Thursday, August 13, 2009

In May I went with a group from my Church on a 12 day trip to Kenya. We were there to learn more about the country and its people, and to learn more about the Mission partners the Church supports in that country and to encourage them. Our intent is to write a book about the trip and what we encountered there. The proceeds of the book will be used to further the work of the three Mission partners.

Over the next few days, I will print extracts from the book on here. Hopefully, they'll give a flavour of the book, and an idea of what Kenya is really like.

Today's extract tells of The Green Bag, a Christian counselling tool that is helping traumatised and troubled children in some of the poorest nations on earth.

Life on the streets is tough for children. Fending for themselves, finding food and shelter is hard enough, but street children are also vulnerable in many ways, emotionally, physically and mentally. They have to cope with issues and events that should be beyond their imagination. Many are also traumatised by the events that led to them being street children in the first place – the death of a parent, a change in family circumstances, conflict. All over the world, children are the cannon fodder in the battle of life. They take the brunt of adult fire and limp away, damaged, shell shocked, in need of healing.

The Green Bag project is a Christian counselling tool that was designed specifically to help children living on the streets of the world. Itallows the child to encounter God and feel his healing and his love. In all countries where it has been used, its success has left trained and experienced psychologists open mouthed in awe and wonder.

The first job for the counsellor is to identify a child who needs help. There are many signs that trained people will spot, low self esteem is an outward symptom of inner turmoil, as is the act of constantly picking fights and a tendency to be volatile emotionally. Children displaying these behaviours get caught in a negative cycle – they feel bad and it manifests itself in low self esteem and “bad” behaviour, which makes others react badly to them, which makes them feel worse, which reinforces their lack of self worth and starts the process all over again. By changing how the child feels about themselves, the Green Bag scheme changes lives.

The sessions, normally one on one, last about forty five minutes, and begin with the counsellor chatting and playing with the child, to build trust. Then the bag is introduced. It is a bright green heavy canvas, about the size of a thick briefcase, and is filled with files and picture cards, which are brought into the session in a specific order.

First come pictures of street children around the world. The child is often amazed to discover that there are others who face the same difficulties and life struggles as they do. They laugh and point at things they recognise as part of their own lives, relieved at the recognition and put at ease.

Next the counsellor will ask the child about the happiest memory they have and they will talk about this for a while before gently easing into something that makes the child sad. In this way, they often get the child to open up and tell them things that have never been spoken of before. It can be anything from the death of a parent or beloved sibling to terrible abuse. Often, the most horrendous events are recounted in the most deadpan of voices. The counsellor listens, does not judge, but simply asks, “How did this make you feel?”

The counsellor pulls more picture cards from the bag. They announce to the child that they once knew a child whose experience was similar to the one being discussed today, and ask “Can I tell you their story?” With careful use of picture cards and vocalising the story as if it is about a different, anonymous child, the counsellor re-tells the child’s own story back to them. It puts the child at ease, makes them feel they are not alone, and enables them to listen without discomfort. At this point in a session, many children break down and cry. It’s as if they have been holding in their self pity but will allow themselves to cry for someone else. The counsellor never tries to stop the tears, these children need to cry and are given precious little opportunity.

The pictures are carefully designed to draw the child into their world. The pictures of emotions are black and white line drawings, onto which it is easy to project oneself. An object, such as those to which the child relates, is brightly coloured, giving a feeling of tangible worth. Events, such as the ones that have traumatised the child, are depicted in more subdued colours, which quietens the event and makes it more manageable than bright colours would allow.

Once the child has allowed the counsellor to tell the story of their “model child”, the next step is to say “There was another story and hearing it helped this child. Would you like to hear it?” The counsellor then uses pictures to tell the story of Jesus rebuking his disciples and saying “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” The power of this story is tremendous. These children have not been valued in their lives at all. Living on the streets, unloved, unwanted, they are known as "chockera" – a derogatory term meaning rubbish and vermin. They are kicked, beaten, pushed about, exploited and abused, and suddenly they learn that someone values them enough to want them in his presence. The story also brings laughter to the session – all children love to hear about adults being told off.

The counsellor then goes on to use picture cards to tell another story that will be helpful to the child. If the child has expressed fear, for instance, the counsellor may tell the story about the storm at sea and how Jesus calmed the wind and waves. Through this they can show that Jesus knows and cares when we are afraid. They then ask the child how they feel about this. The response is usually very good indeed.

Although the stories are about Jesus and his amazing love and empathy, they are all stories which show his healing power. They are not evangelistic. The purpose of the Green Bag is primarily to heal broken lives, not convert.

Each story is designed to connect with the child’s individual circumstances and show how Jesus feels their pain. Through the stories, they learn that God loves them. As this knowledge sinks in, children often open up, confiding things they have never spoken of before.

The session is nearly at an end. The child is now shown a group of cards, each one about the size of a playing card. On one side is a black and white picture, showing aspects of God and the child, together with a short Bible verse. On the reverse of the card, it reads: “God loves...” and there is space for the child to write their own name. This card is theirs to take away. They treasure the cards, keeping them safe when all else is taken from them. A year later, many children will still have the cards, carefully looked after, kept close to their hearts.

The children do not feel they have been counselled, but they do feel better. That this is true is evidenced by the fact that children who have been counselled not only return for further sessions for themselves, but often they bring their friends, asking the counsellor to talk to their friends.

The genius of the Green Bag scheme is that anyone can learn to use it. It doesn’t take university education or degrees in psychology, just heart and compassion for the children.

Trained psychologists were intrigued by the success of the project, and they studied it in depth. They observed sessions and accepted that much of what was done within them was similar to what would be done in ordinary counselling sessions. However, most traumatised children take months of care to show signs of healing, and those going through the Green Bag scheme were showing marked improvements within one forty five minute session. After careful observation and study of the scheme, the psychologists reported that they wanted more information on “the Jesus factor”, as this was the only thing that was different to accepted counselling sessions, and was the only thing that could account for the remarkable success of the scheme.

Jesus, it seems, changes lives.

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