Many cringe when they hear statistics from communities in South Africa, places where more than 60 percent live in poverty and nearly 30 percent are infected with HIV. Others decide to help.
More than 300 members of Crossroads Community Church left Cincinnati April 13 for the township of Mamelodi, South Africa. During their 10-day mission, the volunteers are building houses, planting crop gardens, working with AIDS patients and tutoring children.
The project is a collaboration with Charity and Faith Mission Church in South Africa.
'The most amazing people'
During 2005, Crossroads funded the building of Bophelong Community Hospital in Mamelodi, the largest AIDS hospice in South Africa, with a price tag of more than $750,000.
Church members who went to Mamelodi last week had to raise or save $3,500 each for travel expenses, according to Crossroads volunteer Anitra Marsh. Many seriously altered their lifestyles to reach their goal by working second jobs, holding fundraisers, selling possessions and giving up vacation time for the trip, she says.
"You don't have to be rich to really do extraordinary things," Marsh says. "You've got everyday people from diverse backgrounds that range from age 14 to age 60, and they're from different income levels.
We believe that that's one of the benefits of this kind of trip, that everyone can participate."
Kristy Little, trip leader and Crossroads volunteer, says the group plans to construct approximately 25 homes and plant several hundred crop gardens. Last July she and a small group visited Mamelodi — a township of approximately 1 million — to identify the ways they could make the greatest impact.
The Crossroads group decided to build brick homes instead of traditional ones, because wood is a limited resource in the region, Little said. Fortunately, many in the group have extensive construction experience. Once completed, the homes will accommodate small families of five to six.
"The people in the community that we'll be building these houses for are currently living in houses that are made of sheet metal," Little said. "So this is one less thing that they have to be worried or stressed about, and they can focus on providing for their family, getting an education and getting a job. Shelter won't be a burden for them anymore."
The trip will also benefit the Cincinnati volunteers, Little says. Looking into the face of extreme hardship forever puts life into perspective, she says.
"The people there were some of the most amazing people I've ever met," she says. "They were filled with such hope and joy. I guess when you see that kind of poverty, your life just isn't the same after that."
The relationship between the two churches began several years ago, when Brian Tome, senior pastor at Crossroads, met Titus Sithole, pastor at Charity and Faith Mission Church, at a church conference in Chicago. Tome says the collaboration seemed a natural fit.
At first Crossroads funded a new roof for an educational building in Mamelodi, then plans began to follow Sithole's dream of building the AIDS hospice. In the early stages, small groups from the church flew to South Africa to assist in planning.
'Doing something cool'
Through the visits, Tome says, he realized taking individuals out of their comfort zone helped them grow both culturally and spiritually.
"If we have 5 percent of our church that goes over there, we all know this place is going to change," he says. "There's no way that we could send 300 people over there to look in the face of AIDS and look in the face of poverty and for those guys to come back and not to be different. And if those people are different, there's no question our church is going to be different. We don't know actually how yet, but we know it's going to happen."
When 300 volunteers readily signed on, Tome says he wasn't surprised, as the church boasts a membership willing to actively support good causes. With a large number of local and global projects on the horizon, Tome says members of Crossroads are proving that church membership means much more than simple attendance at services.
"Who gives a rip how many people show up inside of a building on a Sunday morning?" he says. "We have people making alterations to their lives to make a difference — that's when Jesus is doing something cool."
Kirsten Kinne, a senior at Walnut Hills High School, says she knew she was destined to go on the trip from the moment it was announced. The 18-year-old raised funds by sending out sponsor letters and holding a fundraiser for classmates. She says she found the generosity of people, some of whom she'd never met, completely overwhelming.
This week Kinne is working with children in Mamelodi, sharing both culture and spirituality. She explains many of her friends are amazed at her ambition at such a young age — a passion Kinne believes other teens need to embrace.
"I don't have a little catch phrase or anything, but I think it's such a misconception that teenagers only care about sex, drugs and alcohol and those kinds of things." she says. "That's (volunteering) something that I'm so passionate about, because teenagers have so much youthful energy, and we can go and make such a difference. I tell my friends, 'You can do it, too, because it's not hard, and there are so many opportunities to help out.' " ©