Saturday, November 29, 2008

preschool graduation

Isaac 'graduated' from preschool this week. We were aware that it is a full cap and gown affair and were ambivalent about the whole thing. Not only did they pay for the party and the 'academic' wear but they were expected to have specific clothing to wear with it. They marched in and sat through many hours of speeches. When the time came to graduate, each approached the dignitaries, had their hood put on, received their certificate, and knelt while the cap of a former graduate was placed on theirs. Ridiculous charade? Yes. But on the other hand, if getting started is the hardest part, why not celebrate beginnings? These kids overcame early social anxiety and parent separation and made their way in their own world for the first time. If these formalities will inspire a lifelong desire for learning and accomplishment, then it will have been worth it. And we truly are proud of Isaac. He went into this world in which he was the only non-Xhosa kid and made it his own. Our shy kid gave his speech to the dignitaries just like every other kid. He spoke his lines in the Christmas play with perfect clarity and right on cue. So, for us, it really was a celebration.

Isaac and his friends admire each other in their formal wear

The graduates wait to march in

Moses and the other kids who are not graduating wait for the entrance of the graduates

The whole graduating class with teachers and guest speaker


Isaac gives his speech

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

BBS Graduation

We end each school year with a weekend of teaching and celebration of graduation. Students who have participated in 3 of the 4 conferences that year receive certificates. This year we added a terminal degree of 24 modules which will take 6 years of quarterly attendance to complete. A new requirement with this certificate is annual oral examination. Students come with a range of basic education from none to having completed high school. Many were very timid about coming to test but grew in confidence as their interview went on. Here a group of students sit to answer questions on what they have learned this year.

Four of the testing committee discuss issues with the students.

Rev. Reuben Mgodeli was elected to deputy chairpersonship on friday night. He has been a very enthusiastic and bright student and we had hoped to see him on the committee but feared that it would not be so. Others with similar gifts have not survived within our tenure; the combination of their arrogance and others' felt inferiority drove them away. The following day Rev. Mgodeli stood in the place of honor as emcee of graduation ceremonies.

Moses, Isaac, and Levi had a great weekend running around with their friends. Here Isaac and his friends, Siyanda, Siyamthanda, and Mihla crawl with Levi.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

his time is coming

"Sometimes I just cry," the pastor said, "because I am not doing what I know God has called me to do."

To feed his family, the pastor drives a truck that delivers building supplies to orders from across the region. It takes a significant amount of time--time he wishes was used in a full-time teaching ministry.

"I want to do exactly what you're doing," he said.

I went on to say that yes, indeed, I am doing exactly what I have always wanted to do: teaching the Bible in the midst of the Church. That I can do so, as I explained to him, is a testament to the place in which I grew up.

"I was set up to succeed. People here are not set up to succeed. But your time is coming."

"My time is coming," he said.

I continued,"I want you to have my job. Take over the Bible School! But things don't work like that. There's nothing I can give you that can give you now what you've always wanted. It's only hard work. Your time is coming."

He knows all this. And he wants to work. And I hope that I actually believe my own dictum: "your time is coming." (In my mind I was also thinking, "well, maybe not your time, but perhaps your children's time.")

Until his time comes, we are giving him our company, our support, our prayers, some teaching in the midst of his congregation, and some scheming about a potential micro-finance and self-help saving project. Is it enough?

I had to wonder at my words. Once upon a time, a group of white clergymen told a black preacher named Martin Luther King to wait for the justice of the kingdom he sought. Was their "wait" my "your time is coming"?


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"no such things"?

The aunt of a friend of ours works as a cook for a household of Roman Catholic priests and brothers. According to the traditional Catholic custom, she prepared fish for the men one Friday. After the meal, an elderly father of European extraction who has just retired on the compound offered the cook some leftovers.

"No, thank you, I don't eat fish," she said.

"How can you not like fish?" the father retorted, his anger rising. "Jesus served the disciples fish. It was very important to the early Christians."

Later, another brother who is friendly with our friend and her aunt briefed them on the elderly father's subsequent fumings. The father is now seeking to have the cook fired on the basis that the brothers must only employ Catholics, those who will respect cherished traditions such as consuming fish on Fridays. The father had one further grievance.

In the course of his tirade concerning the fish, he noticed that the woman wears a bracelet on her wrist. "She is a witchdoctor," he told the brother.

The woman later confided in her niece, "I am not a witchdoctor. But once I was very sick and I had to wear this bracelet to show honor to the ancestors in order to get better. I was healed and so I wear this. But I still pray to Jesus."

Our friend later reported her aunt's rationale to the brother, who in turn, relayed it to the elderly father.

"There are no such things."

Period. Such was the father's take on the spiritual forces which have a real effect on the life of this Xhosa woman. And there are many others who experience the same.

"There are no such things" does not constitute a missionary response to the concerns of health and prosperity in the hearts and minds of African brothers and sisters.

If not that, then what might a faithful missionary response be? I offer the following to inform a pastoral response and engender sensitivity among those who've committed to walking among African brothers and sisters.

1. The Christian theology of creation and redemption--the invisible Spirit giving birth to, "taking on", visible flesh--blesses the things of creation as channels through which humans can be healed. According to this criterion, there is no reason to elevate one method employing the things of creation over another. In terms of their constitution as types of "flesh", there is no difference between a capsule of ibuprofen, for example, and a bracelet thought to possess healing properties. The efficacy of each is a thing determined by the testimony of the respective human communities in which each is utilized.

2. On the other hand, being blessed or imbued with power--as the things of creation are--is not the same thing as Power itself. Creation as a power or as a diffusion of powers is merely derivative; it is dead apart from the God who gives it life. As a result, the traditional healer's bracelet and the western doctor's drugs are not necessarily equal. Rather, the lasting efficacy of each is dependent on the spirit in which each is given and received.

3. Spirit, or power, in biblical context, is not morally neutral or void. The Spirit who created the world did so out of love, joy, and peace. Powers derivative of the Creator Spirit have strayed from his love, joy, and peace. As a result, humans are both ill and must exercise caution when confronted by the array of powers, some of ill-will, which make themselves available for our "healing". This can include both modern and traditional practitioners.

4. The only way humans can be sure of our ultimate healing is in the name of Jesus, which is to say, far less a matter of words--a verbal formula--than a Spirit of love, joy, and peace. This potentially rules out both the western doctor--judged by the fruits of his/her spirit--and the traditional healer--judged both by the fruits of his/her spirit and by the prohibition that binds God's people from trusting in any other ancestor/human brother or sister, accessed via the traditional healer, than "the prophet whom God has raised up/appointed from among us" (Deut 18). For Christians--be they African or western--that prophet is Jesus Christ. Quite literally has he been raised, for the sake of all flesh.


Monday, October 13, 2008

of cows and boys

One of our understandings that has been challenged working here in South Africa is the meaning of poverty. We see very clear cut examples of suffering that are not hard to define. But there are so many other instances, particularly in the rural areas, where the line is very indistinct. We know people who, by the numbers, would be defined as poor. And yet they are living full and healthy lives. They work hard and have enough, even if just barely. And there is a beauty to a simple rural life that cannot be enumerated.
Two weeks ago we decided to use our day off to follow a sign that we had seen indicating that there was a waterfall somewhere in that direction.
We turned off the road and followed a nice tar road for 11 km. We had to ask someone how to bypass some construction that had the road totally blocked off. But we got around and this time there was actually a sign telling us where to turn off the road. This path ran out and we only had to drive across country for a few metres to get on another track that wound up a mountain and back down into a stunning valley surrounding a fabulous waterfall. We parked at some little huts and signed the guest book for the man who spends all day there with very little company. We hiked up to the top of the waterfall which featured a series of pools and mini-waterfalls.
As we approached we saw cows and boys, the age-old combination in this area. The boys were running and swimming and jumping. While they played, the cows ate and rested. At the end of the day, the boys will take them home but in the meantime the time is theirs as long as the cows are safe. It is exactly the boyhood that Mandela describes in his autobiography, almost as untouched by the outside world. We greeted the boys and were met with very little response besides them lining up on the rocks to watch us. Eventually a few scattered to return to play but the rest stayed in their lineup. We swam and played a little bit (feeling like we were on Baywatch) and then left as we were getting hungry and had not brought enough food to share.
The waterfall was gorgeous, the water fresh and cold, the day clear and hot. We had been a little blip of interest in these boys' day but when we left, they returned to their age-old routine. Are they poor? Probably they are by the numbers. But their daily play place is a holiday destination for us. What we take time off to enjoy is their everyday existence. Would they give up this kind of freedom in order to make enough money to be able to take time off to visit this waterfall? I don't know.


Thursday, October 2, 2008

greater things than these

I met a man the other day who, in the process of introducing himself to me, eventually got around to speaking of his highly-successful, professional daughter who had passed away from AIDS in 2000.

"We have such things in the 'New' South Africa," he commented.

He continued, "This is not the freedom for which I went to jail [in the days of apartheid]."

He had one further comment. "Still, I will never leave the ANC [African National Congress, the current ruling party and the party of struggle against apartheid ]."

At the moment I am also reading Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog, an account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the author's own coverage of it (the TRC was set up by the ANC government in the mid-late nineties as an attempt to heal the wounds of the past by giving voice to those whose stories of loss had been suppressed). I am at a point now where the author is recounting how the ANC counseled individual members not to apply for amnesty for abuses they had committed in retaliation for apartheid, even though personal amnesty was the only kind of amnesty the TRC would hear. Rather, a certain ANC leader had told the author that the ANC would apply for "collective amnesty"--not even an option according to the TRC. The ANC was pursuing this course of action in order that individual members might have one another's back, shielding one another from the shame of disclosing participation in abuses, however retaliatory or "defensible" in light of a supposed "just war". Such a stance, then, in effect, amounted to a continuation of suppression of stories for "innocent" victims caught in the midst of violent acts--the very thing the ANC had hoped to ameliorate in creating the TRC. The author reports that the ANC had thus chosen party unity over truth, or party unity over the overall healing of the country--for all its citizens, regardless of party.

At the time, the Commission chair, Archbishop Tutu, was incensed by the ANC course for the very reason relayed above. In the events of the last two weeks, with the forced resignation of national President Thabo Mbeki by his political rivals, led by current ANC president Jacob Zuma, Tutu declared that "the way of retaliation leads to a banana republic." Obviously, he interpreted the ousting of Mbeki as payback for Mbeki's alleged meddling in the revelation of evidence upon which to try and convict Zuma--a threat to Mbeki's power atop the ANC and country--on charges of corruption.

In my limited understanding, Tutu was/is right. Though it seems highly likely, despite Mbeki's ardent denials, that he and/or his political allies overstepped the bounds of power in building a case against Zuma, the Zuma camp's return in kind is to be condemned. At some point, retaliation must stop. Or as the title of one of the archbishop's books puts it, there is no future without forgiveness, without the willingness not to do as others have done to you.

In the end, Mbeki attributed his own step-down to party loyalty.

"I have always been a loyal son of the ANC, and I remain so today." Since the ANC leadership had called him--or forced as may be the case--to resign the presidency of the country, Mbeki would fall obediently in line. Although the "willing" stepping-down of a politician on the African continent is to be applauded wherever such a thing may occur, I still find pause in Mbeki's reasoning: loyalty to party.

For those who participated in the struggle against apartheid and indeed colonialism throughout the continent, a brotherhood, a party, was formed that can never be broken. Loyalty to fellow strugglers is the highest good (on the other hand, is it not then ironic that one ANC member, Mbeki, appeared so embarrassingly desperate to keep another ANC member, Zuma, down--if in fact they are truly brothers--or are other conflicting loyalties also at play here?). Such loyalty is also why Mbeki was willing to stand by Mugabe in Zimbabwe despite every reason to denounce the character of his rule.

"Still, I will never leave the ANC." Still, even though the party should fail, forfeiting its moral integrity, I will remain loyal. So some say.

Never were Jesus' words about willing to lose one's life in order to save it more true than for institutions, parties, collectives, as well, of course, as for individuals. For institutions die hard. But eventually they will die, despite every last-ditch effort. Only those who remain within the life of the one who gave up his every earthly hope for the establishment of God's kingdom on earth for the sake of preserving his own moral integrity, will live. Only institutions who do so--who are willing to forfeit a cherished name or structure or way of operating--will live. And even then, that living will be in another form, even as the moral continuity--that which enabled it to face death in the first place--remains into the new.

So it is with our risen Lord. We recognize him for his moral integrity, symbolized by the visible scars of crucifixion, the willingness to die in love for enemies rather than vanquish them in the pursuit of justice, yet perceive that he is new, something more than he was before God intervened to raise him from the dead. We see the Jesus who transcends earthly bounds, who "passes through walls while the doors are locked", in order to lead us to "even greater things."

Things greater than party. Or nation. Or a mission agency. Perhaps even than the church. Or at least the church as it commonly proceeds.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

we walk the line

We are rejoicing because Isaac got into the school we wanted him in. I didn't realise that I was nervous about whether he would get in until the day arrived to find out and I was getting very snappy and unpleasant. I went in to look at the list and there he was:

Sawatzky, Isaac

We went out for celebratory pizza and came back to pay his deposit. By this point, the only people left standing around were those dealing with the disappointment that their child was on the extensive waiting list or not there at all. I had to walk past them to sign beside my child's name to show that I accepted the place. This was hard to do.

I felt my position of privilege. This school is the only truly English medium school in Mthatha and they give priority to first language English kids. So we had more of a chance at what one friend called 'the only good school in Mthatha.'

And yet I am also not in a position of privilege. This school was our only choice. We are minorities, outsiders. If this fell through, we had no other options. We are always on the edge here - if something goes wrong, we are not absorbed back into the whole as someone else would be. We continue to develop our network of support and our language ability grows but we still do not have the safety net that we do where our families are and where we are so thoroughly ensconced in one church community.

Daily we walk this line between privileged status and minority status.


Monday, September 22, 2008

A "usual" Sunday

I remember again why we're often so tired here. Yesterday we renewed, after our three months away in America, our relationship with a small "Pentecostal" (for lack of a more precise description) congregation on a location just outside town. We arrived at 10 am ("like usual", the pastor confirmed to me over the phone), but didn't begin (like usual, I say) until nearer 11. You see, it had rained the day before, and the little church structure with the leaky roof had too much standing water. So we waited a bit longer than "usual" to get started at the house of one of the mamas in order that people who might be going first to the "usual" site could make their way over to the house.

We know this well. And we usually plan accordingly. We time our morning routine in our house just so so that we will show up just about the time we suppose the service will actually start on a given Sunday. But, as it has happened, the pastor and indeed other members, have scolded the church for "arriving late in the house of God". And so, sometimes, we with our three-boy circus show have arrived after things have already started. And then we remember the renewed push to start on time. And then we feel bad for discouraging their good efforts by our tardy example, or so our thoughts go. And we do want to encourage promptness.

So, now we've got the game down, right? Wrong. We arrive promptly, with our three boys. We wait around for an hour, with our three boys, for the service to begin. By the time the service begins, we've already used up all our lads' placidity. Four more hours lie ahead.

There are half a dozen or so mamas in the church on this Sunday and three youth. Each will come to the front and give a testimony. In between each will be a chorus many times repeated. In between all of this are some ecstatic prayers. Moses has fallen asleep on me, so too Levi upon Anna. This is good. But Moses will wake up when we are finally called to the front to share our word, this time a report about our doings in America. I bring some greetings and brief pleasantries in Xhosa. So does Anna, followed by a summary of what we told the North American churches about this little congregation in Mthatha. Anna finishes. Immediately the women begin to sing. We make to return to our seat on the couch. Pastor says to me, "aren't you going to say something?"


I preach a sermonette through his translation. He confirms the word via another word from the scripture, brilliantly done, as usual.

Now another mama, a guest on this day, will rise to bring the message for this morning. Our boys are beginning to wrestle one another on the floor at her feet. To let them go or not to let them go? They are children, after all, and it's been a long morning. I make to break it up. The pastor tells me not to worry about it. My concern, however, is respect for the speaker. I break it up. Anna takes the boys outside for awhile. She comes back in. The boys stay outside briefly, then come back in. They take up the collection. The boys are generally restless. The service ends while I am outside with them.

I talk with the pastors and a few others outside. Usually, Anna will do the same. I am aware on this day, however, that she has not left the building. And the boys also must be back inside. I assume they're having tea. "Let's get inside for tea", says the Pastor.

Another hour passes. Now it's time to go home.

This Sunday has been just a bit too long--a bit too unusually usual.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

waiting in lines

I believe in repetition. And recently I've been hearing about, from multiple sources, and experiencing a bit myself, the time-honored tradition of waiting in lines. Thousands of South Africans do this every day: at Home Affairs offices; for electricity, paraffin, and cooking gas; at ATMs; you name it, there's a queue.

While on our church speaking-tour in the states, we introduced Mthatha along these lines, that is, as a place where people wait endlessly in lines. Because it is a center of an under-serviced population, a lone city serving a vast rural population, its few services can scarcely keep up. And so the lines.

While residing here over August, a colleague from a more affluent South African city noticed the line for electricity in town at the infamous Total Garage, nearly spilling as it regularly does onto the street amidst the bustle of mini-bus taxis themselves queuing for petrol, as well as parallel lines for lottery tickets and paraffin fuel. A couple of days later, a friend reported that she had waited in line from 8 am to 2 pm while trying to make funeral preparations for her mother who had just passed away, another casualty of AIDS.

Yesterday at the post office--where people queue for various government grants, vehicle licenses, and to cash checks, aside from "conventional" mail services--we waited in a modest line on the second floor for an authorized photocopy of a birth certificate. One person after we had received what we came for, the electricity went out. "Yoh, Yoh", breathed the attendant, shaking her head. Aside from relief that we had been spared the inconvenience of those behind, my mind went to our friend and her six-hour queue. What if one has made the all-day commitment to wait in line, hoping to apply for or turn in important documentation, only to have go out the electricity on whose power the machines are powered which produce the documentation which will help bury your loved one? Generators you say? And these exist, though not everywhere. Electricity aside, there is also the reality of people waiting in long queues, uninformed and therefore unarmed of the things they really need to complete the desired transaction, sent away to yet another line. And tomorrow they may wait there. In the heat. Or the cold, depending. All day. Perhaps to hear a different story from a different attendant from this different service which really has no idea what the official policy of the other service their service is supposed to be working with actually is.

Day-after-tomorrow, anyone?


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Let the church roll on

A number of things have conspired recently from which to re-view our work in Mthatha. Last Sunday, we visited a supporting congregation in Chicago's south suburbs. This was the first time that we had returned to the church since their pastor had moved on. The pastor is a person of remarkable vision and gifts for ministry. The pastor is committed to sharing power and developing the full ministry potential of the laity. This was her work while serving this church. Now she is gone. The church continues. People who were not active in the church during our sojourn there four years ago are actively involved in congregational life. One has moved on, another has assumed the role of running the overhead projector during worship. A new face greets us at the door, handing out bulletins (she found her way into the church through a posting for an adult Bible study). Someone else, that is, not one of the usual suspects during our time, has brought in the food for the fellowship meal. The church goes on.

Some Mennonite colleagues in South Africa are taking on our teaching responsibilities with Bethany Bible School during our time this summer in the United States. Their reports so far are of unexpected people accepting leadership. Our gifted and faithful translator--who has served 26 consecutive Bible conferences over the last two years--has missed the first two this month. In spite of our dependence on her as the "only" member of the school capable of articulating the nuances of my thought, others--one of whom I didn't even know could understand English--have stepped up. The ministry continues.

A friend recently resigned from a church he had pastored for many years. "You can't leave. You're the best pastor we've ever had", they say through their tears. "It's silly", he says to me, managing to stay above--or is it below?--the hype. The church will go on.

I dreamed the other night that I was with my oldest son Isaac on a yellow school bus filled to capacity. The driver--someone who I take as in some way representative of the ministry in South Africa--was trying to maneuver the bus out of a tight spot. I watched from the last seat as the back wheels reversed ever so slightly off the cliff with a beach and crashing waves far below. It was not enough to send the bus over; it tipped and then fell on its side instead, wheels still spinning over the edge. In a space where I couldn't have had time enough to plot a next move, a window popped open--just for me and my son to exit. We did so, leaving behind a bus and its passengers to an as yet unknown fate, on the edge of the cliff. Petrol had also leaked across the bus; the threat of all-out disaster was perhaps greater than hope of rescue. I was aware, as I walked away, that my decision was morally ambiguous if not downright dubious. But I rationalized that I would call for help from the church in the distance. I do not remember if I did so. I do know that I awoke not fearful as after other terrors of the night. On the contrary, I felt assured of my departure; God had made a way--had quite literally "opened a window"--for me and my family. For others I cannot say.

For the last three years, we have worked hard at sharing power with a local Committee. New initiatives have been set in motion in the hope of full local ownership of the school. We cannot see whether these initiatives will work nor whether we have tried the right ones.

Will the ministry go on? Fall off the cliff? Explode?

By the grace of God, we will know when it's our time to leave--in the constant hope that something new might be born.


Friday, August 8, 2008


"Siyahamba"--in both the Xhosa and Zulu languages--means "we are walking". The phrase probably evokes for some a popular church song of the same title. Or else it carries the theme of Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. For us, "siyahamba" also implies that the nation of South Africa is still walking, is yet on a journey. We are walking.

This is no small distinction. Some prefer to freeze South Africa in 1994, believing that the miracle of its bloodless transition from white to black-rule affords its heroes an irrevocable privilege to power and its accoutrements. Yet even the euphoria of a good dream, as Langston Hughes put it, can crust over--"or does it explode?"--if too long deferred by those--by all of us--who cease to walk.

Since 2006, we have set out to walk with South African Christians in Eastern Cape. We pray that our common journey as the church will bring near for others the kingdom of justice, joy, and peace. Thanks in advance for walking with us through this blog.


Who are we?

We--Joe and Anna Sawatzky--are North American Mennonites who live in the city of Mthatha, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. We are raising three young sons--Isaac (5), Moses (3), and Levi (9 months)--and working with African Initiated Churches and New Pentecostals. We arrived in South Africa in January 2006 and are currently in the USA for the purpose of reporting on our work to supporting congregations. We will return to South Africa early next month to begin our second 3-year term with Mennonite Mission Network.

We enjoy the work of communicating our experiences in Africa to a North American audience. We hope this blog can be one point connecting members of Christ's one, global Body.