Back around 2008 and 2009, I often traveled to impoverished places to lead discussions and facilitate workshops. I was asked to go into Delft, which is a violent township outside of Cape Town in South Africa.
This township, with a population of almost 700,000 people, had massive unemployment and a low school graduation rate. There were also high murder rates, with a rape or domestic violence incident occurring once every 3 minutes. This was a troubled place.
If you weren’t a local, it was too dangerous to go alone, so I was working with multiple African leaders to solve some of the most pressing issues, one of which was the large population of street gangs comprised mostly of children. There was an extremely high percentage of youth who had never been parented or parented well. Many leaders thought that the best way forward was the tough approach that rounded them up and put them in jail, but really that just perpetuated their disdain for authority and prepared them for a life in prison later on. We had to tackle this one differently.
We began to run with the idea that every society and person deserved to be parented. This might be biologically, from another caregiver, or even from a group of people.
I led the leaders through a few exercises that targeted what they believed should be the role of parents. What did parents do? What did they provide?
The answers all came down to three words:
When I looked at parenting through that lens, I realized that an institution like the church would have to play the role of parent for these kids. The church would have to fill the gap. They would have to create a space that brought about stability and peace, a place for children that represented security and safety.
We worked to build trust and systems of consistency. We made the church a place where the children knew they’d be protected, provided for, and nurtured. They knew over time that we were going to invest in their development.
Grace Feeding Scheme was developed and run through the local church. They hired a group of people to make and serve a stew every day along with a bread roll. Children simply had to provide their own container. Most of the time it was a plastic Fanta bottle that had been cut off at the top. Every day they would line up for a meal and every day the people behind Compassion Ministries would engage them. They learned their names and soon relationships were forged. Today, this ministry distributes over 80,000 meals per month and has expanded to schools, trauma centers, and hospitals.
When we first started, we invited groups of these kids to go through an art exercise with paint, paper, ceramics, and clay. We asked them to create a physical representation of their future, a manifestation of their goals and dreams for tomorrow. Many had never considered what it was like to look into the future and create a vision for their lives. The first time we did this exercise, the results were tangible forms of survival such as food to eat and a clean shirt to wear. When we conducted the same exercise three months later, the transformations were incredible. Children began crafting planes that represented their hope to become a pilot and fly planes like the ones they saw overhead. Even though they had never been in a plane or touched one with their hands, they began to imagine a life for themselves that was bigger than survival. They were dreaming of a life where they could thrive.
We found that when children were no longer under the pressure to parent themselves, when they were secure and safe, they had the capacity to dream.
Even parents from western worlds have been deceived. We’ve been told that a child grows up best when a child can self-actualize, when we ask ourselves, what does the child want? Then we find a way to give it to them. From my experience, the truth is that the value in being parented is transcendent and applicable to the wealthy as well as the poor. Children want their parents to provide for them, offer them protection, and nurture them. I think about those three things when I look at my own kids, my grandkids, and when I’m talking to other parents. These values are the stabilizing force that’s passed on from generation to generation. Children desire to be parented and we have a responsibility to fulfill God’s design through parenting our own children and stepping in to fill the gap for those who long for that safe place where they’re free to dream into the future.