senior social work major. “[I]t really opens your eyes to the poverty and how people are suffering around the world and you don’t realize it until you see it.”
Katherine Kipp is a junior journalism and English writing major at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and Anne Marie Dudas is a May 2007 graduate of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.