On any given Monday or Wednesday afternoon, you can find the EM Spark cruising along the 310. Enveloped by the sprawling township of Khayelitsha on one side and the rolling Atlantic Ocean on the other, our fellow EM residents hang a right toward Mitchell’s Plain, one of the largest coloured townships in the Western Cape. Vibrantly colored houses line the streets. Each sidewalk corner boasts a unique display of wares for sale that include anything from 30 rand sack of potatoes to a puppy to a left boot.
In the midst of it all, you can hear the sound of children yelling with joy as they are released for their bi-weekly sports time at Trinity Children’s Centre. Zach, Zuzu, and Will stand out in the sandy yard, bracing themselves for hugs from kids running towards them at breakneck speed with all the joy and anticipation of children who have been in classes all day and are ready for some action. The air rings with affectionate cries of “Coach Zach! Coach Zuzu! Coach Will!”
Trinity is five years old now, and each new year of its existence marks the beginning of a new grade added to the school. Students who started at Trinity as preschoolers are now in grade four. The school strives to approach the care and education of the children from a holistic perspective. The kids learn English in their classes, study Bible verses, and learn gospel themes from an early age. Even their meals are prepared with deep intentionality. No junk food is allowed, and the kids are given well-balanced and nutritious meals twice a day to encourage healthy eating.
This concern for physical health links right into what Zach, Zuzu, and Will have had the opportunity to engage with this past year with their physical education classes. Some of us may shudder as we have flashbacks to middle school P.E. classes. But the P.E. classes at Trinity are not only an absolute blast, but powerful in their formation of the character of the children.
Sports time starts off with some laps, stretches, breathing exercises, and prayer. Then the games begin. Hula-hooping, jump roping, bean-bag-tossing, soccer, can-jam…. You name it, it’s been played in the Trinity yard. The teachers, affectionately referred to as coaches, use this time to help the kids develop their physical health, motor skills, and basic sports skills such as catching and throwing. There are also lots of opportunities to teach valuable themes like teamwork, respecting authority, sportsmanship, and healthy competition.
Despite the fun, teaching the P.E. classes isn’t always easy. The realities of gunshots, drugs, and gangsterism are ever-present in the backdrop of Mitchell’s Plain. Trinity lies on the border between two warring gangs, and the teachers have to be prepared for anything. Another significant challenge is the diversity of backgrounds represented by the kids. For many of the children, the realities of living in Mitchell’s Plain are real and tangible within their own homes. The difficult home settings that some of the kids come from every day creates a context around misbehavior in class that can be hard to understand and address. Even within the grades, there is a wide array emotional ages and maturity levels present. Zach, Zuzu, and Will have all learned this year how to engage effectively with kids who are acting out in class with compassion and a more thorough understanding of trauma and its effects, especially under the guidance of Autumn who works at Trinity on a daily basis.
As our EM residents grew to understand the kids and their contexts more, there came a desire to invest even further into the kids beyond the P.E. classes. A vision for more intentional one-on-one time and engagement was born, and mere weeks later, Wednesday afternoons became a space for an after-school program. The program focuses mostly on grades three and four. In the township context, these children are on the cusp of having to grow up very quickly. This program provides a chance to encourage and connect with them in this influential and important time in their lives.
After a brief time outside to play games and expend energy, the kids are split into boys and girl’s groups for homework time. The snacks are quickly busted out, and it’s down to business as class projects and tutoring are tackled. Afterwards is an engagement time where our residents get creative in order to connect with the kids on a deeper level and keep their attention. The kids talk about what has been going on in their lives and share prayer requests. Overall, the program serves to provide a safe place for the kids, and allows Zuzu, Will, and Zach to more fully present with smaller groups of kids and build stronger relationships with them.
The P.E. classes and after-school program hold one common theme: they are comprised of many small efforts, words, and gestures that build up to make an impact. And this impact takes on an array of variations. In the span of one minute, you can hear one coach saying “No, you cannot take you pants off right now,” to one kid as another coach leans down, looks a child in the eye as they face a daunting activity, and says, “You are capable. You can do this.” The latter phrase is one of many small ways that our EM coaches invest in the kids. A seemingly small gesture such as remembering a child’s name shows child that they are seen. In that moment, they are known.
And it is in those many small moments that Zach, Zuzu, and Will have been able to join in the grander holistic mission of Trinity. This mission is seen in the enthusiasm of a kid showing off a new trick or dance move, the warmth of the bone-crushing hug from three kids at once, and the joy of a five year old sharing the same funny story again because they are heard and they are loved. They receive encouragement and positive affirmation that crowns them with dignity and enrobes them with the truth that they are worthy of love, no matter what they experience or hear when they aren’t at school.
For our EM residents, it has been amazing to see how these small gestures and moments have added up over time. The love and respect the kids have for them is evident. Zach realized after talking with Andrew, the pastor at Trinity Church, how important kid’s ministry really is. The realities of preparation, the need for flexibility, and the importance of managing expectations are all challenges of the children’s ministry field. A well-structured vision and picture perfect plan goes awry more often than not when working with kids, and Trinity is no exception. And yet, God works in grand ways amidst plans gone awry. In chaos and uncertainty, He uses things we would never expect to form the heart of a child. In Zach, Zuzu, and Will’s small acts of faithfulness to be present with the kids and love well, God is faithful to do more than we could imagine. The few hours a week they spend there play a small yet vital role in raising up the future generations of Mitchell’s Plain. A small role that will send ripples throughout time as these little children grow up to one day become leaders and role models who will affect great change in their communities, and their country. For they are certainly capable, and the school yard is not a bad place to begin reminding them of that.