Ecuador was one of the first countries I visited with a team to build an eye clinic. I went back several times to Santa Domingo De Los Colorados, where this picture was taken. I lost my heart there. My song, “Heavy Heart” was written a few hundred metres from the barrio where I met some amazing people. I remember Chapilo, a ten year old boy who was going blind. A doctor on our team was able to organise specialised treatment and when we returned a year later, his sight was fully recovered. I still carry a small piece of wood in my guitar case which came from a small shack in the barrio. These life experiences stay with you.
I travelled around India many times and met some amazing people including Mother Teresa who was an amazing woman of God. She told me that when I got back to the UK, I was not allowed to talk about her work – only about what Jesus was doing among the destitute and dying. The average lifespan of a rickshaw puller was around 27. They worked 18 hours a day, renting their rickshaws and earning a pittance. Many died of TB. I met many of them in a rest centre where we were giving out shoes and hot food. One asked me to preach. I had no idea what to say to these people – it seemed so inappropriate. So I asked for a volunteer and got him to sit on his rickshaw. I stood between the two wooden pull bars, taking the place he would normally stand, and started pulling the rickshaw around the compound. At the end I said to them all, “God loves us all equally. He knows what our lives are like, because He came in the person of Jesus and stood in our shoes.”
This is the bus that probably saved my life, along with a few others, on a fateful journey back from a day out in Sosua Beach – one of the tourist areas in the Dominican Republic. We had about 28 young people on our UK team and we were joined by 50 or so Americans. It was a joint venture, building a clinic in an extremely poor area. We worked hard, so on our day off, we went to the beach in three buses. On the way back, it was dark and we suddenly hit a cow in the middle of a country road. The driver lost control and drove off the road, down a steep bank and then hitting a wooden electrical pylon. The bus came to an abrupt halt. We were all thrown forwards and glass was smashing around us. “Don’t move!” someone shouted from outside the bus. “Electrical cables have fallen on to the roof of the bus!” We froze. Miracle #1: There was a 20 minute power cut that day, just at the moment we hit the cables! Miracle #2: No one was hurt! Not even a scratch! Miracle #3: That morning I changed buses from the regular, rather flimsy bus we normally used, to an American School Bus. The engine compartment took most of the impact, protecting us from serious harm.
I worked in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The first time I went, the Tamils and Singalese where throwing petrol bombs at each other on the street. This is me with Noni, a working elephant. I had to climb a wall to get on to her back! I have been to some of the toughest and poorest places on the planet, but have learnt so much from local people. My faith has been stretched, my eyes opened to what life is like for most on this planet, observed injustice and stood with the marginalised. Our Practical Aid Mission Teams never stayed in posh hotels because we wanted to identify as much as we could with the people we had come to work with. We went to every place resolving to give of our time, money and care. We always came away having received far more than we could ever give.
We took teams out to the Dominican Republic most years and always returned tired, challenged, changed and stuffed full of amazing memories. Meet one of the families we worked with. They were so generous in their hospitality, even though they had very little. We stayed on a secure compound and one night I awoke to loud gunfire. At least, that it what it sounded like! It was actually several coconuts falling on the tin roof above us. You can never be too careful! One day, the team were sitting under a large canopy praying. Suddenly I noticed a tarantula, the size of a man’s hand, climbing up the wooden framework behind one of our team members. I looked at her calmly and said, “Nothing to worry about, but don’t move.” Obviously she did move – very fast! A little lady, who was the grannie of the family we were staying with, rose to her feet, and using a large broom handle, dealt with the poor old spider. He crashed to the ground and became food for the chickens. Another day.
It’s hard to describe what life is like in the Kibera Slum, Nairobi. A lot has changed there since I first started working there in the 90’s, but life is still tough and there is not much hope around for people who are trapped in an endless cycle of poverty. We saw God at work there, through the sacrifice of people like Margaret Kimuyu, Pastor Evans & Rose, Beatrice and Kenneth, Lucy and Andrew. I’ll never forget the first time I visited the slum. Walking past open sewers and seeing people living in desperate conditions, I could hear people singing worship songs and praising God. We walked into a small wooden church and met people whose faith was strong in spite of their poverty and lifestyle. They expected miracles and they got them!
I was told that the birds never sing in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. They were right. No sound is heard, only the silent screams of countless people who lost their lives at the hands of Pol Pot in the 70’s. Working in Phnom Penh was an experience I will never forget. We worked there several times, visiting the banks of the Mekong River and taking the hazardous drive to Angkor Wat. I asked one of the basket makers in the centre in which we worked what was the things she wanted more than anything. “A teapot,” she said. The 12 ladies working there had lost 180 relatives to the monstrous Pol Pot regime in the 70’s.
These are the Cambodian ladies I told you about – their biggest dream was to own a teapot. One told me that her dream was to be able to feed her children the following morning. When you meet people like this, it challenges your own lifestyle. We have such high expectations of what we think life owes us, but I have found that people who have nothing, have far more than most of us who live in a wealthy culture. It’s a joke when we talk about people living in poverty in the UK. Come with me to the slums of Calcutta and Kibera, or the barrios of South America, and I will show you what poverty is really like. Phew! Got that off my chest.
We would fly into Quito, the capital city of Ecuador and at nearly 9,500 feet you could immediately feel the affect of the “thin” air. “Breathe slowly and deeply…you will be fine.” And then the 4 to 5 hour drive down through the spectacular Andes mountains to Santo Domingo de los Colorados where we worked with UK missionaries, John and Brenda Hart. We would work on the building of a pastor’s training centre in the mornings and run kids clubs in the barrios in the afternoons. About halfway down the mountain pass, we would stop by the most amazing waterfall and I would recount the same story to our teams before continuing the journey. The pure, clean, fresh water cascading down the mountains finds its way into a fast flowing river and follows the road to Santo Domingo where it ends up in the barrios (slums). People would use this water to wash in, go to the toilet in, use for cooking etc. Sanitation was extremely bad and water borne disease was common. We wanted to bring hope, sanitation, education, medicine and life to the most desperate of situations. It’s a passion we still have.
"A Soapbox Expedition is the kind of experience everyone should have. It will challenge your lifestyle, stretch your faith and give you an opportunity to serve God by serving others”
"“I know that my visits over the years to aid projects around the world have had a huge impact on my life and I’ve often wished that more people had the chance to see for themselves and to contribute their skills and their energy. Soapbox offers a life-changing experience, along with the opportunity to make a difference.”
“Don’t just look on. Don’t just think about it - get stuck in! Actions speak louder than words!”
“I am writing to say how much blessed we were when Soapbox Team visited us - we would like to invite you again!”
“I am always amazed how God brings people into our lives!
I mentioned to the British Ambassador that Soapbox were coming and he was delighted!”
“Thank you for the marvellous team! Even if no work had been done, the encouragement factor would have been more than enough to justify the team’s presence here. But so much work has been accomplished - from no walls to roof on in 3 weeks is a remarkable achievement!”
“Your team were not the only ones who received a blessing - the whole town wants you back!”
“Soapbox says,’When you come with us, roll up your sleeves and serve others.’
I like that. Too many people go around the world as tourists and stare at the locals. Soapbox works with them in sensitive and practical ways. The experience changes lives and attitudes forever and makes people more committed to our sisters and brothers around the world who are so often forgotten.”
“Steve has a track record that speaks for itself. He has developed a high level of expertise in all aspects of Short Term Service Projects which is probably unparalleled in the UK today. He has a unique contribution to make and I can highly recommend
his mission to you.”