The children crowded around Bethany Amber, 18, hands reaching toward her on the hot South African morning. A few years ago this kind of crowding frightened her. At 13, 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 recalls. But she’s learned to understand and even love the importance of human touch in the culture and now embraces it. And 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 says, 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 awhile to dry. “I just hope it didn’t smudge on their hands—so they could remember the Bible story,” she says.
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 explains.
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 non-permanent tattoos, often for special occasions such as weddings. Working with a friend, she’s 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 explains. 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 says. 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, painting 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 system requires her to squeeze two years’ work into a year and a half to be ready to return to the U.S. for college.
Pray that she can focus in 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.