There’s tangible despair – if despair is the opposite of hope – as one enters the premises.
As we drive up the narrow road past the women’s dormitories, Mary and Hazel are sunning themselves in white plastic chairs placed in the narrow space between the road and the building. Their faces brighten as I stop and Margie, my wife, alights. Further along, on the steps of a steel shed, Fiona sits motionless, her head bowed.
I drive on alone, up the road to the men’s quarters. I pass Nicholas on the way, but he ignores me. Marcus, further on, gives a curt nod.
I park my car and, armed with some packets of biscuits and a Bible, walk up to greet the men sitting on a broken sofa, a sun-bleached kitchen chair and dilapidated plastic ones. Andrew ducks inside as I approach, but others greet me with enthusiasm.
This is Happy Valley, named by an anonymous humorist with a taste for irony. Situated on the side of a mountain, it is not a valley; neither, to many of its inhabitants, is it particularly happy. Yet this shelter for the homeless is my delight. God has given me the privilege of working with these people, many of whom would describe their lives as an omnishambles.
It’s a place of deep pain and destructive shame; of outbursts of anger and sullen retreat. A place of desperate cries for help, yet, often, refusal to accept it when offered. Many have made bad choices in life, which have left them alienated from their families, robbed of their livelihood and filled with crippling guilt. It is a place of beautiful people whose treasure is buried deep.
What better place for Jesus? What better place to share His love and allow one’s heart to be broken along with His?
Behind each face, eloquent in its suffering, or impassive behind an unyielding wall, is a story of how Satan comes to steal, kill and destroy.
Bruce found his best friend in bed with his wife. In a rage, he beat him up, not knowing that he had a medical condition that flared under the beating and killed him. Eighteen months later, acquitted of murder, Bruce emerged from prison with no wife, no business and a silent, raging heart.
Neil’s paintings hang in Europe’s galleries, but with the 2009 depression, financial difficulties wrecked his marriage. He found solace in the wrong places and lost everything.
Sharon left great work prospects in Johannesburg to follow the man of her dreams — he’d invited her to leave her work and join him in Cape Town. Two weeks later, he tried to murder her. She escaped with her life and the clothes on her back.
The stories vary, but the need is the same. It’s the overarching need of all mankind ripped open and laid bare through unbearable circumstances. It’s the need to forgive and be forgiven. It’s the need to be valued — to count in the greater scheme of things. It’s the need for Jesus.
It’s easy to be discouraged, when entering an open war zone in which the Enemy’s inflicted casualties abound. Hurting people hurt people. Yet God is at work always. Even at Happy Valley, there are people who love Jesus when they arrive, or who learn to love Him while they’re there.
Derek was chased from place to place as he slept on the streets. He started reading a Bible when a priest allowed him to sleep against the churchyard wall and brought him sandwiches and tea in the morning.
Andrew cannot stop talking about Jesus since finding him in a Christian rehab centre.
Pete met Jesus on an Alpha Course we ran at Happy Valley. Jesus set him free from the bondage of an unhealthy relationship with a deranged girl who had dragged him, after his wife divorced him, from an executive post into the gutter.
Shelton is a Zimbabwean, promised a job in Cape Town that did not materialize. He also met Jesus on the Alpha Course. He’s now employed and has left Happy Valley, but comes to support those still there and tell them about Jesus.
*names have been changed
It’s my joy to visit there, with Margie, who goes to the ladies. Together we dig for buried treasure. Lives may be in omnishambles, but Jesus is the omnifixer. There’s no life He cannot mend.
There’s no greater joy than looking for the gold buried in the dirt and seeing Jesus wash it clean and make it shine.