My husband's sister is in Kenya for the first time ever on a mission trip. She has shared about the ministry she and her husband are working with this month on her blog. It was so powerful, I wanted to share it here at Graceland.
Extreme Grace in Kenya: Challenge Farm
July 15, 2012
"As the morning sun begins her ascent, dividing the mist from the darkness and offering the conductor’s tap for a symphony of bird calls, another sound gently floats across the Kenyan landscape, sweeter than the birdsong, warmer than the sun. This melody emits from a ring of rich purple and brown hues gathered to greet the day and give thanks to God for blessings received and blessings yet to come. A circle of children, heads held high, dressed in uniforms of soft lavender, royal blue and deep purple that speaks of their regal African heritage, sing the Kenyan national anthem as their flag is raised, then encourage one another to cast their burdens, onto Jesus, for He cares, for them. One of the teachers praises the children for their cooperation during the week, for their hard work and diligence in their studies, and then calls them to good stewardship of their time and talents during the approaching weekend. The headmaster, his wise eyes tender with compassion, greets his charges and receives an enthusiastic and respectful “Good morning, sir” in response. He gently reminds them that two new children have joined their family and admonishes the group to embrace and look after these girls. After prayer, students are dismissed to class and the day, still early and wet with dew, begins. Excepting the name, there is little to indicate that Challenge Farm is anything other than an ordinary boarding school.
But there is nothing ordinary about Challenge Farm or the children who call it home. These are children who have come from the Kipsongo slum on the outskirts of Kitale. Their parents, if they have any, have come to Kitale to escape the war and famine further north in Lodwar and have set up residence in makeshift homes made of cardboard and rusted tin, with remnants of paper, rags and trash stuffed in openings to keep out the wind and rain. Unemployment rates are as high as 80% in Kenya, which means business is slow for those who beg for a living. Idle hours are filled with the oldest form of recreation, resulting in a booming population for this area of Kenya.
The newest citizens of the Kipsongo slum are the youngest and most vulnerable. Children as young as four roam the streets, begging for food and selling their small bodies for a few shillings. Kenya, like most African nations, lives under the shadow of AIDS, and superstitions still permeate much of the culture. One such belief is that an HIV-positive man can free himself of the disease by having sex with a virgin, so the demand for younger and younger prostitutes grows, as does the number of little girls who fall victim to rape at the hands of HIV-positive family members. So whether they are forced to beg and sell themselves on the streets in order to survive or because their families demand it of them, children of the Kipsongo slum are victims of unimaginable abuse and neglect. Most seek relief through forms of drug abuse, the most common being glue sniffing. Whiffs of shoe leather glue deaden their senses, numbing them to the cold, the hunger, the pain.
To an observer, Challenge Farm seems like an ordinary school. If you looked closely, it might even begin to look like an orphanage. Spending the day with the children would only convince you that this was an excellent school with superior students, challenged by caring teachers who have high but appropriate expectations for their students. And if you were to spend another day at Challenge Farm, you would observe the children working industriously, washing their own clothes, tending to the garden, washing their classroom floors, spending time in prayers at the chapel, and of course, playing football (Kenya’s national sport). You might see a child not dressed in the traditional purple uniform, playing while other students were in class, but even that would not surprise you because the child would not be alone. What you would not see would be signs of self-pity, bitterness, or rejection.
Challenge Farm offers these children a refuge, a sanctuary where they can learn to be children, learn to trust, and learn to receive love. It functions as a school, an orphanage, a working farm, and a thriving community. It is a family to those who have no family. But while the distance in miles from the Kipsongo slum to Challenge Farm is not far in miles, the journey is not an easy one for the children or the staff who accompany them. Challenge Farm was named so for good reason.
Short-term mission teams from America and elsewhere come to Kitale and perform street ministry, bringing children from the Kipsongo slum to Challenge Farm, offering them food, baths, clean clothes, and the opportunity to be children for a day. In this way, the children of the Kipsongo slum come to know Challenge Farm through experience and reputation as a place of warmth and safety, provision and fun. At other times, when a child is brought to the Farm to stay, either by the police, another adult, or by his or her own volition, a process begins that can take months to complete and is different for every child. Residency at Challenge Farm is voluntary, no child is ever forced to stay; however, no child is ever given up on easily. Those who run away and return to the streets are sought after again and again by the staff. The challenge for the child becomes trying to outrun the love freely offered, much as mankind can run from God but He never stops offering His love and provision. The gates of Challenge Farm are never shut to children in need.
Children of the Kipsongo slum become sexually active at a very young age, many by the age of four or five. For some, they are simply imitating the adults who openly engage in sexual acts on the street, without regard for privacy. Others have been forced into prostitution either for their own survival or by family members seeking money. Still others are raped, most by men with HIV seeking a non-existent cure. By necessity, children who come to Challenge Farm must first be tested for sexually transmitted diseases and treated. Most come addicted to drugs as well; the most common being glue. The staff at Challenge Farm uses natural remedies to combat the withdrawal symptoms: sugar cane, black sugar, and strong tea with lots of tea leaves are administered regularly and liberally as their small bodies slowly adjust to new diets and begin to be cleansed of the toxins that have poisoned them.
For all the physical damage these children’s bodies have endured, it is the emotional and spiritual wounds that present the greatest challenge these little ones must surmount. Before a child can be fully assimilated into the Challenge Farm community, he or she must undergo a healing process that is unique to each individual. There are general parameters that define the process each time, but the social workers and caretakers tailor their responses to the needs of each child. For some, like a five-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her HIV positive step-father, this meant that the entire staff of the school was mindful of the child’s fear of men and worked with delicacy and sensitivity to earn her trust over the course of a year. It was not just the social workers who were careful with this child; the entire staff of the school, the orphanage, and the farm worked to make sure this child could heal.
A child who comes to Challenge Farm is treated as a gift from God, and as such, is afforded the time and grace our Heavenly Father shows His children as they struggle to overcome sin and doubt in their own lives. This particular grace is one characteristic that sets Challenge Farm apart from other ministries that are similar; it is also, I believe, the driving force behind the tremendous success rate Challenge Farm has with their children, not just success in rescuing children from lives of poverty and abuse, but in raising young men and women to love God and to believe that they were made for a purpose; that God has a plan for their lives.
The initial process of healing and rehabilitation usually takes most children approximately three to six months, but those who work at Challenge Farm recognize that most children will need months and even years of continued prayer, counseling, and loving support as they heal. The rules and procedures of Challenge Farm are gradually introduced, and infractions are met with grace and counseling. The staff recognize that street children have spent a lifetime, no matter how short, surviving on their own; conforming to the rules of a family, of a community does not come easily or naturally to them. Again, this approach reflects the grace of God rather than a more traditional school and institutional form of rules and regulations.
As a new child at Challenge Farm begins to heal physically, the social workers begin the work of spiritual and emotional healing. Children are not forced to share their stories until they are ready; sometimes the staff knows that a child belongs to a particular family and alerts them that the child is at Challenge Farm; other times the child is an orphan or does not identify his or her family until after having been there for many weeks. A new child is never left alone. An adult caretaker is assigned to each child, as well as an older child who acts as a friend and mentor. The children are involved in activities and kept busy; idleness often contributes to a return to the streets since the process of learning to trust and drug rehabilitation is very difficult. Emma, one of the two social workers at Challenge Farm, shared that children are encouraged to share their experiences and receive counseling, but they are also prayed with and prayed for – there is a tremendous need for these children to be delivered from low self-esteem, bitterness, anger, and rejection after having experienced abuse and degradation at the hands of their families and community members. Any member of the Challenge Farm staff will affirm that it is the power of God that transforms these children, His power that comes through prayer, grace and love.
As an American, observing Challenge Farm for the first time, not knowing the horrors these children had endured before coming here, I was not surprised by the smiles and warmth I enjoyed from the children as I explored their campus. I knew from reputation that Kenyans were a warm and gracious people. After my interview with Emma, I found that I could not look at each child with the same perspective. Their smiles, their willingness to meet my eyes without resentment, animosity or distrust, stirred something deep inside my being because I knew that I was looking into the eyes of children who had been touched by Christ and were radiating His love and peace, not a facade dependent on therapy or drugs or a persona hiding the real child, fearful of being hurt again.
There is no secular explanation for the change these children undergo; the redemptive power of the Lord Jesus Christ is evident in the smiles of these children. Had I known their stories before coming here, I might have looked for evidence that something was amiss in their hearts, that something was not genuine in their smiles and laughter. But in fact, a guest visiting Challenge Farm who has no knowledge that the farm is anything other than a typical boarding school would have no reason to think otherwise; the children are genuinely loving and friendly; they take time to greet newcomers, looking them in the eye, shaking hands, warmly welcoming them to their home. The spirit of community and love is evident to anyone who observes for even a short time; the children can be seen carrying one another’s burdens, helping each other with chores, singing as they skip to class, and smiling broadly, without guile, as the go from class to class. They are truly children. They are not perfect, and they have hurts and misunderstandings just as all children do. But there is not the spirit of fear and rejection that accompanies the abused and neglected here. These children could not be poster children for a television ad. They have physical needs, just as all orphans all countries do. But they are not haunted by their pasts. They have a future and a hope. They know that the Lord has a plan and purpose for each of their lives.
In my short time here, I have found Kenya to be a land of extremes; it is a land of unparalleled beauty and fierce dangers; lush, tropical vegetation and barren deserts; majestic elephants and lethal mambas; the regal Maasai warriors and the deadly shadow of AIDS. Challenge Farm is also a place of extremes. Extreme love. Extreme grace. Extreme miracles. The teachers and staff members of this place are blessed with a grace and strength from God that is necessary to reach and help the children of the Kipsongo slum. The difference in these children is also extreme; how a boy addicted to glue, who had only known hunger and begging his entire life, could come to know the saving power of Christ and the realization of God’s purpose for His life, a child who should have ended up in prison or dead but is now studying at the university, is a miracle. Knowing that this miracle happens day after day, year after year, child after child is a testimony to the grace and faithfulness of our Lord and His servants at Challenge Farm.
Before I came to Kenya, I asked the Lord to change my heart. I didn't know this change would mean a break so complete that only He could mend it or replace it. As someone who has spent a lifetime battling demons of rejection and anger, I find that I can no longer accept them in my life. Not because I have not endured the horrors these precious children have endured, and therefore, by comparison, I have no right to feel these things. No, my intolerance now stems from a broken heart, broken with the realization that I have spent so many years not allowing Christ to complete the work He began in me. These children are free in ways I have never been because they have accepted that they cannot do it on their own; they know where they have been and from what they have been saved. From the depths of their extreme poverty they have embraced extreme grace. I pray that God give me new eyes to see my own poverty so that I might never again be so foolish as to believe that I am able to save myself; may we all embrace the extreme grace and mercy He so freely extends all His children."
To read more about Deidra and Michael's ministry trip, visit her blog: http://30daysofgracechallange.blogspot.com/