HAMPSTEAD — When breaking down racial barriers, meeting people is more effective than just hearing about them.
"When the kids could see the only real difference that existed was skin color, they could come out and share experiences," said Judy Bixler of her work with an interracial missionary group in South Africa, where segregation was mandated by the government.
"The experience was very powerful because it was unheard of (for blacks and whites to work together)."
Bixler and her husband, Don, both 50-year-old Westminster natives, served from January 1990 to January 1991 as missionaries for the Youth for Christ Youth Harvest program in Port Elizabeth, a city of about 400,000 on the southern coast of South Africa.
Youth for Christ, an international organizationdedicated to teaching teen-agers about Jesus and the gospel, createdthe Youth Harvest program as part of a three-year effort to reach students in more than 31,000 South African high schools.
Eight multiracial troupes of seven young people each from around the world -- seven dramatic teams and one musical group -- traveled throughout the country, performing religious music and plays at churches, schools andother gatherings.
"They would go anywhere where a group would listen," Judy said.
The Bixlers were responsible for booking the young peoples' performances and finding accommodation for them with families in the community.
"If the group was performing in a black school, we would try to accommodate them in one of the black townships," said Don. "The white kids would be exposed to the black culture and the black kids to white culture."
"That was the most effective way to be accepted," Judy said. "The blacks knew (troupe members) were being exposed to the same things they live with day and night."
The Bixlers lived in the white area of Port Elizabeth but were able to spend weekends in black neighborhoods through the city's Youth for Christ director, Sicelo Duze, who is black.
Most black families live in shacks of one or two rooms with outside toilets. A cold water tap up to half a mile away serves the entire community. Water for bathing is heated on the stove, and the family bathes in the kitchen.
Operation Hunger, a Youth for Christ project that provides food, clothingand services, helped the group become more accepted by the blacks.
"When people have tremendous day-to-day needs, you need to meet their physical as well as spiritual needs," Judy said.
Since townships have no municipal services like trash pick-up, the missionaries helped clean up the communities.
"It was unusual for them to see white people picking up trash," she said. "They are taught that's the black people's job."
Although most South Africans consider themselvesChristian, and it is legal to preach within the schools, the missionaries had to conquer racial stereotypes.
"The white Afrikaans and Dutch reform churches viewed Youth for Christ as a cult . . . (and) the extreme right wing of Afrikaans considered us a communist group simply because we associated with blacks," Don said.
Multiracial groups have always been allowed to perform in white schools run by thoseof English descent but were forbidden until last year in Dutch-Afrikaaner schools, the Bixlers said.
"(Mixing of races) in the white English schools is progressing very well, while the white Afrikaaners . . . are trying to maintain the separation," Don said.
While schools still are segregated in South Africa, some English schools are taking steps to integrate, allowing parents to vote on whether they wanted to open the schools, the Bixlers said.
At least 95 percent ofthe parents had to be at the meetings and 75 percent had to vote yesfor the change to take effect, Don said.
"But five of the six (Port Elizabeth schools) that voted decided to open to all races," he said.
Youngsters in South Africa are very close to their parents andfamilies, making it easier for them to resist peer pressure about sex and drugs but harder to break racial stereotypes, the Bixlers said.
Young people are curious to find out what the other races are like, said Don.
"Unfortunately, they are controlled by their parents'attitudes and are somewhat timid."
"(Students) have been taught to fear," Judy said, "and although those fears are unfounded, they still live by what they were taught when they were young."
"The youngblacks were so committed," she added. "They are very receptive to the fact that they are loved by God and that God sees all people as equal."
Viewing the South African struggles for equality made the Bixlers appreciate the freedoms Americans enjoy.
"Any protest not sanctioned by the government is considered violence," said Don. "People are subject to being shot or whatever it takes (for) the government to break up the protest."
Judy said, "(In the United States), the police protect the protesters, while (in South Africa), they are only protecting the white holdings and the white interests.
"It gives you an appreciation for the freedoms we have here."