While billions of people from around the world have their eyes on South Africa for the World Cup, a small group from Georgia Southern University’s Baptist Collegiate Ministry traveled there, using their hearts and hands to spread the message of Jesus Christ.
The group of eight traveled to Johannesburg as part of a group called International World Changers. While there, the group conducted soccer camps, lead street ministries, attended the World Cup match between Brazil and North Korea, went on an authentic African safari and helped start a church in Dobsonville, which is in the Soweto area of Johannesburg.
The group’s journey was a long one – 52 hours and more than 10,000 miles – that took them to Atlanta, Chicago, London and Nairobi before finally arriving in Johannesburg.
“Once we left the airport, it was pretty evident that we were no longer in familiar territory,” senior mechanical engineering student Rob Eakins said. “You could definitely tell that we would have our work cut out for us.”
Jerry Johnson, who serves as GSU BCM’s senior campus minister, said that there was an air of excitement for the World Cup, but that it wasn’t possible for many of the city’s poor to afford a ticket. So instead of taking children to soccer matches, the group took soccer to the children.
“It permeates the whole city, the rich and the poor, the good sections and the bad sections of town,” Johnson said. “There was a real excitement about the World Cup being there.
“The idea was developed that we would go and we would do soccer clinics and day clubs for the children in the streets of Soweto and some of the poorest places there in Johannesburg.”
Eakins said the purpose of the trip was to spread the love of Christ.
“I definitely know that the kids that we worked with will definitely be changed, just in the fact that in the short time that we were there, we were able to just love these kids like crazy and share God’s love,” Eakins said.
Senior writing and history major Katie Brookins spoke about the extreme poverty some of the children face.
“They might have only had one or two layers,” Brookins said. “Very few of them had coats. Some had rubber bands wrapped around their shoes to keep the soles on. Seeing that extreme poverty in cold was a lot more shocking to me, because I knew how cold I was in five or six layers sometimes, and they were just as cold and colder as I was. There were some times I would just sit down and put my arms around the kids and try to warm them up.”
Eakins said that when the buses would pull up for the soccer camps, the kids would run to them, smiles on their faces, ready to play.
In addition to the daily soccer camps, the group also participated in street ministry. Kyle Francis, a sophomore pre-nursing student from Statesboro said that despite the differences in the cultures, it was easy to spark up conversations.
“I didn’t think I would have anything relatable to them, and it ended up that we could talk hours on end about anything, and I just feel like we really did touch lives,” Francis said. “It just shows how connected everyone really is, even though we’re far away physically.”
Some of the group members said that not only did they go there to teach people about the gospel, but that they were there to learn as well.
Eakins said that the people there were happy with what they had, regardless of how little it was.
“They’re very content with what they do have,” Eakins said. “That was also something I think a lot of us came away with. We need to be more content with what we do have, because we do have so much, especially when you go a place like this, and they are as thankful as they are for what little that they have.”
Johnson said that the group learned a lot about Christianity and the things that different cultures mold into it. For South Africa, tribal beliefs and ancestor worship play a role, he said.
“There’s no doubt that we shared the love of Christ,” Johnson said. “Jesus said ‘Offer a cup of water in the Master’s name,’ so we really had that sense of a God of all the nations, not an American God.”
One of the people who the group encountered and shared their message with was a young woman named Elizabeth. According to Brookins, Elizabeth was a third year finance student at a university there when her father died. She returned home to Snake Park, an area of high poverty in Soweto.
“I was walking around handing out newspapers about players in the World Cup and their relationship with Jesus,” Brookins said. “[Elizabeth] was very happy to pick up a newspaper because it was something to read.
“Thirty minutes later, she came running after us,” she said. “We were able to stand there and hold her hands as she accepted Christ as her savior. This is something she had wanted for a long time, but she didn’t know how.”
After that, Elizabeth returned to help continue to spread the group’s message at the day camps.
“She came back the next day when we were at camp and she played with the kids and we heard more and more of her story,” Brookins said. “If I could remember anything from South Africa for the rest of my life, I want it to be Elizabeth. I want it to be her face and how happy she was.”
GSU alumna Joanna Kimes also met Elizabeth and spoke about the excitement that she had around the group.
“She was just one of the nicest people I had ever met,” Kimes said. “She was excited and hungry to talk to us. You could just tell from her face how excited she really was that we were there and that we cared.”
While some people wait until later in life to go on mission trips, Kimes said it is important for younger people to see the world in this way.
“I think it changes your outlook on your life where you are and makes you realize that everyday you should live your life as if you were on the mission field,” Kimes said. “I think it’s an awesome opportunity, especially for college-aged kids. It just changes you.”
Johnson said that although they saw the extreme poverty, there is still a great reason to continue to hold on hope.
Johnson said, “A lot of what we saw broke our hearts, and yet, there is hope because of who Christ is.”