The children crowded around 18-year-old Bethany Amber, hands reaching toward her on the hot South African morning. A few years ago this kind of crowding frightened the Southern Baptist "missionary kid."
At age 13 she found the lack of personal space in the townships difficult to endure, having just moved to South Africa with her parents who were International Mission Board missionaries.
"People were always wanting to touch my hair, touch my face," Bethany recalled. But she's learned to understand and even love the importance of human touch in the culture and now embraces it.
Today, she looks forward to drawing henna art designs on the hands of children as a reminder of the Bible stories she shares. Having focused on the creation story, Bethany decorates their hands with such creations as fish, moons and suns.
"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. The body art drawn with natural plant dye takes a while to dry. "I just hope it didn't smudge on their hands—so they could remember the Bible story," she says.
The high school student 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 they had to stop water activities when crocodiles and hippos were spotted in the river, Bethany said.
"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]," she said. "They aren't Christians, but they allow us to do this."
Henna is used culturally to create decorative non-permanent tattoos, often for special occasions such as weddings. Working with a friend, Bethany has 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 said. 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 said.
She and her friend 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 paints patterns on the hands of children and women, she's sharing more than art and human touch. She's sharing Gospel truth.
Pray for Bethany as she works to finish her high school education and attend college in the United States.
Pray that Bethany does well in her homeschooling studies without suffering loneliness.
Pray for her South African friends, that their relationships would continue and she would continue to be light in their lives.
Pray that God would provide Bethany new opportunities to use her talents to His glory.