Youth for Christ/South Africa was formed 20 years ago in the image of English-speaking whites. Its strength was that it was not a U.S. export, but shaped by strong South African leadership. The other side of that coin was that it mirrored the dominant culture of the land.

Jay Kesler, president of Youth for Christ/USA, recalls visiting the YFC camp back then. The campers were all white, and none pulled kitchen police duty. Instead, black young people their own age waited on tables and maintained the premises.

The campers took an offering to provide tips. The leadership considered the resulting amount too generous and, so as not to “spoil the Africans,” diverted part of it to missions projects. The balance was delivered to the domestic staff in a ceremony in which the campers sang their choruses and the blacks alternately responded with theirs. Then each black knelt, extended both hands, and received his gratuity.

This year Kesler again attended a camp session and observed that all that paternalism had been swept away. The 600 campers were a blend of whites of both English and Afrikaner backgrounds (about 350), blacks (about 200), coloreds (or mixed race, about 50), and a few Indians. Some cross-racial romance was in evidence, and the camp leadership was not uptight about it.

In general, the white youth were more relaxed, their frayed cutoffs displaying the same “sloppy chic” that characterizes North American teens. The black youth, by contrast, obviously felt under pressure to measure up. They rose early to press their clothes and groom.

Mixed camping is a violation of apartheid regulations, which are less rigorously enforced on private property than in public places. Such testing of the limits demonstrates how far one youth movement has come in two decades.

The campground is regularly made available to black groups. And YFC staff use it as the site for a series of government-sponsored, two-week-long leadership courses throughout the school year. Ninety prefects at a time are sent from the 54 black high schools of Soweto. (Prefects are appointed seniors who, following the British pattern, are responsible to the school administration for student discipline and function as mediators between the students and faculty.) These courses are probably seen by the authorities as a means of taming black youth, but YFC has freedom to present its Christian perspective and does not feel compromised by the arrangement.

YFC now has a colored South African on its board, a mixed staff (who room together at annual staff conferences), and mixed student evangelistic teams. Kesler says he would judge that white South African Christian youth and adults are doing better at integration in the church than their North American counterparts. He sees the youth as somewhat weary of political discussion but attempting to exert a positive influence at the personal level.

An all-black youth ministry that works closely with YFC but has decided to keep a separate identity is Youth Alive. It was begun in 1960 by American missionaries Al and Lorry Lutz, who were squeezed out of teaching when the government assimilated mission schools, and a South African black former boxer, Jerry Nkosi, who was looking for sponsors for youth work in Soweto.

They teamed up and started five or six clubs in various parts of the sprawling township. In 1973 Youth Alive hived off from the mission that gave it initial help and established its own all-blackboard.

Leadership is now in the hands of a product of the clubs, Ceasar Molebatsi. He returned to Soweto from advanced training overseas at the height of the 1976 riots over Afrikaans-language education in the black schools. From that moment on, Caesar has walked the fine line of maintaining empathy with youthful aspirations without getting cornered into taking overt political positions. Caesar’s friendly good humor has opened doors for him in South Africa’s white churches.

Youth Alive now has about 1,000 youth actively involved in its clubs and a full-time staff of seven. It has groups in at least 50 of the 60 senior- and junior-high schools that educate Soweto’s 75,000 students. It conducts its own assemblies in the schools, complete with altar calls. And it reaches out aggressively with an array of activities.

This last Easter holiday week, for instance, it brought 60 youth to its center in the mornings for training in evangelism, and then organized afternoon games in Soweto’s dusty sandlots, with open-air evangelism worked in. Also, some 1,000 youths were contacted for the first time at a weekend coffee-bar effort, and 150 of those are now being followed up.

Gospel teams are also trained to go into South Africa’s homelands—areas split away from (white) South Africa for different black tribes. A Youth Alive branch has been established in the Kwazulu homeland, with seven clubs and more than 700 students active in them. Permission to build a youth training center there is being sought.

Leadership training, according to Lorry Lutz (now with Christian Nationals Evangelism Commission of San Jose, California, an agency that substantially funds Youth Alive), is the key ingredient in Youth Alive’s successful format. A continual round of leadership workshops and retreats lays the groundwork. Youth are drafted to help run the clubs, with adult staff keeping a low profile. Youth Alive has then gone into the churches of Soweto, where youth programs have been virtually nonexistent, and persuaded pastors to accept a youth work intern who will receive continuing Youth Alive guidance. As a result, the township’s churches are increasingly relying on young adults who got their first taste of leading in the clubs.

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