Should we have done it?
by Tony Copple
In mission school in Mozambique with Iris in 2016, one of the many behaviours suggested to us was to remember that we are primarily concerned with immortal souls. Should the issue arise among the poor that without food in the belly, no-one is ready to embrace the faith, then we deal with it however the Holy Spirit may suggest. The example in the Gospel (Acts 3:6) was suggested as the response, so that the person in need would value the things of the spirit even if he/she were hungry. We were well aware that Heidi and Rolland Baker were keenly motivated to provide food where needed, feeding thousands of children daily in their missionary bases. We know that Heidi ministers and loves on people whether they accept faith in Jesus or not. Conversion is God's job. Our job is to love. But love looks like something. So when we arrived in Western Cape, South Africa in December 2017, these were the attitudes we had, and maintained for the first two years of our mission.
Early on I used to go with Pastor Folla to his Avian Park ministry where three times a week he would teach through praise songs, teach through the Word, and finally show God’s love with food. I only attended once a week for about three months, but it was an important part of the training I would need. No child went home hungry, a fact not lost on a few grandparents and older members of the community who attended and benefitted from the food.
In May 2018, we began training eight volunteer leaders in our house to teach younger children the Bible message and aspects of faith using the excellent Mailbox Club materials. Soraya Volkwyn (now Tchau) did the teaching in Afrikaans. In October, the first Mailbox Club ran in Avian Park. Most weeks there were 3 – 4 clubs in operation. I supervised by leading some praise songs, praying with them and providing fruit. I drove from club to club. It all worked well, and the leaders enjoyed what they were doing. I brought apples or bananas (or similar) and that was our only expense, which we didn’t charge up to My Father’s House.
This ministry took a significant change of course after lockdown began in March 2020. No longer was it permitted for small groups to meet. Under the surface the fallout was more dramatic. Most families with a breadwinner found they lost all of that income as employers laid off workers. Those families whose income was entirely from grants fared better, and the government added a new monthly social grant of R350 for the poorest. People queued for hours to collect this pittance.
Since then, we have noticed changes in Avian Park. Parents couldn’t support their children, and the children moved to the homes of relatives who thought they could. So there would be 6 or 7 children living with one or two adults. Young men of working ages didn’t spend their days seeking the few jobs available, preferring to hang around street corners, some of them planning crimes to get money. Family members would steal from one another, particularly cellphones, for which there was a ready market. Those left without a phone suffered really badly. We bought phones for most of our girls, but they were usually stolen or dropped on the ground and broken.
What should we do to help in this situation? We made a number of decisions. We would concentrate our efforts for the four families – B, A, J and C. We would also help C’s blind elderly grandmother as part of C’s family. We would not give any significant resources to others so as to maximize the benefit to these. Their #1 need was food. The government announced the distribution of food parcels, but we saw no evidence of this in Avian Park. There were some soup kitchens, but they often had their own clientele, not willing to help walk-ins. The best way for us would be to provide food parcels, but it was clear to me that a standard food parcel would not be ideal for anyone. Since there were only four, we invited them to tell us what they wanted, ie. a list. They usually communicated via Messenger to Laurie-Ann. I would then go shopping and deliver to the families. There was one item that was on every list: sugar. Next came the staple foods like potatoes, sugar, rice and bread. As we began deliveries, documenting them all for accounting purposes, something else became apparent. If they wanted to make a meal from these staple foods, but add additional items to the recipe like salt or spice, they would ask us for the salt or spice. One might have thought that with the key items provided free, they would have money for cheap additional needs. One would have been wrong. By the time they needed food parcels, they had spent every cent in the family coffers.
After a few months I was spending hours each day shopping and delivering. To make things more efficient we had told them to order at least a day before they needed them. Then I would be able to deliver to several people on a single trip to Avian Park. But however many times I told them this they would always wait until there was nothing to eat in the house before calling me, and then they needed the food that hour, or at least within a few hours, and would call us to ask when I was coming. Eventually I realized we needed a different system or the time and effort required of me would be just too much. The answer was to send them money by EFT to a bank account, and ask them to buy their own food. Many missionaries advise against giving cash because it can be spent on drugs. But our families, who by now we knew pretty well, were so desperate food was actually all that they spent money on. At the same time I sent a private (non-Iris) appeal to a small group of supporters in Canada inviting them to ‘Sponsor Our Girls.’ The initial response was dramatic, with one person I hardly knew after meeting several years before, sent us $1,000. Because of the low value of the Rand, that amount buys a lot of food. There was enough to pay for two of the most needy families for 6 months.
We hit a snag with our Canadian mission coordinator. Two of the sponsors sent their donations through them, and one of them mentioned ‘For the girls’ on an accompanying note. We didn’t realize it at the time but our mission support had been set up just for our own personal needs on the mission field (the funds for ‘programmes’ were supposed to be raised through the local Iris base). Tony believes that ‘For the girls’ also was a red flag, suggesting we could be funding a private project separate from our own personal needs. The root issue was that ‘For the Girls’ might be a terrorist organization; the CRA insisted that additional funding needs like this required additional charitable applications, which may not have been granted in time. We didn’t want any problems with our Canadian umbrella by this misunderstanding.
An alternative might have been to draw the funds through My Father’s House, or ‘God With Us Ministries,’ the South African charitable organization of our Iris supervisors in South Africa. But we never considered these options, because we weren’t aware of the rules that IMC now reminded us of. The most practical solution to this stumbling block were to have the donors send money direct to us by e-Transfer or PayPal and forego their tax receipts. However, we are grateful for those who privately gave, and helped four plus families (M was also another recipient a few times, since her dad, the main breadwinner, died last year).
By now, thanks to an initiative by Jan Buchanan of My Father’s House, the parent body of the Mailbox Clubs, there was a U-Save convenience store within walking distance for all the girls. In theory this would eliminate time I was taking shopping and delivering. We started regular allowances for the two most needy families, which would halve the time I was taking shopping. I based the amount of money on the expenditure for February 2021, B’s family had spent about R4,000 and A’s family had spent R2,000. On 18 April 2021 I sent these amounts to B’s bank account and A’s mother’s bank account.
By a week later, they had spent most of the money and were asking for more to tide them over for the rest of the month. I should have realized that once they had cash it would be used almost immediately. This is cultural among the very poor. So I started sending money four times a month instead of once a month. That worked much better. They still asked me from time to time to drive them to town on shopping trips, partly because the U-Save didn’t sell everything, and also their prices were higher than the cheapest stores in town.
Things settled into a routine which was working quite well. Our ministry had changed from a focus on teaching, mentoring and leading praise and worship, to keeping the four family groups alive (as well as encouraging them in their faith through Alpha and other means). Food inflation was rife, and the money spent in February wasn’t buying sufficient for July, so there were times I bought emergency bread and polony, or occasionally an additional allowance. The bottom line was success; our families had fuller bellies and fewer worries than many others in Avian Park. Evidence of this could be seen in an increase in muggings and threats. Three of the girls were attacked by gangs at knife-point at least once for any money they had on them. After six months, the time that I had assumed we would run for, because we would be leaving the country, the money spent on the four families was close to the donated amount.
We didn’t leave after the six months partly due to our health, waiting for our SA visas, and partly due to flights being banned in the higher lock-down levels. So I put out a second appeal to the same generous folk who had given the first time, and we received almost enough for another two months. We also started a regular allowance for the third girl.
I am writing this a month after that. We had made it very clear to the girls that who had been receiving regular allowances that these would stop or reduce when we had left on 18 December. One girl was a special project, expecting to enter university in Cape Town in January/February. We had told her that we would continue her allowance at R500 a month, half the previous amount, so that she had some money at university, and she could send some on to her grandmother. The fourth girl had never received allowances, just food parcels which would cease when we left.
My hope and expectation was that when three of the four knew for sure they weren’t getting any more, their parents and relatives would be forced to support them, as they would have done were we never involved. Also the girls themselves would have found some sort of work. At the time of writing, this seems to have been the case, based on our not receiving desperation messages on Facebook Messenger. We did receive a heartfelt thank you message from the girl who never had an allowance, thanking us for all the help in the past year. This is all the more remarkable for being counter-culture.
The exception has been a very determined and resourceful girl, C. She was the only one with both parents at home. Sadly, her mother left home for an unknown destination around the time we left, leaving her bank card and phone with C. Her father is working at some distance but returns at weekends. He has income, but is an alcoholic, spending much of his income on beer, which was probably the reason his wife decided to leave. C contacted us relentlessly; she was effectively an orphan. Her grandmother refused, or was unable to help her. C was the first girl to run a Mailbox club, and the last one to stop, just a few weeks ago. She was generally truthful, and sincere in her Christian faith, and prayed for us regularly. While I couldn’t allow her to think we might continue supporting her with money regularly into the future, I did send her R300, twice, within the first few weeks after we left because she convinced me she was destitute.
Since then, their demands have stopped. I have spoken to them by phone and it certainly didn’t sound as if they were starving. Money must have come in from somewhere. They all have multiple aunts and cousins who are generally in no better state, but a few are, and I suspect when it was clear that the Copples had left, some responsibility was taken. A’s mother is capable of working but is accident prone, several times arriving in hospital after questionable (alcohol-influenced?) behaviour, reducing her reliability as a breadwinner.
As a twist in this tail, we were not able to leave the country on 18 December, testing positive for Covid in the day of our flight. We decided not to tell the girls we were still in Worcester in quarantine, but it meant we were able to monitor their situations more accurately than had we been in Canada. In the cases of two of them, as described above, we did provide money to bank accounts, but they thought they had reached us in Canada and we didn’t correct them. They never asked any questions about our situation. I am somewhat relieved as I write this a week before (DV) our final departure that they haven’t communicated more, and we must assume that as a result of our prayers for them and their adapting to their new situations that they are surviving. Once we really have switched warm South Africa for cold Canada, we will communicate with them all so they don’t get the impression we forgot about them. We could never forget them.
In hindsight, we had been faced with a situation without precedent - Covid, so the normal rules didn’t apply. I believe we made the best decisions under the circumstances. After all, “love looks like something.”
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Tony and Laurie-Ann Copple (usually Laurie-Ann)
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