By S’ambraosia Wasike
In 2007 a documentary called Glue Boys was released, chronicling a day in the life of street kids in Kitale, Kenya—the last town in the northern region of the Great Rift Valley before you enter the vast desert of Turkana. These self-proclaimed glue boys were children who had either been orphaned, rejected by their families, or were runaways in search of greener pastures. Having bid farewell to the only life they had ever known in their impoverished villages, they traveled for miles through the desert (usually on bare feet), earnestly hoping to find work, money, or someone to take care of them.
What they found was glue.
Life in Kitale cannot offer much to a child with no advocate to speak on his behalf, so many children end up on the street. As a means of coping with the stress of their lifestyle—including cold nights and a severe lack of food, not to mention the pain of their past—most street children sniff industrial glue, a popular intoxicative inhalant in third-world countries. As a result, these kids resign themselves to simply become numb—numb to their hunger, numb to the cold, and numb to their pain. And everything else simply fades to black.
Running from the Religious
Eight years later, as a missionary living in Kitale, I see that not much has changed. Whenever I go into town, I am frequently met by a number of small, dirty boys with glue bottles prominently showcased beneath their lips. There is no shame in the culture of glue boys when it comes to their addiction. Everyone knows what they do, so why hide it? Some children sit by the road and stare at nothing, others stagger around completely disoriented, and a few approach everyone within an arm’s reach to beg for money, while stopping every few seconds to take another whiff of glue from their bottles. What is most tragic about this situation is that even today, some of the same kids who were featured in the documentary are still on the street as adults now.
Many missionaries and churches have attempted to create spaces for street children and will even go deep into the slums to bring the children into safe houses, but the majority of them run away. Why? Because though life on the street is not what they initially expected to find, it has become their new normal.
On the street they are free to set their own rules with their community of peers. No one forces them to think or feel anything; they can just be. Most of the institutions here require that the children abide by strict rules and curfews, and though we all know such structure is in the child’s best interest, all he feels is suffocation. When compared to the freedom he had with his brothers on the street, the warm bed, hot meals, and clean clothes are simply not worth it. So he runs away. Therefore, many ministries have either given up on the kids or continue using a strategy that sees a low retention rate.
Where They Are, We Go
However some missionaries have discovered the power of relational ministry with this particular demographic, effectively meeting them where they are. Some of the most beneficial ministries for these children involve volunteers going into the areas where street kids typically congregate and developing relationships with them. They talk with them, bring them food, and even play games with them. They know the children by name and have heard their stories. Some might even provide a place for the kids to come and eat and sleep, but they do not force them to abide by rigid rules or curfews. They allow the children to come and go as they please and make choices on their own.
It is likely that during the early stages of interaction between the kids and these organizations that the kids will continue to sniff glue and engage in bad behavior. But if the relationships the children find within their new community are strong enough, they will eventually choose to spend more time around the facility and less time on the street, gradually rejecting their old way of living. They have to first truly feel that the people reaching out care for them. Most of the children struggle with issues of rejection—imagine panhandling on a daily basis only to have people ignore you, curse at you, or beat you—so for someone to stoop down to where they are, in their filthiness and wretchedness, and speak value and purpose into their lives can work miracles.
Where You Live
It is no secret that you do not have to cross the ocean or come to Africa to find people in similar situations. There are hurting people in every corner of the world who feel so dejected that the thought of entering a church or seeking help from believers is the furthest thing from their minds. Our typical approach is to invite people to church and hope that God will use someone else to minister to our guest, but like the glue boys of Kitale, these people will often run away from the rigid structure of the church in search of something that will provide a more immediate sense of satisfaction.
Instead of forcing anyone who has not been transformed by the saving power of Jesus to conform to our standards and rules, we must go to where they are—not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We need to be like Elisha and ask God to open our eyes to see what is unseen, what someone may be trying desperately to hide. Like Jesus, making his way through towns, touching everyone he saw in need, we must be Christ’s hands and feet and reach out. When we cross paths with people on the street, we may see a part of their situation, but we know nothing of their story. Chances are, if they have no place to go but the street, you are dealing with a heart that is worn and weary, no matter how hard the outer shell may appear. They need people to meet them where they are, bring them some food, and listen to them. They need people to show that they care.
As much as we hate to admit it, the church of today can sometimes become a place where everyone feels that they must be on their best behavior and appear polished both inwardly and outward. That can be very disheartening for someone who feels like her life has fallen apart and is broken into so many shards that it is impossible to even pretend to hold it together.
The prophet Isaiah declared of Jesus, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Isaiah 42:3). In our zeal to bring lost souls into the flock, we must not forget that Jesus was a gentle teacher and that in our relationship with our heavenly Father, it is his kindness that leads us to repentance. As you seek to serve those outside of the typical sphere of your church’s influence, let your gentleness and kindness be evident in all you do, as you leave the 99 to stop for the one.
S’ambrosia Wasike is a writer and missionary in Kenya seeking to teach orphaned children how to worship God through the arts.