St Albans Cathedral Hands at Work Visit to Africa

Hands at Work newsletter - April 2018

Hands At Work

This summer, a team of 7 from St Albans will visit the Hands at Work Hub based in South Africa and the Msengeni community in Swaziland. 

Juliet, Chris, Jo, Emily, and Chrystalla from the St Albans Cathedral's congregations with Helen and Rachel from St Luke's Church will fly to Johannesburg on 5th August and spend two weeks visiting, living and working alongside some of  the communities partnered with 'Hands at Work in Africa'. The hub, which includes a chapel, is home for around 100 international volunteers and staff and nestled on a hillside opposite Masoyi, the first community to partner with Hands, in 1997.

In Africa’s poorest villages, HIV/AIDS, orphaned children and poverty are at overwhelming levels and support structures are very low. Institutional models of care, such as hospitals and orphanages, are overwhelmed and unable to cope with the sheer volume of needed care.

The goal of Hands at Work is to care for 100,000 orphaned and vulnerable children through its unique model of community care. As the local church is mobilised in each African community to unite and reach out, they are equipped to provide holistic support to the most vulnerable children and families in their community, including access to food, education and basic health care.

For futher information about Hands at Work, please visit their website.

You can download the Cathedral team's itinerary here. Whilst they are away, the team will be sending updates which will be posted below, so please keep an eye out. 

We continue to pray for them as they prepare for their visit, as well as for the children and care workers in the Hands at Work communities.

Sermon for the Commissioning of the Hands at Work Team - preached by the Revd David Newsome on Sunday 30th July at the 9.30am Parish Eucharist.

Final Update: 24/08/2017

So, we are back in St Albans, after a time that seems both very long and no time at all. Only a few weeks ago we were commissioned by the Sub-Dean in front of the congregation as representatives of the Abbey community. Last Friday we were commissioned again - by the Hands at Work community in South Africa to take their message back here and spread it widely. This itself exemplifies the message – we are Christian communities that, although separated by thousands of miles, are united in our faith and our abilities to put that faith into action.  Over the past two weeks we have seen this process at first hand – a community at the Hands Hub that is very firmly Christ-centred, that is committed to reaching poor and orphaned children and ensuring that they receive food, education and basic health care. They work from the bottom up, through care workers in the local communities who are trained to help the children. These care workers are themselves part of the communities, and are often grandmothers already caring for children but who are willing to take on more. These care workers themselves meet for prayer and worship as a part of their daily activities at the Care Points, and very joyous this can be. On the last day at Msengeni we worshipped with the care workers (as we did every day), but this time our worship commenced with singing and dancing. One of our memories will be of the hauntingly beautiful voices of both children and adults leading the simple singing – Siyabonga! Thank you Jesus!

We have each been challenged in different ways over the past two weeks, and have all come back enriched. We have made friends, and will be praying for them as they will be praying for us. We have seen ways of Christian life that are sometimes very different from the ways we do things in the Abbey. We have seen people challenged in their daily lives in ways that horrified us, and responding in ways that awed us. As a group we came together amazingly, and valued our time together in the evenings discussing the day and the issues that our experiences raised for us. We found things to laugh at, cry over, and pray about.  Each day we ended with Evening Prayer based on the Celtic Northumbrian prayers that Helen had compiled for us.  We have come back enriched in ways we could not have imagined. Siyabonga!


We hope to talk to many of you over the next few weeks to share our experiences and advocate for those vulnerable children, widows and orphans. If you would like one or more of us to come and talk to a group you are involved in do contact one of us (or one of the clergy, who can put you in touch with us). If you just want to find out more please catch us when you see us at a service.

There is also more on the web.

One of our team – Rachel Cullen– put up her own  where she explores both the situations we encountered and her own reactions.

The Hands at Work site itself has a wealth of material -  We were particularly engaged by the story of one of the Hands team with whom we worked, Bethuel ( and of course the page on Msengeni  ( ).

We hope that this will not be the only Abbey team to visit Msengeni and the other Hands communities we visited in South Africa; it would be great to send another group in a year or so. And in any case, we’ve already been invited!

Finally, back to our commissioning and the challenge we were sent home with. There are poor and vulnerable children and adults in Africa: we should and will continue to support work to alleviate their problems. There are also poor and vulnerable children and adults in St Albans: are we doing enough to support them? Are we doing enough to live our faith?


Update: 18/08/2017

The team have now returned from Msengeni, having spent four exhilarating, challenging, heart-wrenching  and heart-warming days with the community. The last few posts have necessarily been short, snatched entries on a mobile phone.

Msengeni is only a few miles from the border with Mozambique, and many of the people in the area are refugees. It is up in the hills, the vegetation dry and brown – a sharp contrast to the green irrigated sugar cane fields we drove through in the lowlands. The houses are scattered over the hillsides, each linked to the road by narrow tracks; only a few could one drive to. Each may have a patch of ground to grow vegetables or corn. The houses are generally one or two roomed, some of block, some of wattle and daub, some with corrugated in roofs, some with grass.  This is not somewhere that people driving along the road to the border would even recognise as a place – there is no sign ‘Msengeni’, no village centre, no hub – just a scattering of homes, each with its own story. Yet are three spots of bright colour – a yellow store (empty shelves with small isolated piles of tinned food, soap, toilet roll), a pre-school organised by the Peace Corps, and the Msengeni Care Point – our destination and the community with which St Albans is partnered.

Since 2016 when the team from St Luke’s Church visited much has been done. On arrival Emily and Helen were astonished at what had been built, how cheerful and bright the Care Point  had become! This was a direct response by the Msengeni community leaders – the chief and the pastor, the local church – to the needs of the children through their partnership with Hands. The Hands vision to provide the children with the three essentials: food, health and education and the working alongside the care workers had led to the whole community becoming involved. Part of the building had been painted in blues, reds and yellows. Painting the remaining wall around the front platform was to be just one of our activities during our visit and  turned into a joyous group effort, with care-givers, children, Hands care supporters and our team all wielding brushes.

Msengeni is by far the most complete care point we have visited. There are swings made of tyres outside, a climbing frame, concrete benches and a few books and toys on a shelf indoors. When the children start coming in to the compound – after school or from first thing during school holidays as was the case this week, some staying all day- many will play games. Others might just sit and watch. A favourite was a version of piggy in the middle played with a very hard home-made ball hurled with great force at the ‘piggy’ as he or she tries to pick up sticks.  

We have played with the children each day – ball games, skipping games, dancing games, carrying around games – so many games with laughing children. The care-workers told us that they welcome visiting groups because it means more people are around to play, talk and sit with the children. When at home, the children have so few outlets for play.

So, you might ask, is Msengeni in need? Yes. The Holy Home Visits on the second day led us to discover much of what is traumatic within this community.  A woman beaten by her drunk husband but unable to leave, and her children who will have witnessed this. A small boy walking miles with no water  from his mother’s house to his uncles’ because his mother had no food to give him.  Children who could not walk or talk left alone for hours while their mother went to try and sell corn. Houses that lack water, which has to be carried in large containers up steep hills. Houses where the husband has been gone for months with no word. Homes led by teenagers, grannies, widows with little or no income.

The care point is a place where children can be children, and can be fed, sometimes bathed or to have their clothes washed.  The care workers, as in all Hands’ care points, are volunteers, many are Go-Go’s – grannies, others younger mothers, all who are from the local church and willingly take on looking after more and more children. They arrive at the care point around 9 or 10, and stay there, preparing the food, feeding the children, caring for the children, until they leave around 4. It is dark by 6. This they do every weekday, every week, every month, every year.What is happening here is not a quick short-term fix, plastering the cracks, but is continuous often grinding effort, with God at the core. The care workers begin their day together with prayer and worship, song, sometimes dance and always time to share how things have been since yesterday, concerns and thanks for the children and ach other. The practical application of biblical teaching on serving and looking after others is ‘key’:  living Christian teaching. It is awe-inspiring to live and work alongside people challenged as many that they serve.

One of our roles – perhaps the chief role - was to encourage and support them, pray with and for them, and this is something we will continue to do. Before we came here and experienced what is happening, most of us had little comprehension of how important our visit would be, both for others and for ourselves. We are coming back enriched.

Tonight is our last night when we will be sharing a meal with those in the Hands family who have accompanied us on our two week journey. Tomorrow we fly back to the UK; whether we will make it to any of the abbey services on Sunday is out of our hands!

The St Albans Team

Update: 17/08/2017

We left Msengeni about an hour ago for our 400km journey back to Hands' Hub. There were fond and sad farewells with the care workers and children. Our visit here has been extraordinary. We have witnessed such love and care for the vulnerable children, their families and the widows. The care workers give everything they have to ensure that the children in their community are loved, fed, clothed, educated and kept as healthy as possible. Hands at Work gives everything it can to support all of this. 

Update: 15/08/2017

We arrived safely in Swaziland and now  at the Carepoint in Msengeni.

We slept reasonably well last night in the church next to the Carepoint. Yesterday we all enjoyed meeting and playing with the children and helping the care workers prepare and serve the meal. This care point is a great example of partnership between Hands and the community.

This morning we will be making Holy Home visits with the care workers, then we will prepare and cook the meal and play with the children.

Love Juliet

Update: 14/08/2017

After a weekend of rest when we visited Kruger Park and the Blyde River Canyon.... When we held our own 9.30 service in the Hands Chapel.....

We are off to Swaziland today.

Very exciting with more to inspire and challenge us. We will be living with the Msengeni community, sleeping on the floor of their church, preparing meals, cooking together on the open fire, making Holy Home visits with the care workers, playing with the 50 children. It will be hot too! We are accompanied by Vusi and Audrey from the Service Centre Team.

It is the Msengeni families to whom we will be giving the prayer partner photos.

Please pray for our safety as we make the journey and for our health whilst there. The team is beginning to feel some of the exhaustion now and we want to be strong for our week in the community.

More updates if I can get some Internet in Swaziland. If not, it won't be until Thursday eve.

Many thanks and love to our Abbey family.

Juliet and the St Albans Team


Update: 11/08/2017

Sitting here on the Hands Hub verandah steps watching the sunrise on Friday 11th August over the Masoyi township - where Hands was born - gives time for reflection and prayer.

Reflection on our last few days, being a part of the incredible Hands at Work family, visiting   two very different partner communities, living and walking alongside the care workers and visiting the care givers, getting to know each other - sharing our own joys and challenges, fears and expectations.

Prayer for the children we meet and play with and for those who care for them at home - mother, grandparent, older sibling or other relative, for the care workers in each community who tirelessly give their lives to ensure that the children are protected and looked after, constantly encouraging  and supporting their primary care givers day after day.

Yesterday we visited Sommerset, a rural community an hour away. Today we will be visiting a community called Share, also rural and a two hour drive from here. Different challenges, people and children but the same model of love and care.


Update: 10/08/2017

Sanibonani Abbey readers! (‘hello’ – the standard greeting here).  The team is now established at the Hands Hub base in White River where around forty long-term volunteers live and work. This is very comfortable – hot showers and hot food – in stark contrast to the communities we will be visiting. We have a verandah to look over the mountain opposite – and, to the left, another hill crowded with small dwellings, the edge of a large sprawling township. For the last two days, we have visited a community – Zwelisha – within a township just like this. To get there we drove for about nearly an hour over progressively deteriorating roads, ending up on a packed earth platform with a breeze-block building where the children meet and eat, a curious hemispherical cook house, a lavatory and an old container from a lorry where things were stored. All around are the singe storey block-built houses where people are living.

Yesterday (Tuesday) we visited some of these people in what Hands terms ‘Holy Home Visits’. These visits have several functions. One is to meet families in their homes and find out how they are, what problems they are facing and what might be done about them, particularly where the children are vulnerable. Another is to show fellowship – each visit ends with praying for and with the families and their particular situations. The Abbey team split into three groups, each with a care-worker  from the community and a long-term volunteer or service centre team member from the Hands Hub, to visit different homes. One group was primarily looking at repairs needed for the homes – mostly one-roomed concrete constructions. The first house that group visited was home to a young woman with four children. The door was off its hinges and very inadequately secured – a problem when there is a bar very close and men are looking for entertainment. There were windows, but most were broken. The house itself did not belong to the woman but to someone else; the landlord had to give Hands permission before they could provide the replacement windows, doorframe and door. We measured for replacements. The woman herself asked us to pray for her children and herself – she said that she had a sore kidney, but did not want us to come into her single room.

Another group visited a house wIth two small dark rooms, lived in by two families: three adults and four children.  The two young mothers we met both had complex challenges. One, who  was sitting on a mattress on the floor,  nursing a baby was very quiet. Her two year old son who is very unwell with TB, could barely stand up and just sat next to his  mother. The second mother, with her two year old asleep on the mattress, was sitting with her. The fourth child, age 7, was at school. The women knew that the home needed to be kept clean but found this a struggle. The care worker and Hands team member know the family very well and visit very regularly. They checked on the child’s medication, and hospital appointments, offered support  and encouraged the women to clean and tidy, explaining why this is particularly important. The three from the Abbey team helped too. Later, when we were outside with the mothers, we  asked them what they would like us to pray for; they said to keep the home clean and for the health of their children. After we had prayed together we said our farewells and thanked the two mothers  for accepting us, complete strangers, into their homes. It was because of the total trust and positive relationship they have with the care workers and the Hands long term volunteers that we were able to walk alongside, to visit, to help and to pray.

Visits such as this take place day after day, by the women in the community who are prepared to give their lives to caring for the poor and the vulnerable. We were merely a small part of this caring.     

Going to the same community two days in succession was important. We felt we had time to get to know the care workers and start to forge real connections both with them and the children who come to the care point. It was also the  start to us understanding some of the problems so many people face here: the Mozambican refugee children who cannot go to school because they have no South African papers and no birth certificates; the children who seem traumatised and cannot play when given the opportunity; the worry of one care worker for her grandchild; the lack of options for the woman looking after four children alone, with no job or prospect of earning money.

There is no social security here, and whatever safety net there is has very large holes and is very near the ground. The community care workers with the support of Hands are meeting a very real need.

Chris and Juliet Lyal

Update: 07/08/2017

We have arrived safe and sound! A long journey - 23 hours door to door - but arrived at the Hands Hub to a spectacular African sunset! Our drive from Johannesburg to White River included a motorway service station stop which had it's own little animal park.

We met the whole Hands team this morning (about 40 people)  for being welcomed, prayer, singing and a wonderful half hour to 'pause' reflect and wind down.

Just had our 'orientation' meeting with our Hands hosts, and three members of the Hands service centre team who support the care workers in the communities we will visit.

Now off to the Zwelisha community. More later.

Love and greetings to you all from us all.

Juliet and the St Albans Team.


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