Remarkable Connections

When God touches the heart of a Christian business leader, remarkable things start to happen. Philip Green, the Chief Executive of United Utilities, has longstanding connections with South Africa and especially the area around Paarl in the Wine lands where he has a home. As someone who believes with a passion in the importance of giving back to the community, he and his wife Judy have been personally responsible for funding a crèche in Mbekweni, a black township of poor housing and deprivation on the outskirts of Paarl, some 60kms North of Cape Town. Through connections to Paarl Methodist Church, Dale Fobian became heavily involved in scoping and delivering the crèche project.

When Philip asked the community "what next?" they were clear that giving something for the young people to do was paramount. The use of sport as a vehicle to community and personal development is now well established but Mbekweni had little in the way of facilities and so the idea of an indoor sports complex was born. The plan was to build a high quality sports facility with indoor pitch, changing rooms, counselling rooms and offices along with seating for 450 people. The concept was to integrate the physical building with development programmes focusing on health, welfare, education, leadership, business skills and sports excellence.

Remarkable connection #1L~ In March of 2007 Phil Bland, a member of Knutsford Methodist Church who had previously worked with Philip Green, was taking early retirement. As Director of Asset Management Phil had delivered many multi million pound projects and also had a heart for this part of Africa, having visited it a number of times. It didn’t take long for Philip to persuade him to say ‘yes’ to setting up and running the project and so he began assembling a team to support him from friends and church members, and the charity "Hope Through Action" was born.

Mbekweni has a history that can be traced back to the apartheid period and now has a growing population officially of 24,000, though the actual population is estimated to be 50,000 . The general health of the residents is of concern. TB increased in the area by 17% from 2001 to 2002, 15% of the residents live with HIV/AIDS and there is an incident rate of four times that in the USA for epilepsy. Poverty is also resulting in a number of other health-related challenges – high teenage pregnancy rates, abused and abandoned children and growing incidence of alcohol and drug addiction. There was a 54% increase in HIV/AIDS amongst pregnant women from year 2000 to 2001. In 2006 there were 20 murders, 57 reported rapes and 582 serious assaults. In the last 6 years drug-related crimes have escalated by 270%.

Remarkable connection #2 L~ Raising 1.2m in such a short time seemed all but impossible but God was already touching people and, with Philip Green’s connections to a number of senior business leaders, funds started to arrive. Supporters have come from many quarters including the Football League, United Utilities, Deloitte, Investec, David & Elaine Potter Foundation, Philip and Judith Green Trust, British businessmen and bankers, and Ceres Fruit.

With an opening date of 12th June 2010 set to coincide with the opening of the World Cup how on earth could this project be built in the timeframe?

Time for remarkable connection #3L~ and an introduction for Philip Green to meet Graham Power, head of Power Construction and one of South Africa’s leading infrastructure and social housing construction companies. Graham became a Christian in 1999 and is the force behind the Global Day of Prayer and describes his business as "Unashamedly Ethical". He agreed to construct the project at cost and within the staggeringly tight deadline. The team assembled by him proved to be moved by the project and, with the help of local labour, the stadium was delivered on time and on budget in just 7 months, which would be remarkable in the west but in Africa is unheard of.

Remarkable connection #4L~ came in a meeting with SCORE. We recognised on an early visit that it would be impossible to run the centre on a day-to-day basis from the UK so we needed a local partner to work with. SCORE had an existing worker on the township and turned out to be ideally aligned with our principles and values. We also made contact with Stellenbosch University who are developing a soccer academy and will use Mbekweni as both a base for research in this area and a vital connection into their own outreach in sport.

The fully paid for centre was opened on 12th June 2010 by Lord Brian Mawhinney, Honorary President of the Football League, in the presence of Geoff Thompson, Vice President of FIFA, together with hundreds from the local community. The following day we hosted a church service with 23 ministers who all wanted to speak (no surprise there) and included a live Skype link to Greyfriars Church in Reading, where Judy and Philip Green attend, and Knutsford Methodist Church. At the service the Paarl Methodist Minister, Angus Kelly, described the occasion as "this must be how God looks at his world – his people working together across race, countries, nationalities, genders and denominations in order to bring about his kingdom". Since then the centre has been in constant use, hosting a Youth Day Tournament as well as regular holiday programmes and HIV testing. Already there have been more than 3000 people using the facility. The centre is equipped to handle a variety of sports with a focus on football, but Hope Through Action is now partnering with Saracens Rugby Union Club in St Albans to bring Rugby to the township.

Earlier this year we received a grant from Sports Relief to fund projects to work with disabled young people, girls in leadership roles and children and young people affected by severe poverty.

The project has given birth to some remarkable stories, like the member of the construction team who shared with us that he had been very short of work. At a neighbourhood BBQ someone came up to him and his wife who they didn’t know well and said she was praying that he would get work. The call came in 2 days later and his faith was strengthened. Or the local man known as "Number 1" with learning difficulties who opened the gate to the contractors’ compound for two weeks and so they decided to take him on. He ended up as principle key holder for the site.

There have been times where our faith has been challenged, for example over the car park. We were faced with a £60k shortfall in our finances and the contractor was desperate to provide a car park that was outside the budget, another £35k. We agonised over the decision, eventually concluding that if this is truly the right thing to do (and we believed it was) then we should trust God for the provision. Shortly after came a substantial personal donation which more than covered the outstanding cost and further strengthened our faith that this project is part of God’s greater plan for the young people of Mbekweni.

Last word on the project must go to the people it is intended to help. SCORE have a body of local young leaders who are going through their programmes and support activities. In thanking the team for the centre during the opening they said "you have put Mbekweni on the map". Long may it be a lasting reminder that, if we only trust him, we have a remarkable God.

In thanking the team for the centre during the opening they said "you have put Mbekweni on the map"

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