The children crowded around Bethany Amber, eighteen, hands reaching toward her on the hot South African morning. A few years ago this kind of crowding frightened her. At age thirteen, she had just moved to South Africa with her IMB missionary parents, and the lack of personal space when she was out in the townships was difficult to endure.
“People were always wanting to touch my hair, touch my face,” Bethany remembered. But she’s learned to understand and even love the importance of human touch in the culture, and now she embraces it. Today, as those children crowd around, all she wants to make sure of is that each one gets a chance for her to draw a henna art design on their little hands.
“I want a tiger,” a little boy said, matter-of-factly. With the henna applicator, Bethany holds the boy’s hand in one of hers, and carefully paints on a tiger design. After henna, a natural plant dye, is applied, it takes a while to dry. “I just hope it didn’t smudge on their hands so they could remember the Bible story,” she said.
Bethany’s henna painting isn’t just to entertain these children. She applies fish and moons and suns on their hands so that they can remember Bible stories she shares. “We were learning about creation and I wanted to do designs that were concerned with creation,” she explained.
The high school “missionary kid” in Johannesburg joins her parents in their ministry work and sometimes branches out on her own. For instance, she’s worked in camps for Afrikaans-speaking kids from foster homes and orphanages; she could communicate with them because she learned the language while attending Afrikaans-speaking schools for three years. Camp activities included swimming and canoeing in the river, but she said they had to stop water activities when crocodiles and hippos were spotted in the river.
“We get to spend a whole week with them, and then at the end get to share Christ with them, even though the camp is run by [nonbelievers]. They aren’t Christians, but they allow us to do this.”
She explains the cultural use of henna and how it’s used to create decorative nonpermanent tattoos, often for special occasions such as weddings. Working with a friend, she has created symbols and designs to represent different parts of Bible stories.
“So we might create a design that represents Jesus, and we might create a design that represents women, or sin . . . things like that,” Bethany explained. Then they string together the symbols to represent a Bible story as they carefully paint these truths on the hands and arms of listeners.
“We’re creating a bunch of symbols and putting together a little booklet . . . an actual book so other people can follow the designs,” Bethany said. They create a specific style of henna suited to the local culture since different people groups have different henna styles and ideas of beauty.
When she holds the hands of children and women and paints on these patterns, she’s sharing more than just beautiful designs and the human touch. She’s sharing gospel truth.
- Bethany as she works to finish her high school education. Switching from South African schools to the American school system requires her to squeeze two years’ work into a year and a half to be ready to return to the US for college.
- Pray that she can focus on her homeschooling studies, not get too lonely, and do well.
- Pray for her South African friends from the school she’s left, that their relationships would continue and she can continue to be light in their lives.
- Bethany asks for prayer for new opportunities to use her talents for God’s glory.
This story originally ran in the December 2016 edition of Missions Mosaic from Woman’s Missionary Union.