When South Africa issued a lockdown in early 2020 to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, Marleen Mortin and her team adapted their children’s ministry resources to be shared and taught online—reaching further than she could ever have imagined.
Growing up in the Netherlands, Marleen knew that God wanted her to help other children at a very young age. A vivid childhood memory that stands out is that of a church worker who shared about children living in a garbage dump in the Philippines. The photos and stories deeply touched Marleen’s heart and remained with her years later.
In 2012, Marleen joined OM’s Mission and Discipleship Training (MDT) for six months in South Africa and then spent the next three-and-a-half-years working at an OM-run afterschool programme for disadvantaged children in Mamelodi, a township in Pretoria. There, she had the opportunity to train local preschool teachers and develop skills for teaching adults topics such as HIV and AIDS-related issues.
Marleen had harboured a secret dream of writing a book one day, and her dream came true when the leader of OM in Africa asked her to work out the curriculum for the Reading Holiday Club, a programme aimed at teaching underprivileged children how to read. Seeing the need for providing more training in children’s ministry, Marleen accepted the challenge. With the help of high school students and OM colleagues, she ran three week-long ‘test-clubs’ of the Reading Holiday Club in Zambia and South Africa. Each club taught children to read with materials based on the African context—including fun games that did not require many resources.
The method proved very successful. A nine-year-old girl who did not know her letters learnt how to read by the end of a one-week holiday club. Marleen was amazed at the impact of the material in such a short time.
“Even if many children are going to school, learning how to read is often a struggle,” explained Marleen. Created to assist schools and provide a tool for churches and organisations to reach out, the Reading Holiday Club method helps ensure a better future for children, as well as equips them to read the Bible.
Developing the ministry has taken Marleen to several countries across Africa. Teaching others the Reading Holiday Club method has impacted the lives of teachers as well as children, sometimes in ways she did not plan or intend. In Angola, for instance, after sharing how to use games to keep children motivated, one teacher had a light bulb moment, remarking that he had not thought about using games rather than punishments to keep kids focused. “His understanding came through learning the training method,” said Marleen.
As the ministry started to grow, so did the need for team members. In April 2018, a former colleague from the ministry in Mamelodi joined the team. By then, Marleen was also conducting trainings for MDT and looking for strategic partnerships with other organisations. Presently, there are two other team members working with Marleen.
“There is a big need to train children’s workers, and it is important to test methods and material,” said Marleen. “In many countries the population is young, with 50 per cent being under 15 years of age. To reach them, we need a plan and a strategy, and it is important to see children as the ‘now generation,’ rather than the future generation. They are part of God’s plan now, with their young lives, and we want to see children become part of vibrant communities of Jesus followers, especially among the least reached. Sometimes adapting an already existing church ministry to include the children, can make a huge impact in the community.”
Marleen and her team are developing a course for children’s workers that focuses on God’s heart for children, discipleship, strategy, and vision for the young generation. The course also teaches the workers how to motivate children, teach them Bible verses and how to pray, and help them grow in their faith.
The coronavirus lockdown put an end to travelling and working face-to-face with people, but also provided the time and space for taking the course to the next level. Marleen and her team members decided to develop an online course that could be offered to a wider audience. Colleagues from Latin America, Asia, Australia, and Africa have already shown an interest in using the course in their countries.
“The response makes me excited!” exclaimed Marleen. “Of course, we adapt to fit the context, but children are children all over the world. It is important to look for partnerships locally with others sharing the same ideas.”
“If I look back, I see God’s hand in everything,” Marleen said. “He gives you experiences to get you where you need to be. People in the past said that I would not be a good leader, but God is changing me for this role, preparing me for this time by not letting me stop when people discourage me.”
Marleen acknowledges that mentoring people is important. “I don’t have resources and money to be everywhere, but this year I have changed my focus to mentoring people,” she said. “To sow into one and see it multiply, see people flourish as never before, gives me great joy!” Marleen and her team are mentoring children’s workers in various African countries, who, in turn, can train others and develop them into leaders.
“My plan was to teach children, but God had other plans,” said Marleen. “Today I am not teaching in a school, but still using my teaching skills. My passion is still the same: to see all the children in the world reached with the good news of Jesus.”
The team has also created a devotional for families that talks about missions, children in the Bible, stories from different countries and God’s call on our lives. All these resources are available, plus a series on how to talk about the coronavirus pandemic as a family, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Would you like to join Marleen and her team? Please check available opportunities at www.om.org.