Lucy Sawyer is a clinical psychologist and Crosslinks mission partner working with children and families in and around Heideveld in the Cape Flats, Cape Town. We asked her about the role short-term mission played in her journey from training as a psychologist in London to her new life in South Africa.
When did you first begin to think seriously about living and working overseas?
Before I became a Christian I had a number of cross-cultural experiences. I lived in Hamburg for a year when I was at university and initially got the ‘cross-cultural bug’ from that. I later worked in Romania for a year with a non-Christian charity (Nightingales) based in an orphanage in southeast Romania. I kept in touch with Nightingales and returned to Romania in subsequent years to take the children on holiday. Through these experiences I developed a love for being in a different country, for learning another language and embracing a new culture. When I became a Christian in my late twenties a friend who had been involved in Scripture Union camps found out about my interest in Romania. A link was being set up with Romania to run water sports camps - and so that became my first short-term ‘mission trip’.
I then had further work experience in the UK, before beginning a training course in clinical psychology in London. I became a Christian in my second year of training and so in that sense I already had my career mapped out. But at that point I suppose this urge to go abroad began to make sense – I began to understand that it was a calling, that it was something God was doing in me.
What led you to go to Cape Town?
I had a grand plan of getting a couple of years experience post-qualifying and then to go overseas - but life rumbled on and I settled in London. When I had been qualified for nearly four years I discussed this with a friend. She knew I didn’t sense that I was called to Romania long-term so she suggested that I do a short-term visit elsewhere to test out if this was a ‘call’, or something I now needed to put aside. She recommended South Africa as a good option for a short-term trip (as English is one of the official languages and so I would be able to converse). South Africa was a country I had been interested in during my childhood through books and films and so when she suggested it, it jumped out at me. It seemed like God had placed South Africa in my mind years ago, and it didn’t take long to decide to go. And then when I found I could work with families and vulnerable children it ticked all the boxes and seemed very much led by God. I initially went to Cape Town for three weeks in 2009 as that was the longest time I could get off from work. It was a ‘tester’ - to test out the calling and to see if I could do something here long-term.
During this trip I worked with Arise (the organisation I work for now). The visit was a bit like an extended two-way interview, with them considering me and I them. I shadowed staff, observed meetings and various interventions, and took part in kids clubs. The Director wanted some advice on particular children and families and so I sat in on a couple of sessions. It was a good way of seeing if I was an appropriate match for the organisation. What was interesting was that it had taken a long time to organise this visit, and by the time I came to go I wondered if it might just be a nice holiday and nothing more. But as soon as I got here I realised this was a place that I would really enjoy working and would be a good challenge - it felt like an instant fit. God was in this.
I initially came for 2 years, and then extended for a further 3 years. So far I have been in South Africa for nearly 3 years and over the next twelve months I need to be praying about whether I will commit to another stint.
Are there any issues particular to South Africa that make you feel that your skills are especially valued and necessary?
There are lots but I’ll give just a few examples. The highest prevalence of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) in the whole world is found in the Western Cape. Under apartheid, people working on wine farms would be paid in alcohol. This was known as the dop system (dop meaning drink in Afrikaans). This system was abusive in that it resulted in alcohol dependence for many workers and established a culture of heavy drinking within certain communities. Although the dop system hasn’t been in use for many years, much research into FASD has related this history to the current levels of alcohol abuse and subsequent prevalence of FASD.
Also, because of the high degree of violence within the townships people experience trauma in a different way to that in the western world – it is experienced as continuous, constant trauma. People hear domestic violence through their walls; everyone knows someone who has been sexually abused, raped, or with alcohol addiction; there are huge gang problems; and there can be a real sense of hopelessness for those living in impoverished areas where there is little education to provide a possibility of a way out. God is key in this, but there is also great scope for psychological work.
Finally, in Heideveld fewer than half of the population live in brick dwellings - many houses have back yards and a ‘shed’ in the yard and many families now live in these ‘sheds’. Others live in overcrowded flats which are high in gang crime, drug dealing and alcoholism. There is also very poor schooling and not enough school places for the children. But despite the many problems there are also clear reasons for hope: resourceful people who get by against all odds, people raising their children well in a very harsh environment, some very committed teachers, and lots of churches wanting to help.
What are you particularly enjoying about your life and ministry in South Africa?
There have been so many positives I wasn’t expecting. It is a pleasure to be called to South Africa – it is a beautiful and wonderful country. I am really excited about the organisation I work for, God is doing exciting things and I work with some great people. I enjoy working in a Christian organisation because although there are limits to what we can humanly do, there is no limit to what God can do. It is lovely now that I can pray with my clients and think about Biblical truth that will be helpful for them in their journey or their recovery. It has been refreshing to do that. It is great to work with a Christian team and begin the day with Bible study and prayer, and to be able to stop and pray in the midst of difficulties. I hadn’t expected I would be so blessed and meet so many fantastic and supportive people.
What would you say to someone who is considering whether God is calling them to another part of the world?
I would say do it! Do short-term trips. You can do very short-term – for me just a few weeks was enough to show me a different possibility and it took away the fear. John Ortberg’s book If you want to walk on water, you need to get out of the boat was helpful - he talks about what your ‘boat’ might be that holds you back. To go short-term allows you to experience the excitement and passion of being there - and I discovered that far outweighed any of my fears. It was what I needed to kick start myself and get me going. I would really recommend that if someone’s unsure then go short-term - it opens up a space where God can speak, because you’re there and attuned to what He might be saying. There is nothing better than physically being in a place where you can actually see what it would be like to go longer-term. It’s also really important to have people around praying, supporting and to be accountable to. I had folks who encouraged me so that the question of my calling didn’t slip into the background again and so I couldn’t just allow life to go on in its own comfortable way.