Almost daily, a young white woman walks through the streets of a South Africa shantytown that is still hurting and divided after the oppressive former “Apartheid” government. Young children with crusty noses and mouths run up to grab her hand, barely dodging a honking taxi. She passes by large, humming South African mamas standing over open grills, cooking animal entrails and sheep’s heads, surrounded by mangy, rib protruding dogs, hoping for just a morsel of meat to fall to the ground. Hip Hop music vibrates out of the local “Shabeen” as the thumping base notes seem to resonate through her chest as she avoids with a smile the beer inspired men on the streets, hoping to lure her over for a suggestive conversation.
As her pedestrian trek continues past drafty tin roofed shacks, she passes a seated Sangoma, (sacred woman) who brings empty promises to this poor township of cures for HIV, broken hearts and the usually empty pockets of the tribal Xhosa people of Masiphumelele. The Sangoma will employ charms and chants designed to summon up the help and power of long dead tribal ancestors. Bethany O’Connor keeps walking and smiling and waving to friends and acquaintances, but this 27 year old American woman, who seems maybe a bit out of place, projects a different kind of presence and power as she moves through this poor township that has captured her heart. O’Connor’s mission is to bring healing and hope through extending what she believes is the most powerful force on the face of the earth — The tender kindness and unconditional love of a living God.
If you had told O’Connor just a couple years before that she would be strolling through an infamous black township where many local white people would tremble to find themselves, she too would have laughed in your face. Originally from Salem, Oregon (Sprague High School 2000) , and a 2004 Social Work graduate of Oral Roberts University (Masters Degree from University of Oklahoma), she was first introduced to the rich and complicated culture of South Africa through a business and community development trip with her father in mid 2007. Her father, Joe O’Connor and a non profit foundation he runs (www.csdcouncil.org) has been involved in designing & advocating for new Christian based community enrichment centers in poverty stricken neighborhoods. Little did Bethany know that this fun, father-daughter bonding trip overseas would play a pivotal role that would change the course and direction of her life.
“During that trip, Capetown struck me as a complicated, beautiful and yet sad place where I could for sure see my self living and working some day in the distant future”. O’Connor continues, “But my vision and goals at the time were pretty focused and I felt obligated to get back to Portland, Oregon and further my Social Work career in a fulfilling and good paying job”.
But God seemed to have another timetable. After 3 months of excellent and encouraging job interviews, O’Connor started to wonder if maybe God had different plans for her immediate future. O’Connor remembers, “On the drive home from one interview , I had this “revelation moment” and I heard this inner prompting seem to say specifically – “Now is the time to go, I have different & better plans for you”. O’Connor found herself pondering the meaning of this inner voice as she found her mind wandering to the poverty, squalor and large beaming smiles of the people in the slum townships around Capetown.
In a surprisingly quick staccato of events, O’Connor found herself making some critical life changing decisions. Within weeks she was selling her car, storing her possessions, researching airfare and housing and launching headlong into an orientation course with a creative outside the box ministry founded by Floyd McClung, the legendary leader and pioneer of the large YWAM ministry in the infamous Amsterdam red light district. During this training course in Capetown, called CPX (Church Planting Experience) O’Connor was encouraged and counseled by McClung to dream big and find the cultural keys that can touch the hearts and needs of people living in fear and repression, especially in poverty stricken areas.
“Masiphumelele” is the name of the informal settlement where O’Connor works. Also known as “Site 5” by the former apartheid government, “Masi” was one of many squatters villages that sprung up in the 60’s and 70’s under the white dominated governing party as a “solution” to try and limit the mixing of different races. At that time, it was not unusual to see forcibly evicted families and their belongings loaded in trucks and literally dumped on the barren ground on the outskirts of the populated areas. Masi developed as a squatters camp during this same era, and even today hosts many refugees, living in sparse and drafty shacks, who have come to South Africa from other African nations, seeking a better life.
It has only been 14 years since apartheid has ended. O’Connor says she can still sometimes detect the wounded and rejected spirit reflected in people’s eyes when she, a white person, engages them in conversation. There is also a palpable tension between black people of tribal origin and the mixed race “coloured” people that further creates cultural complications.
In the midst of this rich and cultural dynamic, O’Connor moves about on her daily mission to bring hope and practical tangible services to families, abandoned mothers and vulnerable children. In her early days working in Masi, O’Connor encountered a white South African woman, Michelle Pughe-Parry, who also reflected a passion and concern for at risk mothers and the secret shame of baby dumping. Together they teamed up to research and address the causative issues head on. O’Connor’s heart was both outraged and pierced at the thought of a mother being so desperate for food, shelter and basic survival needs that she would literally throw her baby away in the garbage. O’Connor’s research and resulting community networking led her to create a remarkable solution known as “The Baby Safe” which has now become known throughout much of the Capetown region (population 2 million +) . O’Connor says – “If there is one thing I have become more and more convinced of, it is that God is a refuge to the oppressed and He loves to channel His love and hope to the brokenhearted, the fatherless and to the desperate. A scripture that O’Connor clings to that reflects this is – “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, defend the cause of the weak, advocate for the rights of the needy.”
After 8 months of research, networking with government officials and involving other faith based poverty initiatives, The Baby Safe was launched as an official ministry/sub organization of McClung’s organization- All Nations of South Africa. The Baby Safe, installed at a church owned site within walking distance of Masi, is a simple engineering marvel consisting of a safe, tamper proof steel deposit door with a small weight sensitive shelf with a mattress inside. The technology, developed by a volunteer Christian engineer from Sweden, is wired and monitored to detect the presence of a baby by sensing the weight of .5 kilograms or more (about 1.2 lbs). O’Connor explains – “When the door is opened and a baby is placed inside, the sensors detect the weight and activates the system which simultaneously locks the door and sends out electronic messages to Baby Safe team volunteers who can literally respond within 3 – 4 minutes.”
As important as offering the Baby Safe itself, a myriad of services and resources are now also offered to at risk young mothers (often as young as 14 years old). Word of mouth and colorful posters that are plastered all over Masi and other nearby communities have gotten the word out about The Baby Safe. Word has also spread beyond Masi and O’Connor is now deluged with invitations from government groups, radio talk shows, hospital counseling staffs and other agencies that have opened doors for her to become involved in pre-natal counseling, pre-abortion counseling, job development, and identifying and intervening in vulnerable households. “I feel like the heart of Baby Safe is to connect with women, babies and children to offer life, hope and options”, says O’Connor. “ I have been profoundly blessed as I have watched many women (on almost a weekly basis) cancel their scheduled abortions, explore the options of adoption, and many have received encouragement and other resources that actually empower them to choose to keep and raise their babies.”
O’Connor has also been instrumental in helping to launch the Vulnerable Children’s Project (www.vulnerablechildrensa.com) that provides food, clothing, bedding and also addresses the safety of groups of children living alone in shacks in the township. These child headed households often have a parent who is either sick in the hospital (usually with AIDS) or already deceased , leaving brothers and sisters all on their own, with only the eldest child to care for them. O’Connor comments- “This VC program allows us to link compassionate supporters and donors in the West with a Masi child headed household to meet their basic food, housing and clothing needs, all for only $40 a month for each child headed family, which is pretty amazing.” She continues- “We also are able to provide bible clubs, after school mentoring and tutoring, better school placement and other “Big Brother- Big Sister” type friendship to these incredibly resilient kids.”
O’Connor observes that it would be easy to have a sense of utter hopelessness in the face of the cyclical ravages of poverty, crime and the AIDS epidemic that she sees daily in Masi. “ I often struggle with the weight of the immense need and wonder how I could ever make even a little dent” says O’Connor. “But always, almost every day, I am amazed and stunned at the extravagant love of God for the poor. Jesus and his loving kindness comes shining through when I meet women and children in crisis and wonder what on earth can I do? I used to be very self sufficient, smart enough to figure most things out and not really feel the pressure to rely on God for every day things in my life. But now, many times a day, His voice, direction and peace are literally my lifeline.”
This remarkable American girl shares that one of her biggest personal lessons while serving in a poor township has been grasping the meaning of John 15 where it says “I can do absolutely nothing apart from Him. He is the vine, I am the branches”. She continues, “I have come to the realization of how ridiculously dependent I am on Him, to try and bear fruit and to have wisdom in the face of decisions that bear so much weight- many involving life and death of little ones.”
O’Connor is an ordinary young woman who has found herself doing extraordinary things. She is a full time mission worker who is 100% dependent on the financial gifts and monthly support of people that have heard her remarkable story. If you are interested in finding out more about her work and mission you can visit her website at www.bethanyoconnor.com. There is a “Give” page on her website for people who want to get involved and have a tangible impact on serving the poor through her efforts in South Africa. You can also learn more about The Baby Safe at www.thebabysafe.org.
If you know of an ordinary person who is doing extraordinary things, then feel free you can share their story with Lindsay Goodier who is a writer and author living in Houston, Texas. She has enjoyed being published in numerous magazines including Relevant Magazine, Rethink Monthly Magazine and other publications. You can contact Lindsay at firstname.lastname@example.org.