Yo Africa!

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Putting family on center stage in the fatherless nation.

An interview with Khanyisa International Ministries

During the early 1990s, a group of young South African Christians with a heart for serving the poor did something that would shape their future ministry and their lives: they began to make music together. The musical group Khanyisa (ka-nee-sa)—a Zulu word meaning “to bring the light”—was born. As the main touring band of Youth for Christ, they sang and danced their way across racially torn South Africa with their message of racial reconciliation and healing. In 1994 they felt a strong call to bring this same message of reconciliation through Christ to the United States as well, and they continued their ministry to the USA and other nations until 2003.

Stan and Melony Shilliday met and married during this time and eventually were asked to lead the group for two years. Stan was a musician, production/road manager, and sound engineer from Nashville; Melony a South African singer and dancer. Stan and Melony have recently returned to Cape Town with a fresh vision for a new chapter in Khanyisa’s ministry—not only to perform, but also to train and equip creative young people, and not only to promote racial harmony, but also to bring the hope of the Gospel into the midst of the severe social crises of HIV, substance abuse, and the continuous breakdown of families.

In partnership with Youth for Christ South Africa (http://www.yfc.org.za/), Khanyisa trained the YfC creative arts team that is taking their original music, drama, and dance production Yo Africa! into the churches, schools, and streets of a hurting nation. It is the story of two high school boys, a black boy from a township whose father is absent and whose mother has just died from AIDS, and a white boy from a suburb who compassionately steps across the racial divide and dies to save his friend. Throughout, the production asks the question, “Where are the fathers?”

Khanyisa’s vision is based on a biblical passage that also inspired StoneWorks: Isaiah 61:4 “They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated, they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.” What needs to be rebuilt, restored, and renewed in South Africa?

The biggest restoration need is the family. South Africa is quickly becoming known as “the fatherless nation.” The family unit is falling apart because of issues such as  HIV/AIDS and substance abuse. But we have hope that God will restore the cultural foundation of this nation—family. We believe that the spearhead of this restoration process needs to be the creative arts. That’s our heart and our gifting, myself and Melony and the other people that work with us.

School in Botswana watching the YfC team present “Yo Africa!”

People have grown weary of hearing how terrible the HIV/AIDS crisis is here; they know it’s bad. So we’ve stayed away from talking about it in a “cheesy” or typical way, or even trying to talk statistics. And the statistics are horrible—the average life expectancy of a person born in South Africa today is between 47 and 50, because of HIV. But the biggest problem is that the family unit is in dire need of restoration, and that is why the HIV pandemic is what it is. The mothers and the fathers are not speaking into the lives of the children, because the parents have the disease or have died from it or are lost in a life of alcoholism or drug abuse. And so you have a missing generation. You have grandparents raising grandchildren. In some cultures here, it is tradition for a father not to have a relationship with his son at all. How can you make proper decisions as a son if your father has not taught you right and wrong?

Our production is based on Malachi 4:6, “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers . . .” Yo Africa was the name of an old Khanyisa song when Khanyisa was touring the U.S. The story is about restoring families, and it involves original music (except for a couple of songs we borrowed), dance, and drama. There are 12 young adults on the YfC creative arts national team, and the great thing about the production is that it’s able to reach all ages, from children to adults. The final product speaks for itself. I can’t watch it and not cry. And it’s not just for South Africa. Families everywhere need to hear this story of hope and restoration.

Our national team has already had a ministry opportunity in Botswana. They ministered to a culturally diverse area and to people of all ages. One of the special moments they had was to minister at a school for the blind. Youth for Christ Botswana had such a great response from the people that they are now considering sending a team to be trained next year specifically for Botswana. And when you think that one out of three people in Botswana has already been infected by HIV, you know just how incredible it would be to send a team to minister to the people of Botswana in 2011!


Team Buyela, Youth for Christ South Africa’s national arts ministry team

Are the team members all South Africans?

This time they are all South Africans. We have several different cultures represented—Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, White, and Coloured. Youth for Christ offers a program to young adults called “A Year of Your Life,” in which most members will take a “gap year” between high school and college. We’ve had the amazing privilege to train these incredibly talented young people for 2010. They did an album of all the original songs in the production, which they will sell to help cover costs. There is so much raw talent, and that’s what this program is also about, to train and equip these kids so that they can do something with their talent that they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.


How can the arts have a unique impact on this enormous social crisis in South Africa?

If you drive down the road and pass a car with its music playing really loudly, sometimes it’s a well-known rap song and sometimes it’s a worship song like “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord.” In this culture, if people like music, they don’t care whether it’s a Christian song or a secular song. If it’s good quality, if it’s done with excellence, people like it regardless of what it says. And we stand firm on the Bible’s promise that His Word will never return void. However we can get the message of hope across, we’ll do it—through dance, drama, and music. And also through relationships. When the kids travel, they spend at least two weeks in every area, so they have the opportunity to build relationships with people, which changes everything.

One of the things we’ve seen is how art brings people together who normally wouldn’t come together. When you think of the creative arts in the church, you usually think of worship on a Sunday morning. But when we’ve taken this production out onto the streets, people stop and watch, and they don’t know they are hearing the message of Christ. People from all different culture groups and all different church backgrounds or no church background—they will stand there and weep at the story of this woman from Africa, or this young man who gave up his life to save his friend, or this young girl who gets a red shirt put on her during her dance to signify that she’s gotten AIDS. They can all relate to this. Obviously it’s less intimidating when it’s not in a church context. Just as in the U.S., the church has a tendency to ostracize people who don’t fit in, or people feel guilty because of how they live or where they come from. It’s just been amazing to see how accepted the production has been, how it breaks down the walls that people put up. Music and dance and drama bring people together.


Khanyisa is also partnering with a ministry called “Restoring the Sound.” What is this, and how are you involved?

Restoring the Sound is a ministry founded by Trevor Sampson, who is a well-known South African gospel artist. He started a creative arts school in a community of about 75,000 people where my wife’s family lives. It’s open to anyone. There’s a huge amount of talent in this little area that is suffering from a massive amount of gang and drug problems. Basically they audition these kids, five years old and up, let them come to the school for free, and teach them how to play instruments and read and write music. And then they record it for them and give them a product in their hands so that the kids walk away with something they have created on their own, which is an inspirational tool to help them want to pursue the talent they’ve been given by God.

So we’re going to help him expand what he’s doing. Melony is starting a dance program with Trevor. We also had a meeting with the principal of the local high school and were invited to start a creative program during and after school hours. As part of the school’s “Art and Culture” program, we will document the stories of several kids at the school, from which we will write and produce a stage production which will include original music, dance, and drama to tell their story. We are very excited about this opportunity to work within the school.


How can individual artists, musicians, and dancers get involved in Khanyisa?

The Khanyisa Team: Michael and Alyse Santana, Melony and Stan Shilliday and their daughters Alana and Isabel Shilliday

This year is a pioneering year for Khanyisa as we’re laying the foundations for the future. It’s likely that we’ll start a second team next year, which we hope will be an international team if we can get the funding. They’ll either do the same production we’ve done this year or a new one, but we’ll kick it up a notch. We want to have people from different culture groups and different parts of the world come and be part of the production, whether in dance, or drama, or music. It’s a missions-minded thing; they would have to raise their own support to come. We want diversity because diversity gets people’s attention, and when people come together despite their differences, amazing things happen.

If people are interested, they can find on our website (http://www.khanyisatoday.com/) how to get in touch with us and send us an email, and we’ll contact them. We’re hungry for that.


How could Khanyisa’s ministry be helped by partnership with other organizations, either in South Africa, or in other parts of the world?

One specific need is the dance program that my wife is going to start here. They won’t have anything for that. We would love to be able to partner with people who can provide proper dance attire or even have a heart to teach. We also obviously need sound equipment, lighting, etc. to make the production better. And of course, funding always helps.


What do you want to say to encourage and challenge Christians in the arts in other parts of the world?

I think the biggest thing to remember is that we are never too good for anything. Often we get so afraid of stepping out because we’re afraid of giving up what we’re comfortable with, and that can become bondage. Sometimes people get writer’s block, for example, because they have forgotten the reason why they’re doing it. The mission field is not just from the U.S. to other places; my wife was a missionary for racial reconciliation to the U.S.! So we can be called anywhere, and we need to open ourselves up to that.

Seventh graders from a leadership camp, with Melony Shilliday

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