CAPE TOWN, South Africa (BP) -- It's hard not to be happy around 12-year-old Olwetu. She greets visitors with an infectious smile and sparkling eyes. Usually surrounded by friends, the outgoing South African seventh-grader is constantly smiling, laughing and talking.
But this is not typical behavior among Olwetu's peers -- hopeless is the best word to describe youth from the nation's Xhosa minority in the slums of Cape Town.
Most young people here must deal with a myriad of issues -- abuse, violence, drugs, gangs, rape, loss of one or both parents, poor education, HIV/AIDS, poverty. These problems have far-reaching tentacles affecting every family in the township.
"We began to see students that were asking ... 'What do I do when I've been raped by my uncle?' 'What do I do when my father and mother are abusing me?' 'I don't have any food at home.' 'My mom and dad don't have work.' 'My mom and dad are dead and I live with my aunt,'" said Bruce Erickson, a Southern Baptist missionary in Cape Town.
"There are so many kids that live in such difficult situations without hope. They don't see a future for themselves here in South Africa. They don't see a future for themselves in their homes."
Originally from California, Erickson and his wife Sheri have served in South Africa for nearly four years; they have three children, one of whom is in the U.S. attending college. Focused on reaching Xhosa youth in Cape Town with the love of Christ, the Ericksons use their educational skills to interact with the students at their schools.
Thirty percent of South Africa's population is age 15 and under, compared to only 13 percent in the U.S., according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on health care issues in the U.S. and abroad.
"What an incredible opportunity for us to reach a huge part of this population and really have a chance to impact a nation for Christ," Sheri said.
The Ericksons lead a project for OneLife, an International Mission Board initiative to connect students in the United States with missions projects around the world. The Cape Town project's goal is to minister to South African learners -- primary and secondary school students.
"We teach life orientation classes, which is sex education, character building, being a good citizen and also learning how to deal with bullies and gangs and abuse -- different things that the kids would face in their life," said Sarah Cowan, a journeyman missionary from South Carolina. She and Michal Mitchell, a journeyman from Illinois, have been assisting the Ericksons in the youth ministry.
"After school, we have leadership clubs or girls clubs, worship services -- different ways that we are able to interact with a few of the learners from our classes," Cowan continued, "and we're able to go deeper with them and to share the Gospel."
Olwetu met Cowan and Mitchell in the after-school girls club at Mzamomhle Primary School, one of seven schools where the Ericksons and the short-term missionaries teach. It was there that Olwetu received Christ.
" who I am today and how good I am," Olwetu said. "They give me so many courages to just carry on with life and love Jesus, as He forgave me of my sins -- so that's how I live."
Olwetu and her younger sister live with their mother, Lindiwe, in Philippi, a typical Cape Town township riddled with poverty, crime and abuse. Their father died in 2005 from stomach ulcers.
"Sarah and Michal, they're good people for Owletu," Lindiwe said. "They take her to the church and Olwetu learn a lot of things. ... She love Sarah and Michal very much, and Sarah and Michal love Olwetu, also."
As Olwetu accompanied Cowan and Mitchell on house visits to other students' families, she realized she wants to be a social worker and impact people's lives the way the journeymen have touched hers.
"She went from wanting to be an actress and just being silly all the time to realizing that she wanted to do more in life, and she wanted to show God's love," Mitchell said.
"I was sad to look at children who have no parents, as I will grow up without a father, so I want them to have a better future," Olwetu said. "They must have hope that if you don't have your mother or a father, the life is not over -- you can still carry on."
Bruce Erickson's vision is to see more lives transformed like Olwetu's -- not to temporarily engage youth while they are school age but to build a lasting Christian foundation.
"We see the receptiveness of youth to the Gospel," he said. "We also feel that's the next generation of leadership of the church. ... encourage the churches to really target that age group, too, so that they can start building up the next generation of believers to lead and change this country."
By reaching the youth, the Ericksons also have opened doors to reach parents and get entire families involved in church.
Kwanele Cement, a South African pastor of New Crossroads Baptist Church, is working with Erickson to connect with youth. He is teaching life orientation classes in schools and also conducts Christian youth groups at his church.
Through asking parents' permission for their children's involvement in youth group, Cement was able to start a Bible study for the adults -- 15 are now believers.
The parents' Bible group is significant in a country where churches lack positive male role models. In the youth outreach, Cowan and Mitchell focus on reaching girls and their specific issues -- rape, gender violence, sex education and self-esteem -- while Erickson focuses on reaching boys and helping them grow into godly men.
"My heart is to see churches -- Xhosa churches -- that have youth in them, sitting in the church that has more men involved in leadership," Erickson said. "That won't happen unless we reach this age group, and then we begin to really help the churches build a heart for keeping the youth engaged and involved."
With so many physical, emotional and spiritual challenges, what the children of Cape Town need most is to know someone cares.
"It communicates so much ... that someone would be willing to leave where they are at and to come and to share their life with them because they love them," Sheri Erickson said. "Christ's love in real skin is what it is."
Laura Fielding is a writer for the International Mission Board. Learn more about OneLife at onelifematters.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Southern Baptists' gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and through the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist missionaries around the world share the Gospel. Gifts for the offering are received at Southern Baptist churches across the country or can be made online at www.imb.org/offering where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. Download related videos at www.imb.org/lmcovideo.
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