Finding a home among the homeless
A missionary tells how she overcame being held up at gunpoint, and explains why she is going back to Johannesburg
The despair and grief of ministering to homeless youth almost overwhelmed Kylie Zietsch when she first went to Johannesburg ten years ago.
The young teacher who had grown up in the safe, monocultural surrounds of Sydney’s Sutherland Shire was deeply affected by the plight of the AIDS orphans she met on the streets of the South African metropolis.
“A lot of the children have lost both parents to AIDS.” – Kylie Zietsch
“It was such a weird thing, stepping into this world which was so different from my own. Initially I felt really overwhelmed,” she says.
“A lot of the children have lost both parents to AIDS, so I’d be meeting kids who are 12 and they’d be crying with me, telling me their stories and how they miss their mum, and yet at the same time I knew that some of them were quite violent to other kids on the street.
“The thing is, it was a pretty depressing ministry in many ways, because you spend hours and hours with these kids and reconnect them with distant relatives and get them into a shelter, and then often they run back to the street.”
“…it’s hard for them to hear and experience Christ’s love.” – Kylie Zietsch
Kylie would get really upset about how many resources were going into these kids who had so little, and often change was slow if it came at all.
“At first I just didn’t know how to cope with all the emotional burdens, but I think I got better at putting it into perspective and seeing the work that God was doing through the church to love these kids,” she says.
“The more you see, the more you understand why people get stuck in these patterns, and as Christians bringing the hope of the gospel to these places it’s hard for them to hear and experience Christ’s love, but I’m pretty excited and passionate about it.”
“God grew [my] passion as I saw him changing really hard hearts.” – Kylie Zietsch
Kylie had gone to South Africa intending to teach in children’s ministry at a church but ended up doing student ministry and homeless ministry.
“It morphed into something different, as God likes to do,” she says wryly.
Kylie is now one of 18 new missionaries the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in NSW and ACT will be sending out on to the field in 2017. She is heading back to Johannesburg to teach at Johannesburg Bible College. She also hopes to reconnect with the kids she worked with last time.
“When I started to do it I just realised how incredible the opportunity is to just, in a full time way, have the time and energy to love people in church, and God grew that passion as I saw him changing really hard hearts,” she says, explaining her desire to be a missionary.
“God has a heart for the poor and down-and-out and I think we, his people, have to be the same.” – Kylie Zietsch
“Working with homeless kids in the streets was pretty horrible in some ways, but just seeing the way that, in the darkness of what they were going through, there was hope because I could show Christ to them.
“So over time I began to go ‘wow, this is a pretty amazing privilege that I get to do this.’ I hadn’t been trained or anything – I didn’t really know what I was doing. So I think God just kept growing that idea that I want to keep doing this full-time.
“Just knowing that the Bible is pretty clear that God has a heart for the poor and down-and-out and I think we, his people, have to be the same.”
In her teaching role at Bible College, Kylie is excited about getting other people excited about ministry as well. She will be teaching a stream of courses for women, focusing on pastoral issues, teaching and encouraging women in preaching and word-based ministry. She will work two days a week at the Johannesburg campus and the new campus at Soweto, a township south of Johannesburg. She will also be involved in teaching nighttime satellite courses for business people in other townships.
Though she was brought up in a Christian family, Kylie did not want much to do with Christianity until she was converted at age 13 on a beach mission at Lake Tabourie on the NSW south coast.
“This girl called Christine was a leader and she wanted to read with Bible with me and I just wanted to spend time with her so I said ‘yes’ and I remember it being quite dramatic.
“I was a bit of a funny kid; I used to lie awake at night thinking about really deep things. I remember being scared about the future and death and I don’t think I’d ever really connected that Jesus was the answer to those things.
“Maybe I just needed someone else to talk to me about it because it was quite incredible. I remember wanting to tell everyone about it after that, [and] being a bit annoying – I got in trouble from a few of my friends, who said ‘don’t talk about Jesus.’”
“When we got up to leave, three people surrounded us and pulled out guns, they pointed the guns at me, and then asked for my keys … so then I gave them my keys and my bag and all the kids gave their phones and they went off.” – Kylie Zietsch
Going back to Johannesburg, Kylie will be seeking God’s protection in prayer and talking to people about places to avoid, having experienced a mugging at gunpoint in her final year in South Africa.
“I’d been back in Australia for a wedding and come back so I wasn’t really up to date on what the safe places were – I was a bit in my Australian bubble.
“I was having lunch at a big park with six kids between the ages of eight and 13 and there were plenty of people around, which often indicates safety. And then I noticed that the people were staring at me – and because I’m white I felt that was why they were staring at me – I was a bit naïve.
“…you expect things to get taken. It’s just a different reality.” – Kylie Zietsch
“When we got up to leave, three people surrounded us and pulled out guns, they pointed the guns at me, and then asked for my keys – because they’d obviously seen where I’d parked my car just around the corner, so then I gave them my keys and my bag and all the kids gave their phones and they went off. So it was pretty scary.”
That car was one of three Kylie had stolen during her time in South Africa, a fact she can chuckle about now.
“I think the whole experience reminded me that possessions really can be taken quickly and I had to become a bit more loose with what I owned over there because things just get taken – you expect things to get taken. It’s just a different reality,” she says.
“I don’t feel like I’m on edge about going back; I think everyone else is scared for my safety more than I would be. But I’ve got a different philosophy to life than some people who go South Africa and just stay inside and never go out.
“I’m very, very sad about leaving my family and friends this side, but I know there are people who care for me on that side.” – Kylie Zietsch
“I don’t think I can live cooped up and I obviously want to engage in a community and engage in life in a real way, and therefore I need to be quite aware of my surroundings.
“When I go back, I’ll just have to chat to people and be street wise, talk to my friends about where not to go and then just pray that God would protect me.”
Although she will be the only CMS missionary in Johannesburg, Kylie has many close friends there.
“I’m really thankful one of the ladies from my church has already offered to meet up and mentor me, and she’s a brilliant woman of God.
“I feel blessed that in one sense over there feels a bit like home, although I’m very, very sad about leaving my family and friends this side, but I know there are people who care for me on that side.”