One Sunday morning we found ourselves sitting in plastic lawn chairs inside a one-room church in Mitchell’s Plain, one of the largest slums nearby.
The city we live in, Stellenbosch, pulses with the energy of a college town, an eclectic mix of care-free, party-seeking students and dignified professors. It’s set against the backdrop of stunning mountain views, surrounded by vineyards, and filled with oak-lined streets that boast beautiful European architecture.
But drive a short distance in any direction, and you remember that you are, indeed, in Africa. Flat plains stretch out, dotted with scrubby bushes. Suddenly, the townships pop into view - poor neighborhoods where the vast majority of the population lives.
Ramshackle buildings with flat roofs, built haphazardly, lean against each other for support. Narrow roads crowd with children running, men shooting the breeze, women hanging laundry. Above, a tangled mess of electrical wires and smoke clouds the horizon.
The contrast is so stark, it’s unsettling. Like many things in South Africa, what you see is not necessarily what you get. One of the reasons we love working with East Mountain is that they have ministry partnerships with a multitude of different communities - white, black, coloured (the proper term for an ethnic group here), wealthy, poor, Anglican, Baptist … we have been so thankful that the Lord has placed us on a team of strategic missionaries that have the same vision we do for a unified church. Being part of their work allows us to be involved in many layers of South African society, not only those we would encounter in our own quiet neighborhood.
And so it was that I found myself, the object of curious stares (as if my pale skin & red hair weren’t enough, my watermelon-sized belly really does the trick), opening my Bible along with the tiny (mostly coloured) congregation. What followed was a quiet, passionate sermon on the suffering of God’s people - one of the most encouraging and challenging I’ve heard in a long time.
“As a Christian, if you are not suffering now … well, don’t be surprised when it comes.” He reminded us that the road to following Jesus is not easy, nor should we expect it to be. What struck me was the joyful, confident tone of his voice, even as he spoke of suffering. I saw many heads nodding in agreement.
My heart ached as he made the sermon personal. He acknowledged that he knew people in that room who weren’t sure where the next meal was coming from.
He softly acknowledged the congregation’s grief over the recent death of a young man in their youth group, lost in a drive-by shooting. Mitchell’s Plain is one of the most violent, gang-ridden neighborhoods in the world. I knew this, but such a reality was hard to imagine in this church. It struck me that I was sitting among Christians … that really knew what it was to follow Jesus along the road of suffering.
They didn’t choose Christianity because the culture told them it was right, or just for the sake of their kids, or because of an uneasy feeling that it’s better not to offend an unknown God. Theirs was a genuine faith, tested intensely and tested often. They knew Jesus on a deep level I don’t as a child of privilege, born into a middle-class American family. As the pastor touched on Hebrews 11 and the great Christians of old who suffered joyfully for Christ, I realized I was sitting among modern-day heroes of my faith, unknown and unsung except by Jesus himself.
And I thought of everything the Lord has provided for us in recent months — the outpouring of love and financial support, prayers and encouragement from all of you.
I thought of how smooth our transition here has been; we have been welcomed by the East Mountain community, by professors and students in Jack’s study program, even by the friendly people of Mitchell’s Plain.
The Lord has been very kind to us in recent months.
Yes, it was difficult to quit steady jobs that we both loved, say goodbye to family and friends, and fly into the unknown - especially with a baby on the way.
But oh, how the Lord has been kind to us. Our transition has been so much easier than I was prepared for.
- Within weeks, God provided a lovely, affordable apartment in a peaceful part of town.
- Through all of you, God provided the finances for essentials like a bed, a fridge, and a stove. I felt I was living in the lap of luxury the first time I used our washing machine - not something I expected to find at an affordable price here. As I unpacked baby clothes and supplies, I thought of each beloved friend and family member that purchased them for us - this made it all the sweeter.
- Within weeks, God provided a doctor I feel I can trust, and a doula to help me through labor. He has provided a robustly healthy pregnancy, and within weeks, God willing, there will be a third Messarra adventuring with us around South Africa.
The Lord has been kind to us - especially through all of you. Thank you, a thousand times over.
Pastor Andrew concluded, “The Lord loves us, when things go well for us and when we are not sure how to make it through the day; let us not doubt his love and goodness. Even as he allows us to suffer, he invites us to know him - a joy that no suffering can touch.”
While I know there will be suffering, I also realize that the pastor was right - knowing Jesus, really knowing Jesus, is the sweetest part of this life. Following him as he takes us through journey after journey, be it a journey through a tough job, financial strain, grief, joy, blessing, parenthood, marriage, singleness … Jesus remains with us and makes life worth the living. May we never be distracted from this truth.
My prayer for each of you is that you come to know Jesus as deeply as Christians in Mitchell’s Plain - for such an joy cannot be snatched away.
Would you continue to pray with us?
- For a positive labor experience and a healthy baby - she is due March 23!
- For the provision of a car and internet at our apartment.
- For Jack as he re-develops study habits - it’s been a long time, and having a newborn will only add to the challenge! He is loving translating Deuteronomy & Judges with like-minded nerds.
- For our continued funding - we are 75% funded! Thank you to everyone that has given!
- For friends here - it can be a little lonely moving to a new place. Would you pray that God provides us with solid community and rich friendships?