A gap year gone wrong?

Kirsty McLaren

Our trip began with visa rejection and ended in repatriation. In the midst of sometimes hourly uncertainty, it could have been possible to question God’s goodness. Yet the daily evidence of his abundant kindness made it impossible to have such doubts.

Intern workshop at Hope Church

Our slogan of the first fortnight was 'hectic but happy'. This accurately summarises the slight chaos that occurred as we figured out a team timetable and the areas we could best serve at Hope Church. An unexpected opportunity to be involved with the new youth work meant that the girls were thrown into leading bible studies, and me into helping train them. I was humbled and delighted by how God had sent a team that was both willing and already mature enough to take on this challenge. They also got involved in the kids’ clubs and Sunday school. They loved studying at JBC and always came back buzzing to tell me what they’d learnt and the amazing testimonies they’d heard over coffee! Aside from preparing team 1-2-1s and seminars, I was involved in the student work at the University of Johannesburg. Something I’ve found frustrating about coming home early is the feeling that I was just beginning to establish my friendships with students and develop a new bible study. So much of our work in South Africa was fledgling and we’ve all had to learn again to trust God to save and preserve the faith of his children. 

On safari

Although it was only ten weeks, we packed in the fun. From park runs to spontaneous safaris, museum tours to braais, we made the most of our time in Jo’burg. Perhaps one of the loveliest things was that we shared so much of this with our new friends and church family. We were so warmly welcomed by the church and we loved hosting others. In mid-March we were quite simply praising God that we were having a marvellous time.

The escalation of the threat of COVID-19 in South Africa was bewildering. We quickly learnt that there was potential for huge human tragedy. President Ramaphosa’s leadership from the outset was decisive and radical. On 27 March South Africa entered one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. This included a ban on outdoor exercise and alcohol sales. The response was mixed: some had already begun self-isolating because they feared the damage COVID-19 could wreak if it reached the townships. Others advised us that ginger tea would be sufficient protection! Many people in Jo’burg are contract workers - they get paid each day for work they did that day. So this whole situation leaves them with the very real choice between starvation and potentially getting sick. It was profoundly instructive to see the love and foresight that our hosts had for the potential dangers of the disease in their local context. The government’s scientific advisors believe the peak is still a couple of months away. Please pray for South Africa: pray for charities, businesses and communities seeking to support the many who are struggling. Ultimately please pray that as the prosperity gospel is undermined, people may turn to the true message of Jesus.

Before I came to South Africa I had considered many potential hazards there, from mugging to armed burglary. What I was not prepared for was a global pandemic. Thoroughly out of my depth and in a situation where it would have been quite understandable for the team to go to pieces, God overruled. We didn’t simply survive lockdown - in God’s kindness we had some of our best times of the trip. It presented us with new opportunities to serve the local church, grow closer to others living on the property, and to spend time studying the Bible as a team. It even offered the opportunity for one of the team to start her first ever 1-2-1 with a school friend over Zoom!

Returning home halfway through our placement was hugely disappointing. Even in lockdown we’d felt so blessed to have purpose, work to do and great friends around. It was hard to see how coming back to 'not much' could be good. And yet, we remained confident that God’s plans are perfect, even if we can’t fathom them! We’ve continued to be involved with the kid’s and youth work at Hope Church and the girls are delighted that JBC has moved online. We really miss living together but have continued our weekly team time of book discussion and prayer. We also regularly chat or workout with our friends who lived nearby!

Objectively, many circumstantial things about our placement should have made it awful, or at least really hard. But I can honestly say that when I think back on it, it brings me only joy. It was an utter privilege to see the team grow in their trust of the Lord and their ability to handle his word. We were so encouraged to see God’s work in South Africa and the huge opportunities there are to serve him there. Give God thanks for all he taught us in our time there! And please pray for more gospel workers to be raised up in that place.

Above: student weekend away and Sunday lunch in lockdown at Craven Cottage.

Read what other gap year teams got up to during lockdown: Bobby shares his Gambian experience and James tells the tale of having to come back from Kenya.